One of most important parts of a literary agent’s job is matchmaking. First, of course, I have to find a manuscript/author that I want in my life, and woo him or her into signing an engagement letter with me. Once we are hitched and have a polished manuscript ready then the real matchmaking work begins—creating a list of editors/houses/imprints who I think would be perfect for my shiny new client and his/her manuscript. This is where the eating comes in.
There are lots of ways I can build this list. I keep a pretty detailed totally searchable database of editors, I read deal announcements, I keep an eye on who is thanked in acknowledgement sections, sometimes houses will send out lists of who is where and looking for what, and I also trade ideas with colleagues. My favorite method, however, involves going on dates with editors and then putting new notes into the previously mentioned database.1
You have probably heard about agent/editor lunch2 dates. Going on a business date with an editor is a lot like real dating. Sometimes you know the person you are going to sit across from – you met at a conference, you’ve sold them a book already, you’ve had lunch with them several times before—and sometimes you are going in blind and you have to do some googling to make sure you approach the right person.
Unlike romantic dating, however, I imagine there is a far higher success rate. Because there tends to be a certain personality type that is drawn to publishing (especially children’s publishing, which is my specialty), and I tend to really connect with, like and get along super well with these types of people, publishing dates are almost always fun. But at any rate, the general idea is the same. Two people meet, ideally over a meal, but sometimes in someone’s office, and try and get to know each other.
It helps that there are lots of possible conversation topics. Frequent topics of discussion may include: How did you get in publishing? Did you always want to do this? What have you read recently? Did you do any traveling over the holiday? Have you read [INSERT COMMERCIALLY POPULAR BOOK HERE] yet, and what did you think of it? What were you like in high school? Can you believe we get to do this for a living? What is the craziest publishing-related thing you have ever had happen to you? Did you hear about [PUBLISHING GOSSIP]? What TV shows do you like? Which sometimes segues into: Can we pause and talk about a recent development on Downton Abby/Mad Men/the casting for The Hunger Games/the life of J.K. Rowling? and Which brother do you find more attractive on The Vampire Diaries?
Of course there are also the more directly related/serious publishing questions: What upcoming books are you most excited about? If you could build a fantasy list, what authors would be on it? What types of books do you love to read/work on? What types of books are not best for you? How does the acquisitions process work at your house? How is your house/imprint different than that house/imprint? How is your taste different from your colleague? How many books do you acquire in a year?
All of this will hopefully segue into—“I’ve got a book I’m getting ready to go out with that you will just love! Is is a ____ about _____. Oh you’d love to read it? I’ll send it the moment I get back to my desk!”
But even if that doesn’t happen (“Darn—I just signed a book like that yesterday!”) it helps me build a picture of who this editor is and the types of other projects I will want to send to him/her in the future. Even the silly stuff. Sometimes an agent will have a project (let’s say one featuring a bad guy love interest) that is obviously right for a few editors at a certain imprint. Knowing Editor X is Team Damon Salvatore—she already has a thing for bad boys!– might help push you in her direction.
Publishing is a business, but it is a business built on personal relationships and the better I know an editor the better I will be at gauging his or her likely reaction to a manuscript.3 These dates serve an incredibly valuable purpose. Which is why, even if editor dates weren’t filled with carbs and recommending excellent books and laughing, I’d still do them.
LAUREN MCLEOD is a literary agent specializing in young adult and middle grade literature at The Strothman Agency, LLC. She tweets under @bostonbookgirl. Want to get to know her taste? Try reading clients (Pub[lishing] Crawl’s own!) Jodi Meadows, author of Incarnate or Helene Boudreau, author of the Real Mermaids series.
- Just a note to acknowledge that, were someone who was not familiar with what I do for a living to come across said database on my computer, it may make me look like a creepy creepy stalker. ↩
- Dates may not be limited to lunch. I’ve gotten to know editors over breakfast, cups of coffee, cupcakes, ice cream cones, and drinks as well. Aside—since I live in Boston, when I take the train down to New York I try and really make it count, so I cram as many meetings as possible into one day. My very best meeting day happened one Friday at the Flatiron (where lots of publishers are located). Everyone I emailed to meet with me that day suggested some sort of food activity, so I had a breakfast date, followed by a coffee date, followed by a lunch date, followed by an ice cream date. It was a perfect day. ↩
- Furthermore, the more an editor knows and trust me/my taste the sooner he or she is likely to read and respond to something I submit to them. ↩