#82: A Sneak Peek at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with literary agent Jim McCarthy, by Jackie DiCaro

Literary agents can seem like an elusive bunch when you’re an emerging writer trying to break into the industry. They tend to reject most submissions they receive, but in truth, they’re actually looking for new writers just as eagerly as you’re looking for them.

We spoke with Jim McCarthy, VP and literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, about how he tends to find—and work with—new clients. Turns out, his process can be just as surprising as the path his clients took to find him. Jim will share more wisdom on our “Ask the Agents” panel at the Slice Literary Writers’ Conference on Sunday, September 11.

You’ve been with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management for an impressive 17 years, starting as an intern and working your way up to vice president. The industry has changed so much in that time. How have the industry’s shifts affected the way you work with clients (and prospective clients)?

While the industry has changed a ton, how I work with my clients has, happily, been relatively consistent. It’s true that working with authors who do a hybrid of self-publishing and traditional publishing isn’t something I would have considered a decade ago. And I answer more questions about social media than I did before. At the same time, though, the essence of the job hasn’t changed at all: I sign on people whose work I find extraordinary, I work with them editorially, and I look for opportunities for them to maximize their readership and their earnings while continuing to improve and grow as authors.

What’s on your project wish list at the moment?

I’m best known for doing YA, and I’m very actively seeking in that category. But I would also really love to see literary fiction and narrative nonfiction in the areas of history, pop culture, and current events. A book like Matthew Desmond’s EVICTED or Yaa Gyasi’s THE HOMEGOING would be a dream for me right now. I’m also very open to middle grade, which some people don’t think of me for. I love a big-hearted adventure, and a sense of humor goes a long way for me.

Your panel at SLWC is “Ask the Agents.” Attendees will have the chance to ask you and your panelists whatever they’d like about the publishing process. Are there any questions writers should be asking that you rarely hear? In other words, what are some common blind spots that tend to hurt writers’ chances of landing an agent or publisher?

I think writers need to remember that they’re very much in the drivers’ seat. No, agents aren’t lacking options for writers—we all see a ton of material. But once we want to work with you, we’re actually working FOR you. Keep that in mind and be willing to ask questions like “How long does it take for you to get back to your clients?” or “What happens if my first book doesn’t sell?” I’m always happy to answer these questions because I know what a partnership the agent/client relationship is. And I hear horror stories about people’s experiences with some other agents sometimes. So, yeah: bottom line? Remember you can push, and ask questions accordingly.

What advice do you have for writers struggling to navigate social media? Can a writer really build an audience without it?

With fiction, in particular, I don’t know that I believe it’s ultimately as important as some publishers seem to. Yes, it can pay to be engaged. But I’d rather see people not use these platforms at all rather than use them badly. My advice is to test different platforms and see what you respond to. If you love something image based, give Instagram or Tumblr a whirl. If you like to be pithy, try Twitter. See what feels natural. If it’s a chore to use? Skip it.

Whatever you do, think about who your readership is and try not to alienate them—I’m not saying not to be political or socially conscious or have strong opinions. But also think about why people are following you, and give them what they’re there for. If people are following you as an author, they will want you to talk about books and writing and process—make sure you’re hitting subjects often enough to keep your readers involved. It can be tough (especially in an election cycle) and it’s something I know I personally struggle with. It’s just a good thing to try to keep in mind.

Can you share one of your more memorable stories of working with a debut author?

I work with debut authors all the time and still find more than half of my clients in the slush pile. And things can go so many different ways with debut authors. For one, I submitted her book on a Friday and closed a pre-empt deal on Monday. For another, I submitted to about 40 editors and got no traction, then sold the book three years later when the assistant of one of those editors started acquiring projects and still remembered that submission and having loved the book.

In other cases, first books don’t sell, and then I’ve worked on a new manuscript closely with the author. For one, the first manuscript I submitted didn’t place. The second I sent out ended up being my biggest first deal ever. For another, it took three tries and fails before we finally landed on the book that convinced an editor to take a chance—and she now has a third book published.

Sometimes it happens nearly overnight. Others, it’s a longer road. It’s why I’m always very wary of agents promising the world when they offer representation, because you can’t REALLY know for sure how things will work out. All I can ever offer are my best efforts. Happily, while it can take differing amounts of time, more often than not, it really works out.

Jim McCarthy is vice president and literary agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in New York, NY. He has been with the agency for 17 years, initially as an intern way back in the ’90s. He represents a wide range of fiction – adult and young adult, commercial and literary. He is also seeking narrative nonfiction, particularly memoir, history, and pop culture. His clients include The New York Times best-sellers Richelle Mead, Victoria Laurie, Juliet Blackwell, Morgan Rhodes, Livia Blackburne, and Suzanne Young.

Jackie DiCaro is a student and an intern at Slice. When she’s not at work or at school you can find her obsessively reading, writing, or penning book reviews for her blog.