The Mind of an Agent: Chatting with Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson
Chris: I’m always curious about how people end up where they are. How’d you become an agent? Had you always set out to do it, or did you happen into it?
Carrie: I grew up in a small town in Michigan where an ‘agent’ was someone who sold you insurance. I attended a private liberal arts school for undergrad, on Biology/Environmental Research and Pre-Med Scholarships. (I’m probably one of the few literary agents who has taken, and passed, two semesters of Organic Chemistry.) The ‘mistake’ of course was taking Creative Writing 101 to fulfill an art requirement. I’d always loved to write and began reading (more like devouring) books at the age of three, much to the chagrin of my kindergarten teacher who didn’t know what to do with me two years later. After declaring a Creative Writing major, I still fulfilled all my Pre-Med requirements (and even added Pre-Law, ‘just to be safe’). Then I decided to spend a semester off-campus. By this time, I’d become the Poetry Editor of our campus literary journal (which drew submissions from across the country) as well as a reporter for the campus newspaper. So, to me, it made sense to study ‘abroad’…in New York City. I asked to be placed at a publishing house as an editorial intern or at a literary journal. My NY program advisor called one day and, in the thickest New York accent I’d ever heard, and asked if I’d like to interview at a literary agency. I said, “Yes, absolutely!” then immediately got off the phone to Google ‘Literary Agent.’ In the end, I landed the internship at a well-known boutique agency with one of the most impressive client lists I’d ever seen. The agency was Donadio & Olson, Inc., and the rest, as they say, is history…
Chris: WHY are you an agent? Why do it? Certainly there have be headaches here and there, troubles and whatnot. So what makes you get up in the morning and keep at it?
Carrie: I went into publishing because I couldn’t think of a better job than getting paid to read amazing books for a living. I decided to become an agent because I wanted that close, personal relationship with the authors. I like to say that I represent an author’s career, not just his or her book. I’m fortunate enough to work with my writers in every aspect of their careers, from editing to publicity and more. There’s nothing more fulfilling than discovering a new writer and knowing that you had an integral part in getting that first book published, and establishing a career. So what makes me get up in the morning? My authors. Bob Dylan said, “A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and goes to bed at night and in between does what he wants to do.” I don’t think it’s a stretch to suppose that Mr. Dylan is referring to literary agents here…
Chris: What traits do you, an agent, think make an agent good? How do you think that differs from what writers are sometimes looking for?
Carrie: I’ve always said that the two best traits I possess as an agent are: the mind of a poet and the work ethic of a Midwesterner. I represent literary fiction, and some non-fiction, so I love beautiful writing. I often say that my ideal book would be a novel written by a poet. In addition, I write poetry, not fiction, which enables me to separate my own writing from what I do day-to-day. I think it’s helpful to have the distinction so as not to feel burned out in either genre. And aside from a love of writing, to be a good agent, you have to work. A lot. There’s no other way to say it. If you’re looking for a 9-5 job, being an agent probably isn’t for you. I spend evenings reading, weekends at book fairs and conferences, lunches with authors and editors, I even read submissions on the elliptical at the gym. I absolutely love my job, so it rarely feels like work. Along those lines, I always tell my authors, “I can’t want it more than you do.” Basically, I need them to put in the same kind of dedication to their work. I suppose not all agents harass their clients about keeping up with social media, attending book events (apart from their own), even what they’re working on next, but I do. It’s my job to build an author’s career, which means developing all aspects from writing to public image. I’m definitely a hands-on agent, so if an author is looking for someone to check in with from time-to-time, we probably won’t be a good match.
Chris: You seem to have a lot of fondness for the writers you work with, so… What do you, as an agent, look for in a writer? What about as a reader? Is there any difference?
Carrie: It’s true; I adore all of my writers. I never take on a book or author that I’m not completely passionate about. I touched on this a bit before, but I look for beautiful writing. It’s my personal opinion that, you can either write, or you can’t, and while that craft can be honed, it can’t necessarily be taught. Despite the exorbitant amount of submissions we get on a daily basis, not everyone is a writer. Just like not everyone can be a model. (I know how it feels—I’m only 5’3.) In addition to style, I look for a strong voice. I believe that if the voice is strong, the reader will follow it anywhere. So, when I see a manuscript that’s beautifully written, with a strong voice, I’m of course drawn to it. Other issues, like plot, character development, etc. come in to play as well, but to some degree, those can be fixed. I don’t expect a manuscript to be perfect when I receive it. In fact, I expect that it won’t be. This isn’t to say that a writer shouldn’t be submitting the best possible manuscript, but if there are issues that I think we can solve together, I’ll work with a writer to get that done. Again, I’m a hands-on agent. My writers often go through several drafts with me before we submit their manuscripts to editors. But I think you’re doing your clients a disservice by not sending out the most polished draft possible. And because of this back-and-forth, I look for an author with a good attitude, someone I can develop a good rapport with, who will listen to my notes and, while I don’t expect that he or she take every single one, will thoughtfully consider them. I also look for writers who, as I said before, are just as committed to their careers as I am. I want writers who will do everything possible to, along with my help, promote themselves and their work.
Chris: You brought up something interesting in an earlier email that maybe doesn’t get asked enough: Why get an agent at all?
Carrie: Of course the simple answer to this question is, “Because you have to.” But I remember being on that side of the “Because I told you so.” conversation with my mom growing up, so let me explain. In order to submit to a major publisher, you need to have an agent. Most publishing houses simply don’t accept un-agented queries. One of the many jobs I have as an agent is to get to know these publishing houses and the editors who work there. By developing these relationships, I know who would be the right editor for a particular book, and that editor knows that I represent quality writers, and won’t waste his or her time on something that I don’t think would be right for that particular list. Agents are also, for lack of a better term, filters. We weed through the hundreds of manuscripts we see and show only the best to these editors. You might say we’re on the frontlines of publishing. (It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.) Beyond the ‘Because I said so.’ argument, what is the benefit to you? There are countless benefits, really. Initially, you have a professional to help you polish your manuscript. You also have, generally, the backing of an agency which may have a lot of history, as mine does, which means people know of it, and they pay attention to our submissions and our authors. When it comes time to negotiations, agents play a huge part. We have the knowledge and background of years of book deals and hundreds of contracts. We know how to negotiate higher advances, what rights to hold back in order to make the client even more money, and what language in a contract might affect the author negatively in the future. We work for you. Some people ask, “Why give a percentage of my earnings to an agent?” My answer is always, “Because you can’t afford not to.” I almost always earn back my commission, and then some, meaning an author still ends up making more money than he or she would have without an agent, and the job is done for you. Basically, your agent is there to do all the legwork, negotiating, and even schmoozing so you can focus on what you do best: writing.
Chris: We typically put more emphasis at the conference on “getting the writing done” than getting published, but clearly we want people to get published, or at least read. When does a writer know they’re “ready” for an agent?
Carrie: In my opinion, most writers are ready for an agent at least one or two drafts after they think they are. Meaning, take your time. You don’t have to, nor should you, send out your novel the second you type that last word. Give it to friends you trust (other writers, former workshop companions, an old professor, etc.). And take some time away from it. I always tell writers to put their novels in a drawer for a month, then come back to them. You’ll have a fresh perspective and undoubtedly see things that you never saw before. You’ll have that ‘Aha!’ moment where you’ll say to yourself, “How could I have considered sending this out without changing___?” Of course, all that being said, don’t tinker. A few drafts, a month away, these are good things. But if you get to the point where you’re adding and deleting the same line for a week straight, it’s probably time to start submitting to agents.
Chris: What should a writer do to find out if they’re ready? And when they’re ready, what should their first move be?
Carrie: Again, if you’ve accomplished what I’ve mentioned above, you’re probably ready to submit. My recommendation: take that month while your novel is settling in the drawer to begin your agent research. That has to be your first step: research. It doesn’t do anyone any good for you to submit your novel blindly to one hundred agencies. So much information is available online now, finding an agent that aligns with your work is easier than ever. One bit of advice that I love to give: check the backs of your favorite books and see which agents are acknowledged there. Chances are, if you have five favorite writers, those you feel your work most resembles, or those writers you feel most influenced by, those agents are a good place to start. And of course, there’s nothing an agent loves more than his or her authors, so knowing that you like them, too, always hits a sweet spot. It also lets us know that you’ve done your research. I love to get queries from writers that say, this book by your author is one of my favorites and so I thought you’d like my novel. Don’t, however, throw in any name just to have it there. I’ll know that your work isn’t similar to a certain author when I start reading your manuscript and it’s nothing like that author’s book. For example, if that author writes literary fiction and your novel is a commercial thriller, it doesn’t bode well for your research. Along those lines, look at the genres each agent represents. If you have an amazing idea for a cookbook, that’s great, but don’t waste your time, a stamp, etc. sending it to me, because I simply won’t know what to do with it. There are agents for everything; you just have to look.
Chris: Can you describe what the “courting process” is between an agent and a writer? Any stories from personal experience you care to share?
Carrie: Well, I like flowers, chocolates, and Diet Wild Cherry Pepsi (you laugh, but it’s REALLY hard to find here!). But seriously, what you can expect is that you’ll query an agent, he or she will get back saying to send the full manuscript, or that it simply isn’t a good match. Once you’ve sent the manuscript: be patient. We read so much that to think you’ll get a response in a few days just isn’t reasonable. That’s not to say that you can’t ever follow-up with an agent, but I really wouldn’t suggest doing it before a month has passed. If I like your work, I’ll likely contact you with questions like, “Are you open to edits?” and give you a basic idea of what I’m thinking. Then, once we both decide that we’re on the same page, I’ll make an offer of representation and hope that you’ll accept! I suggest always mentioning in a query if you’re giving an exclusive look or whether you’re querying other agents, which of course is totally fine. I expect that you’re going out to several agents at once, because it does take time, and you don’t want two years to go by before you find an agent. If you do receive an offer of representation, get in touch with those other agents. Don’t simply fall off the radar. If an agent has taken the time to read your work, do the polite thing and let them know that you’ve had an offer. This also gives the agent a chance to offer you representation as well, and you may find that the second or third offer is actually a better fit. And it should be a good fit on both ends, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ideally, you’ll have one agent for your entire career, so choose wisely!
Chris: There are some predatory types out there in Internetland, folks who promise the sun and moon in addition to publication. How should writers protect themselves? What should they be looking out for?
Carrie: I’m not sure where all the modeling analogies are coming from, but a friend once told me that the answer to this question is akin to how to deal with the guy at the mall who says he can make you a model, but that you have to pay him thousands of dollars upfront. A real agent will never (ever) ask for any kind of money from you. We can’t. We’re bound by certain rules laid out by the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR) that dictate these things. It says we can’t charge reading fees, for example. However, not all agents are members of the AAR, so that’s always a good thing to check. If they’re a member, you know they’re in good standing, and can generally be trusted. Of course the best way to protect yourself as a writer is to, again, do your research. See who else they represent, or what other authors the agency represents. Does the agent/agency have a good track record and a solid list of authors? Our agency has been around for over forty years, and we represent some of the top writers in the world. Our reputation is very important to us, as it is to the editors we work with, and the authors we represent. An agency with a good reputation is so important, because they are your image to the world. Go with someone you’d be proud to have represent you.
Chris: What do you read–genres, formats, etc., as well as specific writers, publications, etc.–when you’re not wearing your agent hat? Do you ever not wear your agent hat?
Carrie: This is sort of like that music question. “I listen to a little bit of everything—except country.” That’s true for me, except that I also love country. (Dolly Parton, anyone?) That is to say, while I have my favorites, I try to read a little bit of everything. I’m not sure that I’m ever ‘not wearing my agent hat.’ But I think a good agent should read everything. I believe that you have no room to judge a book or a writer you haven’t read. So, while I’m always drawn to literary fiction, it’s what I love, I also read the more commercial books that tend to show up on the New York Times Bestseller list. As an agent, it’s important for me to know what’s selling, and why.
Chris: Why in the world would you say yes to a weekend with us here? Are you insane?
Carrie: I asked an agent friend to answer this question for me and his response was, “my best friends would happily agree that I’m insane.” Haha. Thanks so much, Chris! I hope all this is helpful! I’m really looking forward to the conference!