My Literary Agent Answers Your Questions About Publishing
I’ve been writing a lot about my adventures in publishing (which has been a fun, strange, occasionally frustrating experience because it is only by writing a book that you figure out how to write a book). My book will be release in just over two months, and in this final stretch I find myself thinking about how all of this started, and I realize that I always end up in the same place: Zoe Sandler.
Telling people I had a literary agent gave me a sort of legitimacy I never had before, and also led me to feel like a bit of an impostor, my own psyche quietly screaming that no one in their right mind would want to represent me, and yet there Zoe was, seemingly sane and ready to champion my book. She kindly agreed to answer some questions about literacy agencies and her work below, but I want to begin by talking about everything that she’s done for me and my book.
Do you need a literary agent? If you are planning on going the traditional publishing route, then yes, yes you do. I’ve never heard of a publisher working directly with a writer who did not have an agent. They are your advocate, they make sure your manuscript or proposal is in front of the right publishers, they broker the sale of your book, they handle the legal contracts.
In my case, Zoe also significantly helped shape a very early draft of my manuscript before sending it out to publishers. Her changes were invaluable. She turned my messy pile of papers into something worth buying.
How do you pick a literary agent? Honestly, you just need to pick someone who feels like a good fit, and who has experience selling books like yours. I realize that’s not very specific, but for me it mostly came down to a gut feeling. I’d met with several agents before I found Zoe. One had an entirely different view for the book (she wanted to fictionalize it – taking my true stories and exaggerating them – something I absolutely did not want to do). Another was far too aggressive, and wanted me to sign immediately. Another kept demanding I prove my worth as a writer. But Zoe said something which stuck in my head, that no other agent had said: she told me she believed in my work.
Zoe is at ICM, which is one of the bigger agencies, and they cover everything from books to music and film. Their client roster is huge (and filled with celebrities). I was worried that I’d easily get lost at a big agency, but that hasn’t been the case. Zoe’s been a great advocate for me, and has always been around when I needed her. Including when I asked her to answer questions about her work.
So enough rambling from me about how great she is. Here’s what Zoe has to say about her work:
Give us a little bit of background on you and where you work.
I’m in the books department at ICM Partners, the talent and literary agency, where I’ve worked for the past five plus years. Much of that time I’ve spent working for an agent, as a kind of apprenticeship, and in the last few years I’ve started building my own list of author clients. The authors I represent write a range of fiction and nonfiction, books for kids and for adults. The huge variety of genre among the writers I get to work with is one of my favorite things about being an agent.
How did you become a literary agent? Do your friends constantly pitch to you?
Out of college I knew I wanted to work in the publishing industry. I started at a small academic press, where I worked for three years, and which served as a wonderful introduction to the world of book publishing. Upon moving to New York, I instead focused my job search on trade publishers, specifically seeking an editorial position. I didn’t know anything about the agent side of our business, but after being introduced to it through my first job at ICM, I quickly became convinced that being an agent was the better fit for me than being an editor. What’s been a nice surprise is how much editorial input with authors I still get to have as an agent. And my own family and friends don’t pitch me but their friends do 😉
What advice would you give to a writer who is looking for representation?
When querying agents, make sure to do so in as specific and targeted a way as possible to show that you know your work well and that you’re familiar with the agent you’re querying: is your project a good fit for that agent’s list, and why? Are you following that agent’s querying guidelines? Are you a fan of the agent’s other authors? Do your research, and that attention to detail will make your query stand out.
How polished should a writer’s draft be before querying you? Do you prefer that they have a finished manuscript?
For fiction, yes, a writer should have a full draft before querying. For nonfiction, a proposal is sufficient. A full manuscript is better for a memoir, however. The manuscript should be pretty polished, at the point where the author feels she has done all she can – herself or using other readers or outside editorial input – to make the project as compelling as possible.
If an unpublished writer doesn’t have their own blog – and is mostly guest posting – would you still consider signing them?
Of course. My decision about representation is driven more by the material than the author: the strength of the book idea, and the writing itself has to resonate with me in order to take someone on. Those things matter more to me than the author’s platform.
What traits do you love in a client?
I tend to gravitate towards authors who have a strong sense of themselves and their work – they may be self-deprecating and at times insecure but they are also healthily and generally aware of their talent. That self-assuredness goes a long way when it comes time to face the tough parts of being an aspiring author: the feedback, the rejection, the waiting and wondering, the criticism, etc. My mantra about this business is staying positive, patient, and persistent, and in my experience thus far finding authors who share those qualities makes for a very fulfilling combination.
Thanks so much, Zoe. As always, you are the best. 🙂