This week, the Deb Ball is interviewing industry pros who aren’t authors, to give y’all a bit of a view of the rest of this wild publishing world. I decided, since he’s used to me pestering him for odd things, to ask my spectacular agent, Connor Goldsmith, if he’d tell the Deb Ball readership a little about the mysterious workings of his role:
Tell us your tale! Who are you, where are you from, and how did you come to be a literary agent?
I was born in New York City, and grew up mostly in the suburbs just outside it. Apart from the four years I spent at Oberlin for undergrad, I have lived in the NYC area my whole life. I would love to see more of the world, but barring some completely irresistible opportunity this is my home, and the only place I really ever want to live.
As for literary agenting, I actually sort of fell into it! I loved acting and writing growing up, but I decided I wanted to facilitate artists rather than be a public figure myself. My dream in college was to become a talent agent for film and television, so after graduation I interned and did relief assistant work for a time in that field — but it was all unpaid work, and after a while that became pretty untenable. So I went to grad school to take some time to think (and bolster my résumé a little), and while I was there a friend told me her roommate was looking for an intern at a literary agency. “Not the same kind of agency,” she said, “but it’s an agency!”
I figured I didn’t have anything to lose.
I fell in love with the book world so immediately. Film and television agenting is very exciting, and I worked with many wonderful people in that sphere, but in my experience it was sometimes limited in terms of creative freedom. I had to make compromises. As a literary agent I get to choose all my own projects, and I’m always confident I’m standing behind work that I love and feel good about — creatively, artistically, politically, morally. I get to amplify voices that move me, and that I think might move the world. It’s very rewarding.
Fuse Literary is a pretty wonderful agency. Tell us a little bit about what makes it special:
I joined Fuse after a few years at a very traditional New York agency, and part of what drew me in is that it feels so different. My mentor Laurie McLean has a background in tech, and is always thinking outside the box. We’re a virtual agency with locations all over the US and Canada, with Laurie based in Silicon Valley, and she and Gordon Warnock (the agency’s other partner) are always trying new things, always looking toward the possible futures of publishing in this very unpredictable time for the industry.
Fuse has brought self-published authors from popularity in that world to massive deals in the traditional market, and we’ve had a lot of success with newer multimedia storytelling models, video game opportunities, clients writing for mobile apps, and all kinds of projects that step outside the traditional notions of book publishing. Laurie has never, ever discouraged me from taking on a project that speaks to me, no matter how ‘weird’ or potentially controversial it might be. That freedom is so important to me, as someone who sees this work in part as a political calling. She and Gordon are always behind me, my clients, and their individual voices.
But what I love most about Fuse is the sense of community. I know every one of my colleagues has my back and would do anything to help me succeed, and we are always helping each other. That attitude comes from Laurie and Gordon at the top, who are the most incredible bosses and so generous with their time, and it has sort of radiated out to the clients as well — we have a group online called ‘Fuse Club’ that our clients can join if they like, which is sort of a discussion forum and a place to share advice or ask each other questions. Whenever I check in on Fuse Club I’m always so happy to see my clients and my co-workers’ clients having really fruitful conversations, lifting each other up, and supporting each other before and after publication. It feels like we’ve built something really beautiful.
I think a lot of people, even aspiring authors, don’t understand exactly what an agent does until (or sometimes even after) they’ve got one. What is your function in the literary world?
The agent is the author’s representative and advocate in the wild world of publishing. I always tell my clients that they don’t work for me, I work for them; that is how I personally see the relationship. Obviously it’s more complex and symbiotic than that, because the author seeks the agent out in the first place, and the agent offers on the work, but once the partnership is forged I feel the balance of power should always lean toward the author as much as possible.
To be an author’s advocate is a multi-faceted thing, but my main duties are:
- Helping the author edit and polish up their work (novel or nonfiction proposal)
- Pitching each work to specific, carefully chosen editors at appropriate publishing houses
- Working with the author to decide which publication offers to accept
- Negotiating the best possible deal in any contracts between the author and the publisher
- Selling subrights (audio, film & television, foreign translation, etc.)
- Advising the author on their career path
- Helping the author with branding and promotion
- Seeking out opportunities for the author in the wider industry
- Forwarding checks and royalty statements to the author from the publisher
On top of all that, my big job is to be the ‘bad cop’ amid any difficulties the author might have with their publisher. The agent is the person who steps in to say that the author is unhappy about something, and who works out a solution with the author’s input. This helps ensure the author doesn’t develop a contentious relationship with the editor or publicist or marketing person or accountant or whomever else — any tension gets put on me instead as the middleman.
I found you through Twitter, thanks to #MSWL. How do you use that platform to connect with the writing world?
Twitter isn’t for everyone, and sometimes it can be a distraction, but it’s been a real boon for me. I managed to find a tight-knit publishing community on Twitter as an assistant, long before I was actually making deals as a literary agent. By the time I was seeking clients in my own right, I was already somewhat established as a person with a certain point of view, a certain ethos, and so on. That was part of what helped my earliest clients — you included — find me in the first place! So I’m very grateful that I had that opportunity, because I didn’t go to school for publishing and I didn’t have very many connections in the business when I was first starting out.
I’m also just an extroverted person by nature, and I work from home, so Twitter is often sort of my window into the world outside. These days, that isn’t always a pleasant view! But I think it’s so important to be engaged, even when it’s difficult, and to be checking in with the people around you.
On a more macro level, social media is also a place where marginalized people can often have a louder voice than is typically allowed in the general media. I learn so much on Twitter from people with different perspectives from my own, and I hope there are people who’ve learned whatever small things from me. It’s a very imperfect platform, and I have a lot of issues with the way their team manages the website, but I think it’s possible to build really meaningful connections there.
Why do you represent the genres that you do? What do you love about them?
The majority of my fiction list is science fiction, fantasy, and horror. I was a nerdy kid, and I have always loved genre fiction most; my dad is an X-Men collector with a pretty impressive treasure trove, and I grew up on comic books, genre television, and B-movies. So part of it is that I want to represent what I love to read, watch, and endlessly dissect as a fan in the first place.
The bigger thing, though, is that I want to represent art that I think is important, that might make a difference in the world; that’s what drives me, what really brings purpose to what I do. I think the most daring progressive work in fiction is often done on the genre cutting edge.
Science fiction and fantasy and horror let us use pure imagination and speculative concepts to lay bare the inequalities and injustices of our world, and find pathways to fighting them and creating a better way to live together as a species. The sky is the limit in genre, and there are so many people reaching for it.
In nonfiction, most of the time it’s about politics for me. I’m not opposed to taking on a lighter concept once in a while, if it’s clever, because sometimes we just need to laugh. But by and large my nonfiction clients are people speaking truth to power, whose messages resonate with me as something I want to help broadcast. I tend toward stuff about pop culture and mass media — my graduate degree is in Media Studies — but there needs to be an angle, a hook, something that feels like it’s moving the conversation forward.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, I am drawn to voices that are brave. I don’t always feel brave myself, and I’m proud to lift up people who are unapologetically courageous, who put themselves out there in the court of public opinion because they are passionate about what is right.
Any words of wisdom (or cautionary tales) to pass to aspiring authors?
I know a lot of people are eager to find a literary agent, and I think that’s great! (I am, obviously, biased as to whether or not it is good to have a literary agent.) The fact of the matter, though, is that having an unscrupulous literary agent is a lot worse than having no agent at all. There are people out there marketing themselves as agents who are not on the up-and-up, and it is so important that you make sure you are submitting your work to agents at reputable companies with good track records.
The biggest thing that should give you pause is anyone who asks you for money. Money should never flow from the author to the agent — an agent is paid exclusively by the publisher, with a percentage of the money the author has earned (15% generally; 20% sometimes on more complex deals like foreign translation or film that may require a co-agent). We do not get paid unless you get paid. Anyone who is charging you a ‘reading fee’ or an ‘editing fee’ or anything like that is running a scam.
I recommend every aspiring author interested in traditional publishing take a look at the Writer Beware guide to literary agents, which is a great resource. It clearly illustrates the differences between a reputable literary agent and a con artist, and might help you spot someone not acting in your best interest before it becomes a problem for your career.
Other than that, just keep your head up and keep querying! And don’t get discouraged if you get a rejection from the agent of your dreams — the real dream is having an agent who loves your work, and wants to make you a success. We’re just people like anyone else, and we have subjective tastes. Find a partner who thinks your voice is perfect. That’s what matters.
Thanks, Connor! You are, as ever, the best.
Connor Goldsmith began his career in publishing in 2012 at Lowenstein Associates, where he was promoted to Associate Agent in March 2013. He joined Fuse in early 2014 and was promoted to Agent in November 2015. Prior to transitioning into the world of books, he spent a year as a full-time intern and relief assistant in the commercial film and television department at Abrams Artists Agency.
Born and raised in New York, Connor lived for a brief stint in the Midwest studying English and the Classics at Oberlin College in Ohio. He is passionate about narrative fiction across all media as a vehicle for social progress, and received a Master’s Degree in Media Studies from The New School for Public Engagement.
You can follow Connor on Twitter at @dreamoforgonon.