Inside Publishing: The Literary Agent Assistant

Michael Bourne
From the January/February 2020 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Say you’ve written a young adult novel and you think Emily van Beek is the right literary agent to represent your work. You’ve read her bio on the website for her agency, Folio Literary Management in New York City, and studied her recent book deals on Publishers Marketplace. You have assiduously followed her guidelines for unsolicited submissions, but what you may not realize as you press Send on your query letter is that van Beek will likely never see it unless her assistant, Elissa Alves, thinks the book is right for her boss.

Literary agent assistants Elissa Alves, Renée Jarvis, and Aemilia Phillips.

Such is the quiet power of literary agent assistants, not just at Folio, but at most literary agencies, where these unheralded individuals handle the unglamorous but essential tasks of answering office telephones, tracking royalty payments, proofreading contracts—and, in many cases, vetting their boss’s unsolicited submissions.

For assistants like Alves, who is a recent graduate of Drew University in New Jersey, this last task can require a form of readerly ventriloquism as she sets aside her own literary sensibilities to find submissions that will fit well on van Beek’s list. 

“I really have to distance my own taste from it because of course we don’t have the exact same taste, and I have to pretend as if I’m reading it with Emily’s taste,” Alves says. “So I know she loves a great sense of voice. I know she loves a sense of humor. She’s particularly looking for humorous middle-grade books right now, so that’s what I’m looking for, or anything that has a really great hook, perfect for a series for middle grade.”

While there is no one profile for literary agent assistants, most are in their twenties (Alves is twenty-six) and working in one of their first full-time jobs after college. Some attend a summer training program such as the Columbia Publishing Course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, while others come to the job through a series of unpaid internships. On average, according to the job search site Glassdoor, they earn about $34,000 a year, which is very much an entry-level wage in New York City, one of the most expensive cities on the planet. And most assistants aspire to become literary agents themselves one day, which is one important reason writers ignore the assistant at their peril.

“We are—I wouldn’t say the backbone of the agency, but we’re definitely some important bone, maybe like a femur,” says Renée Jarvis, an assistant at the MacKenzie Wolf agency in New York City. “We’re super important, and we deal with a lot.”

What precisely an assistant has to deal with varies from agency to agency and from assistant to assistant, though in nearly all cases the job is principally administrative. At Folio, Alves splits her day in two, working from home in the mornings as an assistant to van Beek, then commuting to Folio’s Manhattan offices in the afternoon to assist the agency’s contracts director and office manager. At the start of her workday, Alves logs on to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to update the social media feeds for Folio Jr., the children’s and young adult literature division of the agency. Once that’s finished, she opens her boss’s submission inbox to read the ten to twenty queries van Beek receives on a typical day.

With forty-two active clients, van Beek has a relatively full client list, Alves says, so of the roughly four hundred queries van Beek receives a month, she typically requests full manuscripts from only two or three writers, and even fewer will receive offers of representation. In fact, in the year Alves has been an assistant at Folio, she says she has seen van Beek take on six new clients, but none have come through unsolicited submissions.

Jarvis, on the other hand, who started at MacKenzie Wolf in early 2018, only recently began reading queries for one of the agency’s two partners, Gillian MacKenzie. At present Jarvis estimates that her job is about 85 percent administrative, with the remaining fraction devoted to assisting agents in making submissions to book editors.

Still, Jarvis sees her many back-office tasks as invaluable hands-on training for becoming an agent. It is essential, she says, for her to have a full grasp of the nitty-gritty details of the publishing business so that once she’s actively seeking clients of her own, she can rely on more than a simple gut reaction to a piece of writing when she’s deciding whether to take on a project.

“As I begin working with the queries and submissions, I will have more to report on,” she says. “It won’t just be about the content. I’ll have more to back up or to critique based on what I know about how the auction and the submissions and the pitches may have to go.”

This on-the-job training is in many ways the raison d’être of the agent assistant position. Literary agents work exclusively on commission, typically netting 15 percent of an author’s domestic book earnings, but a busy agent must perform a host of administrative tasks ranging from picking up the phone to routing royalty payments that are key to keeping clients happy but take time and energy away from the income-generating work of honing client manuscripts and pitching them to editors. Assistants take on much of this more mundane work in exchange for a paid apprenticeship in the agenting world. Ideally, over time, as assistants become acculturated to the business, their editorial responsibilities grow until they are ready to take on writers themselves.

Aemilia Phillips, who has been working as an assistant at the Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency in New York City for three years, is far enough along in her career that she has begun co-agenting clients with the agents she assists, Mackenzie Brady Watson and David Patterson. Phillips, who helps screen queries for the agency, says there’s no formal process for deciding which new writers will work with Watson or Patterson and which will stay with Phillips. “It’s not really a competitive thing,” she says. “If I read something and say, ‘I love this. I would love to be involved in it,’ most of the time they’re going to give the go-ahead, and it will be a very collaborative process.”

With each of the five writers she is co-agenting, Phillips has worked with the writers to shape and refine their books, and Watson and Patterson have stepped in to help her connect with editors once the manuscripts are ready for submission. “They will be co-agents on the project,” she says, “and their expertise is essential in terms of submitting and having the personal relationships with the editors.”

The apprenticeship model, which is prevalent at publishing houses as well, is not without its problems, notes Patterson, Phillips’s boss at the Krichevsky agency. Assistants typically arrive with a prestigious college degree and months of unpaid internships only to spend years more answering phones and filing contracts at minimal pay. This is excellent training for an agenting career, but it can drive away applicants from less privileged backgrounds who may find it hard to stick it out for the years it can take to rise out of the assistant ranks and build a sustainable client list.

All of this contributes to the well-documented lack of diversity in the publishing industry, Patterson says. And while there are signs the industry is diversifying, especially in the assistant ranks, it remains to be seen how lasting those gains will be, given how long it can take for an assistant fresh out of college to earn enough to set down roots in New York City. “I do think there has been some progress, but the progress is far, far from complete,” Patterson says. “The question is not, Is the apprentice-level staff that’s been hired more inclusive than it used to be? The question is, Are those people still going to be working in book publishing in ten or twenty years?”

Patterson has seen firsthand how having a more racially diverse staff can influence the books he takes on. Patterson, whose mother is Puerto Rican, says he has been pleasantly surprised by how much Phillips, whose father is from Mexico, has helped him broaden his client list.

“I’ve wanted for quite some time to represent more Latinx writers,” he says, “and it’s been a slight challenge for me partly because I don’t think anyone sees my name online and thinks, ‘Oh, that’s someone who’s going to be eager to welcome me’ if they’re coming from that background. But it’s a real and sincere interest of mine, and because she and I share that and we read almost everything together, when Latino or Latina writers arrive, we can support each other.”

Jarvis, who is Antiguan American and from a working-class neighborhood in Staten Island, New York, says she herself has witnessed the industry’s blind spots on issues of race and class. Jarvis vividly recalls an episode when she was applying for one of her early internships and wrote a scathing reader’s report on a novel the agency represented, which she thought was deeply racist. The book was ultimately published unchanged, and Jarvis later found a review online that brought up all the points she had raised.

“That fortified my desire to become an agent because it was seen by so many eyes,” Jarvis says. “It was read by the agent, possibly the publishing board, by the editor over and over again, and not one of the things—and there were a lot of things—that I had pointed out, nobody noticed they were racist.”

Today, with two years of practical experience under her belt, Jarvis is excited about the prospect of diving into the slush pile looking for authors and stories that reflect the people and places she grew up around. “Being from New York City, I’ve always been surrounded by people from a vast variety of backgrounds and histories and walks of life, so those are the stories that I’m interested in,” she says. “Whether it’s down the line when I’m working as an agent or even as I’m reading queries and submissions and helping out at the agency, I might be able to vouch for these people and for their experiences where there may be a lack of understanding.”

Not all assistants are as sure as Jarvis that they’re cut out for agenting, however. Being a literary agent is mainly a sales job, ideal for extroverts who like to schmooze and aren’t afraid to cold-call an editor to pitch a book. In her year at Folio Literary, Elissa Alves says she has found herself drawn more to her administrative work than to the client-facing side of agenting. “You want your agent to be an advocate for you, someone who is fierce and willing to negotiate, and I’m a little shier than that,” she says. “I enjoy the spreadsheets. I enjoy looking at the royalty statements. Paperwork is something I’ve always loved doing, which is crazy, I know, but still I enjoy it.”

Assistants who are keen to make the shift into full-time agenting can be a resource for aspiring writers. Many agencies now list their assistants on their websites, and many junior agents who have recently left the assistant ranks will name-check the agents who mentored them. This can be valuable information because assistants and junior agents tend to share literary tastes with their mentors and lean on them for help in reaching out to editors. If a highly esteemed agent is too busy with current clients to take on many new writers, a former assistant may have more time to work with a new writer and be able to tap the more senior agent’s contacts at publishing houses.

“I don’t think many literary agents’ assistants get into this business unless they’re looking to build a career,” says Phillips, “so writers shouldn’t be afraid to work with young literary agent assistants, even if they only have a client or two to their name, because we’re young and we want to make our way in the industry, and we have the time and space to work really hard and prioritize the writers we’re working with to create the best books.” 

Michael Bourne is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine