Deirdra: What made you decide a career as a literary agent?
Deborah: I think most agents would tell you that they found their way to the agency business indirectly or in a roundabout fashion. Unlike the people entering the publishing workplace today who are familiar with how we do business, when I first came to New York looking for a job in book publishing, I had never heard of a literary agent. I learned about agents through my first jobs, scouting book publishing for the movie studios. The appeal of working with books and authors of my own choosing and being my own boss, especially as I was single, mortgageless and childless at the time, was enormously alluring. I built my list in what now seems to have been a Golden Time for publishing. If I had to start my career in today's shapeshifting marketplace, I don't know if I would be as fortunate as I have been with the choices I've made.
Deirdra: When you are not wading through massive amounts of query letters what do you like to do in your spare time?
Deborah: I don't really read "massive amounts of query letters," as I have a full and long-established roster of clients. As the publishing business grows more challenging, it's important to focus my time and energy on the authors to whom I am already committed; I am reluctant to stretch myself further to take on new ones. Referrals from authors and editors come my way, and occasionally someone can slip under my radar, but it's simply not possible to read the hundreds of queries that come into my inbox weekly. Even if those authors were publishable, I don't have enough leftover bandwidth to take them on.
In my time away from my office, I read for pleasure. I live in a beautiful ex-urban area where I walk regularly for many miles on dirt roads with my two rescued greyhounds. I am hopelessly addicted to Mad Men, but commuting and long hours dictate that I can watch it only after the fact, on DVD. I'm waiting for Season Four to be available on Netflix. I have a home in Cape Cod, where I go all year round; I love it especially in the off season. I try to work from the Cape in summer, and the beach is where I catch up on "OPB," Other People's Books -- all the wonderful books that I don't have time to read during the year. I am married to a published poet and it is a particular joy to share our overlapping literary interests and pursuits.
Deirdra: How does one become an agent?
Deborah: See answer above. I do not think there's a direct route. Publishing courses allow people to be more familiar with how the business works and provide an idea of what is involved in being an agent. When we interview prospective assistants, we look for people who not only have an aptitude for critical evaluation and an understanding of the marketplace, but people who are independent, who can multi-task and know how to take the initiative, who are self-confident, self-starting and unafraid of making cold calls, of creating their own contacts, and of making their own way into the business. Above all, they are readers. (You will see that this is a consistent theme in my answers to your questions.)
Deirdra: What do interns looking to someday become agents usually do at a literary agency?
Deborah: To work in a literary agency is to learn the business in all its aspects and permutations. Our interns read the slush pile, which despite our best efforts, never seems to diminish. Anyone who works in a literary agency should read every piece of mail, every contract, every trade publication and catalogue that comes in our door. They should become familiar with the business of our business: rights, royalties, permissions, copyrights and all the many ways that literary properties can be exploited, protected and marketed. They should read, period -- books, journals, newspapers, magazines (and blogs don't take the place of published and curated journalism), anything and everything, from contemporary to The Canon, literary and commercial, fiction and nonfiction. Reading The New York Times daily is asine qua non of our profession.
Deirdra: What is the most challenging obstacle agents encounter when working with authors?
Deborah: I love authors. The longer I work in this business, the more I am humbled and awed by their talent and artistry. I don't think I encounter "obstacles" with authors,as there is a process of self-selection involved: I choose the authors with whom I want to work and vice versa. In general, I would counsel all writers to be realistic about their expectations,be grateful when their success exceeds their expectations but understand that no one is actively courting failure, either: we all do our best and the author's success is our success.
Deirdra: What is the most challenging obstacle agents encounter when working with publishers?
Deborah:Publishers are being more cautious than ever. They want the tried and true, the branded and the formulaic, the guaranteed return on those few square inches of bookshelf real estate. When presented with something new and fresh, publishers are unwilling to take a chance. Who can blame them? The retail book business is in free fall, good books go unsold in the bookstores, returned to the publisher unread and unnoticed. That said, I still believe that good books will and do prevail. Publishers are saying no more frequently, but the lights are still more yellow than red.
Deirdra: What kind of books are currently in demand?
Deborah: Seems to be anything with a vampire in it, or written by a dead Swede.
Deirdra: Are there any specific genres that are flooded or publishers in general shy away from?
Deborah: Fiction in general is in decline, with the notable exceptions of those lucky authors who own the top ten slots of the New York Times Bestseller Lists, but even those sales are proportionally lower than they were a few years ago. Nonfiction, memoir, narrative, history, politics and some popular science, seem to be holding on better.
Deirdra: Do you prefer to find your authors through query letters, live pitches or as references from other authors or agents?
Deborah: See answer above. If I do take on a new client, it is through a referral from another author or publishing colleague.
Deirdra: What is the worst mistake authors make on a query letter?
Deborah: Check all the directories and listings to see who does and who doesn't read email queries. Check to see if the agent represents screenplays or children's books or romances, and if the agent doesn't, don't send the query anyway. Make sure not to send a query to fifty agencies at once and leave the addresses visible. Be sure to spell the agent's and agency's names correctly. Above all, master the basic rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation. It's shocking to see how often these basic precepts are ignored.
Deirdra: What is the best time of year to query an agent?
Deborah: Most of the agents I know seem to follow the rhythms of the school calendar: holidays and summers are slow as people's attention and focus shifts elsewhere.
Deirdra: What’s the best part of your job?
Agent: I think I'm one of the luckiest people in the world: I get to read books for a living; something I would have done anyway; I work with creative, talented, interesting, brilliant people; and I have had the privilege of being able to make a living doing work that uses everything I've got. I hope the next generations are as lucky as I have been.
Deirdra: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Deborah: Loving a book with all my heart and not selling it. Investing years of time and psychic energy into careers and relationships with authors, only to watch as sales decline and publishers decide not to renew contracts.
Deirdra: Would you ever consider representing a new client who previously self-published? Why or why not?
Deborah: Sure, why not. I would make a distinction between an author who has had a vanity publication, and one who has sold a respectable number of his or her self-published books and therefore pre-tested the marketplace.
Deirdra: What is a realistic time frame to sell a manuscript?
Deborah: There is no formula for this question. Depends on the book. It can take a week or it can take six months.
Deirdra: What is a realistic price range a new author’s manuscript will sell for?
Deborah: The "realistic price range" is what the publisher will pay for it. Again, it depends on the book, the author and the market. There is no formula for this sum. Don't believe anyone who tells you there is one.
Deirdra: How do you think the growing popularity of e-books will affect the literary market?
Deborah: As long as people are willing to pay to read books, there will be a literary market and a need for people to sell to it. The ground under our feet is changing almost daily, but it seems that, even as p-books wane and bricks-and mortar stores close, e-books are bringing more and new readers into the game and that's good for everyone.
Deirdra: On average how many query letters do you receive each year?
Deborah: Tens of thousands. It would be depressing to count them.
Deirdra: On average how many new authors do you take on as clients each year?
Deborah: One. In a big year, two.
Deirdra: On average how many manuscripts does your agency sell each year?
Deirdra: What advice would you have for someone aspiring to become an author?
Deborah: Read. Read some more. And then read more after that.
The best writers are readers.
I sometimes think that more people are writing books than reading them. I'm not being glib. It's amazing how people confuse "having a story to tell," with "being able to write one." Writing is a skill and requires craft (as well as the aforementioned ability to spell and use words properly). I love opera, but the fact that I have an ear for it doesn't mean that I can sing it. And being an "author" requires a canny knowledge of your audience and market as well as the ability to put words to paper. This is Writing 101, but a lot of the aspirers out there haven't taken the course.
Deirdra: What advice would you have for someone aspiring to become an agent?
Deborah: Same as above: READ.
Deirdra: Any final words you would like to share?
Deborah: Thank you for inviting me to share my experience with you and your readers.