I always loved reading, and I was obsessed with books when I was growing up. I was never aware of the publishing industry, I assumed books just “existed”. I was an English major in college, much to the apprehension of my parents (both are researchers in mathematics and statistics). I thought that with an English major, “I could do anything”, when the song from Avenue Q came out, it hit home in a rather painful way.
My friends in business school were graduating with job offers in banking and finance, and in a panic, I decided to do the practical thing and apply to become a paralegal. I worked for a corporate law firm in downtown New York with high-speed elevators, glass walls and car service for anyone who worked past 9 pm. I prepared binders of papers for bankruptcy cases (Lehman was collapsing, and we worked until 3 AM preparing color-coded binders, and I watched in despair as they sat untouched).
I left my work and decided instead to move to Hong Kong. I wanted to live in Asia, and it was a country that seemed to bridge the East and West, and I could get by with only speaking English. I went to law school there and got my J.D. I tried law again, but spending summers in corporate firms, I realized that it wasn’t for me.
I moved to Washington D.C. to try working in the lobbying world. I enjoyed lobbying and campaigning, the buzz and the idealism was addictive. I procured a wardrobe of J Crew shift dresses and bright cardigans to fit in to the Capitol Hill uniform, but I quickly felt disenchanted with the system. I wanted to find a career where I could actually lobby for something I believed in.
The answer I decided on was books and stories. I took the bus to New York City on the weekends, crashed on friends’ couches and tried to meet as many people in publishing as possible. My initial goal was work as an editor, but then someone mentioned agenting as a possibility because of my law background. I had never heard of it before, and the more I read about it, the more it seemed perfect for me.
I was lucky enough to land at Folio Literary Management, where I was a Contracts Manager, and I assisted two agents.
Getting started in agenting is like an apprenticeship, one minute you’re asked to make coffees and ferry manuscripts to publishers, and then the next moment you’re reviewing the contracts of a multi-book deal. The only way to get promoted is to build your own list, and that’s outside of office hours.
It’s also notoriously underpaid (as I said, like an apprenticeship), and working in a creative industry means that you’re working for nearly nothing, you’re working for the experience of learning to become an agent. I survived in New York by waitressing and washing dishes for parties and doing some ghostwriting projects.
I was starting to build my own list at Folio when life interceded, I met my partner, a guy who lived in London, and I decided to move and build my career there. I met as many people as I could and applied for everything, worked as an unpaid intern, and was very lucky to end up at Curtis Brown as an agent’s assistant.
If you are thinking of becoming a literary agent, my best advice is to be tenacious and make connections. Be prepared to start as an intern (no matter where you come from), and make sure that you excel at your position, no matter what. A lot of it is luck and timing, but the key is making sure that luck is able to find you.