My First Full Year as a Literary Agent: Six Lessons I Learned
So last year was my first full year working as a literary agent.
I had a lot of awesome victories that I shouted to the social media winds and posted about here. I signed a number of rockstar authors, from well-established authors to debuts. You can check out my team in this handy Twitter list. They are all wonderful. I went to a bundle of conferences all around the country, so many that I can’t remember all the places. I even sold some books I can’t quite announce just yet.
And the ones I did announce? I’m so proud of them.
- Erica Cameron’s inclusive space opera, Pax Novis, sold to Entangled Teen in a three-book deal for the entire trilogy. It’s like Across the Universe, Star Trek Voyager, and The Expanse mashed together, with teens crossing the stars to find their way home and save humanity.
- Lindsey Smith’s Eat Your Feelings, a kick-ass, body-positive cookbook, is off to St. Martin’s Press. Because cookbooks that suggest new ways to eat, shouldn’t make you feel bad about yourself. This deal surprised friends, because apparently no one knew I wanted to work on cookbooks? Please send me cookbooks.
- Samira Ahmed’s incredibly needed and heart-wrenching contemporary YA novel about Islamophobia, Swimming Lessons, sold to Soho Teen. I met Samira on social media, and things happened really fast (more on that shortly). And I’m not surprised. Her prose is gorgeous.
- Rebecca Phillips’ These Things I’ve Done, a YA contemporary novel that made me weep, sold to HarperTeen in a two book deal. I broke down and cried in a cafe in Philadelphia when this one happened, as witnessed by some friends who were there. I recently finished reading Rebecca’s second book, and it is just so wonderful.
- Laurel Amberdine’s high-concept, thrilling fantasy YA debut, Luminator, sold to REUTS. Whenever I explain this book to people, I mime holding up shields and talk about how it’s a novel where people fight with light. I cannot physically explain this book without immediately acting like I’m in a LARP. And I love it, and Laurel’s masterful world-building, so very much.
And while all of that sounds awesome, there were some big hurdles in the mix, and some major lessons I took away. Because for every author I picked up, there was another I didn’t get to work with. There were conferences that were, sadly, not a good use of my time. And I’m going to try to get better at handling all of these things.
Here are some of the lessons I learned, that I hope you can learn from too.
1. Traveling is Great, But Self Care is Better: Last year, for the agenting side of things, I traveled to conferences in Washington D.C., Nashville, Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Boston, Dallas, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Miami, and did several here in my new hometown of Richmond. I went to Mexico for a writing retreat for nearly two weeks.
Some months, I was going to a conference every other week. I had to search my Gmail to remember where I went, and I still missed a few.
I’d just moved to a new city, where my wife and I were (and still are) trying to start a new life. I was teaching several classes while in Philadelphia, and after we moved, was teaching three here in Richmond at a new school. I had deadlines for my own writing. Papers to grade. Manuscripts to edit and query.
I burned out fast. This year, I’m trying to only do one big event a month.
Conferences are fantastic. It’s a great opportunity to meet people in the industry, and if you’re an author, pitch agents. And if you’re an agent, meet authors! I met Lindsey Smith at a conference in Philadelphia, and wanted to work with her immediately. But if you’re traveling for writing events, pace yourself. Don’t jump on every single travel opportunity just because you want to go someplace new, or because you’re eager to discover someone at the risk of your own physical and mental health.
No book is worth that.
2. Workshops & Talks Aren’t Just About Finding Writers & Agents: Speaking of those events. One of the big highlights of a lot of these conferences are those agent and editor pitch sessions. Authors come in, have about ten minutes or so to dish out an idea, and an agent or editor can ask to see pages or a query. Or they share tips, advice, etc. in those few minutes you have together.
But these workshops are about so much more than that.
I spend a lot of time at these workshops talking to writers outside these sessions. Sharing advice. Suggesting contacts. I spend time meeting other editors and agents, and listen to their stories. I ask what they are looking for. What they’ve learned.
Going to a workshop? Planning to pitch an agent or an editor? Great. But bring a bunch of business cards. Come ready to mingle, and meet more people than the one person you’ve booked time with. I met so many great industry people in the past year, one of whom even took on a project of mine (hi Laura!), Lindsey Smith’s Eat Your Feelings.
It’s about way more than making just one connection. It’s about making dozens of them.
3. You Won’t Get Every Book & Author, And That’s Okay: There were several authors I desperately wanted to work with, but simply couldn’t get to their books fast enough. Or, I dropped absolutely everything (ie: I read a manuscript while in Colombia for my best friend’s wedding), read their book as quick as I could, and didn’t get the opportunity to represent them. Sometimes we’d have fantastic, long phone calls, and still. Didn’t happen.
At first, I’d whine a lot to my wife and bookish friends. And then when I’d see those books sell, oh man, the intense feelings. But something else happens after all that. Or at least, should happen after all that.
You get to become a fan.
The best thing you can do in this case, is become one hell of a supportive fan. So you weren’t brought on to be the coach / cheerleader hybrid that an agent tends to be (is this sports metaphor working I don’t watch sports). That’s alright. Cheer from the sidelines. There are quite a few authors who queried me that I didn’t get to represent, but now I talk to frequently as a friend. We’ve seen each other at conferences. They’re friends with my clients. And I couldn’t be more excited to see those books out in the world.
If you think I’m vaguely talking about you, I am. And I can’t wait to have your book on my shelf.
Be a fanboy first, an agent second.
4. Talk at People Less, Answer Questions More: One of the last bookish events I did in Philadelphia was with Chuck Wendig, at the Doylestown Bookshop. When he opened up, he said that these sort of events were way more interesting when he just answered questions.
And that’s what he did. For like, a half hour, took questions from the audience, and then he read a little bit. And it was fantastic. I’ve since stolen this.
See, this is another conference lesson I quickly learned. A lot of these events ask you to come ready with a presentation. How to Write a Good Query. What an Agent Does. How to Do Social Media. Etc. At first, I rolled in with a sheet of paper and gave a long ramble of a lecture, like I do when I’m teaching. But when I opened up for questions, almost none of the questions had anything to do with what I covered.
At conferences, people are there to have these questions answered. They’ve come ready with them. So instead of spending time talking at people, spend your time talking with people. That’s what they want.
You will never see me at a conference with a PowerPoint presentation. Don’t invite me if you want one.
5. Be Persistent, Don’t Give Up: I didn’t really learn this. It’s something I’ve always embraced. But I saw proof of it working in this year, when manuscripts I’d been pushing and fighting for finally got picked up.
Exhaust every damn option. And then find some more.
6. Embrace Social Media & Community: I’ll be honest. After I left a position where my job was social media, I planned on never really using it as aggressively I was once did ever again. I’d post still, sure. But I was done. I was going to keep working on my aging, slowing iPhone (I had an iPhone 4 up until a few months ago) and keep using my dying iPad until it just gave up.
I’d done a few of these, scouring through the hashtags to find talented writers. But Samira was the first person I signed as a result of one. And her book went off to Soho Teen a few months later.
But there’s more to it than just that. I met Erica Cameron thanks to Tristina Wright, an author I adore but I’ve only gotten to know as a result of Twitter. I met Bassey Ikpi after a friend sent me a Facebook Messenger note (thanks Steve!). Authors I’ve become friends with on the Internet, quickly turned into real-life pals who recommended clients my way… because of social media.
I really believe that social media is less about trying to sell books in the publishing space (I’ve talked about that here), and more about being part of the community. Getting buy-in, not sales wise, but personality wise. It shows readers, writers, industry folks… that you’re someone they might want to work with.
Social media quickly became something else for me entirely. Less of a way to do work, and more of a way to connect, and maybe eventually, do some work. I find I enjoy it way more when I’m having fun on it.
So to conclude! In 2016, I learned to travel less, and nurture more. To make connections, and to talk with, not talk at. To have fun in the bookish social media space. And to keep being, as the youths like to say, “persistent A.F.”
And I hope you’ll do some of the same, in 2017.