#69: Behind the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Renée Zuckerbrot, by Maria Gagliano
May 29, 2015
How many of us really know how literary agents spend their day? We know they do the great work of discovering new writers, but what does that work truly look like? I chatted with literary agent Renée Zuckerbrot as she offered a glimpse into her average day as a literary superhero (which is anything but average—you’ll get exhausted just reading about her morning). Renée will discuss this topic with a great team of literary agents on our “A Day in the Life” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference in Brooklyn on September 12 + 13. You can find the full panel line-up here.
Many of us have a vision of literary agents wading through stacks of submissions all day. What is a typical day for you really like? Or, is there such a thing as a typical day?
Every day brings surprises and new challenges in addition to the daily workload. This morning, for example, I reviewed a contract for a client’s short story to be included in a “Best of” anthology; I presented a TV offer to a client for his debut novel; I put the finishing touches on a mash note to a writer whose essay I read over the weekend; I worked with a client and his publicist on coming up with a title for an excerpt from his novel that will be posted on Medium; I sent an inquiry about clearing permission for a client to use a photograph in a magazine excerpt; and I followed up with a couple of clients about upcoming deadlines. Dan Smetanka from Counterpoint Press came by the office to talk about his spring and fall titles and other forthcoming books from Counterpoint and Soft Skull. The rest of the day will be spent answering emails and phone calls and working on a client essay. And answering your questions! However, some days I have time to read submissions and queries. Agents are eternal optimists. Every day is an opportunity to discover a terrific writer and her manuscript in my submissions in-box.
How much editorial work do you do with an author before submitting their project to publishers?
It varies from project to project. Some manuscripts and proposals require extensive editing, others require less work. I believe in the “First do no harm” rule of editing: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. That said, I want my clients’ submissions to be in good enough shape so editors and publishers can envision the finished book.
Would you take on a client if you saw promise in their project, but felt it still needed a lot of work?
It depends. I don’t do a lot of line editing because I tend to represent literary fiction and I won’t take on a project if I don’t love a writer’s prose, or if I feel like sentences need to be untangled. I will take on a project that needs work in terms of character development, pacing, overall structure. But I need to feel the writer is in control of his material, and that he is capable of revising.
How involved in the publishing process are you after you’ve secured a deal for your client?
In the beginning, it’s me and my client working on revisions. Once I sell the manuscript, I like to step out of the way and let the acquiring editor and my client work together on bringing the manuscript over the finish line. I believe it’s important for me to foster a great working relationship between my clients and their editors. As everyone knows, it takes a village to publish a book––and publish it well. I love it when the publicist and marketing team loop me in. I will do everything from helping to get pre-pub endorsements to pitching my clients for readings and literary events to pitching my clients’ books to magazine and newspaper editors I know. Of course I do all of this with the publicist’s and editor’s blessing. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, or interfere with the publicist’s own pitching.
What would you say is one of the most surprising parts of your job that folks might not expect a literary agent to do?
I had a client on tour who developed a very strange rash just as he arrived in New York City. I got him an emergency appointment with my dermatologist. I try to be accessible to my clients and help out in any way possible.
Before becoming a literary agent, Renée Zuckerbrot worked as an editor at Doubleday. Her authors include (among others) Kelly Link, M.O Walsh, Shawn Vestal, Keith Lee Morris, Andrew Malan Milward, Eric Lundgren, Murray Farish, Harley Jane Kozak, and Eric Sanderson, author of Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. Her authors have won or been nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, the NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award, the Story Prize, the PEN/O. Henry Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, the Locus, the Hugo, the Nebula, the Pushcart, among others.
Maria Gagliano is a writer, editor, baker, and Business Director of Slice. Her writing has appeared in BUST magazine, the Huffington Post, and Salon, among other publications. You can find her on Twitter and at mariagagliano.com.