Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Why I Am An Agent (Jim)

by Jim

Well, jeez. Everyone else is telling you why or how they became agents. I might as well jump on board and offer the same.

Let’s face it: I had no idea what a literary agent was when I first stepped in the doors of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in the summer of 1999. I was an Urban Design and Architectural History student at NYU with a minor in the ever practical field of Dramatic Literature—that’s dramatic as in plays, not dramatic as in literature where lots of stuff happens (yes, I’ve actually gotten this question before).

So there I was…studying to be the next great urban planner, destined for a life of fame and glory. But in the meantime, I was stone broke and needed a part time job. I sent out 40 resumes to any and every listing on NYU’s career board that sounded interesting. Why’d I apply here? I liked books. That was it.

Stacey Glick was the first person to call me back. I had an interview the next day and accepted the job the day after that. One more day passed, and I got a call about the job I had really wanted: usher at Hammerstein Ballroom. It was too late: I had already committed to coming here.

On what was supposed to be my first day of employment here, I was stranded in the suburbs because some freak storm shut down all of the trains running into New York and most of the subways. An auspicious beginning.

As Miriam Goderich often tells me about my first few months here, “Jim, you were really weird.” And that’s likely true. Painfully shy, completely terrified to be working in an office with real people who seemed strangely important and powerful, I mostly kept to myself, spoke softly, and consumed buckets of Diet Coke. For some reason, Jane and Miriam remained convinced that I had some sort of talent and wasn’t just some 19-year-old moron. I don’t know what it was, but it was definitely not my hair, which resembled a calico oil slick. Regardless, they kept me around, and I started to learn just how involved the publishing process was. It was hugely intriguing. I think I had some vague notion that there was a small group of people out there who decided to be authors, so they wrote books, sent them to Manhattan, and then had books magically appear with names like “Random House” on the spine. And while I realize this is an author’s dream come true, I was personally much more excited to learn how much that was NOT the case.

Here’s a dirty secret (well, it would be a secret if I ever kept my mouth shut): I quit Dystel & Goderich three times. Each time, I went off to get a job in my “real” field of urban planning, but that never really worked out like I planned, so I kept coming back to my “fun” field of publishing. It took me about two and a half years to realize that I didn’t have to choose a career related to my major—I never claimed to be the quickest draw on the block.

In the intervening time, I had fallen in love with diving into the slush pile to see what was there. It was a thrill to charge into manuscripts hoping for the best, preparing for the worst (the attitude I still take when opening something new). I’ll confess my nerdiness: I also pulled DGLM titles off of shelves in bookstores and read the acknowledgements thinking, “Some day my name will be in one of these.”

A full time job opened up as I happened to graduate from college. Kismet. I was told when the job was offered to me, “You realize this means you have to stop quitting and coming back.”

I didn’t sell the first project I ever signed on (though to this day, I remain convinced that it would have worked). And I didn’t sell the second. But I did sell the third, and I actually sold it pretty nicely. “They offered you what? For a paperback?”

I may have stumbled into it, but it’s been a blast ever since. I had a few criteria while I was in college for what my dream job would be: every day would be different, I’d work with fascinating people, I could wear jeans in the office, and I wouldn’t start my work day until 11:00 a.m. So…I missed out on that last one, but the first two were probably more important anyway. Maybe three. I really like wearing jeans.

It’s an honor to be involved in the process of ushering books to readers, as roundabout as that process sometimes seems. And I’m thrilled with the deeply accomplished group of authors on my list. Publishing is a team sport, and…wait, I don’t know enough about sports to make a good analogy here. They’re good folks, my authors. I’ll leave it at that.

Beyond that, I was supported by Jane and Miriam the entire way. Somehow they knew the weird kid with the bad hair might just be able to make a go at this crazy business, and they supported me every day, while also giving me just enough room to find my own footing. No one ever seems to leave the agency which is a testament to how well we all function together as a team but also how deeply rooted the generosity of support we receive is and has always been. I stumbled into this business, but Jane and Miriam invited me to stay. Here I am, ten years later. Damn, I’m getting old.

12 comments:

  1. Fascinating! I'm so glad you never quit for good. :)

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  2. Kismet indeed! What a fabulous story and it sounds like you are all meant to be on the same team.

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  3. Judging from your wonderful client list, it seems this agency is a perfect fit for you. Plus you can't quit again because you're on my list :)

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  4. Thank you for sharing this! Very cool! I have often wondered about the Literary Agent as a career... Where and how do you study for it? Is there a diploma? How can I become one?

    Seems like your career path is a happy accident - would we were all so fortunate.

    And there is something to be said for quitting the same job three times!!!

    Cheers, Jill

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  5. Jill, it seems most people come to agenting through the publishing industry in some way. Editors and scouts are likely candidates to become agents--Jessica's route to DGLM. Some may transfer over from similar jobs in other parts of the media; Stacey started out in film. Others start out as interns and assistants at an agency and work their way up--like myself, Michael, Lauren, and Chasya (I told you--none of us leave!). Publishing's a tiny business, and it's tough to break into, so the most direct route is usually to start at the bottom of the totem pole and learn it from the ground up.

    And Jenn, happily the reason I never quit for good was that they kept taking me back!

    --Jim

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  6. I'm loving these "Why I Am an Agent" posts. Keep 'em coming! (Hint-hint, Michael.)

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  7. That's a great story -- well told. Just proves you never know where life will take you.

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  8. Aw man, now I want to be an agent too!

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  9. I would wish I wrote horror, if the stuff didn't keep me from sleeping at night. You sound like you'd be a lot of fun to work with. Thanks for sharing your story.

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  10. It's great to know that literary agents are passionate about their jobs, :)

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  11. This is awesome! I so badly would love to work with you since we enjoy the same genres, I actually just finished querying you with my manuscript, With Her Blood, so I hope my work can get me there. Then I can put your name on the acknowlegments if it's published! =D

    And yes, I adore co-workers who are awesome like Miriam and Jane. So nice to see how they let you find your way.

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  12. What an awesome story - thanks for sharing!

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