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!

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The Hidden Advantage Novelists Have in the Online World

We’re gearing up for a move in two weeks (just to nearby Alexandria, VA) and so I’m savoring these last few days in our apartment before it becomes a wasteland of boxes and messiness.

Whenever Jarrett rolls his eyes at me for being finicky about keeping the house neat, I have to remind him that it’s my authors that are to blame. (Rule #1 of Marriage: Outsource Blame.) I’ve learned so much from the home design and organizing books I’ve worked on over the years that it just tears me to pieces to have the house in disarray for weeks at a time during a move. I like everything in its place, okay? Order is good. Very, very good. And it keeps me from spending all day mentally editing what’s out of place and how I would revise it. (Occupational hazard…)

How I wished the house always looked:

literary agent home tour

And I’ll spare you the shot of how it looks mid-move…just imagine boxes to the ceiling and me whimpering under them.

Anyway, as most of you know, I’ve always specialized in nonfiction (except for an early foray into novels at the start of my career!), and so it’s been fascinating to see how rapidly the publishing landscape has evolved.

Early on, having a platform and a direct connection to readers mattered only in the nonfiction world. So us nonfiction folks got an early start on figuring out what the heck an online platform is, how it grows, and how it actually converts into book sales.  We’ve been tapping our little hammers at this platform mine for years, and we’ve seen where the gold lies and where it’s just coal.

But now that platform and audience-building is also becoming so important to novelists,  I wanted to let you guys know one important thing:

As a novelist, you have a hidden advantage in the online world.

the most important social media for novelists and writers

It’s an advantage I try to teach my nonfiction authors, but it’s one that’s already so deeply ingrained in novelists that it’s almost silly how easy it would be to capitalize on it and how much you would benefit from it.

That’s why I wrote a whole post about it at Writer Unboxed, who so generously hosted me in front of their wonderful community of fiction writers.

But nonfiction writers (and anyone looking to build a platform!), this applies to you, too! It’s easily the most common weakness I see in nonfiction authors, yet it’s not hard at all to train yourself to have this same advantage.

And chances are, if we were having a one-on-one coaching call, it’s one of the main things I would tell you to focus on!

Click here to read the full article at Writer Unboxed!


What I’m Reading

The Gone Girl With The Dragon Tattoo On The Train (Emily St. John Mandel for FiveThirtyEight): Why on earth does every book these days seem to have “girl” in the title? Answers lie on the other side of this door. Um, link.

Is “Best” Now the Worst Way to Describe a Recipe? (Sarah Jampel for Food52): It’s 2 p.m. on a Saturday, and you decide to make banana bread. So you Google “best banana bread” (because, of course, you don’t want to make mediocre banana bread, right?). Over 2 million results pop up. Why are there so many results, and which one is really the best? Sarah Jampel investigates (with a great cameo from Stonesong client, Deb Perelman of Smitten Kitchen!).

How to Automate Your Book Marketing (Tim Grahl): Because the point of all these online tools is to help you sell books, even while you sleep, right? Here’s a fantastic step-by-step method for setting up a hands-off system for getting more email subscribers and selling more books.

Simon & Schuster Latches onto Podcast Trend With Launch of “Paper Donkey” (Ellen Harvey for Book Business Magazine): “The podcast launch is part of a larger movement among book publishers to develop original content about the books they create and the authors who write them. This original content can help publishers build a captive audience that they can then market and sell books to directly.”

New bookstore-cafe from Spike Gjerde, Ivy Bookshop owners to open Nov. 7 in Charles Village (Sarah Meehan for The Baltimore Sun): I’m always thrilled to see chef and bookstore collaborations, especially from one of my favorite Mid-Atlantic chefs. Congrats, Spike!

Thinking about NaNoWriMo? Read these two pieces first:

Have Trouble Getting That Book Done? Try Doing Less. (Ginger Moran on JaneFriedman.com): I know that it’s only week 1 of NaNoWriMo and everyone’s gearing up to do MUCH MORE, rather than less. But it’s worth reflecting on whether pressure and panic really lead to your most productive hours.

How NaNoWriMo Can Backfire (Kristen Kieffer of She’s Novel): Kristen–who chatted with us about why fiction writers should build platforms–shared in her email newsletter this week how she’d run herself so ragged preparing for NaNoWriMo that she’d fully burned out by the time November 1 rolled around. NaNo can be so much fun and a fantastic way to write alongside millions of people, but let’s not forget that we’re still aiming for quality output, and that that can only come from a rested and relaxed mind! (This post is only available to her email list, but I highly recommend signing up here–her newsletters are always a lot of fun!)

What We’re Eating

I’m off to NYC for a few days of meetings this week, so pickin’s are slim:

Monday: My favorite weekday pasta recipe with sausage, white wine, and kale. I’ll share the recipe with you all soon!

Tuesday: The Stonesong crew and I are off to see one of our authors, Doug the Pug, signing books at The Strand. Here’s his adorable Good Morning America appearance, or become one of his 5,000,000 (!) friends on Facebook.

Wednesday: Dinner at my grandma’s house usually means tortilla de patata. Happy sigh.

Thursday: Maybe Peruvian chicken from El Pollo Rico? It’s absolutely the most delicious roast chicken I’ve ever had. No ifs, ands, or buts. But here’s a great recipe for making your own peruvian chicken at home, from my lovely author Jenn of Once Upon a Chef.

Friday: Dinner at Virtue Feed & Grain with friends–happy Friday!

Saturday: I’m thinking of rolling up some fresh pasta dough this weekend and tossing it with a simple pesto. What are you thinking of cooking this weekend?

Cheers!

 

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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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7 Things You Can Do Today to Get on The Bestseller Track

7 Ways to Become a Bestselling Author (text)

But first, the publishing stories worth reading this week:

Amazon is Quietly Eliminating List Prices (David Streitfeld for The New York Times): A fascinating look at the deterioration of the list price/discount marketing tactic and how it’s influencing online commerce, including the massive online book business. I thought this was a must-read this week, and it’s definitely a trend worth watching for anyone involved in online commerce.

Training to Be a Good Writer (Leo Babuata of Zen Habits): “You get good by doing it a lot, and caring. You’ll never be perfect at it—goodness knows I’m far from perfect — but the only way to get better is to practice. And to care about what you’re doing. Do that every day, and every step of the struggle will be an amazing one.”

My Top 5 Favorite Marketing Books (Chad Cannon): “They say that reading is a key habit for success–that our society’s leading thinkers, investors, and decision-makers must be readers. I fully believe it’s true, and I love this quote from Warren Buffet. Once, when asked what his key to success is, he pointed to a stack of books and said: ‘Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.'”

Do You Lock Your Best Ideas in a Vault? (Benjamin Percy for JaneFriedman.com/Glimmer Train): “For every story or essay or poem you write, you withdraw one image, two characters, maybe three of the metaphors you have stockpiled—and then slam shut the vault and lock it with a key shaped like a skeleton’s finger. I used to be the same way, nervously rationing out my ideas.”

 

7 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Become a Bestselling Author Tomorrow

I hope everyone had a delicious and fun Fourth of July weekend! The fireworks in DC were a bust with all the rain, but Jarrett and I spent the first half of the long weekend exploring Louisville and Lexington. We ate:

  • Brisket and smoked sausage at the Blue Door Smokehouse (picked by Ashlea Halpern of Condé Nast Traveler as one of her two favorite BBQ joints in the country!)
  • The most glorious country ham on an Eggs Benedict at Proof on Main inside the 21C Museum
  • A 4-course tasting menu of delight at Edward Lee’s fantastic 610 Magnolia
  • Really very naughty sandwiches at Ouita Michel’s Wallace Station (that Hot Country Ham and Pimento Cheese sandwich…oh my.)
  • And because we couldn’t help ourselves: more of Ouita’s food at Smithtown Seafood. They’re participating in the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project that challenges chefs to create more sustainable burgers by adding mushrooms to their patties. This makes the burger better. In fact, it was the best burger of my life. Yes, I said it. Go try it and tell me if I’m not right.

I think we did some other stuff in between there, but mostly we ate, and a lot.

Which brings me to the question: what productive things can you do as a writer or blogger when you are, say, too gut-bombed on Southern food to concentrate on your manuscript? Not every moment needs to be write-or-die, and there are so many things that can contribute to your skill-set that have nothing to do with typing away.

Here are 7 of them, which I first covered for Bustle Books, and which I hope make for some easily digestible reading no matter how gluttonous your holiday was!

7 Things You Can Start Doing Today to Become a Bestselling Author Tomorrow

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