Q&A: Literary Agent Julie Barer

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Megan Blog OK.jpgGuest post by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Q: I used to think agents were really scary, city-savvy people only concerned with the bottom line. However, the more agents I’ve met, the more I realize how many of them truly love literature and care about the authors they represent.

Basics first: Why did you decide to become an agent and what do you love most about your job?

A: Before becoming an agent I had the great fortune of working at an independent bookstore. It was the act of being able to literally put the books I loved into people’s hands that made me want to work in publishing.

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I decided to become an agent rather than an editor because not only do I get to do a significant amount of editorial work, but I am closely involved with every step of my client’s careers–I love to talk about structure and character development in a manuscript, but this way I also get to help with jacket design, marketing, placing their short fiction or essays in journals and magazines and much more. In some ways the best part of my job is still being able to put the books I love into people’s hands–I just get to do it a lot earlier in the process, which I find pretty awesome.

Q: Also – I’m pretty sure agents read more than anyone I know. Do you have an insane stack of manuscripts on your bedside table? When do you do your best reading?

A: Yes, I think it would be fair to describe the stack by my bed (and on my kitchen table, the floor, the couch) as insane. I can’t read during the day at work–too many phone calls and emails and paperwork. I need quiet and big blocks of time, so I usually set aside a whole day of my weekend (9-5 or so) and any evening I can to focus on reading and editing.

Q: There is a lot of pressure on writers to find agents, particularly as they graduate from MFA programs. But not every MFA graduate or first time novelist is ready for an agent.

What does “readiness” look like? If you could give advice to any writer submitting work to agents right now, what would it be?

A: My advice would be to wait until you have done absolutely everything you can to revise the book, then put it aside for a month, then revise it again, then put it aside for a month, and rinse and repeat. You have nothing to lose by making sure it’s in the best shape possible. You will attract more agents that way–you only get to make a first impression once.

Q: You’re a busy agent with a lot of great clients like Joshua Ferris, Kathleen Kent, Kevin Wilson, Ru Freeman, and Bret Anthony Johnston — so your office receives a ton of inbound inquiries.
How much of your week is spent reviewing submissions? What turns you off in a submission? What catches your eye?

A: We probably get about 150-200 queries a week, email and hard copy combined. I try and go through them once a week, but realistically it usually happens once every two or three weeks. Anything that falls under a category I don’t represent (practical nonfiction like health or diet, straightforward genre like romance or thrillers) goes in the “no” pile, along with aggressive or unprofessional query letters. A big turn off is when I get an email query that mentions my name along with fifty of my colleagues in the ‘to’ field and a generic ‘Dear Agent’ as the salutation. There’s a wealth of information out there about who we are and what we are looking for and if someone can’t be bothered to even spell my name correctly (or get my gender right!) it’s hard to feel like I should make time for them.

Anything that comes recommended by a client, friend or writer I know goes into the “yes” pile for closer consideration (though that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll ask to see the manuscript). Other credentials like writing awards, previous publication in literary magazines, and MFA or other graduate degrees certainly catch my attention, but one of my most recent debut sales was a novel I found in the slush pile whose author had none of these things. Her letter caught my eye because the subject of her novel sounded fascinating and she had done a great job of capturing its essence in a succinct and professional manner.

Q: Sometimes, when I think about saving for my daughter’s college education, I think I should probably write a novel about vampires. Story lines seem to get recycled, and people get into literary fads.

Is there one story line or premise you hope you never see again? Or do you remain open minded?

A: I am totally open minded–isn’t that the most exciting thing about great fiction, that it can change your mind about a subject or genre you thought you’d never be interested in? I read sci fi and fantasy and I love literary fiction that combines those elements, but I wasn’t a big crime reader until Zoe Ferraris’s amazing debut Finding Nouf landed on my desk. She drew me in with her detailed depiction of life in Saudi Arabia and the character of Nayir–a man who never intended to become a detective but who ends up solving a crime. After that I started reading more mysteries.

Q: I think it’s every writer’s dream to have an agent fall in love with their work. What’s the last book you fell in love with, and why? What’s the falling in love process like for you?

A: It’s funny, on the one hand–just like with people–each time I fall in love with a book it’s a little different, because of course the book itself is different every time, and what pulls me in and holds me there varies with the voice, subject matter and characters. That said, there’s also a way in which it’s the same every time. When I fall, I fall hard, and I have absolutely no doubts. Either I turn the last page and immediately want to tell everyone in the world about the book, or I don’t, in which case I’m not the right agent for it.

The last time I fell in love with a book out of the blue was The Song of Achilles, a debut novel by Madeline Miller which tells the story of the Illiad and the Achilles legend from the point of view of Patroclus as Achilles’ lover. I have always been a fan of Greek mythology and so the query letter caught my eye. I brought the novel home and read it in one sitting without a break (I’m a big on snacking when I read at home and I know I’m falling in love with something when I won’t even stop for food). From page one I was completely absorbed by the world she had created, and the way she had seamlessly married Greek legend and mythology with a heart wrenching love story. The minute I finished it I knew I had to represent it, and I couldn’t wait to tell every editor I knew about it. You can’t manufacture that feeling, no matter how much you might want to love something, and sometimes it’s even hard to say why you love this book and not that one. We often use the phrase ‘I just didn’t fall in love’ when rejecting something, and I don’t know if authors realize how much we really mean just that.

Julie Barer established her own agency in 2004 after six years at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. Barer Literary is a full-service boutique agency that represents a variety of writers across a literary spectrum, with an emphasis on fiction. Writing by her clients has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Best American Non-Required Reading, New Stories From the South, Best New American Voices, Tin House, Granta, and various other publications, and has received numerous awards and honors, including grants from The National Endowment of the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award, the Los Angeles Times First Book Award, the Flannery O’Connor Award and the Orange Prize and Guardian First Book Award long lists. Before becoming an agent, Julie was a bookseller at Shakespeare & Company in New York.


Photo by Nina Subin.


This is Megan’s eleventh post for Get Behind the Plough.