Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Interview with Literary Agent Anne Borchardt

Deirdra: What made you decide a career as a literary agent?

Anne: I didn’t actually decide to be a literary agent. After Georges and I were married, I became his assistant, although I was more like a “gopher .I had been studying English literature and French at NYU and I was able to give him reports on manuscripts we received. Later I began learning the business and I became a partner when we incorporated. I loved, and still do, the books by the authors we were representing and helping them become successful writers is still very exciting and satisfying.

Deirdra: When you are not wading through massive amounts of query letters what do you like to do in your spare time?

Anne: I don’t wade through query letters. Our employees open query letters (We get masses) and read them, but generally we don’t take on unsolicited material. Someone in the office will respond if a self-addressed envelope is included in the query and sometimes, but rarely, they will ask to see the manuscript. Everyone in the office gets lots of queries by emails. I don’t look at them and I don’t know what the others do. I did respond negatively once but the writer of the email came back and asked me why. That was the last time I answered a query.

Deirdra: How does one become an agent?

Anne: Anyone can become a literary agent. You don’t have to pass any exams and you don’t need a license. You just need to find writers to represent, have business stationary printed, buy stamps, supplies, a computer and arrange for a phone to be installed. To begin, you don’t have to know much about literature, about publishing or publishers, but it takes a long time to learn how to be a good agent. However, authors beware: having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all.

Deirdra: What do interns usually do at a literary agency?

Anne: Our interns open the mail, answer the phone, learn to scan files, deliver packages and go to the post office, etc.. The usual office chores. They can also learn a great deal about what a literary agency is and how it works if they pay attention. We have occassionally hired young people who worked as interns.

Deirdra: What is the most challenging obstacle agents encounter when working with authors?

Anne: this is difficult to answer, but perhaps it is convincing them to take our advice seriously. But we always remember something a French publisher told my husband when he was complaining about a difficult but very gifted author: “Healthy oysters don’t produce pearls”.

Deirdra: What is the most challenging obstacle agents encounter when working with publishers?

Anne: Getting contracts within a reasonable amount of time. Some publishers take months to draw up a contract that we could type up in a day; even small publishers who can’t justify taking more than a few weeks to produce a contract.

Deirdra: What kinds of books are currently in demand?

Anne: Big commercial books that will be sure to make a great deal of money for the publishers (although they often don’t). But this is nothing new. Publishers have always looked for this kind of book, although in the past when there were more publishers who were independent and privately owned, literary novels and serious nonfiction had a slightly better chance of getting published. Those publishers didn’t have to account to corporate owners who now control most of publishing and are only concerned with profits.

Deirdra: Are there any genres that publishers in general shy away from?

Anne: Illustrated books are not a genre for most publishers and are usually published by firms that specialize in this kind of book. Trade publishers usually don’t. Generally poetry is very difficult to get published and midlist fiction is another genre that is disappearing. But even so, there are always exceptions. One of our authors lost his publisher, Harpers, who decided not to publish any more poetry, even though ours was very well known and whose books had been published by Harpers for years. Fortunately, I was able to find him another publisher, but not one owned by a German company.

Deirdra: Do you prefer to find your authors through query letters, live pitches or as references from other authors or agents?

Anne: As I mentioned we don’t accept unsolicited material. We do read manuscripts by authors recommended by our own authors and people in publishing and once we took on an author who just came to the office and left his manuscript on the front desk. Sometimes an agent is retiring and recommends an author.

Deirdra: What’s the best part of your job?

Agent: Reading a good manuscript. Making an author happy by getting the best possible contract and the best publisher for his/her book.

Deirdra: What’s the hardest part of your job?

Anne: Telling authors why we can’t sell their books.

Deirdra: Would you ever consider representing a new client who previously self-published? Why or why not?

Anne: Possibly. It would depend on how good the book was and if we loved it.

Deirdra: On average, how many query letters do you receive each year?

Anne: 6 or 7 a day by mail. Many more on the computer. I will let you do the arithmetic.

Deirdra: On average how many new authors do you take on as clients each year?

Anne: Very few. Three or four? We already have over 200 and need to give those authors our full attention. We are also very choosey. We have to love the author’s work. My husband always says that the way to recognize a real writer is to read any sentence on any page and you know that is the one you want.

Deirdra: What advice would you have for someone aspiring to become an author?

Anne: My first reaction is to advise finding another career. Success as a writer is like winning the lottery. It is a very difficult profession. But a real writer will write no matter whatever the advice. Like Van Gogh, who never sold a painting during his life except, I believe to his brother, a real writer will just go on writing no matter what. However, my second piece of advice is to writers who have a paying job: Don’t give it up until you have achieved financial success several times over.

Deirdra: Any final words you would like to share?

Anne: The publishing world has changed a great deal, but I still love being part of it. Don’t go into it if your goal is to make a great deal of money; it isn’t the financial world. You have to love literature and, if you are a writer, you will have to be compelled to write even when it looks hopeless. We haven’t given up and I hope we never will.


  1. Wonderful interview with Anne, very interesting to read.


  2. I always learn a lot from your interviews nor did i know that "healthy oysters don't make pearls."

  3. Great post! Being an agent sounds like a fascinating job. :-)

  4. Deirdra, I'm just going through the last 30 days of blogs I've followed on Google Reader and ran across this interview. You ask some really great questions! Anne sounds like she is very busy, being part of an agency that is essentially closed to new business. How did you manage to get her attention and time?


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