Interview with Lindsay Ribar – Literary Agent’s Assistant

All right, party people, I’m off to a signing today in North Arlington, at a Barnes and Noble near the intersection of I-30 and Collins. Come by for free chocolate! I’ll be there 2:00-4:00 PM.

Also, I’m already tired of talking about myself. Let’s talk about soemone else for a while!

Ever wonder what exactly happens when a prospective writer pitches off that letter, or e-query, to a literary agency?

Everyone’s always interviewing agents everywhere. I thought it would be more fun to talk to an agency accountant. Which, was actually impossible to find in time. Thus, I reached out to the person just at the edges of the system, Matt Bialer’s assistant, Lindsay Ribar.

Now, let’s go learn all the agency dirt:

J- What is the difference between your official job description, and your actual, day-to-day activities?

LR- Well, this one would be a lot easier to answer if anyone had ever given me an official job description! When I interviewed here, the office manager told me about all the scary, scary paperwork that I’d have to keep up with, while Matt (the bossman) stressed the artistic side of things, which is reading and evaluating things. That’s about as official as we ever get around here.

The day-to-day activities are even more vague. It’s very much a “do what needs to be done” sort of place. There is of course the scary, scary paperwork (which isn’t so scary — usually) and filing and faxing and all sorts of other things that a trained monkey can do. There are things like sending out submissions to publishing houses. Matt and I usually write a submission letter together, he gives me a list of names, and I make things look as pretty as possible, and ship ’em out.

The fun part is, of course, doing editorial work. I was actually surprised by this part of the job, as I’d always thought that editorial work was the work of, well, editors. But while the editors are the people responsible for tweaking the book down to every niggling detail, the fact is that it’s a tough market out there, and most editors don’t want to be bothered with something that isn’t already in pretty awesome shape by the time it falls into their hands. And since Matt is a very hands-on sort of agent, he made it clear right from the day I started, that editorial work is a big part of with our jobs. He works mostly with current clients, but since I’m the assistant (and therefore on the front lines), I get to work with signed clients AND prospective clients.

I recently gave notes to a pair of clients who’ve been published for more than twenty years; right now I’m putting notes together for a client who’s about to turn his first book in to his editor; and just before this one, I read a novel by a slush author, gave her some serious critiques, and asked for a rewrite.

The last ones are actually my favourites, since it’s so rare and exciting to find something in the slush pile that’s even worth reading to the end. Very often, I’ll like a manuscript a lot, but recognize that it’s not yet in good enough shape to send out to editors; so I’ll ask for a rewrite without a promise of signing. Sometimes, if my notes are in line with the author’s vision of the book, they’ll say yes. Sometimes not. This process is also a great way to see whether or not an author will be easy for an editor to work with.

If we have to go through three revisions without anything really changing, this probably won’t be an author I’m interested in working with.

J- How many queries do you receive in the mail?

LR – It really varies. I get anywhere from two to thirty on an given day, and I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said that I’ve read thousands already. And for anyone who’s trying to find an agent, I know the next logical question is something like “And what percentage of the queries…?”

I usually break it down like this. With made-up percentages and everything! Probably about 75% of the stuff I read falls into the Huh, This Is All Well And Good, But If I Put It Down For Five Minutes, I Won’t Remember What It’s About category. It’s average. The plot is perfectly good, the characters are fine, and the language is lukewarm but still okay. I usually give it five to ten pages before deciding that nothing exciting is going to happen, and then I throw it away.

Then there’s the next 20%, which is so mindnumbingly boring and/or stupid that you can’t read past the first paragraph without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. Then, of course, the 1% that gets the most time on every slush-reader’s blog: the Gummy Bear pile. The stuff that’s so bad that you can’t NOT read it. The stuff that gets passed around from assistant to assistant, usually with little notes everywhere, pointing out particularly bad passages. The stuff that, like gummy bears, you can’t help but devour, even though you know you’ll feel sick afterwards.

And then there’s that elusive 4%, which ends up in the small I’ll Look At This Again Tomorrow pile. This is the stuff that has that little “something” about it, whatever it is that makes you want to read more. Maybe a particularly unique plot point, or even something as trivial as an unusual character name. Whatever it is, this query will get my full attention, and maybe I’ll even ask for the whole thing.

If it gives you any indication, I’ve worked for Matt for a little more than ten months. I’ve read countless partials, maybe 20-30 fulls, and asked for about 10 rewrites, some of which have sadly been rejected, some of which I’m still waiting on. And in all that time, we’ve signed ONE slush author.

j- Everyone focuses on the ever-exciting “sales force” – i.e. agents – but there’s much more to a successful agency. What other roles are there in a literary agecy, and how do they all contribute to the different part of a book’s lifespan?

LR- Well, in terms of the book’s lifespan, the agent really is the key. It’s up to the agent to match book and editor/publisher, and everything else at the agency is a support system for that crucial process. I work at a medium-sized agency, where there are eight agents, seven assistants, two interns, a kickass two-person foreign rights department, and another two-person team in accounting. (Plus scouting, but they don’t really have much to do with us beyond being under the same company banner.) The assistants and accountants, as I said, are the support system for the agents, but I should mention that the foreign rights folks really do have a very underrated role in our agency — underrated because even though everyone generally assumes that domestic sales feed the strength of foreign sales, far fewer people realize that it works the other way around. Sometimes a book will sell abroad first, and the strength of those numbers will help the author get a better deal, and feed word of mouth, in the States.

But you asked about a book’s lifespan; and as fatalistic as it may sound, most of that is out of the agency’s hands. The agents can do their absolute best to find the perfect loving home for a book, but from there, anything can happen. It depends on how the publisher’s marketing department treats the title, it depends on reviews, and it depends on word of mouth. (And, once in a blue sparkly moon, it depends on Oprah.)

J – What do you think the major differences between a literary agent’s assistant and an editor’s assistant are?

LR – Having only interned in editorial departments (as opposed to working there for real, and there IS a huge difference), I won’t say I’m the expert on this. But from what I gather, an editor’s assistant has a much tighter schedule, more involvement with the final product, and more pressure in terms of actual editing — all on top of the usual assistanty paperwork, of course. As an agent’s assistant, most of my job is reading, and very rarely do I have a deadline beyond “just get it done as soon as possible.” (Sounds like a cushy job, right? I won’t lie. It totally is.)

I don’t know what the reading load for an editor’s assistant is, so I can’t compare, but I have an endless pile of manuscripts. I read at work when everything else is done. I read on the subway. I read at home. If it were possible, I’d be reading in my sleep. I used to be one of those people who lugs giant manuscripts everywhere. Technically, I still am — but my company recently got those funky little Sony Readers for everyone, so while I still have thirteen manuscripts in my purse, you just can’t see them. My chiropractor loves the Sony Reader. And so do I. I sound like a commercial, don’t I….

J – Any last words or recommendations to people who would like to learn more about the role of a literary agent’s assistant, or you, personally?

LR – Well, as for my role as an agent’s assistant… yes.

To people looking for industry jobs: Don’t discount the agenting side if your goal is editorial, especially if you want to work in fiction. We do a lot more editing on the agency side than you might think, and in most cases, the work atmosphere is much more relaxed at agencies than it is at most publishing houses.

To prospective authors: Treat us nicely. If you talk to us like we’re idiots, or if you insist on not following the rules of submitting-a-manuscript, or if you’re otherwise exceptionally annoying, just remember two things: (a) our bosses hear EVERYTHING, and (b) we’re the ones with the rejection cards. If you are polite, though, we just might pay more attention to your book.

And as for me personally? Hmm. Single female seeks single male for long walks on the beach (if you can find a beach), sushi-eating, and many hours in front of the TV watching Dexter, Firefly, and Doctor Who. Ta!


j-Thank you Lindsay, for coming by and sharing a peak behind the magic rejection machine. Next week, I don’t know who I’m interviewing, yet, but I’m definitely going to try to find someone interesting.

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