Annie Hwang is always thinking about the future. This is partly because one aspect of her job as an agent is to help change and widen the literary landscape, one author at a time. And it’s partly because that is who she is as a person, having spent her career advocating for and mentoring those in the community—especially writers who are just starting out. “It’s about the readership I’m trying to serve,” she says of her work beyond the individual authors in her care. “It’s about the community I’m trying to serve.” And to Hwang, community is what buoys her work: It is what supports her writers and what is paving the way for a more equitable future.
Hwang came to agenting by accident: With hopes of becoming an editor, she moved to New York City after graduating from UCLA in 2012. She started by applying for editorial positions, as they were the only ones she knew about in publishing at the time. Following a successful informational interview, an editor at St. Martin’s Press put her in touch with Folio Literary, where she landed an internship. She later became a part-time office manager, then a part-time assistant agent, and finally an agent able to sign authors whose work spoke to her. After eight years at Folio, she joined Ayesha Pande Literary, where she has used her incisive editorial eye to publish writers like award-winning poet Franny Choi, columnist and author John Paul Brammer, and the speculative fiction novelist Sequoia Nagamatsu, all writers who are expanding what narratives can do to speak truth to power, to grapple with our increasingly complex and complicated world, to write in a society where to be your true self can also be dangerous.
As is often the case with publishing professionals of color, Hwang and I met because we were the only nonwhite people in the room. It would be difficult to overstate how much publishing has changed in recent years—and how much more significant change is still needed. What started as a genteel industry—one in which rich, white, powerful men and women dictated what everyone read—has followed, however slowly, mainstream culture’s seismic shift toward a wider, more diverse landscape. Hwang is part of a growing cadre of publishing professionals of color who understand that, as she says, “diversity for diversity’s sake is not the goal; that is the barest of minimums.” While real change is rippling outward as a new generation of publishing professionals enter the industry, Hwang recognizes that “it’s not just about having these people come in through your door, but how do you make the house inviting? How do you take into account their cultural and personal context and embrace them in their full humanity?”
As I’ve navigated the industry and advanced in my editing career, I have had the great fortune of watching Annie move up in the agenting world, and I’ve witnessed firsthand her ability to stick to her ideals, practice what she preaches, and think holistically about what it means to be an agent, here and now. Hwang thinks deeply about writers and writing and books, and she takes seriously her position as an author advocate. Publishing is an inherently opaque business, and for debut authors especially, publishing a first book can be stressful and confusing. Hwang believes her job is to walk writers through every step of publishing a book; to be their mouthpiece and to push things through the process on their behalf. She believes that demystifying the business as much as possible gives authors “the context of the behind-the-scenes.”
Over the course of a windy but warm afternoon at an outdoor café in Queens, New York, Hwang and I spoke over ice teas and pastries about community, professional burnout, what it’s like to be among the few Asian Americans in the industry, and how to empower writers to both advocate for themselves and find those who will advocate for them.
How did you become an agent?
It was by accident really. I actually moved to New York to become an editor. Clearly that did not work out, because in the process of trying to become an editor and get my foot in the door, I started interning at a literary agency. I had no idea what a literary agency was, what an agent did. It was just sort of a means to an end for me at that point. Then in the process of working at an agency for a bit, I fell in love with the job and realized that it really spoke to me.
I think about the three pillars of being an agent. First and foremost you’re an author advocate. I grew up with siblings who had disabilities. [Being an advocate] is just part of my DNA, so that [part of the agent’s job] really spoke to me. I also taught a lot growing up, either being a tutor or giving private lessons. When you’re an agent, there is this strange educational component, too, because you’re demystifying so much [of the publishing process] for the author. Then of course there are the contracts and negotiations. I think if I had gone down another path, in a different life, I would probably be an attorney. Agenting just melded all of my interests that I’d always had growing up. Of course we’re all here because we love books. It just made a lot of sense to me. I wanted to be a part of the machine that brought books out into the world.
When did you get your first official job as an agent?
I became an agent at the same agency where I interned. I started there as an unpaid intern. Then I eventually became a part-time office manager, then part-time foreign rights assistant, part-time agent assistant, and then the full-time office manager. From there, cobbling together a salary and things like that, I eventually learned enough where I could start taking on my own clients. From beginning to end, I was at [Folio], where I had started as an intern, almost eight years.
What kind of work catches your eye as an agent now, compared to when you first started out?
That’s an interesting question. Honestly I feel like a lot has changed. I think when you’re young and you’re trying to build a list—this is not a sexy thing to hear, by any stretch of the imagination—you’re just trying to sell what you can, and you are trying to figure out what you can sell. In many ways you’re also learning what you don’t know. There’s a lot of experimenting, like, “Okay, let me try this.” But I think all of it starts with, “There’s something about this work that resonates with me; I think it can resonate with other people.” My ability to [identify] that has really been refined over time and honed over time, and that’s enabled me to sharpen my list in that sense, too.
How would you describe your list?
When I first started agenting, there was a very broad swath of publishing representing just one majority experience. That’s the whole reason I became an agent and wanted to be a part of books. The books that I love just didn’t love me back. I was like, “What’s up with that?” So I thought, “Well, let’s go to the source.” Then, of course, when I went to the source it was a huge shock for me because I grew up in a predominantly Asian neighborhood, I was the majority, and then I came to publishing and I had never been so minoritized in my life.
I didn’t have language for it then, but slowly over time you see there are certain types of stories, certain types of voices, certain types of books that are being privileged in this space. It was just so clear. I really tried to work against that. As you know, it’s a bit of an uphill battle. I know that things are supposedly “better” now, but it’s still a battle because it’s not just about having agents of color, but [having people of color at] every stop along the publishing pipeline, up until and including after a book comes out—I’m talking even booksellers and media coverage—I feel like the further along you go on that pipeline, the concentration of folks of color gets more and more diluted.
Where do you see your list going in the next five years?
I love my list right now. I’m very intentional, but I also like embodying this feeling of expansiveness and possibility. I’m open to having something take me completely by surprise. For instance, a couple of years ago, I started representing poets. I was not a poetry reader. I didn’t really know a lot about poetry. Yet I found myself representing poets who were trying to make the jump from independent presses into the trade space, either with their next collection or with their first prose project.
I think about the conversation of how a book is functioning in the world, its message, and how I can support it. I know how to sell that. I know how to advocate for that. I know how to position that in this marketplace. But that was one of the things that took me by surprise. If you told me five years ago, “You’ll be representing nonfiction and poetry,” I would’ve laughed at you. I would’ve been like, “No, I think you’re wrong.” I’ve learned enough now, being further along in my career, to leave room for myself to be surprised when new possibilities come into play.
I love that. You are leaving it open.
What I will say is I don’t know exactly what my list is going to look like in five years, but I know what I want it to feel like. I know what I want other people to feel when they look at my list. What I want them to take away from that list is these are the kinds of books that will stand the test of time. That’s always been really, really important to me. I think that’s also why I’m so averse to this idea of trends, because they will come and they will go. I feel like part of the work that I’m doing is to set up books that will not be remaindered in a couple of years, but that five, ten, fifteen, twenty years from now, they’ll be course-adopted. They will be in the cultural conversation. Maybe some of them will even be cultural touchstones at that point. That’s what I hope for. I don’t know what exactly those books will be, but that’s the aspiration for my list.
As a gatekeeper, that’s such an important role, especially as a person of color. How do you see that role play out for you?
It’s strange. I don’t even know how to answer that question, because I feel like it’s not even about me. It’s about the readership I’m trying to serve. It’s about the community I’m trying to serve, which I am a part of obviously.
I think that there’s always this conversation of agents as kind of the first “obstacle” to getting published. What does that mean to you?
I do think that we are seen that way. I’m just like, “Well, we’re so much more than that.” That’s why I really prefer the term advocate, because as an advocate you are advocating for something. When you advocate for something, there’s also inherently things that are against the very thing that you’re advocating for. I think that’s also where the gatekeeping can come into play.
But I’m very conscious of my role and the responsibility of it, even as I’m not conscious of myself in the role, if that makes sense. Again, it goes back to the sense of intentionality. There are projects that come across my desk that I think are really well written, have really good premises, there’s a market for them, but just because someone can sell them doesn’t mean I have to be the one to sell them, and that’s very clear to me. I’m very clear about what unique skills I bring to the table, because of my perspective, because of my experience. I feel like the situations where I feel like I can have the most impact are when I can tap into those things the most. That’s sometimes how I pick and choose my projects.
I like thinking of agents as author advocates. What are agents advocating for on an author’s behalf?
Before figuring out what an agent is advocating for, I feel like there’s a precursor to that. What’s important to acknowledge, especially for writers who are looking for agents, are questions like “How are you feeling?” Even in that initial conversation with an agent, are you feeling seen? Are you feeling heard? With that established, I think it boils down to what’s in your best interest. When I think about the way in which I need to advocate for my own clients, I feel like there are a couple of pillars: First and foremost is the vision. Is that being communicated effectively? This could be anything from developmental edits to positioning something in the marketplace. It could be anything from structural changes, line edits, all the way to what comps are we using, and which editors are we going to go to.
A lot of the work is trying to demystify the process as much as possible, to give authors the context of the behind-the-scenes: “I know you haven’t heard from your editor in a while, but this is what’s going on behind the scenes.” “I know that you’re nervous about the cover, but this is how the cover process typically goes.” All these things that they might not even know or think to ask or feel that they can ask. I try to preemptively give them that information because it alleviates the anxiety of the unknown.
The other thing is: We really can’t talk about book publishing without talking about money. I know that’s not something people want to hear. I know it makes it feel so icky, but it’s the reality.
I do think that’s important to talk about.
I feel a responsibility to be able to advocate for that on behalf of my clients. The voices that have been historically underrepresented, they’re not just historically underrepresented, they’re historically undervalued. That’s also a big piece of my job that I’m really sensitive to. There are agents who I’ve been on panels with who say, “Yeah, we’re also therapists.” I’m like, “No! I want you to get an actual therapist!”
[But] I do think that there’s a component of emotional advocacy. I feel like it’s not therapy per se, but so much of the emotional labor we do and that we should do and that we need to do for writers is to demystify the process. Communicating what writers can expect is so much of the experience. For most of my authors, it’s their first time entering publishing and they have no idea what is normal. Is this within normal bounds or not? Putting your work into the world and sending it out for people to read and to be seen in that way, it’s already such vulnerable, difficult work.
What are you looking for in a query letter?
The query letter is not the be-all and end-all, but it signifies certain things. I teach a query workshop called Reading Between the Lines, because I see the query letter as a diagnostic for perhaps how ready the manuscript is, what the project is, but also psychologically how ready the writer is to invite a partnership given where they are with the project.
If you’re not able to talk about it succinctly or in a compelling way, if you aren’t able to talk about how you fit into the category that you’re writing into, that’s concerning to me, because then you don’t know what the expectations are. You don’t know what conversation you’re trying to join. I feel like so much of the work I do with authors is trying to cut through the noise so that it’s clear what conversation you’re trying to join, who your audience is, what your concerns are, and what you’re bringing to the table. You can’t do any of that if you don’t know what table you’re trying to sit at.
The other thing in a query letter is the bio, and a lot of writers ask me, “Oh, is having an MFA important?” Does that get an agent’s attention?
The MFA is such a vague, unhelpful term in this case. We certainly clock it. Of course, there are certain MFA programs that are like, “Oh, it’s a nice feather in the cap,” but at the end of the day, it’s just a feather in the cap. It’s not the whole story. Every agent will have a different answer to this, but I think for me, it’s nice to have, but it’s not a need-to-have.
Many accomplished writers are self-taught and self-developed. Some of these writers are coming from communities where they don’t have access to an MFA program. I don’t even mean financially, even just knowing [about MFA programs]. I didn’t have access to the book publishing world. I didn’t have any idea how to get into this. I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, and now I am one. Even what you’re exposed to is a form of access. If you don’t know what an MFA is, that’s not mutually exclusive with whether you can write a book.
If the MFA is just a feather in the cap, what do you notice in an author’s bio?
If there’s something in the bio that gives me a sense of why they decided to write a book about this instead of anything else. If they’re writing, I don’t know, a book that’s about subject X, and they happen to be a professor in X, that certainly catches my eye. It can also be things like having publications, and grants, fellowships, residencies. I realize that there is gatekeeping surrounding that, too. It’s not always accessible, but it’s something that I do look for because it tells me that they have put themselves out there.
Knowing they are ready to do that, that they have been doing that—they’re open to feedback, they’re open to sharing their work and hearing what people honestly think about it.
For a lot of these publications, writers go through the editorial process, they get the experience of being edited in that way, and they understand what to expect. But even beyond that I think there’s a sense that they’ve entered the community. They’ve embedded themselves in the community. Because again, you don’t publish anything in a vacuum. They say raising children takes a village; putting a book out in the world takes a huge village. So understanding that it’s your book, but you’re not going to be doing it alone, and you’re going to need so much support and help and community along the way, not just for the good of your book, but for the good of you and your eventual team, understanding that, that you’re part of a whole…I think it’s really important.