Name: Melissa Edwards
What was your first job in the industry, which led directly or indirectly to your current agent role? My first job was assistant at the Aaron Priest Literary Agency. I solely assisted for close to a year before I was given the role of Foreign Rights Manager. And then eventually I was given the opportunity to start building my list.
There’s no specific agent qualifications, so what would you say best qualifies you to do your job & allows you to do it well? I read quickly and with great enthusiasm. Even though I’m not strictly practicing law anymore, I still feel strongly about being an advocate, particularly for authors. The combination of those factors made my transition to literary agent quite ideal.
What routine, if any, do you look to start each working day with? Like so many others, I open my eyes and immediately check my email. It probably isn’t healthy– in fact, I’m sure it’s not– but it’s so natural to wonder, “what happened while I was asleep?” I wake up to emails from foreign publishers or co-agents, to emails from my insomniac clients, to Twitter notifications. I like to have some semblance of what’s happening, as soon as I wake up. Then I can focus on getting myself ready for the day.
Lift the lid as best you can, and describe a typical working day? As so many have said, there is no typical working day. This is not a 9-5 job. There’s a putting-out-fires element that occurs so regularly in agenting. An editor or author or marketing person will email with an issue that has to be dealt with now. I am a big fan of picking up the phone, in these instances. So much can be handled better and faster over the phone than through email. If by chance one of the emails or calls that come through in a day involves an offer, all the better!
Many of my days involve going through contracts– either for foreign or domestic. I enjoy the ability to be analytical in these moments. There’s subjectivity and art in selecting works for representation; contractual reading is much more direct. I like the push/pull of the contract negotiation and the ability to be as nitpicky as I want!
It’s not often a day goes by without networking in some capacity. This is an industry of chat– either with an author, a co-agent, an editor, another domestic agent. Most conversations aren’t strictly professional; most editor lunches are pretty friendly. It’s not enough to ask an editor what they’re looking for– there needs to be some personal connection, so that you think of each other when the good projects come around.
Then, when everything else is done and the fires are extinguished, I get to read. Whether it’s queries or a submission or even comp reading, every day has to involve some of the written word. This is the best part of my day.
What do you feel a client and agent should expect of each other in the course of a fruitful working relationship day-to-day? I think it’s all about communication. Both parties need to feel like they’re being heard and understood. There should be no barrier. That’s not to say that it’s not professional/ shouldn’t occur (mostly) during professional hours, but this is a partnership. The author is partnering with the agent for a common goal: successful publication. My goal is to create an environment where my client feels comfortable coming to me first, as a sounding board or as a problem solver. We take commission, not solely for selling the book, but for representing the client’s best interests at all times.
Is there a typical process that sees a first enquiry turn into a working client relationship? If I read a query and enjoy it, I email the author to ask for the manuscript. I generally thank the author for the query (because he didn’t need to pick me!), and I ask if anyone else has the manuscript. It’s not that I want to see if my taste is on point– I trust my taste– but rather I want to know if I’m competing with anyone from the start. Then I try to read every submission as quickly as possible. My speed on queries isn’t great, but my speed on submissions tends to be pretty good. If I really, really, really like what I read, I schedule an author call. If the vibe feels good, I will offer representation and try to sell the benefits of working with me. I will also generally give my list of editorial I foresee for the manuscript before submission to editors. Nothing is perfect. Then I give the author time to think about it/time to speak to other agents/time to speak with one of my clients, if they so desire. This is a big decision and I want the author to feel like they’ve taken their time making it. If they so choose me, then we get into the real work!
What is the best way to approach you, or any agent, with a view to representation? Is there one part of an approach that makes you think this client is or isn’t for me? I rely heavily on slush. It’s where the bulk of my fiction is from. The process works. Trust in it! If an author is impatient or rude, that’s obviously a red flag. A lot of this partnership is about personalities matching. A lot can be determined in a phone call. If someone seems unhappy about making editorial changes, that’s a pretty significant red flag. Even if I don’t change much in your manuscript before I send it out, any editor who buys the book is going to want to make changes. You’re going to need to kill (or change) your darlings. That’s just how it goes. If an author seems reticent, right from the beginning, it’s going to be a bumpy road.
Is there any part of your day-to-day work that manifests itself in evenings & weekends? Reading. All the reading. If I can get some reading done during the day, swell! But the likelihood is that most will be done at night or on the weekend. Given that my other option was practicing law and billing legal clients at night and on weekends, my situation looks pretty good! Worst case scenario, I’m still reading fiction or playing with a nonfiction proposal for a topic I find interesting.
Plus, conferences. Conferences occur on weekends and they’re work. Agents and editors are giving up their hard- earned off- time to meet authors because we care and we want you to succeed.
What one piece of advice would you give to a writer just starting out? Do your research. The Internet has made this so easy for you. There are so many sources that want to help you craft a query letter or create an agent submission list. Sometimes I meet unpublished authors in the real world (see, e.g. the dentist), and they ask how to “land an agent.” When I say, “write a good query and send it to agents who want your kind of book,” the next question should not be “what’s a query?” This information is so achievable. You no longer have to go to the library and crack open that huge LMP and mail out queries with SASE.
What one piece of advice would you give to your younger self? I might tell myself not to go to law school and to go straight into publishing. Why wait?
Favourite film? Sister Act II: Back in the Habit.
Favourite TV program (currently or all-time)? The West Wing.
Favourite book? Persuasion by Jane Austen.
Favourite director? Joss Whedon.
Favourite writer? Daniel Silva (I used to write him fan letters and his wife Jamie Gangel would write back).
Favourite actor (male or female)? Bradley Whitford as Josh on the West Wing.