Behind the Scenes with Agent Jim McCarthy by Lizzie T. Leaf
This month I want to give a big thank you to Jim McCarthy, an agent with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, who graciously agreed to sit in the hot seat. Jim grew up in a family of readers so is it any surprise the book arena called to him?
Let’s get to the interview and hear what knowledge he has to share with us on the behind the scenes working of an agent’s life.
Jim, please share a little about your background and how chose literary agent as a career?
Honestly, I just fell into it! The summer after my freshman year of college, I needed a part time job. Of the 40 or so places I sent resumes, DGLM was the first to call me back. I interned off and on for three years, and then a full time position opened up just as I was graduating. Before I started here, I didn’t even know what a literary agent was. I just knew that I loved to read. Suffice to say, I was won over. This July I’ll hit the 14 year mark since I first walked through the door.
Do you read all submissions that you request or do you have an assistant who gives the manuscript a first read?
I read at least part of every submission. I have other people give reads as well—sometimes to help prioritize the reading pile, sometimes just for a second opinion. But yes, every manuscript goes before my eyes. (I can see authors rolling their eyes in disbelief, but this is actually true.)
What qualities do you look for in a manuscript and an author?
With a manuscript, there are really only two factors that matter to me: if I believe I can sell it and whether I love it enough to work on it for a long time. The ideal manuscript is a perfect blend of the two. That’s not to say that I haven’t occasionally signed on projects I wasn’t sure I could sell just because I loved them so much. But when it comes down to time management, the large majority of projects have to be things you believe you can sell. In terms of authors, there are a thousand qualities I could say that I want, but when it comes right down to it, my biggest hope is just that they’re nice people!
I know you want the complete package of perfect, but if you don’t get that, which would you rather have? A flawed manuscript with an author willing to take your suggestions to improve the submission, or a perfect manuscript from an author that your gut feels is going to be tough to work with on a lot of levels?
I guess this spins off my previous answer. I want to work with good people. That doesn’t mean authors can’t be tough—I’m more than happy for clients to challenge me editorially or push me to try harder for them. I respect authors who will take a stand for every word they write. So I see a big difference between those who are tough on me and those who are just tough to work with. So let’s say this: I’ll take the flawed manuscript from a reasonable and decent author over the perfect manuscript from an asshole.
Some agencies have a meeting of the minds to go over submissions that an agent likes and thinks would be sellable. Is this the case in your agency, or do the agents decide on the clients they want to represent?
Our agency does not suffer a shortage of meetings! We meet every morning Monday to Thursday, have a submissions meeting every two weeks, and then also have check-ins about our eBooks program. That doesn’t even count our office bookclub! We are non-competitive within the agency, and we share work with each other constantly, which has a lot to do with the fact that a majority of us have been here ten years or longer at this point. If there’s one thing we really know, it’s each other. But when it comes down to signing a project on, that decision is 100% the individual agent’s. I’ll call for second opinions or pass along a project for someone else’s consideration, but I’ve never taken a project on that I didn’t choose to work on by myself.
Are agents taking steps to offer their clients help with eBook and self-publishing?
Most agencies are exploring this in some way, though I think there’s a great deal of variation throughout the industry. At DGLM, we have dedicated staff who will work with clients who want to do assisted self-publishing, and that happens at our standard commission rate.
How does an agent help their client with marketing and promotions, or do they?
We don’t do actual marketing or publicity for any of our clients. We are happy to offer guidance, to keep on top of those doing the actual PR, and to assist as we can, but at the end of the day, we aren’t publicists and don’t have the staff or structure to act as such.
You love the author’s manuscript and have a signed contract to represent them. What’s next on your end?
Edits! I tell people that I would never sign on a project that I wouldn’t be willing to send wide as is, but at the same time, I have never sent a project out as is. I love the editorial stage, and I want to make sure that material is in its best possible shape before editors have a chance to consider.
How closely do publishers work with you once they buy a book?
I like to be involved in every step of the process—to read edit memos, see marketing plans, be kept up to date on production schedules, print runs, etc. Not every publisher wants to keep the agent so involved throughout the process, but I try to squeeze my way in as much as possible so that I (and therefore my client) won’t be blindsided.
Looking in the crystal ball you keep on your desk, (okay, dig it out from under the manuscripts), what genres do you see being strong sellers over the next year or two?
Oh, who knows? Honestly, I think it’s a complete and total crapshoot. My HOPE is that instead of over publishing single genres for a couple years at a time, publishing might be able to find a better balance of material so that the widest possible range of readers is always being reached. That said, we’re led by sales and things come and go, so I’m sure that won’t be the case. I guess right now everyone is just watching “New Adult” to see if that’s going to be a thing for any sustained period of time.
Peering into that same crystal ball how do you see the publishing world evolving over the next year? Next five years?
Well, we know that we will continue to see the rise in access to and sales of independently published books. What exactly that will mean is up for debate. I predict that at some point, we’ll find that there is room for independently published AND traditionally published books on the bestseller lists—I really don’t see either one going away any time now. I think we’ll see ebook prices from traditional publishers falling. And, gods be willing, we’ll see readerships on the rise on account of the ever improving access to all books in all categories. Fingers crossed!--
Award winning author, Lizzie T. Leaf enjoys writing Paranormal/Fantasy with a twist of humor. Her Magical Love series is available in print and eBook at Passion in Print and other sellers. Beyond Magic, the first book in the series won the 2012 AOE Best Paranormal/Fantasy/Sci-Fi. The DEAD series is available through Musa Publishing where she also has two Christmas novellas including Making Christmas, the LRC Best Historical winner and the 2012 Aspen Gold Best Novella winner.