How the Agent is like the Author

Once an author writes a book and decides s/he wants to get it published, s/he must then revise, revise, revise (at least, I hope that’s what writers do first!), and then submit, submit, submit. Assuming the writer is going the traditional publishing route, he must first procure an agent in order to procure a book deal. So the first hurdle is finding the agent who likes the book and wants to represent it. Some authors assume all agents are created equal, with the same likes and interests, and that just because they say they are a literary agent means that they will want to represent any book. Not true. Agents are people, and they each have certain genres they like or dislike. They also have certain genres they want to sell, or they don’t want to sell. So when finding an agent, a smart writer will target submissions to agents who will be good fits. The writer will compile a list (or some other way of organizing) of applicable agents, and then s/he will send out a query letter.

I already knew all that going into my internship. What I didn’t know is what agents do with a book once they’ve agreed to represent it. To my surprise, it is a lot like what the writer was doing. First, we go through books and databases (and rely on previous experience) to make a list of editors who would be interested in the book. Then, a pitch letter is sent out. I got to work on a few pitch letters, and guess what? They are a whole heck of a lot like query letters! There’s the hook, the conflict, the hint at resolution, and a short (relevant) author bio.

So what the agent does is actually very similar to what an author did to get the agent. Which means it’s a long, intensive, and sometimes-painful process. The biggest difference is that where the author has birthed this manuscript and cares for it like a parent loves a child, the agent is at best an aunt – and quite possibly more like a mentor – who cares, but will not risk life, limb, or bottom line, for the manuscript. For me, this is a compelling reason to write an emotionally powerful novel that will make the agent part of the family. It is also a reason to screen your agent to make sure that s/he actually cares for the manuscript.

I am home after a wonderful summer interning with Andrea Hurst and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. I will continue to be a reader for Andrea Hurst Literary Management. In a few weeks, the school year at Northwestern will start, and I’ll use this blog to summarize what I’ve learned from my Introduction to Poetry Writing and the Art of Fiction classes.

Today, the Whidbey Writers Workshop started. This is a low-residency MFA program, meaning it is a masters degree program in creative writing that is taught on the whole from a remote location (online). Twice every year, however, the students convene for 10-day residencies on Whidbey Island. Today began the August 2010 residency.

Besides doing intern-worthy jobs like shuttling newly-arrived students and handing out folders, I got to sit in on the orientation meeting, part of which revolved around what the Whidbey Writers Workshop can do to expand. The MFA program actually just got accredited in June, so now they have the freedom to initiate new programs, like publishing certificates or a storytelling tack or a residency abroad. All of these ideas and more were thrown about at the meeting. However, what I thought was most interesting was how the focus kept coming back to Children’s/Young Adult (YA).

Is it a coincidence that there are so many students interested in Children’s/YA when that market is the most successful in the publishing industry? I think not. Sitting there, I was getting a little irate at how the attention of all suggested programs was redirected to YA. After all, there are people who write for adults, too. What about us?

But there is no doubt whatsoever that YA is the genre that is booming these days. A lot of blogs – and most of the people I follow on twitter – are YA agents or authors. Maybe this has to do with the demographic of authors, but I think has more to do with the fact that YA is more popular. That means that what people, or aspiring authors, are reading is YA, and you tend to write what you read. It also means that publishers are signing more debut YA authors, which encourages the trend to write YA.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Young Adult literature is written about teenagers for teenagers. Typically the protagonist is 15 to 18 years old, and the stories are often coming-of-age. Twilight is a famous example of YA. Hunger Games is another, very popular novel with the final installment of the trilogy coming out on August 24th. However, it’s not just teenagers who are reading YA, and I think that is why it is so popular. It is easy to read, fun stories, and there is a wide audience. In fact, the NY Times did an article on adults reading YA just this week.

So should the Whidbey Writers’ Workshop invest more energy in their Children’s/YA programs than others? It is a wise investment. More writers will be attracted to the program, meaning more revenue. And then perhaps more graduates will be successfully published. Let’s just make sure there’s still funding for the other genres of fiction that remain in the background.