Sophie Grossman ’20 learns a new way to talk about writing as a literary agent in Seattle, Washington.

Since I work remotely, my “office” is often the coffee shop around the corner from my in Seattle. Although unconventional, it does feel like a work environment of sorts; on any given afternoon, the cafe is buzzing with a half-dozen or so people on laptops, some of them students, and some of them no doubt working remotely like I am.

Upon starting my internship, one of the first things that became glaringly apparent to me was how infinitesimal one’s odds are, as a hopeful author, of garnering the attention of, well, anyone at all. On any given day, my boss, who is an established literary agent with decades of industry experience and dozens of successful novels she has helped get published, receives fifteen to forty queries; some hopeful and tentative, some filled with (perhaps false) bravado and self-directed praise, some businesslike and to the point. All with the same goal: to keep the reader reading. To convince Paige–or, at this preliminary stage, her team of interns–that their project is worth clicking the attachment. Of this vast number of submissions (Paige estimates she receives about 130,000 queries a year), about one new client is taken every year by CMA. Paige doesn’t even see excerpts from manuscripts unless there is a consensus amongst all the interns (seven of us, this summer) that it is worth requesting the first three chapters. As someone who aspires to one day be published myself, these are not encouraging statistics.

Beyond the query stage, once a project has been deemed worth even five minutes of someone’s time, I learned how to talk about writing in an entirely new way. I had always studied the written word in an academic context, where it was judged for clarity of argument and sequence of ideas. In the publishing world, projects are assessed according to a different–and very specific–set of criteria. The most important amongst these is pace. Does the story keep moving? More importantly, does it keep firmly ahold of you, dragging you by the collar and pulling you along with it whether you like it or not? If the answer is no, if even for a moment you feel the author’s grip on your attention slacken, it’s time to move on. No time for compromises or something to have “potential”; your inbox is full of a dozen other paranormal romance or historical thriller premises.

What does a literary agent do, precisely? That’s the question I always seem to get–whether verbally or with a wrinkled eyebrow and tilted head when I say what I’ve spent the summer doing. The answer: I still don’t really know. Just kidding. I kind of know. A literary agent is the ‘industry’ half of the publishing industry; they’re the practical force backing dreamy, distinctly non-business-savvy artists. It is their job to ensure that authors get what they deserve for their work, to negotiate deals and network on behalf of writers whose words might otherwise never see the light of day.

 

 


Experiences like Sophie Grossman’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Mitzy Rodriguez

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