A Sneak Peek at the 2018 SLICE Literary Writers’ Conference: An Interview with Literary Agent DongWon Song
March 13, 2018
Literary agent DongWon Song believes the future of publishing will be messy, but we aren’t doomed. Song works at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. Previously, he worked as an editor at Orbit Books. So he’s been on both sides of the fence. Throw in stints as a product manager for ebook startup Zola Books and an adjunct professor at the University of Portland and, as you’ll see in this latest interview in the Encounters in Publishing series, Song has a unique perspective on the industry. Survival, according to Song, is a matter of being smart, nimble, and adaptable. It doesn’t hurt to have a hobby, either (he’s a passionate woodworker). Learn more about Song’s views here, and don’t miss him at this year’s SLICE Literary Writers’ Conference (early bird registration just opened).
- You’ve worked on the East Coast and then the West Coast, and now you’re back in Brooklyn. How has working from each location impacted your work as an agent?
Has working on each coast had an impact? I’d have to say: Yes! Absolutely! And also: No! Not at all!
As for how: being in Portland, I definitely had a different pace and a different work style than I do when I’m in New York. I don’t necessarily feel that it impacted my ability to find authors or connect with editors. In part, a huge amount of the networking and development work happens in online spaces these days. That said, the first years of agenting are notoriously difficult from a financial perspective. It takes a while for projects to sell and even once they do, the income stream from any project is often spread out over years. So, even a deal that sounds like a lot on paper, when broken out as your rent money and your food budget, can be quite difficult to build a sustainable life on. Portland, for all its recent growth, had a much lower cost of living than Brooklyn and I can’t deny that that was big factor in my ability to build my business.
The networking opportunities in New York are very real, though. It is enormously helpful to be in a place where you can meet editors, writers, and industry folk in general on a regular basis. There’s always some opportunity to be at a place where other bookish people are and that can lead to new contacts, new business, and new friends. I probably couldn’t have gotten to where I am, in the amount of time I’ve been doing this, if I hadn’t spent ten years in New York building a network first. I’m very lucky in that I’ve been able to benefit from the advantages of being in both places at the right times.
- You were an editor at Orbit, an imprint of Hachette, and then you became an agent. What inspired you to take that leap?
I loved being an editor and I loved my time at Orbit. I think switching sides is a lot about how I’m wired as a person and my preferences for working style, communication, and how I choose to order my life. Basically, I’m extremely independently-minded and enjoy being able to set my own schedule and pursue projects without having to consult with an extensive hierarchy. It gives me mobility and flexibility to develop talent and focus on very long time-horizon goals.
That said, I do miss working with a team of like-minded folks. I learned an enormous amount from my colleagues and wouldn’t be half the publishing professional I am without their mentorship and friendship. Sometimes working in a vacuum requires grounding yourself in a very deliberate and intentional way among your peers who can help you maintain perspective and keep you current.
- What kinds of projects are you actively seeking right now?
I’m looking for distinctive voices from under-represented communities. I’ve always been drawn to genre fiction, so generally something with a speculative element. But, really the projects I’m most excited about are ones that feel like they’re from a culture that hasn’t had a chance to be part of the dominant conversation. I want to hear from voices that we don’t hear enough from.
In a more concrete way, I’m looking for science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers with a speculative component. I also work in those categories for middle grade and teen audiences.
- You served as an adjunct professor at the University of Portland. What drew you to teach?
I love teaching! I’ve been lucky enough to work with some brilliant people in my time in the industry and I want to pay it forward in any way that I can. There’s so little formal structure to how we pass on publishing expertise to incoming, young professionals that being able to explore that in a pedagogical environment was hugely exciting and fulfilling. Being forced to boil down concepts you’ve learned over years into a syllabus teaches you a lot about your own process and highlighted ways I needed to grow and push myself as well.
- You participated in Zola Books, a start-up focused on creating a better system for selling books on the internet. What was your role in the project? What are your perspectives about the future of publishing and its relationship with technology?
I had many roles in my time at Zola Books. I ended up running product management over there which meant I got to be involved in a lot of the design decisions and the engineering decisions as we worked on developing a suite of products to serve booksellers, publishers, and authors alike. I learned an incredible amount about the publishing ecosystem and the technical and business underpinnings of the industry
I think publishing’s relationship with technology is an ever-evolving one and I’ve learned to steer away from reductive conclusions. I think print books and digital formats will find ways to co-exist and the market will continue to evolve. New formats are coming and will present new challenges as we figure out how to monetize those avenues and preserve an author’s ability to derive income from their work.
I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist when it comes to publishing’s future. It’s going to be messy, is the only thing I can promise you. And I think we can survive whatever is coming. We need to be smart. We need to be nimble. And we need to learn to evolve.
- You make exquisite pieces of art out of wood. How did you pick up such a unique hobby? What is your favorite part about woodworking?
Thank you for saying so! I’ve got a ton to learn when it comes to woodworking and am still just exploring this new weird thing I do. But it’s always nice to hear that someone likes something I made,
I love working with books and I’ve done so in one form or another pretty much my entire professional career. That said, books can be slow. It’s years from concept to physical copies in your hand. And sometimes I find that I need to make something more concrete. I need to spend some time making something with my hands to remind myself that there’s a process to creative arts and that a thing that feels like an ephemeral idea can be a real thing in the world. I like to cook for the same reason.
DongWon Song is an agent at Howard Morhaim Literary Agency representing science fiction and fantasy for adults, young adult, and middle grade readers as well as select non-fiction. He was formerly an editor at Orbit and a product manager for the ebook startup, Zola Books and has taught as an adjunct instructor in the publishing program at Portland State University.
Greg Stewart is a writer and a student attending The New School in their Master’s program for Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism.