When someone who is not familiar with the publishing industry asks me what I do for a living and I answer, “I’m a literary agent,” I often get a blank stare in return. It happens so often in fact that I’ve begun immediately following that statement with, “It’s like being a sports or talent agent but for authors and illustrators.” Many people aren’t familiar with the considerable number of individuals it takes to get a book from first draft to publication. There are agents, editors, publicity folks, marketing folks, designers, printers, and the booksellers and librarians who make sure the books get into the hands of readers worldwide. There are more than just authors and editors, and I encourage Hamilton students interested in publishing to look into all the different ways you can become part of the book-making process.
I officially decided to be a creative writing major when I realized it was the only subject for which I was consistently excited to do the homework. I found myself enjoying workshopping others’ stories as much as I enjoyed writing my own, and of course I loved to read. I decided I should work with books, but I knew very little about the publishing industry at the time. My sophomore year, I searched “editing” in HamNet, the Career Center’s old job posting site, and discovered that several literary agencies were hiring summer interns. I got my first internship at HSG Agency in New York City that summer thanks to an alumni connection, and that same alumnus later helped me get in touch with my current boss (networking really is half the battle). My creative writing workshops and time as a Writing Center tutor at Hamilton prepared me for critiquing manuscripts and writing readers’ reports that summer, and those skills are still invaluable in my current position.
So, what is the difference between a publishing house and a literary agency? Literary agents are on the front lines of publishing, searching through unsolicited submissions to find fresh talent every day. We represent authors and illustrators and help them get their foot in the door at publishing houses. Some editors do not accept unsolicited or unagented manuscript submissions, so often literary agents are the only ones who can get an author’s work in front of that particular person. It is a literary agent’s job to get to know editors’ tastes and wish lists so that they can successfully submit their clients’ work and connect them with the right editor.
Some of my day-to-day tasks include reviewing online submissions, critiquing our clients’ works-in-progress, and submitting our clients’ work to editors. While literary agents are not editors, we still do a significant amount of editing. We want to make sure our clients are putting their best foot forward when we submit to a publisher so we regularly help them through several rounds of edits first. Additionally, because I work for an agency that only represents children’s literature, I evaluate illustrators’ portfolios. And I write emails, lots and lots of emails.
Behind those tasks is our agency’s goal to represent authors and illustrators who care about giving every child a voice. A favorite phrase of ours is, “All children deserve to see themselves in a book.” That means fighting for equality and equity in children’s literature for people of all ethnicities, races, genders, sexualities, religions, abilities, etc. That means hiring all sorts of people at every level of the industry to write, represent, edit, promote, market, sell, and distribute books, so that there is representation at all points in the publication process. We need more diversity in publishing at all levels and, while I’ve seen the industry make huge strides in the last few years, there is a lot more work to be done. I encourage students at Hamilton who support promoting diversity and equality in literature to apply to publishing jobs (and to reach out to alumni in the industry!). Whether you want to be an editor, an art director, a publicist, or maybe an agent, we need you. #weneeddiversebooks