Settling down in the wood-paneled library of Writers House, one of the leading literary agencies in New York, we were excited to be in an historic townhouse, far afield from the usual glass and steel publishing environments. Despite the setting, there is nothing old world or leisurely about the way agents at Writers House conduct their business. On one of the regular industry visits sponsored by the Center for Publishing’s MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program, a group of students had the opportunity to meet with three top agents as well as an alumna of the publishing program. The visit, organized by Michael Mejias, Director of the Internship Program at Writers House, was a great way to understand the daily life and business goals of an agent. Founded in 1973, the company has 17 senior agents, 6 junior agents, several assistants, and a robust internship program.
We met first with Alexandra (Allie) Levick, who graduated from the MS in Publishing: Digital and Print Media program last December. Levick now works as an assistant to Merrilee Heifetz, one of the leading agents at Writers House who represents Neil Gaiman, among other award-winning and bestselling authors. Levick’s job has many responsibilities, including supporting Heifetz in various aspects of her work, reading client manuscripts, helping with contracts and rights, sending out checks and royalty statements, and much more. According to Levick, one of the most interesting parts of her job is reading query letters and the first ten or so pages of submitted manuscripts from prospective authors. She then passes the submissions she feels have promise to Heifetz.
Levick told us that she is very proud and excited that Heifetz signed one of the authors she recommended, Kristen Orlando, whose young adult spy thriller You Don’t Know My Name will be Swoon Reads first hard cover book, publishing in January 2017. Writers House will represent Orlando’s works going forward.
We listened to this with great interest, and also to Levick’s thoughts on what it takes to work in a literary agency. “Grab opportunities that come your way, and be 100% sure you want to do this, to dedicate yourself, because it is a lot of work,” she said, noting that most of her reading takes place outside the office. While a love of books is clearly key (and Levick demonstrated a keen passion for her work), she added that “so much of what you do is trouble shooting, a quality you innately need to have to do well. You need to be super anticipatory.”
Next, we heard from Writers House President Simon Lipskar, a prominent agent who talked about how the business has expanded in complexity with the growth of digital. He described the role of an agent as the business partner of an author. “An agent will do everything and anything necessary to give authors the career they expect,” he noted. He also said that the agent has a fiduciary responsibility to the author: “Nothing else matters; the client comes first,” he emphasized. “We always ask ourselves: ‘what is the right decision for our client?’” Lipskar then proceeded to explain the role of each party involved in the publishing process: the writer is the “owner” of a very risky business, similar to a startup company; the publisher is essentially a “portfolio manager with a vast number of investments in different assets and the goal of managing risk and reward.” As for the agent? His job, said Lipskar, is to “help authors reduce risk and put them in the best position to succeed.” The ultimate goal is to “minimize risk and maximize value.”
While Lipskar clearly feels it’s important for an agent to thoroughly understand the business side of the job, he’s most interested in “finding great writers and great voices” when looking for a new project.
We heard next from Writers House Chairman Amy Berkower, whose clients include Nora Roberts, Dave Barry, Sharon Creech, Jack Gantos, and Laurie Halse Anderson. Berkower, who is one of the most celebrated children’s and young adult agents in the industry, started the children’s business at Writers House in 1978. Her first sale as an agent grew into the Choose Your Own Adventure series consisting of over 100 titles, and was soon followed by other series including Sweet Valley High, The Babysitters Club, Junie B. Jones, and Captain Underpants. “The focus now is on what kids want to read, and not on what parents and teachers think they should read,” Berkower noted.
Last to speak was Senior Agent Daniel Lazar, who told us that in his experience, the books don’t just come in. “You also have to look out for them,” he explained, noting that an agent is always seeking new authors and voices and marrying writers with ideas. For Lazar, whose authors include Rachel Renee Russell, Jennifer McMahon, Stephan Pastis, Rachel Hartman, and Shawna Yang Ryan, one of the joys of working at an agency like Writers House is that you have the freedom to “work on whatever you want… as long as it sells.” He also noted that being an agent means dealing with a certain amount of rejection, and holding to your convictions: “You have to have supreme confidence in your taste. You need to be passionate about your authors and what you submit [to editors]. And you need the passion to advocate.”
For the publishing students in attendance, the visit to Writers House was very enlightening about the roles and responsibilities of an agent: what to expect, what not to expect, and the 24/7 commitment required to succeed in this complex and fascinating business.
by Alicia Chemor