Writers always ask me what questions they should be asking when querying an agent. What are some questions you tend to hear that would be helpful?
I think even asking basic questions like, “What resonated with you most about my book? Why do you want to represent it?” I think it’s important to get a sense of why the investment is there. What is prompting the investment from the agent? And then what is their investment going to look like?
Also: “It’s so great to know that you like all these things about the book. Were there things you read that gave you pause, or that you sort of wondered about, that maybe we would potentially have a conversation about editorially if we were to work together?” You want to invite that feeling of collaboration.
And also: “How do you see my book in the world? How do you see it existing? How would you hope it would be received?” There are a lot of ways that question could be interpreted. I feel like how an agent chooses to interpret that question and then answer it is going to be really telling.
Have you gotten any other questions that could be really telling?
One question I was asked and got surprised by was, “What happens if we don’t sell the book?” I feel like that’s a really good question. The short answer is, “We would figure it out.” Every submission is different. Every project is different. I feel like it would be a conversation of, “Okay, this is where we are. Here are your options. What feels true to you in this moment?” For me, it’s not about what I want to do. It’s about meeting the author where they’re at. Knowing, okay, in the submission, this didn’t pan out the way that we were expecting or that we wanted. What feels good? What path forward feels best to you? What does that entail? What does that look like?
What is one piece of advice you would give to a writer looking for an agent?
You should absolutely find an agent who you feel comfortable with, who you really, really trust, who you can be a true partner with. But also understand that at the end of the day, no one is coming to save you. If there is work that needs to be done, that you see needs to be done in the manuscript, undertake that work. Take the initiative to undertake that work seriously and truly, because no one else is going to do it for you. As an agent I feel like we’re often cheerleaders, or editors are often cheerleaders, but we can’t want it for you more than you want it for yourself. The way that you show you want it is by doing the work. Do the work.
I want to touch on trends for a second. Everyone has such different answers to them and feelings about them. I feel like when I’m on panels, writers are always asking, “Are you someone who follows trends?” When a writer asks you that, what is your first response?
Most of the time I don’t even engage. If you’re still figuring out what the shape of the book is going to be, how to talk about it, how to pitch it, how to get other people to be invested in it and to care about it, thinking about trends feels like putting the cart before the horse. When we think about trends, at least when I work with my authors, it’s like, “Okay, now that the book is where it needs to be, and it feels ready, what are the entry points?”
This idea of trends just feels like such a silly word to me in some ways, because every book that you see on bookshelves or in bookstores now, they’re actually a time capsule from two-plus years ago. I think most people don’t realize how long it actually takes for your book to come out. From the point of sale to being in a bookstore is like eighteen months at minimum, and usually over two years. Figure out what your book is about first. Figure out the heart and soul of your book first.
I always tell writers, “The process is so long that if you’re writing into a trend, you’re already behind.”
You’re just going to be behind. To think about trends, you’re kind of setting yourself up for failure. I almost feel like I think like a publicist, in terms of once the thing is ready, I’m ready to send it out to the world. Let’s think about what is going on in cultural conversations, current conversations, that this is organically speaking to.
To your point about looking for writers too, you’re looking for writers who are thinking forward and engaging in the world in a way that is interesting.
Exactly. I’m looking for people who can transcend any current moment that we’re having. I feel like that is the hallmark of any good book.
How do you balance that line of art and business in this job?
My job is to give the writer a translation of the demands of the marketplace, the things that are going on in the marketplace, the expectation of the marketplace they’re entering into, so that they can figure out how to balance that or if that’s even something that they want to do. It’s not my job to dictate anything, but it is my job to empower writers to make those decisions. And to determine what balance that is, what that balance is going to look like, how it’s going to manifest.
We both grew up in majority-minority communities. Coming into this business where it is very white, how did you find your place here? Do you still feel like you’re finding your place?
Well, this is one place.
Yeah, for sure. This table here.
It’s so funny, that question, this idea of finding your place. Coming in, I always had a really strong sense of self and a sense of, “I create the place that I am in.” I know it’s not fair. I tend to be a very strong personality, so it was never a question of “How do I create my place?” But is this place that’s a default something I want to be a part of? If it isn’t, then how do I make it a place that I can not just tolerate but truly enjoy? Again, this goes back to things that I say yes and no to.
For me it was about finding like-minded people. It was about sharing community, finding people like you, or finding other people of color. I was at lunch with another Asian editor the other day. We were like, “Oh, we should do an Asian publishing girl mixer.” We were trying to come up with names, and I think on the adult side we literally came up with three. I was like, “This has to be wrong. This has to be wrong.” But then I went home, and I looked. I looked and I was like, “Holy shit, I think there are fewer than ten.” But I was like, “That is really concerning.” So going back to your question of creating a space, it’s just finding people. Those people introduce you to their people, and that’s how community is shared and grown.
We see what the benefits are of having community. How do we extend that hand to the next generation of people in publishing?
You know what’s so ironic? I think [the older generation] is thinking the same thing. It’s just their experience, their default is different from ours. So their idea of community is going to look very different from our idea of community. Of course that’s the thing that they’re going to maintain, that they’re going to strive for, in the way that we’re striving for what we’re striving for. I think fundamentally we’re coming from these very, very different contexts.
The generation after us has an even stronger sense of that. I think it is also a broader cultural shift that even transcends publishing. They’re even better about advocating for diversity in publishing.
What do you think we can take away from that, to make sure that the people on our peer level can support them and also support the books that you and I do?
I feel like we are advocating for this to some degree, but it’s the understanding that diversity for diversity’s sake is not the goal; that is the barest of minimums. But I feel like it’s held at this lofty standard that we’re all assigned to. I’m like, “That’s the baseline, people!” Now the question is 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, which sounds so cheesy and basic?
To do this job is actually really, really hard and demanding. How do you do that? Because essentially what we are doing is we’re commodifying art. That is the crassest way, the crudest way to put it, and I feel like the result of doing that over and over and over again is you start to commodify people. You start to commodify talent. It’s so easy to see people like you and me, agents and editors, and be like, “Well, you’re the ones doing the commodifying,” but not understand that we, in the process, are allowing ourselves to be commodified in some ways, too, in service of that, in service of getting certain types of art through to the mainstream culture. That’s something I think more people in our generation could take away. Diversity is not the gold standard. It is the bare minimum requirement that we have yet to meet. We’re in remedial class here. This is not an Advanced Placement course, but I think people think that it’s AP, and I’m like, “No.”
They think, “Oh, well we checked this box, so now we’re good,” without interrogating the next step after that.
That’s like buying your books before you start classes and going, “Okay, great. Now do I get my cap and gown?” It’s like, “No, you haven’t even done the work yet. You haven’t even read the books. You haven’t taken the test. You haven’t done anything.” The reason it feels so important is because it has so much to do with retention. Because the thing is, the numbers can stay the same, but if you look at turnover, they look drastically different.
You could have 33 percent—a diverse workforce, whatever it is—but if you look at who is staying, if you look more closely at the numbers, the people making up that 33 percent or whatever that number is, if they’re different every year, you have to wonder why, and you have to wonder what are we getting so wrong? I feel like publishing is not doing enough of that. I think it’s one of the biggest pain points, because even as an agent, I’m looking at a bunch of incredibly talented editors who are just leaving because they’re so tired. They’re tired of trying to survive.
We’re still trying to make a path while simultaneously holding the door open for the people coming in after us and also doing our jobs, which is actually fifteen jobs in one. Then being severely underpaid and underappreciated. At some point you’re going to wake up and go, “Don’t I deserve more than this?” The answer may not be yes right now, but one day it will be yes. Every other day I’m expecting another editor, like whenever I get notes from editors, I’m just like, “Oh God, oh God. It’s another one who’s leaving,” and then I’ll have no one to send my books to. That’s a genuine fear of mine that I feel like I can only really talk about with people like you.
It’s important to talk about retention because I’m only one person. I can only publish the amount I can.
I’m only one person. I can only say yes to so many things. You know what’s hilarious? I feel like the people who are not us are so threatened every time there’s another one of us. I’m like, “How can we be in the same industry, be reading all the same books, looking at all the same deals, looking at all the same projects, and see it from two completely different sides?” How is that possible?
I’m the first to congratulate another editor. “Oh great. I saw that book, I saw it on submission too. I’m glad it went to you,” you know?
Yeah. But that’s not always how it goes. It’s really very sad and depressing.
How do you look for editors then, for a project you are going out with?
That answer has actually changed a lot through the years. It’s become so much more organic, which is just soul-filling, heart-filling, to think about. But also, it’s like reading. I feel like every book that is out there has the fingerprints of everyone who’s ever worked on it. And if I allow myself to naturally gravitate towards and read the things that I like, there’s a shared mission there. And that’s also another piece of community-building that is a really beautiful thing about publishing.
And you could be coming from very different contexts and still be drawn to the same book for very different reasons rooted in the same thing. So, that’s also how I find editors. It’s sort of like a friend-of-a-friend kind of situation. And also just sending projects to editors that I think are doing really impactful and thoughtful work. Who I think will be able to see the promise that I see in my projects. And understand how to value them, and how to cultivate them, and how to send them out into the world.
I think that’s also why that burnout question is really personal for us. Because you cultivate these relationships, you see the good work that people are putting forth, and then they leave. And then you’re like, that’s one less person I can share that mission with.
There is a sort of grief, I think, that’s associated with that person. Right. Not just for that person personally, but in general how hard it was for someone like you to penetrate this industry. And the uphill battle every step of the way. The barriers and obstacles that you face that other people here maybe didn’t have to overcome for whatever reason. But also it’s just this feeling of grief on a more global scale, of feeling like our industry is somehow diminished in a little way.
What are some projects that you are excited about that will be published in the coming years?
I have a client, a poet named Franny Choi, who’s very, very beloved. Her poetry collection is called The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, and it comes out in November. I’ve held so many of those poems close in the past two years, and it’s one of those books that feels so, so special. Especially given the context we’re all living in. And us waking up to the systems we’re all entrenched in. And there’s something that, I mean, obviously the book is apocalyptic in many ways. But even the idea of taking the notion, apocalypses, and going, We’ve been here before, we’ve been in apocalypse before. And the world goes on, you will persevere, you will keep going despite these apocalyptic things, these catastrophic things. The grief, the trauma, the turmoil. So that’s one that feels really, really special.
There is a novel that came out this past January—the paperback comes out next January—it’s called How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu. And it’s sort of a speculative literary novel that’s a cross between Cloud Atlas and Station Eleven. And of course it’s set against the backdrop of the pandemic. And I know that a lot of people are like, “Too soon, too soon.” But I really encourage people to read that, because so much of what we are hurting from right now is a lack of humanity. And that book has so much of that. And it will redeem and restore your faith in us.
Well, even the titular story, it’s like they are building a human pyramid so that they can climb back up.
And send the baby out.
And send the baby out there. Yeah.
Again, there’s this feeling of—it’s funny, it’s echoing the conversation we just had—we don’t know how we’re making our way, but we’re trying to hold the door open. There’s a feeling of that, too, in that story.
I think, and by no accident, the themes that those two books deal with have been on my mind, and on a lot of people’s minds, a lot recently. And I think there’s a sense of Oh, the pandemic will come to an end, and everything will go back to normal. But I’m like, no, there are some things that we cannot come back from. That we should not go back to. And so even though we might move on from this circumstance, we’re going to need to deal with the psychological, emotional ramifications for years to come. And I feel like these two books are the kinds of books that are going to help people navigate that journey forward.
Vivian Lee is a writer and senior editor at Little, Brown.