The Last of the White Collar Apprentices

Donna Levin
California novelist and author of California Street (Simon & Schuster)

Once upon a time the apprentice
model – a fancy way of saying "learn on the job" – was widespread.   Today,
very few apprenticeships exist outside the building industry.  One of the few fields in which it does, however,
is the business of being a literary agent.

Most
readers will know that a literary agent is the person who sells your
lovingly-written book to a major publisher. 
(To sell to a small or university press you usually won’t need an agent
– you also usually won’t get as much, if any, money.)  This gives an agent prestige among writers,
especially those in the early stages of their career.  Go to a writers’ conference, get a lanyard
that announces that you are a literary agent, and writers will follow you
around all weekend, as if you were a mama duck and they were your devoted like
ducklings.  I’ve been the mama duck and
it’s really fun.

In
spite of this prestige, the world of literary agenting is unexpectedly democratic.  First, it is not a regulated field:  Any one of us can launch a website this
afternoon offering our services as an agent.

(There’s
a downside to this lack of barrier-to-entry, which is the "caveat emptor"
factor.  There are scam artists out
there.  Your first clue that the agent is
a scammer is that he or she charges a reading fee.  There’s also an informal industry association, the Association
of Authors’ Representatives
,
membership in which tells you that you are dealing with a legitimate agent.  Don’t use that as your only measuring stick,
though, as many legit agents do not belong to the AAR.)

Now,
let’s say you love books, have a sense of what’s commercial, and would really
like to get followed around at writers’ conferences.  Get a B.A. in English and then another three
years in graduate school?

Not
necessarily.  Unlike the vast majority of
professions, your work will be judged solely on its quality, not on whether you
went to Harvard or Cal State Stinson Beach or where
you placed in your graduating class.


Laurie
Fox
is a successful agent located in
the East Bay, where she heads the West Coast offices of the New York-based Linda
Chester Literary Agency
. Like many of her colleagues, she almost
stumbled into her current position.  She started
out as a bookseller in southern California, where she learned about the retail
end of the business.  As part of her job
she hosted readings at the store and in the course of that she met Sandy Dijkstra, the prominent agent based in La
Jolla
.

Laurie
was officially hired as an office manager but she soon took on other
duties.  "Sandy ran a graduate school for
agents," Laurie says.  "We all did
everything.  Those were the pre-e-mail
days, so we might all be on the floor stapling manuscripts one moment, then
negotiating the fine points of a contract the next."

She
learned by observing as well as by doing. 
"I was at the Dikstra agency when the first three stories of Amy Tan’s The
Joy Luck Club
came
in."  (The Joy Luck Club was originally intended to be a short story
collection but after some adjustments was published as a novel.)  "It was really exciting, and I watched
closely to see how Sandy managed that deal."

Later
a mutual friend introduced Laurie to Linda Chester and Laurie brought the
skills she had acquired to her present position, where her clients include such
best-selling authors as Lolly Winston, David
Corbett
, and Daniel
H. Wilson
, whose forthcoming
novel Robopocalypse will become a Steven Spielberg
film.

Another
apprentice-turned agent is Gordon Warnock who is now with Andrea Hurst Literary Management
(You can find one of his clients’ work, The
Complete Idiot’s Guide to Low-Cost Start-Ups
by Gail Margolies Reid, in bookstores now.)  Gordon started out as an intern to fulfill a
final requirement for his degree from California State Sacramento
He also saw it as the perfect opportunity to learn the inside workings
of a literary agency, for when he eventually submitted his own work.  He laughingly adds, "Incidentally, I have yet
to submit my own work, but I live that pleasure vicariously through the clients
I have had published."  Again in his own
words, "I just… happened to fall in love with the process." 

Talk
to literary agents and you’ll frequently hear the word "love."  That’s what it takes to embark on a
profession so underpaid and underappreciated. 
Of course, there are the writers’ conferences, but very few people can
survive on a train of devoted ducklings alone.

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