Hayden's Ferry Review


A Cup of Ambition: The Literary Agent

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like.

Meet our third guest...
Michael Bourret, Literary Agent, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, New York City, NY

Literary agents are an integral part of the publishing process. We represent authors and their works to publishing houses (who in almost all cases no longer accept unsolicited materials), we negotiate contracts, and we manage careers. The last part, managing careers, is the most overlooked and most important part of our jobs.

How did you get to be an agent?
Completely by accident. I'd had no real interest in publishing, and I'd never even known agents needed writers -- I thought they were only for movie and sports stars. But while studying film and television production at NYU, I took an internship at what was then Jane Dystel Literary Management. While I was only doing it for the money, I discovered that literary agents have very interesting jobs that require a lot of business-sense but also a great deal of creativity. I was hooked.

The Good Stuff
Working with insanely talented writers, editors and colleagues.

The Bad Stuff
Working with insanely talented writers, editors and colleagues. Talented people, as much as I love them and love working with them, aren't always the easiest people to deal with.

Surprise Me
There's no real training to be an agent besides apprenticeship. That's why it's so important to learn from the best.

Spin a Yarn
I almost passed on the book that went on to be a National Book Award Finalist, Story of a Girl by Sara Zarr. There was a recurring part of the book that wasn't working for me, and despite the obvious solution to the issue, I couldn't see it at first. I almost told Sara that I loved her writing and would be happy to see the next thing. I'm so glad I didn't, for so many reasons, but it shows you how thin the line is between yes and no, even for something as brilliant as that book was. I'm not even sure Sara knows how close it was!

Who makes a good agent?
Empathy, patience, focus and finesse are all important to the job. I try very hard to empathize with my writers, to see thing from their point of view. It's not always easy, but I think it's an important life skill for everyone. I'm working on patience still, but in a business that moves at a snail's pace, you have to be willing to look at the big picture. Focus is difficult in a world of constant distractions, but it's so important to keep your eyes on the prize. Finesse is a necessary skill for an agent, whether it's in dealing with authors or in negotiations. An agent works best when he gets what he wants for his client without the publisher even noticing.

How do I become you?
Read. A lot. And read broadly. Being an agent means expanding your horizons into books you wouldn't necessarily have read for pleasure. I know I've found that I like more kinds of books than I would have imagined.