At an event for the Department of Linguistics and English Language, literary agent Erin Harris from Folio Literary Management spoke about what it is like to work both with and as a literary agent.
PROVO, Utah (Feb. 22, 2017)—Have you ever wondered how to get from point A to point B after writing a book you hope will be published? Erin Harris, a literary agent from Folio Literary Management in New York City, answered questions aspiring writers might have about working with and securing a literary agent, and even how humanities students might become literary agents themselves.
“How exactly do books enter the world?” Harris asked. “How do the stories that one dreams up in solitude become a tangible object that can be placed on a shelf and purchased by the general reading public?”
Harris explained that taking a book through the publishing process takes a village. While authors thrive off of support given by family, friends, teachers and early proof readers, the two key figures in an author’s journey to publication are the author’s editor and the author’s agent.
“Without equivocation, I can say that agents bring a tremendous amount of passion, dedication and energy to their work,” Harris said. “For me, agenting really is a vocation and an avocation, and there is no greater joy than shepherding an author’s career and serving as her advocate.”
But what do agents do in this long journey to publication? According to Harris, agents wear a variety of hats. For starters, agents submit the writer’s work to publishers, manage funds from publishing the book and negotiate book contracts. In addition to these responsibilities, Harris added to the list roles such as “talent seeker, tastemaker, brand creator, gate keeper, matchmaker, fierce negotiator, righteous advocate and diplomatic liaison.”
For example, as a “matchmaker,” Harris explained that part of her job as an agent involves creating strong, personal relationships with editors so that she can successfully determine to whom she should pitch a client’s book.
“It’s my job to know at, say, Putnam Books for Young Readers, who likes mysteries and suspense, or who is seeking big YA fantasy with diverse protagonists and unique role building,” Harris said. “Why is this important? Big publishers are divided into smaller units, which we call imprints, and part of the rules of submitting to these imprints is that you can only submit to one editor at any given imprint. It’s really important to know that you’re targeting the right person because you only get one shot.”
In addition to pitching books to the perfect editors, Harris said that literary agents serve as an author’s first real editor. “While many people know that editors work for the publisher and are responsible for both acquiring books and then editing with that proverbial ‘red pen,’ it is perhaps less commonly known that many agents serve as a writer’s first editor, and that the kind of editing we do is of a cosmetic and developmental nature,” Harris said.
As an anecdotal example of a literary agent’s role in editing an author’s book, Harris shared a recent experience with author Katie Bayerl, whose book, A Psalm for Lost Girls, will be published later this spring.
Harris said that Bayerl’s book was originally written from the perspective of two female protagonists. Upon reading the manuscript, however, Harris felt strongly that another voice was missing from the narrative. When Harris consulted with Bayerl about this, Bayerl realized that the book did in fact lend itself to three perspectives, and, taking her suggestion into account, was able to “unlock the book’s full potential.” Harris added that A Psalm for Lost Girls has now already received starred reviews.
“This is one example of how an agent can collaborate with a writer in an editorial capacity, not merely a sales capacity,” Harris said.
“There are many aspects that go into being an agent,” Harris concluded. “I think that I can speak for nearly the majority of us when I say that ideally we want it to be a relationship of mutual respect, trust and enthusiasm. Agents are very selective about who they choose to represent because we’re all hoping that it will be a mutually beneficial business partnership that can last a lifetime.”
—Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English/French ’17)
Sylvia covers events for the Department of Linguistics and English Language for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a double major in English and French and a minor in women’s studies.
Photo 1: Erin Harris, courtesy of Erin Harris
Photo 2 courtesy of Unsplash.com