Behind the Scenes as a Literary Agent
When I graduated from Hamilton, I couldn’t have told you the first thing about how books get published. The journey from digital Word document to physical book on a shelf was a complete mystery, and honestly, unless you’re looking to get published yourself, why would you know what goes on behind the curtain? The fall after I graduated, I landed my first internship at a literary agency and had the opportunity to step behind that curtain. I’ve never looked back.
They tell you to use the Career Center and Alumni Network for a reason. The former (shout out to wonder woman Heather Wixson) alerted me to the internship which was available through an alumna (equally wonderful Danielle Burby ’12) whom I’d met a few times on the Hill. I interned under Danielle at HSG Agency for several months when I learned a lot about what an agency does, reviewed manuscripts, and wrote editorial letters. From there, I interned at Writers House (twice), got a job there (I’d like to think being a ringer for the company softball team had nothing to do with it), moved to McIntosh & Otis where I started as an assistant and was later promoted to junior agent, and wound up at Triada US where I am now happily agenting with a fabulous team.
Put simply, as an agent, I am the middleman between an author and a publisher. I review queries from writers, take on clients if I love their material, go through rounds of edits of their manuscripts or proposals, then pitch them to editors. If a publisher offers on a project, I negotiate the deal and continue to represent my client throughout the entire publication process and beyond. It’s a lot of reading, but Hamilton’s course load taught me to read quickly and critically and meet deadlines. It’s a lot of writing, but Hamilton prepared me for that, too, with all the mandatory writing intensives. It’s just generally a lot, so multi-tasking and time management skills are crucial; being a multi-sport student athlete was the best preparation I could have asked for.
Of course, despite all the preparation, there are downsides to working in publishing. It’s a difficult, full-time job in every sense. It’s tremendously tough to establish yourself. Most positions don’t pay well. And it’s often heartbreaking — everyone is always telling each other “No.” When Hamilton students reach out to ask about my job and the industry, I’m very candid about all this. You have to want it — really want it — or you’ll burn out.
But here’s the thing — it really is an amazing job. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after Hamilton because I have so many interests. As an agent, I can combine them and take on projects that I love. I’ve sold books about popular ‘80s songs, the intersection of sports and identity, the science of Game of Thrones… I even sold a book about the beer mile (available this summer!), which warms my winter track heart. Nobody’s life is ever on the line. The stakes aren’t as high as they feel sometimes, and it’s easy to get caught up in the emotions, but you learn to manage them (because a big part of your job is managing your clients’ emotions as well). Rejection hurts, but you pick yourself up and move on. You have to make sacrifices to make it work. There are long hours, a lot of mental gymnastics, and a lot of heartbreak. But it is beyond rewarding to know the hand you had in bringing a book into the world; that something wouldn’t exist or be what it is without you. You make connections with people and stories and help create literal art and projects that have meaning. What could be better than that?
If you’re interested in such a field (and there are many paths in publishing; I’m just most familiar with the agent route), definitely get a head start on internships as soon as possible since publishers and agencies care most about hands-on experience. Visit the Career Center. Use the Alumni Network. Reach out to people. Ask questions. Learn all you can. Read! Know what you like. Be able to talk about books intelligently. And don’t take anything Hamilton offers or teaches you for granted. I never thought I’d look back on them so fondly, but all those Library/KJ all-nighters really prepared me for when I’m up late reading a manuscript on a deadline. I’m ready to work that much harder than the next person because of my four years on the Hill. I truly wouldn’t be where I am without them.
Amelia Appel graduated from Hamilton in 2013. She majored in English Literature, minored in Sociology, and was a four-year varsity athlete on both the softball and winter track teams. She is now a literary agent with Triada US Literary Agency, representing both adult and young adult fiction and non-fiction, and is based in New York City.