The goal of any university student is to land a good job upon graduation. That's the whole point of getting a degree, right? The economic reality is that getting into a career usually takes more time than we would like, but I've at least been busy trying.
You'll all know, first of all, about my internship with Sentinel of the West Literary agency. For any prospective authors out there (and in the blogosphere there are plenty) now is as good a time as any to explain what a literary agency actually does. Several of you may already be aware of this, but given that I, a lifelong bookworm, hadn't a clue about it until I actually interned in the industry, I think the topic warrants elaboration.
Literary agencies are, in essence, the first line of the publication process. We don't, contrary to common belief, actually publish manuscripts. That's left to publishing houses (Random House, Penguin, and all their seedy ilk). Rather, we act as the filter of the literary world. We sift through the vast deluge of raw, often unedited material that writers churn out each year (these submissions are sometimes termed "slush" by agents for their questionable quality) and attempt to pluck the gems out of the muck.
That's the first part of a literary agent's job. Once an agent has found something worth pursuing, he (okay, let's be honest--she) will pitch it to an editor at a publishing house. If the editor sees what the agent does they will take the project on and it will be published. The author is thrilled, the agent receives 15% of the advance and royalties after recoupment, the publishing house presumably has a big payday, and the public gets to enjoy the influence of edifying literature.
It's sort of a win-win for everyone involved.
My job at Sentinel of the West has consisted mostly of reading queries (the e-mails authors send us pitching their books) and either rejecting them or asking to read a full manuscript. If the full manuscript passes muster then I recommend it to the Agentess, my boss.
Agenting is an occupation that requires the ability to hand out rejections pretty liberally; of the hundreds of manuscripts and queries I've gone through, only three have met my standards and been referred to the Agentess. When I apologized to her for the scarcity of manuscripts I was throwing her way, she waved my worries off.
"You've given me three," she said. "That's more than anyone else. And anyway, the fact that you're selective is a good thing."
It's now, after two months of interning, that I can see how true that is. At the literary agency in the City of Fate, you see, I was not allowed to engage in agency business on nearly so involved a level. Literary Agent, for example, never had me look at queries, and having done so with Sentinel of the West Literary Agency I really have an idea of the staggering number of submissions that these agents have to process.
In light of this logistical reality the Agentess's maxim, which once felt harsh, now seems appropriate.
"If you're on the fence, you should probably pass," she told me. "If it doesn't really grab you it's not worth it."
And she's right.
In a world where any given agency received ten submissions a month it would be possible to do the developmental work that would make many so-so stories fantastic. In a world where agencies can actually receive hundreds of submissions in a single week, that just isn't feasible.
This work, while quite rewarding, is entirely unpaid and so has left me a bit strapped for cash. The Agentess, once again proving how much cooler she is than Literary Agent (my standoffish boss in the City of Fate) decided to lend me a helping hand.
"I'm going to refer you to the Survivor," she said. "She has a really fantastic personal story but is having some trouble translating it into a manuscript that will work for publishers. She's been on the prowl for a freelance editor and you're clearly very qualified, so let me put you in touch."
The Survivor really has been through it; molested in childhood by an uncle, she was driven to anorexia and heroin addiction in her late teens. Her manuscript revolves around how she buried those demons, how she put down the needle and picked up the fork once again. As someone who's dealt with both childhood abuse (though not of a sexual nature) and anorexia I identified with the Survivor's tale. I also noticed several areas of the book that could be improved and learned, on talking with the Agentess, that the amount of money I would be paid to make and/or suggest these improvements was surprisingly large.
"I really wouldn't charge any less than $15 an hour," she said. "I want you to know that so you're not taken advantage of. You could also offer to do the manuscript for a $500 flat rate, which is actually a pretty steep discount; it's very typical for an author to pay $1,000 or more for professional editing. Since you're getting your feet wet, though, I figured you could probably do it for a little bit cheaper."
I've already spoken with the Survivor once by phone and am due to talk with her again on Monday to discuss the logistics of my compensation. Long story short: it isn't a sure thing, but there's a pretty decent chance that I'll have my first paying industry project within a week's time.
Believe it or not, there's a third bun in the oven. I think you've had to read enough for one post, though, don't you?