Writing Careers: Rita Rosenkranz, Literary Agent

Serendipity seems to rule the literary agent”s life.

“Every phone call is a potential surprise,” says Rita Rosenkranz, founder of Rita Rosenkranz Literary Agency in New York.

While one phone call out of the blue can lead to a project, it might take years for a relationship with another author to percolate. “It all counts. Things can emerge and be rewarding.”

Although Rosenkranz specializes in adult nonfiction, she handles a wide-ranging list, including music, history, self-help, popular science, decorative books and memoirs. “I like it that way and hope it never changes,” she says. “I like works not easily cloned, that are distinctive for their originality.”

She cites Simple Days: A Journal on What Really Matters by Marlene A. Schiwy (Sorin Books) as an example. The book results from Schiwy keeping a journal about living on Staten Island with her husband, looking to live more simply.

The concept intrigued Rosenkranz. “To live in New York City, living a simple life, is an oxymoron,” she says.

Rosenkranz also has taken an interest in books she”s discovered through the Writer”s Digest National Self-Published Book Awards, for which she serves as a nonfiction judge. She recently sold last year”s nonfiction winner, Enchanted Companions by Carolyn Michael, a book about the stories of dolls in people”s lives.

Career FAQ

Career advice: It helps to be detail oriented. You”ll trip over the details if you”re sloppy about them. Keep an open mind yet have a point of view. It helps if you enjoy working hard and enjoy reaping beauty.

Advice to writers: There is nothing like the simple query letter. It helps if there is a level of sophistication and you are clear about the work”s beauty and promise and reason for being.

Salary: A junior agent would make about $25,000. Some agents get $35,000 to $50,000. The salaries could go much higher. For an established agent, the sky is the limit. The more you sell the more you make.

Lucky break: I started off with writers who I had worked with but who were not represented. It was easier to branch out from there.

Rosenkranz starts each day in her home office by reading The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Then, she checks her e-mail “before the phone starts ringing.”

What happens next depends on the various projects she is juggling and in what form of germination they happen to be.

When a proposal has not yet been submitted to publishers, Rosenkranz handles editing.

“An agent”s job is to help prepare the manuscript before it gets to the publisher so [he] can”t reject it for obvious editorial reasons,” she says.

Once a project has been submitted to a publisher, she follows a formula of times to follow up: “You wait for the time that the publisher will not see it as pushy but just the right timing. That”s maybe a month, or maybe less.”

Then, for projects in the later stages, there is “the unattractive part but an essential side of my work”—asking for money. Nearly all her clients use Rosenkranz as the financial intermediary—with the advance, initial payment, delivery and royalty checks going through her.

Finally, reading new submissions is also always on the day”s to-do list.

Regardless of the stages of her projects, a critical piece of any agent”s duties is nurturing authors and developing strong relationships with them.

“We must understand the vision [of a project] and make sure that we are aligned,” she says.

A Brooklyn native, Rosenkranz graduated with an English literature degree from the University of California, Santa Cruz, in 1977. After working for Big Brothers of Greater Los Angeles as a typist and then in public relations, she moved back to New York in 1979.

In 1980, she landed at Random House as an editorial assistant. During her five and a half years there, she eventually became assistant managing editor. Her titles were nonfiction, including Betty Crocker cookbooks and American Medical Association books.

She went on to spend a year as managing editor at Scribner”s (now Scribner) and a year and a half as editor in chief at Outlet, a former imprint of Crown Publishing.

By 1988, she became restless. “I wanted more control of my fate, and I wanted income that in theory [was] more in line with input. I saw that agents had fewer furrowed brows than editors, and seemed to have things more in balance.”

The next year, she struck out on her own. Her first clients were authors she knew, who were not yet represented. “I knew there would be a learning curve, an initial dry spell, but I was hopeful.”

Her first project was a logistically difficult one. In 1995, she helped Edward Robb Ellis publish A Diary of the Century: Tales from America”s Greatest Diariest (Kodansha). Ellis was a newspaper man in his 80s suffering from emphysema. The book was based on his 70-year diary.

“I was helping an author realize his lifelong dream in helping the diary get published,” she says. “This was an exquisite feeling.”

This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer”s Digest.

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