This week we are interviewing publishing industry insiders to get some scoop for you on what they do, their advice for aspiring writers, and changes they’d like to see in the business. I’ve chosen to ask my agent, Jane Dystel, and my editor, Kerry Donovan, for their insight. Both are beloved to me and I am deeply appreciative of their time in answering these questions.
Kimmery Martin: Writers are always curious about how you spend your time… describe a typical day for you.
Jane Dystel (agent): The beauty of what I do is that every day is different. A “typical” day might be 1) an 8:00 am meeting with [partner] Miriam Goderich to discuss things we have to accomplish that day 2) an 8:30 am staff meeting discuss things we need to communicate about both regarding my books and theirs; 3) follow-up on proposals I have submitted to publishers 4) follow up with clients currently working on a book under contract 4) lunch with an editor or a publisher 5) reviewing all e-mails and responding 6) reviewing new proposal and ideas from existing or new clients 6) reading as many websites as possible to get ideas for new projects and contacting perspective writers if appropriate. Then when I am home – I work every evening – I read proposals/ manuscripts from clients to prepare for submission to publishers and I write submission letters and put together submission lists for projects ready to submit.
Kerry Donovan (editor): A large part of my day is spent responding to emails and typically there are a couple of meetings to attend. We might be presenting an upcoming season to the sales team, discussing cover art ideas with the designers, or discussing submissions in an editorial meeting. And in between emails and meetings, it’s a juggling act to prioritize deadlines. An editor’s workload includes preparing package and retailer copy, communicating with authors about edits and revisions, reviewing copy edits and page proof corrections, lunching agents, soliciting blurbs for upcoming releases and so much more. Editing manuscripts happens after hours and on weekends. And the pile of published books that I’m interested in reading just grows and grows on my nightstand.
KM: If you had to, could you write a novel? Would it be any good?
Jane (agent): I couldn’t write a novel if my life depended on it! Writing is a craft. After all these years working with authors I know how hard it is to create a work of literature and I also know this is not one of my talents.
Kerry (editor): I can’t overstate how much I admire the dedication, inspired creativity, and time management required to complete a manuscript. I am much more suited to guiding an author in revising and polishing his/her work-in-progress than crafting my own novel! If I came up with a promising storyline, I know I’d feel very impatient to have it completed as soon as I had plotted out the story arc. If only it were that easy.
KM: What’s the most difficult part of your job? What’s the best part?
Jane (agent): The most difficult part of my job is telling a client that their book isn’t going to sell. The best part is telling a client that we have an offer on their book.
Kerry (editor): The most difficult part is when a book doesn’t pull in as many readers as I’d hoped for. There are so many things competing for readers’ attention in our chaotic and overscheduled lives. And so publishers are always looking for new and innovative ways to capture people’s attention through cover art, metadata, marketing campaigns, retailer copy, the list goes on and on….discoverability is so important.
The best part is falling in love with a new project and having that “must-have” gut reaction to a high-concept premise, distinctive voice, and strong writing and then having my team share in my excitement. There comes a point in reading a submission that I’ll go on to acquire where I lose myself to the story, turn the pages at a frantic pace, and start envisioning possible cover concepts in my mind.
KM: If you could change anything about the book industry, what would it be?
Jane (agent): I would love for editors and publishers to be more thoughtful in their responses. So often I feel that they are programmed to say “no” without really thinking about the potential of a project. This is enormously frustrating to me. If editors and publishers were willing to take more risks (as they used to) I truly believe they would have more successes.
Kerry (editor): If I could wave my magic wand over the publishing industry, I would never lose out to another editor on a book I want to publish! More seriously, somehow I would counteract diminishing shelf space. Books need to be seen to be discovered by readers.
KM: Is there anything an author could do to make your job easier? What characteristics would constitute your ideal client?
Jane (agent): I love discussing ideas and strategy with authors but often they don’t listen and either second guess what we are doing or ask me to repeat things again and again. I love this business and I like to think I’m good at my job. I don’t mind repeating myself and I think it’s essential that authors are absolutely clear about what they are getting into when they accept a publishing deal, but I don’t like it though when people don’t listen or think they know it all.
The ideal client is one who is thoughtful, totally honest and transparent, respectful of everyone’s time…and one who listens.
Kerry (editor): Good communication is essential throughout the entire editorial and publishing process. It’s much easier to resolve an issue when an author makes her editor aware of a potential problem as early as possible.
KM: And, as always, for Jane: what kind of books are you currently seeking?
Jane (agent): I am looking for up-market women’s fiction, suspense, thrillers in the fiction area and serious narrative non-fiction (science, business, politics, current events, popular history).
Kerry Donovan is an Executive Editor at Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, and the most wonderful editor on earth.
Jane Dystel has been my agent since 2016, when her partner Miriam Goderich fished my manuscript out of the slush pile and passed it on to her. If you look her up on Publisher’s Marketplace, you’ll see she’s an absolute machine when it comes to landing great deals for her clients—number one in multiple categories, dozens of six-figure deals, and an impressive roster of current and former clients, including Barack Obama and Tayari Jones. Despite all this, I can testify that she treats her clients as if they’re her greatest priority, answering calls and emails promptly, meeting them in person when they’re in New York, and strategizing endlessly on their behalf. Bio below.
Jane Dystel, President of Dystel, Goderich & Bourret, has been an agent since 1986. Her publishing career began at Bantam Books. She then moved to Grosset & Dunlap, where she was a managing editor and later an acquisitions editor. From there, she went on to become Publisher of World Almanac Publications, where she created her own imprint. When she joined the agency that would soon become Acton and Dystel Inc., she quickly developed a reputation for honesty, forthrightness, hard work, and real commitment to her authors and their writing careers. In 1994, with a growing roster of clients, she founded Jane Dystel Literary Management, which became Dystel & Goderich Literary Management in 2003, and Dystel, Goderich & Bourret in 2016. Born in Chicago, Jane grew up in Rye, New York. She is the daughter of publishing legend Oscar Dystel, who headed Bantam Books for more than a quarter of a century. In her teens, she was an accomplished figure skater. Jane received her BA from New York University and attended Georgetown Law School for one year before leaving for her first job in publishing. She has an abiding interest in legal subjects. She is married to Steven Schwinder and has a daughter, Jessica, and a son, Zachary. She lives in New York City with her husband and two dachshunds, and is a tenacious golfer.