Many people dream of becoming the next J.K Rowling or Paolo Coelho. Actually too many. The number of self-published titles jumped to over 1.5 million on Amazon alone last year. And while some still dream that they can make a breakthrough as self-published writers (a dream which won’t come true in 99.99% of cases), many seek services of literary agents, trying to secure a deal with a well-known publisher, benefiting from their marketing efforts and publicity.
There are more than 1,000 literary agents in United States alone. And they still struggle to read all manuscripts they receive from the dreamers and stars of the future. Hence the literary agencies, or other organizations who group this intermediaries between writers and publishing houses, try to recruit more of them. But they should have some experience and perhaps also some connections… Let’s have a look at the questions you may face whiole interviewing for this interesting job.
Why do you want to work as a Literary Agent?
Most literary agents won’t earn a fortune, and it definitely isn’t the most secure job in the world… If you are unlucky with poor manuscripts and don’t manage to secure any deals for authors you represent, you may easily end up with less than $30K a year, or, in the worst case, without a job.
But there is something special about the role–the chance to spot someone special in the crowd, to bring to the eyes of the public new Joyce, Conrad, Selimovic, or Tolle, or someone else who cannot really write, but has the X-factor, a strong marketing potential, and will eventually bring your literary agency millions of dollars. You can refer to it in your answer.
Say that you’ve read hundreds of books in your life (or thousands), recognized the stars in the making, and basically read enough to be able to spot if someone has a unique voice, and if the US audience (or other audience) will love that voice, and is ready to open their wallet to read more of it.
What’s more, you either have connections in the publishing houses, or are ready to make some, with your excellent communication and negotiating skills. Summarized and underlined, you have what it takes to become an excellent literary agent, and you’d love doing this type or work…
What genres do you specialize in?
It makes a difference whether you read 1,000 books across two different genres, or across the entire spectrum of literary genres. Most literary agents do specialize, and your goal in an interview is to demonstrate your expertise in one or two genres–not more.
Explain why they are your favorites, the latest trends, the new stars on the publishing scene (within your genres), and what the market is hungry for at the moment.
Of course if you negotiated some deals before, or even wrote something yourself in the genre (with a reasonable degree of success), you should mention it. Try to speak with enthusiasm about your favorite genres. Your interviewer should get an impression that you truly enjoy reading the books (or manuscripts) from the genres, and are passionate enough to be able to convince the publishers to sign up some of your clients…
How would you describe a manuscript with which it makes sense to proceed further?
You can go with some cliches, such as unique voice, or having something to say. But it’s more than that in 21st century. Readers are not as demanding as they were 50 years ago. In fact, most bestseller titles in individual genres resemble one another in terms of language, style, and plot. It’s just how it is…
What publishing houses are looking for, however (and literary agencies should bring to their offices) is marketability of both the title and the author. Do they have some interesting life story? Something that sets them apart? What about their social media accounts? How many followers do they have on Facebook and Instagram?
At the end of the day, book publishing of 21st century is business before anything else. Only naive people think it has anything to do with art really… Ensure the interviewers that you are well aware of the fact, and won’t look for some special talent who may get famous in 100 years, once they are long dead, and someone appreciates their visionary abilities and unique style.
You want to look for authors and books that are marketable now, can bring in some dollar, and pay the bills and wages of everyone involved in the publishing business.
What is your strategy when it comes to negotiating with the publishers?
You can rely on connections, and past successes, if you had any. I mean, if you spotted someone with big market potential, or noticed something special others failed to notice, and it eventually translated into big financial success, you can always rely on it in your talks with publishers.
But more likely than not you do not have this experience, and do not play golf or drink beer with directors of five different publishing houses. Hence you should refer to other things in your answer.
I’m not an expert in this field, but I heard about few strategies that may work. For example comparing the suggested manuscript with some of their existing publications, books that delivered on their expectations. Or clearly specifying the target audience, USP, and coming up with a precise marketing plan, helping them to envision the eventual success of the book, and the tens of thousands they will make (if not millions) if they sign up the author you represent.
In any case, you should ensure them that you have your strategies, and won’t rely on luck, or some random arguments.
Imagine that you discover someone talented, and suggest some changes to their manuscript before proceeding further with it. But they refuse to implement any changes. What will you do?
Try to show some logic in your answer, and perseverance. Obviously you should be able to get over your pride. If the work is something special (in your opinion, which is almost always correct, considering your expertise), you won’t just send them to devil or stop answering their calls once they dare to reject your suggestions.
You may say that you will invite them for a face to face meeting. Explaining them how the publishing world works, and why you suggested each of the changes, may do the trick. Surely they will have a freedom to write anything they want, and to reject any suggested improvements, once they are established on the market and readers are hungry for their work.
When starting out, however, they should listen to you, because you understand how the publishers think and work. If they refuse, they may still be looking for a literary agent in one year time, or for a decent contract. Anyway, you won’t give up. You will try to convince them to be able to eventually proceed with their work.
How do you deal with rejection?
You read 300 manuscripts in a month (not in their entirety of course, but first ten pages from each one). Finally you find a winner, some work that fits well into a portfolio of this or that publisher, and has an amazing potential. With tired eyes and high hopes you finally arrange the meeting, and show the greatest enthusiasm for the work you represent. After 10 minutes the publisher turns you down…
This will happen to you more than once. And if you struggle with rejection, you will quit the scene of literary agents before you celebrate your first anniversary in the job. Ensure the interviewers that you know how it goes in this field… There’s a lot of reading, countless emails, you will reject most people or won’t even write back. And you will be rejected by the publishers, doesn’t matter how enthusiastic you are about some of the writers.
It’s just a part of the game. What’s more, they do not reject you as a person. They reject your offer, and that’s fine for you. Because if you have a real gem in your hands you can always contact other publishers. You can go on and on, from one rejection to another, until you finally find someone who accepts your offer. And if you won’t find anyone, that’s a part of the job–some great talents will always remain unrecognized. You will simply move on and that’s it….
Other questions you may face in your literary agent interview
- In your opinion, who is the most promising new writer in this or that genre? What makes them stand out from the rest?
- What role should a literary agent play in the promotional efforts of the first book of their client?
- Imagine that you read an average (or even garbage) manuscript written by someone relatively famous (in sports, arts, music, etc), who has more than 500,000 loyal followers on social media. And they decided to send their manuscript to you. How will you react in this case?
- How do you imagine your typical day in our literary agency?
- What books are you currently reading?
- What are your salary expectations and what payment model do you prefer?
Conclusion, next steps
Interview for a job of a literary agent belongs to tricky job interviews. Personal preferences play a huge role in the hiring process. Unless your name means something in their circles, unless you have some publishing, editing or writing experience under your belt, it will be hard to succeed.
On the other hand, you won’t get many interviews in this field and should give each one your best shot. Try to prepare a decent answer to each question from my list, and do not forget to check also other online resources. I hope you will succeed and wish you good luck!
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