We’ve all had people that have inspired us and as a result shaped us positively in some way. For Rebecca Sherman her fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Barber, was one of these people, encouraging her love of reading. Rebecca ended up majoring in English in college and now uses her finely honed reading skills daily as a literary agent at Writer’s House in New York City. In The Career Cookbook interview Rebecca thoughtfully explains the numerous responsibilities of agents, offers quick tips on finding an agent, and outlines what you need to maintain a successful agent/writer relationship.
CCB: When did you realize you wanted to work in publishing as a literary agent?
RS: I don’t think I realized that I wanted to work in publishing as a literary agent until I had already been working at Writers House for about a year. Honestly, I came into publishing by process of elimination. I was always an avid reader and lover of words. As an English major, I was constantly asked if I wanted to be a teacher, and I knew the answer to that was no (I have a great deal of respect for teachers and know I’m not cut out for that career). Soon, I realized that I really wasn’t going to be a professional poet. I did know that I wanted to live in New York, and lo and behold that is where publishing happens. I thought I wanted to be an editor and went on interviews to be an editorial assistant as well as the interview to be an agent’s assistant at Writers House. I landed the job here and after awhile I stopped thinking about a move to a publishing house.
CCB: What appeals to you about working in this field?
RS: Being an agent allows me to take part in so many aspects of a book’s creation and success. I’m involved in editing, selling books, negotiating, contractual matters, etc. There is the potential on any day to discover the next great writer. Overall, I see agents as advocates for authors and overseers of their careers. Not a bad job title.
CCB: How did you break into this industry?
RS: I interviewed at Writers House back in the summer of 2001. Truth be told, I went on the interview as a favor. A family friend who is in publishing was guiding me on my New York City job hunt. She told me to send a cover letter and resume to her best friend, an agent at Writers House, even though she didn’t need an assistant. I thought it was a complete dead end, but did it anyway. The next day, Susan Cohen, another agent at Writers House called me to set up an interview because she had been without an assistant the entire summer.
CCB: Explain to us what a literary agent is…
RS: Just like an actor’s agent tries to match an actor with a producer and an athlete’s agent handles negotiations with a team, a writer (or illustrator’s agent) brings a writer together with a publisher (by submitting the writer’s manuscript) and then negotiates the deal and handles the contract. Of course, there are many other facets of an agent’s job, but I find those analogies to be the best way to introduce, “what a literary agent is.”
CCB: Is there a typical day on the job as an agent?
RS: There really isn’t. Anytime the phone rings, an email comes through, or mail comes in, my plan for the day might be thrown out the window so that I can answer newly posed questions, put out fires, etc. But over the course of a week I …make calls to editors to pitch new books, send out submissions, negotiate deals, read over contracts, talk to my clients, talk to our foreign rights director about selling books overseas, talk to producers and LA based agents about adapting books for movies or TV, read lots of query letters and manuscripts looking for new clients, write readers reports to clients and potential clients giving my take on a manuscript and making suggestions for revision, strategize career moves with clients, splendid lunches with editors in New York, and a lot of checking in—making sure that authors are progressing with writing, making sure that submissions are being read, making sure that contracts and payments are being routed.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career?
RS: Of course, I’ve had support from everyone at Writers House. I also had wonderful teachers growing up who created and nurtured my passion for reading. I’ll never forget my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Barber. I read Bridge to Teribithea and Tuck Everlasting in her class, both books that are very hard to forget.
CCB: Was a lot of what you learned about being an agent on the job training?
RS: 100% of what I learned about being an agent was learned at Writers House. Are “on the job training” and “trial by fire” synonymous? Either way, it’s a learn as you go position.
CCB: What qualities do you need to succeed as an agent?
RS: To be an agent, you need to have a good balance between the right-brain and the left-brain. It’s important to be organized because you are constantly working with various clients on different projects and looking for exciting new work. BUT you can’t be rigid. You need to be able to abandon a plan, to work on something new that immediately becomes a priority. It’s essential that you are loyal and dedicated because agents represent clients for not only one book, but for the course of a career. Unfortunately, there is rejection in publishing, and you need to know you can see an author through rejection to publication. There’s also a need for tenacity because talented authors are sought after, you need to fight to impress those you want to work with. You also have to do all you can to get the best deals for clients from publishers which requires the ability to strategize. I feel it’s important to be OK with being secondary. I don’t feel the need to be a star; it is my job to stand behind my clients and allow them to shine. Similarly, agents often need to just be willing to listen either to let clients vent or so they can talk through a creative or business decision. Creativity is also key to help in brainstorming and editing text as well as on the business side of publishing. Passion is all-important. If I didn’t have passion for books, and specifically, my clients work, I wouldn’t be able to sell at all.
CCB: Have any advice for people interested in becoming agents?
RS: For anyone involved with publishing, I think you should read as much as possible. Become as knowledgeable as possible about what you like and what you don’t, what is being published and what isn’t. When you are ready to apply for jobs, read a bit on various agencies and what they represent. Many agencies have websites and there are also guides available at any bookstore or library where you can educate yourself on agencies. Then selectively contact agents whose books you admire.
CCB: How did it feel when you landed your first client?
RS: Probably the same way it feels for anyone who makes a major breakthrough in their career; I was proud, elated, and scared out of my mind. It was a very scary transition to make between saying you want to be an agent and actually becoming one. It’s a great deal of responsibility to represent someone else’s writing. Of course, I am now a completely fearless agent. (Smiles)
CCB: What are you looking for in clients and in projects?
RS: I’m always looking for manuscripts with a striking voice and unique point of view mixed with authenticity. Humor is a real plus. In clients, I am looking for writers and illustrators who are collaborative. It’s important that clients respect that I offer editorial feedback with a knowledge of the market. Patience truly is a virtue in the slow business of publishing. Again, it’s my job to represent an author’s career, not just one book. That is a huge investment and I hope clients will recognize and appreciate that. I want authors who aren’t in this just to be published. I’m looking for writers who have commitment to craft and imagination. Writers who respect deadlines, feedback, the process of publishing a book, their editor and me.
CCB: Are most of the manuscripts you are submitted as a result of referrals?
RS: I receive countless query letters and submissions that get to me from various avenues. The clients who I work with have been referred by other Writers House clients or editors, sent me unsolicited material (otherwise known as slush), and some I’ve reached out to because I was already familiar with their work.
CCB: There are a lot of literary agencies. Is there something that makes Writer’s House unique?
RS: In my opinion, Writers House stands out because it is eclectic, representing a wide range of authors. I think our size is also a real advantage. We are large enough to allow for a wealth of ideas and input, but small enough so all clients can be championed. Writers House has so many attributes…but I shouldn’t brag…instead I’ll direct you all to our website: writershouse.com
CCB: Do you have any quick tips for people interested in landing an agent? For starters it appears they should find an agent that represents the type of work they create as far as submitting manuscripts.
RS: Do your research and then submit to a select group of agents. Make informed decisions about who to submit to and how. Be patient as they review your work. If you don’t have any takers in the first round, be persistent. Be honest and open and show some personality. Agents aren’t looking for worker bees, we want to see originality. Talent is primary, but compatibility goes a long way. Make it clear to agents from the start that you are going to be cooperative and will work with an agent for the betterment of your career.
CCB: Your specialty is children’s books, young adult novels, and nonfiction. Does that mean if you found a great writer in a different subject matter that you would not represent them?
RS: I never say never. If a submission in a different genre really spoke to me and I felt like my representation would be in the best interest of the author, yes, I would take on that client. However, it is more likely that I would pass a promising work in a genre that I do not represent on to a colleague who specializes in the given market.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
RS: Knowing that there is so much to do and only having so many hours in a day.
CCB: What has been the most rewarding thing about the job so far?
RS: Being able to call an unpublished author to tell them that their manuscript has been sold and will be a book is so special. It’s also pretty great when I’ve put in a lot of time and effort to bring a client to Writers House, and they accept the offer for representation.
CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your job?
RS: People would be surprised to learn that I almost never get to read in the office. I read most manuscripts at nights and on the weekends. This also means that I have to steal time to read published books. Specializing in the children’s market, most of the published books that I read are for an audience younger than eighteen. At least my adult book club forces me to read one published, adult book a month.
CCB: What do you have coming up career-wise?
RS: I’ll continue to nurture the careers of my clients, find new authors whose writing I fall in love with, and help to bring unique and exciting books to bookstores, libraries and classrooms near you.