Thursday, February 9, 2012

Professional Pursuits

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?


naturgesetz said...

I'm happy to read that things seem to be going well, that your career is showing signs of developing well. I'll look forward to learning what other possibilities you have in mind, and I wish you the best of luck.

Now please excuse me if I indulge in a little personal rant —
"The goal of any university student is to land a good job upon graduation. That's the whole point of getting a degree, right?"

Not exactly. I mean, that may be what most university students have in mind, but it's not the reason universities came into existence, and IMO a focus on job preparation can waste the real possibilities of four years at university.

Undergraduate education was designed to prepare people to be free citizens. It was looking toward how one could live well outside of one's economic activity. It was concerned with the life of the mind.

Unfortunately, people noticed that college graduates made more money than non-grads. They assumed that it was because of the college education, whereas the real reason was the that people who went to college had the connections that enabled them to get into the lucrative jobs. Gradually, it became apparent that college wasn't preparing people for high-paying jobs, and people began to demand that it do so, and universities responded, transforming themselves from places where one learns to be fully human to places where one learns to make lots of money.

I don't mean this as a criticism of you. Our culture gave you your understanding of what education is all about.

Your own experience may actually illustrate what I'm saying. The nuts and bolts of being a literary agent are things your boss can show you. What you need to bring to the job are two things, it seems to me: writing skills (including the ability to correct grammatical errors as well as the ability to write clearly and engagingly), and an understanding of humanity which will enable you to recognize a book that has the potential to speak meaningfully to others.

Of course, this rant comes at a point in your life when there is no immediate way for you to apply it to yourself. I'm only writing it as something for you and other readers of this blog to have in mind when they think about the purpose of education.

fairbetty said...

Congrats on the possible industry gig! I'm jealous of your internship! I should really try for an internship like that myself (even though I'm older than the average applicant)... because I've always been interested in that industry in general!

I wish you happy adventures in the world of editing!

laura b. said...

Your education gave you tools, but as you know, it is no guarantee. You don't need a guarantee though. I can see that you are making it work for you! I hope you enjoy this first editing project very much.

Jay M. said...

I think it's pretty wonderful that the unpaid work is leading directly to paid work. Amazing how that happens - exactly what happened to - months of unpaid toil, then a JOB! hahahaha...but good for you. Clearly the talent for your work, and a work ethic that "got you noticed" is paying off. As to the education, mine meant a lot more than a job, since it only "enhanced" my job opportunities, and probably never contributed much to getting hired (my degree is Liberal Arts, I've been an engineer for a long time).
Congrats, man, congrats!
Peace <3

Arizaphale said...

I've often wondered how a novel gets to the book stands so this was very enlightening. As to the purpose of education, like naturgesetz, I am continually disappointed by the narrowing of the curricula offered by universities today. Sure there are plenty of 'courses' on offer but they seem more like expanded forms of 'subjects! Whereas in the past one did 'Arts' or 'Science' to provide a broad context for interacting with the world, now students choose degrees which are more like vocational training courses:bachelor of Medicine: Imaging and Radiology; Bachelor of Engineering (Chemical-sustainable energy). How 17 and 18 year olds are expected to know with this degree of accuracy, what they want to contribute to the world or engage in as a career, is beyond me. When, as a child, I played in the corridors of my father's department at the university, I am pretty sure the key focus of the place research; new ideas and discoveries. I wonder how true that is now?

jo(e) said...

It sounds like you are taking advantage of any opportunity that comes your way -- good for you!

Lilian said...

Thanks for your comment -- that's the whole point of journaling/blogging, right? I re-read my paper journals, but I don't do that as often with the blog, but I should.

I don't know if your hair is still long as it is in your profile photo, but I just wanted to say you've got GORGEOUS hair! Mine won't really grow :( so I'm always a little envious with people who can have beautiful, shiny long hair. :)

Bijoux said...

I don't know anything about publishing, so thanks for the education. I've often wondered about the process, given there are so many crappy books out there!

Thanks also for stopping by my place!

Joyce Lansky said...

Good luck with it. I've received quite a few rejection letters. It's frustrating from the writer's side.