In this edition of the 5×5 series, we asked 5 female literary agents 5 questions. While they aren’t authors, who better to speak about books than the people that get them published? These women work tirelessly to get you new titles to love. They each have a close relationship with books and the literary industry.
The women are Lucienne Diver (The Knight Agency), Alexandra Levick (Writers House, LLC), Rachel Cone-Gorham (RXD Agency), Lucinda Halpern (Lucinda Literary), and Jessica Kirkland (Kirkland Media Management, LLC).
Why did you decide to become an agent?
Lucienne: I have been passionate about books all my life. I devoured a book a day when I was younger. My parents had to push me to get out of the house, and even then, it was all about taking on roles from great stories, whether it was making up new Star Wars sagas or…oh, heck, it was almost always Star Wars, and I was always Leia. I had the hair for it!
Alexandra: It’s the perfect blend of business savvy and creative skills for my personality. I love what I do!
Rachel: Initially, it was because I thought I had excellent taste and that I would know a bestseller when I read it. I quickly found out that wasn’t necessarily true (although I’m still holding out hope for a few titles).
Once I got over my ego, I realized that what I truly loved about being an agent was the variety of the work. Being an agent is truly a mix of art and science. You’re finding these hidden gems, working with authors to shape stories, and then tracking royalty payments. You’re pairing personalities and tastes, negotiating contracts, and then helping authors to navigate the world of marketing. There’s an excitement to agenting that feels meaningful, and as someone who loves connecting other people – it just feels right!
Lucinda: I began my publishing career as a publicity assistant at HarperCollins and had been managing indie bands on the side, a hybrid that actually made some sense for an English/Cultural Studies major, aspiring writer, and child opera singer. It quickly occurred to me that there had to be a job that allowed me to work in books—where I had more of a technical training and understanding—and would also allow me to manage the careers of artists. I knocked on every door at every New York literary agency until I found one that would give me, without any list or revenue to guarantee, a shot.
I love making connections and mentoring others—having the opportunity to find authors their very best match, shape their careers, and develop books from the ground up is incredible. There isn’t a day I don’t wake up grateful for what I do.
Jessica: An agent took a chance on me when I didn’t even know that I was one. In those early years of signing clients, I took great pleasure in playing secret agent—because at the time nobody knew who I was—so the acquisitions were pure and I got to surprise people with contracts.
In addition to this, I truly enjoyed helping people and shepherding both them and their projects. I found that a lot of the industry insiders that were already published, and had captive audiences already. This felt vague and inaccessible to aspiring authors, so I promised myself that I’d change that trend, be an open book, answer questions often, and not stand in the way of someone with the talent to succeed.
What is your favorite part of the publishing process?
Lucienne: Hi, my name is Lucienne, and I’m a deal junkie. Yes, I admit it. I love making deals, but the best part is informing a client about an offer. The excitement is priceless, especially for a debut author. I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than helping fulfill dreams and introducing new voices and perspectives to readers.
Alexandra: I think it’s a tie between two different moments! Of course, I love to call a client with the first offer to publish their book, but it is also so unbelievably magical to find books I’ve worked on in stores and see someone I don’t know purchase their own copy!
Rachel: Editing is by far my most favorite part of the publishing process. There’s something so magical about seeing an editor work with an author to bring a story to life. Whether it’s a big editorial lift or small nudge in a new direction, seeing those words or characters or scenes take flight is truly an amazing thing to witness.
Lucinda: For the first half of my career, it was editorial. That moment in the middle of the night that a breakthrough idea wakes you up and rushes you to your desk; that takes a proposal from saleable to outstanding. In more recent years, I’ve enjoyed my relationships most. It’s such a gift to learn from and laugh with my authors every day, and it’s a fun and wild rollercoaster ride to sell books to editors who have also become friends.
Jessica: I love to discover new talent. I also enjoy helping my clients discover, construct, and refine their core story messages, as I often sign people based on who they are and what their story is, unlike many agents who require a neat and tidy proposal package before they will sign an author and pitch them. I find that some of the best projects, with the most rewarding personal and financial blessing, are often those that I built from scratch.
what are your deal-breakers for a book?
Lucienne: An underlying or overt sense of misogyny, racism, or bigotry. Also, talking directly to the audience is a big no-no for me, though I can think of exceptions to the “rule”.
Alexandra: Often the big thing that sticks out to me, particularly in the children’s market, is the feeling that an adult voice is creeping in. Kids can sniff that out a mile away and will never read it.
Rachel: I want to be told a story. This holds true regardless of genre. I’ve seen so many authors with great concepts or beautiful writing, but the story just isn’t there.
Lucinda: For fiction in particular, when the writing feels overwrought, is trying too hard, is formulaic, or isn’t authentic, I’ll put down a manuscript fairly quickly. Today’s marketplace favors the bold and the timely, so for fiction and nonfiction alike, an idea that feels soft and familiar is likely to land in my rejection pile, unless the platform is so strong that I can see potential in redeveloping the idea. As someone with a soft spot for artists, and for smart, cutting-edge ideas, there is really only one deal-breaker: communication that isn’t courteous or respectful. I’m especially protective of the agents and assistants working at our company; divas do not fly.
Jessica: My deal breakers have more to do with the author, than the book. If the story is good enough to get involved with to begin with, then I vet the author to see if I think that we will have a good working relationship. I can teach anyone about story structure, marketing, and anything about publishing that they don’t already know. What I cannot create is chemistry, and mutual respect between the parties: that either is or isn’t inherent in an aspiring author.
who is your favorite author and why?
Lucienne: Oh my goodness, asking a voracious reader about their favorite author…are you trying to make my head explode? It’s like asking me about my favorite musician. We might be here all day. No, second thought, I’ll go with Joni Mitchell on that one, though it’s a tough call. Okay, my favorite author of all time is probably Mary Stewart. I love her Gothics. Suspense, mystery, a little magic, and romance. What more could you want? I mean, really?
Alexandra: I could never choose! There are too many wonderful books and authors in the world to select just one.
Rachel: Tom Robbins. I read Still Life with Woodpecker when I was about 14 and had never read anything like it before. I quickly gobbled up everything else from him that I could find. Every few years I’ll pick up Still Life with Woodpecker again and each time it’s a totally new experience. There’s a timelessness to Robbins’ writing and I know that his books will be there for me no matter what age or life stage I’m in.
Lucinda: Michael Ondaatje is an author I fell in love with while at university—he has such versatility, and nuance, and can transport his readers seamlessly from poetry to prose. I also admire Ian McEwan for his character portraits. More recently, I’ve loved Peter Heller’s nature writing, and Meg Wolitizer and Curtis Sittenfeld’s perspectives on motherhood, which as a new mother, have really struck a chord with me. I suppose that’s more than one favorite!
Jessica: I have to credit Francine Rivers and her Mark of the Lion Trilogy with helping me fall in love with books for the first time. I was a college student who had been a busy athlete and had no idea how much I needed to fall into a story. I’m so glad that I did.
what advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Lucienne: Don’t get so excited that you send your work out too soon. Polish, run your work past others, revise, refine, and persevere. Remember that this is a subjective business. Not everyone will love your work, which means you will receive rejections – everyone does. Listen to any constructive feedback you receive, use what resonates with you to make your work better, then move past it and keep going. Your journey only ends when you stop moving forward.
Alexandra: Keep striving and keep reading. Learn to work on building your self-editing skills. Often this is overlooked, but editing can be so much more important than drafting.
Rachel: Read a lot. Write a lot. And if you’re working on a specific book, don’t be afraid to start over several times. What matters most is the story, nail that and the rest will come.
Lucinda: It pays to get a second, trusted opinion before you submit your work, not just on your manuscript or proposal, but on your query letter and website—your overall package.
Publishing is a mysterious and ever-evolving industry, and while there are countless articles and resources online, along with coaching services, writers may be missing one critical, key insight preventing them from publishing success that only an agent or editor currently working in the industry would know. I began a workshop series at the beginning of the year to help writers un-learn all of the bad advice they’ve been given, and offer some fresh strategies and perspectives based on what I’m seeing in the market today. Because we’re necessarily so selective about whom we bring on, this program has allowed me to touch and make an impact for so many more writers than I would be able to otherwise.
Jessica: Learn your craft, go to a conference, research the agent you feel is the best match for you, and try to meet with that agent face-to-face if that’s a possibility. We all know that anyone can pretend to be someone that they’re not in this world of fake news and face masks, and even sometimes a phone conversation is not enough to judge whether or not an author, agent, or book project can launch well into the world—while a face-to-face meeting will usually allow both parties to know for sure whether the relationship can work long-term.