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How I Became an Agent

With some of the events that occurred last week in regards to what many of us call "schmagents" or shady agents, I think now's a good time for me to talk about why and how I became a literary agent in the first place.


When I was in high school, and even my first years in college, I wanted to be a writer. The issue, for me personally, was that I never believed writing could be a full time profession for me. So I wrote and took lots of writing classes, but part of me was always a little withheld from the process.


And so, in hedging myself, I double majored in Economics and Creative Writing, with a double minor to boot. Transitioning from my junior year to my senior year, I also started applying to every publishing and editorial internship that I could find. If I remember correctly, I applied to something like 80 jobs, ranging from internships to entry level editorial roles. Luckily, I was offered a marketing internship with a high school textbook publisher. Yes, the commute was an hour each way, but I happily drove down there or took public transportation (thanks, NJ Transit) twice a week because it 1) paid me and 2) it got my foot in the door.


One of the may ways that I am privileged beyond being a white, cishet man is that in college especially, I did not have to work to survive. Between my parents and my scholarship, I was not paying for tuition, room and board, or food at the college I attended, and it was also within walking distance to NJ Transit, if for whatever reason I could not drive my car. I was, and still am, very fortunate to have these privileges in my life.


So I worked as a marketing intern for six months, and I also made it clear to my 2 bosses and 3 managers that I'd ideally like to work in editorial. And at the end of my internship, they offered me a remote editorial assistant position. Again, incredibly lucky to be at the right place at the right time. So of course, I took the job.


I could have, and maybe should have, stayed in close proximity to the office, but instead, because I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do, I went to grad school to get my MFA.


After my first year at the MFA program ended, I was told that my editorial position was being eliminated and therefore, so was I. I scrambled. I needed to pay rent. I needed to eat. So in the three weeks I was out of work, I applied to over 200 positions. I wasn't so focused on editorial this time, I just needed a job. I had a few interviews and during one particularly horrible snowstorm, I was offered a job managing and editing the website for a big multinational corporation. The money was far more than I was ever making as an editorial assistant, and I remember being so dumbfounded when they told me the salary that I had to stop myself from saying "YES! HELL YES!" to remind myself to negotiate and try and get a little more.


But even though the pay was good and I felt a great connection to my coworkers, I didn't feel like I was doing what I *wanted* to do. It wasn't fulfilling. Because I was tired of grad school, I was taking as many side courses as I could while still fulfilling the core requirements. And in one of those publishing courses, we talked about who literary agents are, and what they do. After we had one come and speak to the class, I knew that was the dream job.


So I graduated, and stayed at the web job.


"But wait, Matt, you just said you found out what your dream job was. Why didn't you go chase after it?"


Well, because I knew, from my own experience, that publishing jobs mostly exist in/around NYC (hopefully this is continues to change with COVID-19 making us all remote), and that publishing jobs don't pay nearly enough to live off of. So I stayed at the web job and worked and saved and worked and saved.


I also had a very frank conversation with my boss when he asked me one day why I needed to take yet another Friday off with my vacation days. I told him what I was actually doing: I was driving down to NYC, taking informational interviews and applying for any job at a literary agency that opened up. Similar to the last time I had to apply to jobs, I applied to everything under the sun that was even close to a literary agency. I also told him that I was giving my notice--and this is where, because of my relationship with him as friends and as his subordinate, I knew I could be honest. In the summer of 2016, I told my boss I was giving 3 months notice, with the possibility that if I was offered a job sooner than that, it would be less time.


My plan was that I was going to move regardless of if I had a job or not. It would be a lot easier to work and take interviews if I was that much closer to NYC. My savings would cover me for a little, but I gave myself a month to apply and interview before I would take a side job. So I kept at it. The last week of July, when I was packing all of my stuff to move from the outskirts of Boston to New Jersey, a position as an office manager at a literary agency opened up. I applied and interviewed, which required an additional trip to and from NYC in the midst of packing.


Two weeks later, I got the job.


I only stayed there for 6 months, when another positioned opened up that had more room for growth / the potential for promotion. That was four years ago.


My last position was very much "learn by doing," and it was hard. I'd spend 10 or 12 hours in the office, read manuscripts on my commute and edit contracts on weekends. My life was work. Eventually, and after some stress-induced vertigo, followed much later by some stress-induced stomach ulcers, I realized I couldn't do it anymore. I was burnt out from being a full time assistant and agenting part time. I knew I had to leave.


And not a month after I came to that conclusion, did a full time literary agenting position open up. And I started that job 7 months ago and am very happy and incredibly thankful to Lane for taking a chance on me and giving me this opportunity at The Tobias Agency.


So what it is about this job that requires experience? Well let's start with the fact that you are working with your clients on manuscripts or proposals that are incredibly intimate and time consuming. I talk to so many writers who say they've been working on this one manuscript for 3+ years. Not to mention that those submissions agents send out really only get one shot when they are sent out. You can't say "oops, here's an updated draft" the next month, they're saying no to the project, not to this version.


Do I have experience doing this job? You bet. But I'm not the most experienced either, and I'm always learning about the better way to do something. I think that makes me adaptable. I think that makes me a good agent.



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