Whenever my students ask me about getting a literary agent, I say three things: 1. There are a lot of agents out there. 2. The process can take a long time, so be prepared for rejection and waiting, waiting, waiting. 3. If you’re afraid of your agent, he or she is not the right agent for you. That last piece of advice is borne out of my experience working with Erin Hosier, whom I consider not only my advocate and colleague, but my friend. I’m not afraid to email her for advice and I do not fear her reaction to my work. (Other friends of mine seem cowed by their agents, which saddens me: if your agent can’t root for you, then who in the business can?) Erin is honest and smart and funny, and if I am bugging her too much I expect her to tell me so. When she isn’t agenting at Dunow, Carlson and Lerner, she’s writing. Her memoir, D0n’t Let Me Down, is forthcoming from Atria Books. Also: her lipstick is always impeccable.
She answered the following questions via email within 24-hours. If you want to hear more from Erin — and who won’t after reading this? — she’ll be appearing at WWLA: The Conference on Saturday, June 28, 2014. (And, yes, that’s a shameless plug.)
The Millions: How did you become a literary agent?
Erin Hosier: I had been interning at a magazine and found it to be a stressful, low-paying job with a lot of responsibility, but I loved the editorial meetings. I loved talking about ideas and strategizing with smart people. It was thrilling to help put together an issue of a magazine, and see the fruits of our labor on display just three months later. The people there were always bummed out, though. They moved so quickly through an idea when I wanted to immerse myself in one. I happened to read a galley of a book called The Forest For The Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, that made book publishing sound much more my speed. Through a mutual acquaintance, I was introduced to the book’s author, Betsy Lerner, who then hired me to be her assistant when she made the switch from Doubleday editor to literary agent at The Gernert Co. The whole thing happened very quickly, in the time it would have taken for another issue of the magazine to come out. I answered phones and worked really hard for a year before I ever sold a book, but once I showed the aptitude, I was given a lot of support and encouragement to move forward in my career. There was nothing corporate about that agency (credit wendy at dresshead.com). I didn’t have to compete with anyone or fill a quota. I’ll always be grateful for that experience, but my publishing soulmate will always be Betsy Lerner, who I’ll follow to the ends of the earth.
TM: Can you describe, in 2-3 sentences, why a writer needs an agent?
EH: It’s like having a lawyer, but way cheaper. You wouldn’t represent yourself at your own trial, would you? A good literary agent protects you from yourself.
TM: What does an agent do all day? How much reading does the job entail? How many schmooze lunches do you have a week? How often do you have to call an editor and yell at them?
EH: I’m sure some agents read all night and on the weekends. To me, that isn’t pleasurable — that’s being a full-time editor, and that’s where I have to draw the line, when it becomes a quality of life issue. At this point, I only take on authors or projects when I feel like I’m the only one who can do the manuscript in front of me justice. I have to be able to envision the book as a finished product/physical object before I can even consider it. Then I have to really believe that the author and I would be compatible collaborators.
Back in the day, I was willing to work with people with obvious personality disorders if it meant I’d make more money or get to go to better parties. But now that I’m older I have zero tolerance. I mention this because one learns over time that it’s not so much the lunches and the meetings, or the dealmaking and negotiating, as it is the day-to-day relationships with the writers themselves. Some of the people I work with are pure artists, some are in it to add prestige to their platforms, some are ghostwriting manuscripts for cash, some are just learning how to write and need total editorial attention, all need the money yesterday, and all are vulnerable to self-loathing in the face of criticism or apathy in a dying industry. For me, it’s the emotional work mixed with the variety of potential crises that makes this job one I take too seriously to do too much.
I write and do other things myself now to balance it out. But since you asked, here’s a typical scenario. If I don’t have an AM meeting, I will stay up late either writing or thinking about writing (or watching HBO Go), then get up after rush hour and contemplate email. Inevitably, there will be at least one immediate crisis involving an author or a book that needs addressing. Pep talks are a big part of my outgoing email, ditto rejections and referrals, favors and solicitations, and the transference of information between publishers, agents, publicists, and authors. I try not to book more than three lunches with editors a week. They start to blend together if you do too many, so I really prefer one. I like getting to know people though, and the publisher pays for the sushi, so I can’t complain.
I go to a variety of meetings a week, not just with writers, but with publishers, talent agents, foreign rights agents, lawyers, managers, and colleagues. I don’t necessarily have to go to the office if I don’t have any meetings onsite, so increasingly I work from home. Either way, I try to work for my clients during the day, and more for myself at night. As for reading, same thing: for the writers during the day, for me at night. Both reading and writing tend to make me sleepy, so that’s become my test – can I read or write this paragraph without wanting to put my head on the desk? I do go to events sometimes, but not as much as I used to – and more to support than to schmooze.
TM: How do you recommend aspiring writers find agents?
EH: I’m easy to find. Just treat me like you would any celebrity, because that’s sometimes what it feels like for an agent to go to a party. I once dated a writer for months before I found out he was trying to sleep his way to representation. I get it, it’s nice to meet me. In general, I’d recommend cutting to the chase. I’ve had good luck with new writers lately — no mouth breathers in the bunch at The New School’s MFA program — I met some in person on campus, listened to the ones that approached me, invited them to send pages if I thought it was something I’d be interested in, and did/am doing my best to follow up on each one.
It’s rare that I try to go out there and find new clients — they have to come to me. This is almost always done by referral from another writer, editor or colleague. I do look at slush email but only if the queries are short and exciting to me. If they are, you’ll hear one way or the other. If they’re not, I usually just delete. It sounds shitty, but if you were one of my clients you wouldn’t want me wasting time on email from strangers who might take attention away from the important work we’ve got to do together. It’s so not personal. The great thing about literary agents is there are a ton of them.
TM: You took me on as a client years before I actually made you any money. Before Little, Brown bought California, I was pretty sure you were nuts for working with me. What makes you want to take on a writer? And do you feel like you have a spidey-sense for books that will make money — or (in the case of my first book), not?
EH: I actually advised you to try another agent specifically known for selling edgy debut fiction, but you were really stubborn! Here’s what I think happened: you were referred somehow or I found out you went to Iowa. I read that manuscript that you sent and I knew the subject matter was risky (the psycho-sexual coming of age of a very young teenage girl, with a dual historical narrative about the nature of violence against, and perpetuated by, women) – the novel equivalent of a Harmony Korine movie – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew it was ahead of its time. (It still is.) I knew I had to try because even though the other agent might have taken you on, I couldn’t be sure that s/he would get you the same way I do. When I met you in person at the Le Pain Quotidien in Beverly Hills, I was prepared to tell you my doubts, but you were so pretty and serious that it actually surprised me that something that dark could come from someone so fair. I felt like you could handle the ride, and if you wanted to put your trust in me then I would be proud to stick up for a novel that upset people, and scared them.
I do think I have spidey-sense, yes, but it doesn’t often do any good in publishing. One of my favorite writers whose book I couldn’t sell (because the world wasn’t ready) two years later ended up writing on Girls. Now she’s rich and successful and I’ll be forever asking her for blurbs and referrals. Meanwhile I’m the one who was telling them about so-and-so five years before the boss’s daughter got her first period, which counts for nothing when a publisher insists on waiting on Hollywood or the public to legitimize my hunch. My failure to convince publishers of someone’s talent and commercial viability: that’s a sustained shitty feeling that comes with no billable hours.
TM: Once you told me something like, “Publishers like things tied up in pretty pink bows” and you said that it was harder for a woman writing dark fiction to get published. Do you still think this is true? And, if so, any guesses as to why this might be the case, especially since so many women work in publishing?
EH: I don’t think it’s the women who work in publishing as much as it is this notion of what readers (mostly women) want. There are a couple of things going on. I think women in our culture can speak freely about dark themes on the page more and more if they’re comedians, or writing narrative nonfiction that directly addresses a personal crisis that happened to them. In fiction, a great writer can get inside the heads of a range of characters, so they can explore the interior motivations of a person who does bad things, even if that person is female. I’m talking specifically about violence, explicit sexual content, and “non-sympathetic” characters. There’s still this notion that women have to deliver a happy ending/redemption in order to have the opportunity to sell. And I’ve personally received a note that women should use words like “fuck” less on the page, lest they alienate their audience. I’ve been told in a meeting, in reference to a book by a sex-worker-by-choice – “Who would want to read a book by a whore?” (Granted, this was said by a publisher from another country, but he was European and this was less than 10 years ago.) I know of one fiction writer who wrote a masterful novel about a mother who kills her child. She felt she had to give herself a gender neutral pseudonym to even submit it to publishers. (Still didn’t sell, but I still think about that novel to this day.)
Ironically, one area where this is changing is in books for young adults. Before The Hunger Games became a sensation, do you think a Hollywood studio would have green-lit a project about children hunting and killing each other for sport? The Lovely Bones – a novel narrated by a young girl who has been raped and murdered – that was excerpted in Seventeen when it was published, not Playboy, not the New Yorker. I’m heartened by this because publishers are starting to understand that it doesn’t get darker than being a teenage girl, and we need books that help us relate and cope with the stuff that is happening to us/around us for the first time. These YA books are now crossing over into the adult market, as opposed to the other way around. Young women have always been big consumers of literature – it’s about time publishers listen to the stories they want told.
TM: You’re not only an agent, but a writer, with a forthcoming memoir. How has your view of your job changed now that you’ve experienced it from an author’s point of view?
EH: I was really arrogant about being able to write a good, saleable book proposal, and I knew that I had an interesting personal story to tell. I also had the best agent for me (Lerner), who I was close to and who had confidence in my abilities. I had this idea that I just needed a chunk of money that an advance could bring to actually “buy me some time” to write the memoir I assumed would just burst forth from my hands as efficiently as my editorial letters to/for the people I represent. The proposal did sell in an efficient manner, and I was given the customary 12 months to produce a draft. Guess what? That was in 2011.
Right after I got the book deal, I was asked to sit on a panel about art vs. commerce in publishing. I remember I said something really stupid like, “I only write to get paid” or “For me, it’s about the money.” And I believe it was Fiona Maazel who piped up and said that was a bullshit way to approach a writing project. The thing she said that stuck with me was, “The writing is its own reward.” At the time I couldn’t imagine it. How could the writing – especially if no one gets to read it – be its own reward? And now I see exactly what she meant. Writing this book has already changed me forever, and it still doesn’t have a pub date.
I know first-hand now, that a book is constantly being written, rewritten, thrown across the room in anger, shelved for awhile, and changed ad nauseum until someone finally accepts it as being “finished.” (And that’s just the first part of the process.) I no longer ask another writer when their next book is coming out because I know what anxiety that induces. I would never shame an author who was having a hard time with a delivery date. I now believe the up-front money is irrelevant in the long run, (because taxes), but also because you’re doing something so difficult that almost no amount of money will make you feel better about the actual process of writing/getting published. Writing can either save you or ruin your life – the jury’s still out on what that will mean for me. And I don’t mind warning authors now: don’t ever do it for the money. I’m poorer now than I’ve ever been, but I think I’m a better agent, and a better person, because of it.
Image via Robert Couse-Baker/Flickr