See You on the Bookshelf | Episode 1
January 22, 2017
The manuscript is attached to an email, and that email is sent to editors at various publishing houses. The person sending it? The literary agent.
Jessica Craig: I just saw a Chinese film; it was the saddest film I think I have ever seen. What was it called … Coming Home, I think is the English title? And it’s the same director who did Hero and this other kung fu film. But this one was more serious.
Jessica: And it’s about a woman whose husband, during the revolution, he’s taken away. He was a dissident, a professor, he was sent off to jail –
Jack: This is my agent, Jessica Craig. I said to her, hey, I have this idea for a podcast. Can I interview you? And she said, sure, let’s do it.
Jessica’s based in Barcelona; I was traveling in China this summer when we recorded this. That’s why we’re about Chinese films. This is pretty typical of the conversations we have – we talk about books, movies … things that are going on in our lives. It’s like catching up with an old friend.
[ intro music ]
Jessica: – just how completely sad it was. [ laughter ] Anyways that was my most recent exposure to all things Chinese.
Jack: In order to tell the story of how a manuscript becomes a published book, we have to go back a little further – to when Jessica and I first met.
Literary agents are the connectors in the publishing world. They’re the interface between authors and publishers. If you’re trying to get your novel published, what you typically do is you first sign with an agent. And then that agent submits your manuscript to editors at different publishing houses. Many editors won’t even look at a manuscript unless it’s coming through an agent; for them, agents are a compatibility filter. It’s like getting a book recommendation from someone you know, and someone who knows your tastes – the kinds of things that you like to read.
Jessica and I met years ago, when I was still working on my first book.
Jessica: It was summertime, summer of 2012 maybe? And I remember scrolling through my email in my office at United Agents, and the Kickstarter newsletter that I subscribe to, and your book, These Days, caught my eye there. And it was the first time I’d ever seen a book pitched on Kickstarter at all, so I was kind of interested to see what that was. It was also the first time I’d ever seen a novel that was going to be self-published that seemed a bit more idea-oriented, and maybe a bit more literary then what you typically get through self-publishing channels. And I really loved your video pitch of that, so yeah, I definitely wanted to read it.
I’ll never forget just dipping into it and expecting that, I don’t know – I had loads of other things that I had to read that weekend … I guess I wasn’t expecting that much of it. But I was completely sucked in from the start, and just read the whole thing all at once.
Jack: So, one thing I wanted to ask you was to talk a little bit about your path in the publishing industry. Like, how you first started and how you became –
Jessica: Well, I had no plan to have a career in the publishing industry when I was a student and started to think about I wanted to do. But I definitely have always been a really serious reader and loved novels and poetry. I was also really internationally focused from a really early age, I think because my parents moved us to Brussels when I was just starting school at like age 5. And that really just opened up my world.
When we moved back, which – we moved back to my dad’s hometown in Connecticut – it was really tough for me continuing to go through school with this whole kind of international awareness and experience from those few years in Europe, where it seemed like everyone else I was in school with in this very small Connecticut town had never even been out of the state, let alone the country.
So I was really drawn to the books and the worlds that you get into through books, but also the world in itself. So I went to New York City for university, because that seemed like – I mean, it is the most international city in the United States, if not in the world. And from there, when I was graduating from Columbia, I actually didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew that I didn’t want to become an academic, so grad school wasn’t on my agenda.
I remember just going into the student job search office and seeing this index card tacked up on a bulletin board. I mean, this was before – the internet was not actually a part of my life or really any students’ lives that I knew at that point. It was 1994. So in searching for a job, you would just actually look through papers or things on the wall. And yeah, there was this ad for an opening at something called an international literary scouting agency, and I’d never heard of anything like that before.
Jack: Scouts are people that international publishers hire to read manuscripts that are being passed around in the US and UK. They report back to their clients on what books they should try to translate and publish in their own countries. Jessica got her start at this agency called Franklin & Siegal, which was one of the first scouting agencies.
Jessica: So I was basically working for, I think it was 18 different international publishing houses from a range of countries, from China to UK. And it just became – I ended up doing that job for eight years, which was a little unusual for an entry level job, or for. There were other scouts that would move on to something else much sooner, but I was working with really good people and it was sort of amazing to be, I mean, just starting off in my twenties and having meetings with these people or going to lunch in the best restaurants in Manhattan, and really being respected for my taste and for the way that I would report on manuscripts that I was covering.
And I think one thing that really surprised me from early on was how much it’s like this whole international network that most people don’t know about. I mean, it’s almost comparable to the foreign service network, because you’re seeing these people who are really at the forefront of culture and literature in each of their countries – and media as well. You’re seeing them regularly, like year after year. So yeah, those early relationships that I built up in my twenties are still like at the core of my relationships now.
But then after scouting for those eight years, I did realize that it wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. That I wanted to have much more of a direct connection to authors and to the writing process itself. And I think the hardest thing about scouting or the thing that I liked least about it is that you’re always having to rush on to the next – I mean, it’s really week to week, it’s like, what are the hot books right now? And then you make sure your clients are informed about them and get the material they need, and then you’re moving onto the next batch. There was really no time to be reading hardly any finished books. I’d spent up until that point, when I graduated from college and started that job, I’d really only been reading classical literature and all of a sudden, it was like never again would I be have time to be reading that.
Jack: After Jessica left scouting, she got a job as a foreign rights agent. As an author, you’ll have your primary agent – you’ll have someone who works with publishers in your home country – and then that agent will often work with one or more foreign rights agents to sell your book internationally.
Jessica: I got a job with this fairly new but really exciting boutique agency that had been formed by Bill Clegg and Sarah Burnes, called Burnes and Clegg. And I had gotten to know each of them from the work they’d been doing before. Sarah had been an editor and Bill had been rising up as an agent at the Robbins Office. And I liked both of them a lot and we just kept connecting over books. So yeah, it was really exciting to team up with them and to be the foreign rights agent for – I mean, you could feel right away that these were some really exceptional authors, like Nicole Krauss and Nick Flynn and Andrew Sean Greer. It was his novel, The Confessions of Max Tivoli, that was his real breakout. And that was the first manuscript I ever represented as a foreign rights agent.
And so that was, again, a really special experience that I feel really lucky to have. I mean, the agency itself no longer exists and kind of ended really abruptly, but it was like, the “Camelot” of literary agenting at that time.
Jack: From there, Jessica went to Europe. She got a job at Canongate, a small publisher in Edinburgh, where she worked as an editor for two years, filling in for someone who’s on maternity leave. After that, she went to a major agency in London, called Peters Fraser and Dunlop.
Jessica: The agency of Nick Hornby, of Julian Barnes, of Alan Bennett, and many greats of British writing.
Jack: They’d never had an in-house foreign rights agent. So they hired her to start that up.
Jessica: It was such a big list of writers covering every genre across fiction, nonfiction, and there were estates as well. It was also a major film and talent agency … It was really – I was entering London in the heart of many of the most exciting things that were happening in culture.
And then, I mean, what happened was that there was this breakdown of relationship between the top agents and the management – because the company had been sold to this other company years back – and one day, all of a sudden, all of the agents decided to resign, and started this new company, which they called United Agents.
Jack: It’s like a, like a Mad Men finale episode.
[ laughter ]
Jessica: I mean, nothing like this had actually really happened, certainly not on this scale. I felt very fortunate to be brought along with them. It was sort of like having to start over again, like recreate all the systems and things that I had done in the former office.
There were I think about at least a hundred people in the office when it started up, with the same like massive client list that we had had before. So it was immediately like a startup on a much bigger scale than most places.
Jack: By the time Jessica and I met, she’d been here at United Agents for six or seven years. Now, remember: she was the foreign rights person. She was supposed to be working with other agents to sell the rights for their authors. she wasn’t really supposed to be taking on any authors of her own.
Jessica: I think initially I had really thought that I would always want to be in a really big company – in United agents itself. I mean, having been one of the founding members and the bonding that happened through that process between me and the others, and with the authors over that number of years, I expected I would just continue on there until the end of my career.
I think I also believed that big companies mean that you have much more room for growth and that there would be a clear path for me from being foreign rights director to, I don’t know, having maybe more of a leadership role someday in the company itself. And maybe that would have been the case, but I was increasingly feeling that for me in my role, I really felt like this is just getting to be so big to manage in terms of the number of clients and the number of agents I was technically reporting to. And I just started to feel like a small cog in this massive operation. And also just starting to feel like to manage a list that size as a foreign rights agent, I would’ve have needed to become so mechanical in my working style and so, I don’t know, dispassionate in a way – and just be kind of pushing more and more contracts through all the time, more and more submissions out through email.
I was completely losing my sense of that fundamental connection to writers and their work that had led me into wanting to be an agent in the first place. And so that’s about when I encountered you and your writing, and this spark went off that maybe if I started doing some primary agenting on the side, that that would fire me up in the way that I really wanted and needed to be.
Jack: By that time from my end, I’d sent the manuscript for These Days to a number of agents, and I even met with a couple. But nothing had really clicked. I’d basically decided, you know what, it’s my first novel. I’m going to use this as a way to learn about how to write and publish a novel. That’s why I put it up on Kickstarter.
So when Jessica first reached out, I wasn’t really sure what would even come out of it.
Jack: So we met up when you were in – you happened to be in New York.
Jessica: Yeah, that’s right. Because I think it was probably that end of the summer. It was not too long after we decided to work together, was it?
Jack: So I remember we met in November, I think? You were in town for spending – I think it was also around the time of your birthday?
Jessica: Oh yes! Right. That was my birthday. Yeah. We were able to meet at that excellent cafe near Atlantic Avenue.
Jack: It was that ice cream place.
Jessica: Oh, yeah, that was really great. It was like the one pocket of time before – I think it was my last day there actually. And I remember feeling like we could’ve kept talking all day long if we could have.
Jack: I can say now that I’ve encountered this time and time again throughout the process. And it’s that, it’s not enough for another person to simply like your book or think it’s well-written. They have to really love it. And a lot of that has to do with compatibility. It’s kind of like dating, you’re entering into a relationship with this person, and you don’t want to get into one with someone you’re lukewarm about in the first place.
But the other piece of it, I think, is timing. You kind of have to both be looking at the same time, even if you don’t realize you’re looking.
Jessica: I mean, I definitely felt like after I read These Days that I wanted to be your agent. But I guess since that trip was coming up and we would have the opportunity to meet in person, that was probably why I waited until after that to actually offer you representation. And I figured it probably would make a difference to you too – to meet me in person.
Jack: It did. Afterwards, we decide, okay, let’s work together. So then I finish self-publishing my first book and I start working on my second. And in that time I also leave New York. I move to Detroit. And meanwhile, Jessica’s signing other authors, building her list as a primary agent. And she leaves the UK. She leaves her position at United Agents to join Pontas, a smaller agency in Barcelona. If this were a movie, there’d be quick cuts of both of us packing up our boxes, getting in cars and airplanes, opening those same boxes again in empty rooms.
[ peppy music ]
A few months after we’re both settled in our new homes, I send Jessica a draft of my second novel. Of See You in the Cosmos. And then, a couple of weeks later, I get an email back from her saying, we need to submit this as a young adult book.
Jessica: I remember the experience of just reading it and realizing that, yeah, this is actually more of a kids book and an adult one and should be presented that way.
Jack: She even shared the manuscript with a couple of her colleagues at Pontas at the time, to get a second and third opinion.
Jessica: And one of them did have a lot more experience in reading especially the recent hits of young adult or middle grade crossover books. So it was good to get her take on it – or just confirmation that, yes, this does come across as more of a kid’s book than an adult one.
Jack: You just heard her say middle grade. We both quickly learned that there was a separate category from young adult, called middle grade, and depending on who you ask, it can go anywhere from 8 to 14 years old. Think books like Harry Potter, or pretty much anything by Roald Dahl.
Jessica: First of all, I didn’t know – middle grade meant nothing to me when I was starting off, actually. I’d thought that there were picture books, or books that kids read up until chapter books. And then from there on that it was all kind of one pool of books. And I guess, not having kids myself, I never really felt I was the right style of agent to be getting into that side of things, and yet knowing from the start that I definitely want to go for it.
Jack: When I wrote the first draft, I wasn’t thinking much about audience. My main character was 11, yeah, but I was more trying to tell a story about him, and about the other characters. That said, some of my favorite books are kid’s books. The Little Prince? I read it probably once a year. So I was intrigued, to say the least. I was like, yeah, let’s go for it.
So then I make some changes based on Jessica’s feedback, and she starts putting together a list of editors we’re going to send the manuscript to.
Jessica: I mean, normally, when I submit an adult fiction title, I would at my fingertips or in my head already have a pretty complete list of every editor to include in the first round, which you hope will be the only round.
Jack: So in this case, Jessica reaches into her network and, among the first people she calls are – were coming full circle now – scouts.
Jessica: And scouts were really helpful in putting together a submission list. There were some adult editors that I included in that first submission.
Jack: She could also look on Publishers Marketplace. That’s an industry trade website.
Jessica: – and see recent young adult or middle grade acquisitions, and then which editors that been doing some comparable titles, maybe.
Jack: So she puts together this list and I send her a new draft of the novel. And then, in March of 2015, I get an email that says, “See You in the Cosmos is launched to New York.”
[ transition music ]
Jack: So here’s me, right? I’ve self-published my first novel, now we’re submitting my second to actual publishing houses. At the same time, here’s Jessica – she’s been a foreign rights agent for most of her career. And now she’s just starting to take on her own authors, working with them as their primary agent.
I’d like to think that there was a bit of, if not anxiety, then anticipation – for both of us. A kind of mutual holding of our breath. But I don’t know if that was entirely the case, or if those feelings really had time to register. Because pretty quickly, we start hearing back. And the first response we get isn’t from New York.
It’s from Germany.
A big thank you to Jessica Craig. Not long ago, Jessica left Pontas and started her own boutique literary agency, still based in Barcelona, where she’s integrating her many years of experience to work with authors from all over the world. You can find her at craigliterary.com. She’s also on Twitter: @craigliterary. Music for this podcast is by Saint Benjamin (now known as Ben Johnson Music Factory).