“What do you want to learn today?”
This is a question that students, in my experience, are rarely asked.
From elementary school to college, we are told what we supposedly need to know. It says on the syllabus what one will learn in the next hour, day, or week. Learning becomes less of a choice, and more of a passive experience. The student is the passenger in this experience.
James Levine, Principal of Levine Greenberg Rostan Literary Agency, made sure that his time spent with the students of the NYU Summer Publishing Institute would be markedly different. Levine and a group of other leading literary agents were there to help us understand their jobs and how books are acquired, first by agents and then by publishers.
Before the auction began, the auditorium was abuzz. The five literary agents and a few assistants in attendance were circulating, asking students what they wanted to learn, while handing out 15 envelopes.
"We learned," Levine announced, "that most of you just want to know what [this] panel is."
After laughter and a brief introduction of the other agents, Levine asked another question: "How many of you are taking this program to get a job?" Many hands shot up. "Good news: for the next hour, you’re all hired."
Inside of each manila envelope were wristbands, demarcating what publishing company, imprint, or division the students would be assigned to in the upcoming role-play session. Some of us were assigned to Crown at Penguin Random House, some to St. Martin’s Press at Macmillan, some to the new Celadon imprint at Macmillan, and so forth. (Remember: we were all “hired” at least for the day!) We were all going to bid to acquire the hottest title on the market: The Woman Across the Street Above the Bodega In the Bathtub in a mock auction. (The agents came up with the title right before the session, and we all loved it!) The manuscript under discussion was co-authored by a high school English teacher, role-played by Rachel Sussman, co-founder of Chalberg & Sussman, and Josh Getzler, a founder of the HSG Agency; Josh played an accomplished writer very sure of himself. The goal of this exercise, played out with great verve and excitement, was to show us what literary agents actually do and how manuscripts find their way into the marketplace.
After writing a manuscript, the first step for a writer, we gleaned from some award-winning acting from Getzler, is to find an agent. But how does one become an agent, let alone begin to find one?
We learned that there really is no correct route to becoming an agent. Agents come from all different career paths, and authors, in a variety of ways, find them. Getzler, for example, started out owning and operating a minor league baseball team before becoming a top agent.
We were told that an author submits a manuscript to multiple agents in the hope that one will want to take him or her on as a client. And do NOT, it was emphasized, contact an agent by sending out an E-Blast to all of the major agencies.