NEFF: First off, please tell us something about your literary life prior to joining the Writers House.
MAYA: Before Writers House (where I've been for a year and a half), I was an assistant at Anderson Grinberg Literary Management, another, smaller agency. That was my first job after graduating. I was an English major in college and did some creative writing, but I really always preferred reading, especially fiction, to writing. But I must have thought the only decent occupation for someone who like to read was to write--journalism or novels were the only options in my mind for while. But as graduation neared I realized working in publishing, helping to bring books I loved to life was really the best fit for me. I wanted to get a job at a publishing house, but it was hard to break in. Eventually I started offering to work for free (i.e. as an intern) at literary agencies and Anderson Grinberg took me up on that (later I was promoted to assistant.) I liked agenting from the beginning--the close relationship with the author, the chance to work with so many different kinds of books, meet so many different kind of people, the thrill and excitement of discovering a new author all appealed to me. Also, I was really drawn to the independence of the career--you really work for yourself.
NEFF: Did you have to interview for the job at Writers House? If so, what was it like?
MAYA: I interviewed to become an assistant to Al Zuckerman, an agent and the chairman of Writers House. I was just being interviewed to be an assistant--I didn't have any clients yet. So I think it was a pretty typical interview experience. Assistant work isn't glamorous on the whole, and I think the most important quality you you need to have is to be able to read well--form and articulate an opinion on a range of proposals and manuscripts. So I did have to critique a manuscript, which was typical of my other interviews in publishing.
NEFF: What does WH look for in a junior agent?
MAYA: "Junior agent" means that in addition to assistanting, I can now start agenting my own projects. I was given the go-ahead to do this after I had worked here for a year, so you have to prove yourself a capable assistant first, who can juggle that work (assisting a senior agent) while trying to build your own list. And you have to have absorbed enough about the business too, as well as be enthusiastic about agenting.
NEFF: What are the first year expectations for a junior agent at Writer's House? What are the expectations now?
MAYA: I don't feel as if there's a firm set of expectations. Like I said before, it's probably most important that you can keep up with your assistant work while taking on your own stuff. I think everyone understands that agenting is unpredictable and that there is no guarantee of immediate success. It's important to be patient while diligently working and then the sales will come; I think everyone here understands that. (I am still in my first year.)
NEFF: What types of genres are you looking to represent?
MAYA: I am looking for all that's good, wonderful, interesting, and unique. I have a special yen for literary fiction, historical fiction, YA, practical nonfiction, self-help, and romance. I particularly like books with foreign settings, strong heroines, and a good dose of suspense. I like funny things. I also like some fantasy.
NEFF: How do you go about building your list, i.e., finding and contacting potential new authors to represent?
MAYA: This has been challenging. I always took for granted the enormous number of submissions my bosses received and never really thought that much about how I would find people once I started agenting. So I was sort of slow to realize I would need to actively put my name out there. I've been reading literary journals on line and off and contacting writers I read there; but often they don't have novels and short story collections are just not my thing. I do get good submissions that way, every once in awhile, and those authors will also refer me on. I've also gotten referrals from people within the agency who might like a submission, but don't feel for whatever reason that they can represent it. I've also put my name on a bunch of sites that come up when you google "literary agent." I try to be really open and accessible and encourage people to email me and give quick responses. I'm very friendly to new writers. I feel like new writers and new agents are sort of in the same boat.
NEFF: Being relatively new to the business, how did you go about building your editorial contacts in the major houses? Was it just a matter of cold calling?
MAYA: Meeting editors has been much easier than meeting authors. You get to know them through your boss, you get to know their assistants that way as well and those assistants move on and start acquiring books. You also end up meeting them socially--the publishing world is a small one. You do have to put yourself out there and make sure people remember you (and you remember people), and this gets easier and easier to do with practice. And of course people are more eager to meet when they think you might have a book they could potentially want to buy.
NEFF: What qualities are you looking for in a new client?
MAYA: If I fall in love with the writing, that's it. I don't think I'd mind much if the writer was crazy or hellish if I loved the writing. But it's also nice when people are flexible about improving and editing their writing before submitting it to publishers. There's often a lot of work to be done in between getting an agent and getting a publisher.
NEFF: How much do credentials count, i.e., MFA, prior publications, etc.?
MAYA: Those sort of credentials might bump you up to the top of my pile, but I don't think they will make or break my final decision. Those credits probably matter less than the usage of Courier font, which really bothers me, although I'm working on ignoring it.
NEFF: Do you feel your viewpoint of publishing differs in any way from the senior literary agents you meet in your travels?
MAYA: I'm probably a lot more emotionally involved in it than they are, just because it's new and fresh to me. I think they can be more patient, probably more confident. Our focus is different, too. Right now I am very eager to find new people whereas they have many clients already whose business matters fill up their entire days.
NEFF: Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
MAYA: A hugely successful full-time agent with a long, diverse list of clients. I'll be busy, happy, interested, entertained and excited by their projects and still on the hunt for some new ones. And by then, maybe Iíll even have my own assistant!
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org