Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Tempus fugit

by Miriam

We all know birthdays are a time for deep reflection, for taking stock of the present, reviewing the past and charting course for the future. (Or, if you’re me, pouring yourself a glass or five of wine and hoping the whole ugly business will go away by the time the Advils kick in.) But this year, with another birthday looming and a long post due for the DGLM blog, I’ve been doing more reviewing than usual. It occurs to me that I’ve spent almost half of my adult life working in publishing--for those of you trying to do the math, yes, I started out when I was 14. To put it in perspective, the first George Bush was in his freshman year as president when I first walked into the offices of Acton & Dystel; Oprah’s Book Club was seven years away, and the kids who founded Facebook were getting ready to start kindergarten.

A lot of cataclysmic events have come and gone since the day I sat in Jane Dystel’s office for an interview wearing my best (okay, my one) gray suit and hideously uncomfortable matching gray pumps. I can’t remember exactly, but since this was the ‘80s, there must have been shoulder pads and white pantyhose involved. Jane was--and is--a tiny, delicate blonde with a voice like whisky soaked granite (I think I’m actually quoting someone here). She was, herself, relatively new to the agenting side of the business and was a tightly wound bundle of energy and determination. She was building a client list and learning the ropes from the then very successful Jay Acton--a fascinating man whose clients ranged from bestselling romance writers to the legendary Tip O’Neill to numerous sports stars whose memoirs all went straight to the Times list--and she needed an assistant.

Long story short, reader, I took the job and never left. Occasionally a friend or acquaintance will ask why I’ve stuck around so long. “Don’t you get bored?” “Aren’t you itching to try something new?” “Isn’t publishing a dying industry?” The answers: “never,” “sometimes,” and “emphatically no.” Thing is, like any other line of work, what we do is sometimes tedious but never boring. (Does that make sense?) Literary agents don’t spend all their time schmoozing celebrities and cashing $1,000,000 advance checks or even reading great literature. There’s a lot of haggling over ¾ of a percentage point in the royalty section of a 25-page publishing agreement written in a cross between Sanskrit and legalese with a font size of 5.5. There are the endless stacks of queries (some of which make you wish you’d never learned to read). There are unhinged authors and psychotic editors. There are big disappointments when a book you had high hopes for gets remaindered almost before it’s published or when you lose an author you’re pursuing to a bigger, flashier agency, despite the fact that you know they’d be better served by a smaller, more attentive outfit.

But there are also great rewards. You meet and befriend talented, interesting people. You get to be “in the know” about all sorts of events--current and scandalous. You get to have engaging conversations about relevant issues or important subjects almost every day. All that and free books!

The kid who walked into Jane’s office those many years ago wasn’t looking for riches or fame (she was incredibly dumb that way). She just loved books and wanted to be a part of making them happen. All these many years later, I’m still doing it and it’s still (mostly) a pleasure.

12 comments:

  1. I don't think I've followed any agency's blog where the agents are as perceptive, candid, and articulate as they are on this one.
    Best regards,
    D. Jarrett

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  2. great post, touching and revealing too

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  3. For all the good, or the bad, or the ugly that I've heard of the Book World, it still sounds funa and fascinating and wonderful - despite peaks and valleys.

    Were I on the cusp of adulthood, it is most likely the industry I'd choose.

    Jill

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  4. That really was a great post. And now I want to be an agent!

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  5. My first job worked the same way, and I was there for 14 years, too, up until the day my boss died of cancer. It's amazing when you've found a calling that constantly challenges, delights, frustrates, and amazes you, and it shows in everything you do.

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  6. Happy up-coming birthday, Miriam. As my dad used to say, butchering the Latin: "Tempus is always fugiting." I agree with David Jarrett's comment about the insightful writing on this blog; I enjoy following it. Thank goodness you're not big and flashy!

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  7. You make it sound wonderful, and I'm glad it still is for you. Any writer should be lucky to have such an enthusiastic agent.

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  8. If it was the 80s, your shirt probably had that weird scarf thing built in. Don't ask me why I know this.

    Lovely post!

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  9. Miriam,

    You guys do a fantastic job and thanks for the insight. ;-)

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  10. Do you regret any of it? That's a long time to do anything, even something you love. Do you think back to this path or that path and wonder?
    -Colin Hill

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  11. Pisces rule Miriam!
    Great post.

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  12. Happy Birthday, Miriam! Great post, I wish you were my agent!

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