A day in the life of a literary agent

what do literary agents do

It’s been a wild week around here. We were moving over the weekend, then had some bad news on Monday followed by more bad news on Tuesday (why must they come in twos?). But today, things are looking up a bit, and I’m getting excited about all the happy little joys that Thanksgiving brings.

I was recently inspired by an article from Emily Timberlake, a Ten Speed Press editor, in Life & Thyme, who shared a look into a typical day as an editor at a major publisher. And so I thought it might be fun to give you all a peek into one of my days, too!

It’s funny because, before I did this, I thought my days would be a little too diverse to fully encapsulate. There are a million tiny things that pop up throughout the day that have to be dealt with, and sometimes I feel like I’m just fluttering around from task to task, making only glacial-pace progress on bigger projects. But, when I sat down to think about the usual rhythm of my days, I realized that they’re not nearly as unpredictable as I’d thought. It turns out, every one of those little to-dos fit into one of two categories!

All my work as a literary agent boils down to two goals:

  • To guide new authors to the best possible publisher and the best possible deal
  • To guide existing authors through an enjoyable and successful publication process

Then repeat, repeat, repeat.

Of course, those two things break down into dozens of specific tasks: things like editor lunches and marketing calls and concept brainstorming and market research and emails about what the heck is that thing on your book cover.

So if you’ve ever wondered what literary agents actually do (and no, we don’t read all day!), then come on in, and I’ll tell you all about my day!

A day in the life of a literary agent

10:00 a.m.:

I always start the day by catching up on publishing news and my authors’ newsletters. I love this part of the day—I get to sit down with a big cup of coffee and ease into the day with some light reading. My must-reads every day are Shelf Awareness, the Publisher’s Marketplace deal report, Publisher’s Weekly Daily, and The Digital Reader, but I also try to supplement with some reading about marketing and business (Seth Godin, Michael Hyatt, CoSchedule, and Buffer).

After that, I love checking in and seeing what my authors are up to through their email lists—it’s always fun to see what they’re writing, what they’re cooking, what’s going on in their lives that week, and what new launches or other initiatives they have in the works. I could easily spend all day reading all of these newsletters, so obviously, skimming is sometimes in order!

10:30 a.m.:

I’ve been experimenting for a few years now with doing my most important task first thing in the day. I’ve found that it’s easy to get sucked into the flurry of emails throughout the day, and then suddenly it’s 5 p.m., and I haven’t made progress on my big-picture goals. Usually, my most important task is one of three things: proposal editing, author scouting, or post writing. These are the things that require the most brain power and caffeine for me to hammer out, so I try (try!) not to procrastinate on them.

Today, I’m editing a cookbook proposal and brainstorming the best way to position it (which also means researching some of the competitive books in the category and figuring out how to make my author’s project stand-out in this crowded world).

12:30 p.m.:

I have an editor lunch today, which is always a lot of fun. Today I’m lunching with a former colleague from the days when I was on the editorial side at a publisher, and I can’t wait to catch up with her. These editor lunches are also so valuable for getting a read on what’s working and what isn’t.

It’s a lesser-known fact, but publishers and editors can vary so widely in their assessment of the marketplace. For instance, you could easily hear from one editor that they are still going strong on acquiring vegetarian books, while another editor just had a vegetarian book flop and now can’t get enthusiasm for that topic from her team. That’s why so much of our job as agents is about match-making and keeping a finger on the pulse of different imprints—if we submit a proposal to an editor who doesn’t have a taste for a topic, it’ll never work out. If we submit a proposal to an editor who has a strong track record for that kind of book, then suddenly we have the cards stacked in our favor.

Plus, as I always tell my authors, personality matters! I want my authors to work with editors who completely and totally get them. Trust me, when an editor is genuinely excited about a book, it shines through to her whole team, and it’s infectious. It’s the magic that makes a book stand-out at a publisher.

2:30 p.m.:

It’s time to face down that inbox. Usually at this point I’ve tried to do triage throughout the morning on emails, but I still have a hefty stack of them that need more in-depth replies from me. I also always have a few things on my Follow-Up list: following-up on submissions with editors, on proposal with authors, on publicity and marketing plans with publishing teams, on other miscellany that springs up just as soon as you’ve cleared out your inbox.

Do you ever feel like emails run the world? I do. For a while I was looking back on my days and feeling like I’d gotten little done other than stemming the tide of emails. But in the past few weeks, I’ve tried to include “Emails” right there on my to-do list. The reality is, email is an important part of my job, and it feels good to give it a place on my daily list and have the satisfaction of crossing it off at the end of the day.

I’ve also tried to limit how much I check my inbox throughout the day, especially when I’m working on something that involves deep concentration, like editing proposals. That way, I can batch-process my emails without the constant interruption of checking and responding to each email as it comes in. Of course, I keep my phone nearby and check my phone inbox frequently in case something urgent comes up. But even that extra little step really helps quiet the impulse to immediately tap out a response to something that might need more thought from me (or might not even need an instant reply).

4:30 p.m.:

Time for calls! I usually try to schedule any calls for the late afternoon, when my energy is lagging and chatting on the phone is a great pick-me-up. It also helps me preserve the morning for more concentrated work. Today, I’m on a conference call with an author and her publishing team (editor, publicity manager, and marketing manager), and we’re catching up on how the galley submission to long-lead magazines is going.

Long-lead magazines are the big national magazines (Time, People, Bon Appetit, etc.) that plan their coverage 5-6 months in advance. That outreach is a big part of why the traditional publishing process takes so long—if you want to get your summer beach read included in a June issue, the editor at the magazine needs to have the final manuscript around January.

Publishers plan for this by creating galleys (online or printed final versions of a book, usually in black-and-white), which they can send along with a pitch letter to their editor contacts at media outlets. Just like with literary agents, it makes a big difference if a publicist has strong relationships with the editors they’re pitching, since it can often mean the difference between ending up in the slush pile or being bumped up to top-priority.

Publicists are also amazingly relentless, and they’ll chase down any possible nibble if it could mean coverage for a book. At my first in-house editor job at a publisher, I sat next to our imprint’s publicity assistant, who rocked it out all day on the phones, following up on our books and sweet-talking editors for coverage. These publicists are amazing, I tell ya.

5:30 p.m.:

I also have a call today with a new author I signed last week. We’re talking about strategy for her platform and her proposal—I want to make sure her audience is as engaged as possible before we even submit a proposal to editors.

Every author has their strengths and weaknesses, so I try to share learnings from our entire author base with each author, so that they’re not trying to reinvent the wheel each time they take on a new marketing goal. Plus, it helps us get any growth initiatives in the works now, so that when their book comes out two  years from now, they’ll be in excellent shape to promote it proudly and productively.

After all, at the end of the day, my job isn’t just to sell books to editors—it’s to sell books that will actually sell-through to readers. There are no shortcuts here, and it’s the only way to ensure that the publishing doors will remain wide open to my authors for as long as they want to write books.

6:30-11:30 p.m.:

Time to call it a day. On days that I work from home, Jarrett usually walks in around this time, and we both unplug and relax for a few minutes. We love cooking together, so most of the time we talk about our days while prepping and cooking dinner. Usually we have a few household to-dos that can’t be ignored. (Why do three new to-dos pop-up for every one we get done? This is a phenomenon that must be studied.) After dinner, we either read or watch TV together—we are wild and crazy like that.

What about you? What do you do to keep your day on track and get important things done?


What We’re Eating This Week

Oh, you don’t even want to know. We spent all of last weekend moving, so it’s been takeout, eating out, and living off of popcorn around here. (Speaking of which, you must try this popcorn recipe from my author, Jenn Segal of Once Upon a Chef. It is awesome.) But I have really missed my time in the kitchen!

Monday: Chad Allen is in town to visit one of his authors, so we grab dinner together in historic Alexandria at Virtue Feed & Grain. If you don’t already follow Chad’s blog, it’s a can’t-miss!

Tuesday: I’m up to the NYC office today, so dinner at my grandma’s house is a happy must.

Wednesday: It’s a no-frills-rotisserie-chicken kinda night. Sometimes homey and basic feels good, though.

Thursday: Beg Jarrett to cook dinner so I have something to eat when I get back from NYC.

Friday: We’re off to Friendsgiving with a big group of friends this weekend, so tonight will probably be a quick 15-minute pasta. I’m thinking of this one-pot veggie pasta from Stonesong client Jeanine of Love & Lemons or Marcella Hazan’s Simple Tomato Sauce. Or, you know, throw what we’ve got in a pot with some pasta and hope for the best.


What I’m Reading This Week

5 Literary Agents Tell You Exactly How to Secure Representation for Your Book (Chad Allen): Over dinner on Monday night, Chad asked me what advice I’d give to aspiring authors who are on the hunt for an agent. Here’s my answer!

Is Your Plan For Success “I Just Want to Write My Books”? (Judith Briles for The Book Designer): “Authoring and book selling isn’t the lottery. You don’t buy a chance. The truth is that the creation of a book, even though it took years to do, is a mere fraction of the time, energy, commitment and money needed to teach it to walk.”

10 Delicious Books About Food (Amanda Nelson for Book Riot): Do you listen to audiobooks while you cook? I never have, but I’m so tempted to turn on one of these and see if my brain can keep up with the words and the chopping at the same time!

The Binge Breaker (Bianca Bosker for The Atlantic): “The attention economy, which showers profits on companies that seize our focus, has kicked off what Harris calls a ‘race to the bottom of the brain stem.’ ‘You could say that it’s my responsibility’ to exert self-control when it comes to digital usage, he explains, ‘but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.’ In short, we’ve lost control of our relationship with technology because technology has become better at controlling us.”

As The Web Goes to Video, What Happens to Writing? (Dianne Jacob): If you’re doing anything online today, you need to know about video and also make a few conscious decisions about it. Here are a few things to think about.

We Didn’t Know How to Promote a Podcast. So Here’s All We Learned (Kevan Lee for Buffer): Thinking about starting a podcast? Start here–no need to reinvent the wheel yourself!

Cheers!

Read More

4 Ways Introverts Can Get Comfortable with Video

instagram stories video for writers

But first, the publishing news worth reading this week:

Pete Wells Has His Knives Out (Ian Parker for The New Yorker): This is a fun and fascinating profile of Pete Wells, “the restaurant critic of the Times, who writes a review every week—and who occasionally writes one that creates a national hubbub about class, money, and soup.” It’s a great inside look at the massive influence traditional media still holds, and it’ll also make you hungry.

Instagram Stories: Your New Favorite Way to Engage With Readers? (Martine Ellis for The Write Life): “If Instagram Stories disappear after 24 hours, what’s the point? Authenticity, engagement, and exposure. Unpolished snapshots of someone’s day are far more interesting than a carefully crafted flat lay featuring scattered rose petals and a strategically placed — albeit irrelevant — pair of vintage scissors.”

How to Be Active on Social Media without Losing Your Mind (Kirsten Oliphant on Jane Friedman.com): “The biggest issue I hear from people struggling with online marketing is TIME. Many writers struggle to balance social media and writing or creative work. Since we don’t have the option to go back before the age of Twitter, we are left with a few options…”

Jennifer Egan on Writing, the Trap of Approval, and the Most Important Discipline for Aspiring Writers (Brain Pickings): “You can only write regularly if you’re willing to write badly… Accept bad writing as a way of priming the pump, a warm-up exercise that allows you to write well.”

4 Ways Introverts Can Get Comfortable with Video (And Happy Pub Day to Damn Delicious!)

Hey everyone!

I’m baaaccckkk. After two magical weeks of being away for our wedding and mini-honeymoon, Jarrett and I are both back at it.

First things first: yes, I will be sharing wedding photos with you all here! I’ve had a few requests for them already, and I can’t wait to see them myself the very second they hit my inbox. With any luck, we’ll all see them by next week.

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The 3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Self-Publishing a Book

Questions to Ask Before Self Publishing

But first, the publishing news worth reading this week:

The Hilarious Art of Book Design (TED Talk by Chip Kidd, famed Knopf cover designer): Since we’re on the topic of book design and production this week, I thought it was worth resurrecting this classic (and truly hilarious) talk by Chip Kidd. Even if design isn’t your thing, you’ll get a kick out of Chip.

How Do I Write My Book and Build My Platform at the Same Time? (Chad R. Allen): “Many of us want to get our books into the world, but we also understand the power and importance of a significant platform. We understand that if we write a book without a platform, we will have difficulty reaching an audience. We not only want to write a book, we want some people to read it!”

Local Flavors: Cookbooks Spotlight Fall 2016 (Clare Swanson for Publisher’s Weekly): “From Iron Chef to MasterChef to Top Chef, there’s no shortage of national media attention for kitchen rock stars and those clamoring for the title. Food Network personalities, big-time bloggers, and now YouTubers continue to dominate the cookbook bestseller list. But cookbooks by regional chefs from across the country are also climbing the charts and winning awards along the way. We spoke with publishers about how they put hometown culinary heroes on the map.”

The Ultimate Literary Ten-Course Meal (Evan Hanczor for Lit Hub): “…we’re consistently amazed by the power—creative, nostalgic, emotional—of translating text into food. If you’ve never cooked and eaten a dish from a favorite book, do it. Nearly any great book has moments of food in it, not just because characters have to eat, but because our relationship with food exposes so much about our identities, cultures, time, and place. What author forsakes a tool that can explore all that?”

The 3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Self-Publishing

A few weeks ago I mentioned how Jarrett and I are notorious for taking on more than we should…but I haven’t even told you the half of it.

We decided—in the midst of planning every detail of a DIY wedding sans professional planner PLUS crazy busy work schedules—that we should write, photograph, edit, design, and print our own cookbook as a wedding favor.

Actually, it was Jarrett’s awful idea. (This is how marriage works, right? Blame your partner for all the bad ideas?)

But really, I’m the one who should have known better. I’ve walked dozens of cookbook authors through the publishing process, and I know it’s no stroll in the park. It’s more like a two-year slog up a mountain, with a full team to help you reach the peak of quality you have in mind.

But I (very stupidly) thought: Hey, it’s only 10 recipes. Only 32 pages. Only a bit of design work. We can do this. And it’s better than cheesy “Maria & Jarrett Forever” koozies.

Oh, boy, am I a sucker.

Creating a book is a tremendous amount of work, especially if you’re trying to hack it out on your own. No matter how many books you’ve read yourself (and in my case, edited or agented myself), you’ll still be surprised at the level of detail that goes into creating an exceptional book.

Although we survived the process, got it done, and—dare I say—honed our teamwork superpowers, it could have been a much smoother process if I had wrapped my head around a few important considerations before jumping into self-publishing a book.

So now I want to be sure you don’t make the same silly mistakes I did! Whether you’re contemplating a self-published novel, an ebook bonus giveaway, or a four-color print book, there are a few key questions you should ask yourself before you even think about Step #1 of the process.

And don’t worry–I’ll give you all a look at the cookbook, so you can judge for yourself! Scroll down to the bottom of this post to take a peek at our Eat, Drink, and Be Married cookbook.

I do want to say: I’m proud of the final book. I am glad we did it. It did serve its purpose of being a special and personal wedding favor for all the wonderful people who traveled from near and far for our wedding. And I do know it will be a keepsake in our home for many, many years. It’s a book that fully serves its purpose as a personal item, if not a commercial one.

So here are the 3 questions you should ask yourself before jumping headfirst into producing your own book:

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Demystifying the 6-Figure Book Advance for Authors

Book advances for first time authors

But first, the publishing news worth reading this week:

What exactly is a beach read anyway? Summery, sexy — or sexist? (Sophie McManus for The Washington Post): “If you’re a fan of contemporary fiction, you know we’re neck-deep in beach-read season. Lists of hot summer page-turners tumble from every magazine and corner of the Internet. But what, exactly, is a beach read?”

A 4-Part Checklist for Writing Strong Back Cover Copy (Chad Cannon): “That back cover copy (BCC, as we say) is often the make-it or break-it factor on the consumer’s journey toward purchase. If you read it and think ‘Psssh not for me,’ or ‘What? I don’t get it,’ then you set the book back down and move on. But if the copy captures you, you open the book, peruse its insides, and perhaps purchase.”

Working with Cover and Interior Designers (Joel Friedlander, The Book Designer): “Almost every publishing professional advising self-publishers says the same thing: focus on editing and cover design. Those are the two most important elements of your book, the ones that will make the biggest difference in how your book is received and how it will sell.”

Frontlist Fiction Hits a Dry Spell (Jim Milliot for Publisher’s Weekly): “Publishers have been expecting difficulty getting media attention for their books in the second half of 2016, as coverage of the presidential election dominates the various media outlets where authors usually drum up publicity.”

Demystifying the 6-Figure Book Advance for First-Time Authors

Let’s talk about this big subject today: book advances.

But first, you have to let me whine for 2 seconds, please, because I did an extremely dumb thing. I decided to try to close on three books in the two weeks before my wedding. Because obviously, wedding planning isn’t that hard, right? And because I didn’t have two big business trips already. And because it’s not a busy season in my life, at all.

Let’s just say the past few weeks have involved a lot of hand-wringing and whining and wine. Lots of wine. Wine is my new maid of honor. Wine might be my new groom. (Jarrett, thoughts?)

But now that I’m almost through it (and getting married Saturday the 27th!), it does feel absolutely exhilarating. And it got me thinking about this business of selling books and how complex and ever-changing it really is.

Each of the three books I sold had wildly different circumstances. Two were from first-time authors and one was from an already-established, highly successful author. Yet it doesn’t matter whether it’s an author’s first book or tenth book–my goal is always the same:

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