Carly Watters is nothing short of a phenom. At 27 she’s already finished a BA from Queens, an MA in Publishing Studies from City University London, and has a bustling career as an agent at P.S. Literary Agency. Her current clients include Colin Mochrie, Fox Sports’ Jay Onrait, and the funny folks at Stats Canada’s mega-viral parody twitter. Her blog has made Writer’s Digest’s 101 Best Websites for Writers for the past two years running. She’s also written an e-book: Getting Published in the 21st Century: Advice from a Literary Agent. I ask you: HOW DOES SHE DO IT??
Actually, I didn’t ask you. I asked her.
SDTC: Hi, Carly! So, you’re a literary agent. What does that entail—can you walk us through a day in the life?
Carly: I love this question because my day is never the same! My day is any and all combinations of these things: calls with authors that I represent, coffee dates with editors, reading the ‘slush pile’ (which is the 800 emails a month of unsolicited manuscripts that the agency receives), pitching editors my client’s projects, closing deals, negotiating contracts, traveling to and speaking at writers’ conferences, researching book topics and ideas, writing proposals, and talking marketing strategy for forthcoming client books. Some people get the impression all I do is read all day, but the reading happens on my time off. Many evenings and Saturdays are spent curled up with manuscripts.
How did you get interested in the industry?
The very cliché answer is that I’ve been in love with books since I can remember. My mother is a librarian so it was engrained in my childhood that you read. And I read everything, but especially loved stories about Joan of Arc and the French Revolution. My love of writing and reading led me to do a BA in English and I didn’t want stop my learning there. I was very curious about the business side of books. I slowly learned there was a whole industry behind them and I knew that’s where I belonged. When I knew I wanted to work in publishing I did my MA in Publishing Studies in London where I learned the ropes from professors who had worked in the business.
What was your first publishing-related job? How did you get it?
While I was in London I got a job as a Literary Agency Assistant where I worked reading manuscripts, responding to unsolicited manuscript queries, and doing light office management. The only way to learn to be an agent is to be an intern or get a much-coveted assistant job. While I was an assistant I kept my ears open at all times and learned from everything I did. It was the best year of my life in terms of learning the trade. I got the job through my MA program, the Rights Manager at the agency was a former student of our program director.
What’s the most exciting part of your job? What’s the hardest?
Getting a deal for debut authors has been and will remain to be the most thrilling part of my job. Making the call to a writer that someone wants to publish their book—and give them money for it!—never gets old. Agents have a unique place in the business. We’re the writers first advocate of their work. Editors and publicists come and go, but agents are there through thick and thin, all the good and the bad. We work for the writers, not the publishers, so we’re constantly on our authors’ side fighting for every inch. This all makes for a very special and collaborative relationship that can span decades. I feel a protective kinship towards my stable of writers.
The hardest part is passing on bad news. Bad news can be everything from an editor passing on a client’s option project, to a form rejection letter for a slush pile writer, to a publishing house being sold and the new buyer isn’t going to publish a client’s book anymore. We live for the good times, but there is a lot of rejection and many years of hardships before some writers make it. And it’s always hard to be the bearer of bad news. This job is an absolute roller coaster because the good times are great, and the low times can be very low. I feel the weight of my writers success on my shoulders and I want them all to thrive.
Got any advice for young writers submitting manuscripts?
Follow guidelines, read everything you can get your hands on, enter contests, join writer’s groups, go to conferences, and have faith in yourself. It’s a subjective industry, so you have to know that your writing is good enough to make it. Writers make the choice to throw themselves into this crazy world, so they have to be ready to withstand all the pressure, waiting, criticism, collaboration, and rejection. Most importantly, decide what your idea of success is and be able to communicate it so you can work towards it.
Any advice for aspiring literary agents looking to break into the industry?
It’s entirely apprenticeship-based. The three ways to come into this job are editors flipping sides of the desk, people working in other licensing rights (TV, film, merchandising) coming to the book side of things, or starting as an intern or assistant and working your way up. It takes years to build a strong client list, learn what genres you’re good at selling, build editor contacts, and become an expert in the copyright and contracts issues that come up. However, most importantly, you have to be confident in your tastes and able to get excitement for your client’s books. You have to want to talk about books all day long! It’s a mix of sales, rights management, marketing, editorial, and business. In my opinion it’s the perfect job.
Follow Carly on Twitter: @carlywatters