Saturday, September 13, 2014

Literary Agents — "Everything to Everbody"

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Victoria Skurnick of LGR Literary  (and my own beloved agent) was on Jungle Reds a few months ago, talking about no-nos when approaching literary agents with your book proposal.

But what do literary agents themselves actually do all day? Drape themselves artfully on silk settées and read manuscripts 
while eating bon-bons? (OK, I can hear Victoria laughing now....)

The truth is that literary agents don't have a set job description and every day brings a different challenge. The great literary agents are adaptable, proactive, relentless, positive. They love books and champion their authors.

Read on and learn one agent's perspective of the other side of the desk…..

VICTORIA SKURNICK: You can’t be everything to everybody. That’s what my mother would tell me when she felt I was spreading myself too thin.  Well, turns out, what I get paid for is exactly that: being everything to everybody.

It’s about the only description of what an agent actually does that is at all true.  We get to be greedy nags (at least, that’s how an editor might describe us), editors (God forbid a manuscript not be perfect before we submit it to publishers), mommies cum psychoanalysts to anxious writers [ahem—trying not to take this personally—ed.], accountants to harder-headed clients, literary critics, beggars, wheedlers, gypsys and thieves. 

Okay, forget the gypsy part.  Even when we manage to leave our offices, we’re lugging mountains of papers with us, which makes it hard to move around very far (I wasn’t that fond of the Kindle even before the Big A started acting up).

What we also get to be is busy and fascinated.  A day in the life of an agent might consist of many hours of reading, or it might be running around town trying to work of enthusiasm for a project, or preventing a publisher from going out with thousands of copies of books containing huge mistakes, or arguing with clients about plot points, or reworking proposals.  

On any given day, we might go from feeling like geniuses to considering ourselves horrible, stupid failures.  I know of no agent – not one – who does not spend some hours every month thinking, what if I never sell another book!?!   And that goes, I assure you, for the biggest names in the business.

I became an agent seven years ago, after several different paths, most of them in publishing.  But my last job was as editor-in-chief of what was then a powerful book club.  When you’re the editor-in-chief of a powerful book club, not only do people return your calls, but they actually call you – voluntarily.  

When you’re an agent, you’re the one making the calls, and the one whose emails do not necessarily get answered.  When, after three or four (or eight or ten) months, you’re sending the third or eighth polite email or making the fifth or twentieth call, asking an editor a question like, “Gee, I wondered if you’d had time to read  Book X yet,” and getting no response for the third, fourth, eighth or tenth time, you get to know what it’s like on the other side.  You get to internalize words like abject and powerless. 

But, when you’re at your desk and you pick up a novel that reads beautifully, then it’s all worth it.  The sense of excitement, of discovery, is remarkable. The wonderful knowledge that you are in a position to do everything possible to bring this to the attention of hundreds or thousands or millions of people.  This is the payoff; this is what we live for.

That, and the learning.  I just sold a book on the presidency of Chester Arthur, and the subject turns out to be incredibly interesting.  Who knew?  I’ve learned more about England in World War Two from Susan’s Maggie Hope novels than I ever thought possible.  A friend of mine who’s now a publisher, but who was an editor for decades, describes herself as “a talking book.”  And that pretty much sums it up.  Writers are smart people. 

Publishers are smart people – except when they turn down my clients’ books, that is.  

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Thank you, Victoria! 

Reds and lovely readers, do you think you would make a good literary agent? Why or why not? (I'd be TERRIBLE — too many people…..) 

Does Victoria's perspective give you and sympathy for those on the other side of the desk? 

Please share in the comments!


  1. Oh, yes, a great deal of sympathy --- and respectful admiration. The all day reading part of it sounds fantastically wonderful, but it has to be difficult when you don't get the response to your email or the returned call. The part of me that is screaming "What about common courtesy?" is the part that would keep me from being a good literary agent.
    Although I'm sure none of it is meant to be personal, I know myself well enough to know that's exactly how I would take it . . . .

  2. Absolutely, sympathy and admiration! I could never beat at those doors (ever so politely) over and over again, trying to sell my authors. And on the other hand, it must be difficult holding the hand of some authors--or sticking a gun in their backs--to get the next manuscript ready to go. I like to think that I can take criticism well, especially when I know it is meant constructively, but I've known plenty of people whose word is sacred--the "How dare you suggest I cut/change/add".... type of person. Bless you, Victoria, for your energy and stamina!!

  3. Hi, Victoria!! I know Victoria from really REALLY way back when...and I remember then you were (I think) writing jacket copy. I was so in awe.

    It's so generous of you to let folks in and see what this crazy business is like from another perspective. That agents can't get calls returned and get told NO. Abject and powerless, just like writers often feel.

    Wondering, has email made your job easier or harder? And do you still use the phone to reach editors and writers??

  4. Such a challenging job and I'm so in awe of Victoria and other literary agents who work so hard, inspired by their love of books!

  5. I would make a terrible literary agent. Oh, I'd be good at the reading and the schmoozing lunches, but I have come to realize that selling things is something I hate. I do not have that gene that a good salesperson has--rather like fishing until you hook the big one.
    But hooray for agents. I adore my own Meg Ruley and Christina Hogrebe. The most important thing for a writer is to have a champion who believes in you and toots your horn for you.

  6. I love hallie's about whether email has made my job easier or harder. The answer is mixed. It's nice to be able to email with the kind of frequency that, if you were using the phone, would make you look like a stalker. But in the old days, agents, actually everyone, could barter, whine, persuade with active personality. You don't get to do that so much electronically,. Minds are made up and it's on to the next thing. This was always l true, bu there was wiggle room. One thing I got to see quickly when I started this career: a no is always delivered as an email, while a yes mostly means a phone call. Makes me love the phone, needless to say.

  7. Joan, agents are not immune to taking rejections personally. I know it's not personal, but that doesn't stop me from feeling horrible (dumb, fatuous, responsible, aggrieved) by rejections. Some of us have more internal Teflon than others, but most of us have things that stick all the time..

  8. Rhys - I too adore meg Ruley...without her I'd never have published a book. She's the best!

  9. Chester Arthur? Who knew! Thank you for sharing from the other side. I suspect your days of "abject" and "powerless" are few, however.

    Re: Susan's question about being a good agent, the telephone would be my downfall. As chatty as I am in person, I am all email, all the time, for work.

  10. Victoria, I think you have a fascinating job. Thanks for sharing it with us.

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  12. Terrific interview—funny! Love the cartoons. Must be very hard work!