In many writing careers, the telephone represents work not being done—calls to chat with friends, decline solicitors or deal with the plumber. It seems like the ultimate distraction from actually putting words on paper.
But to 36-year-old Laurie Liss, a literary agent at Harvey Klinger Inc., her career is, in large part, conducted on the phone.
"My day begins and ends on the phone, talking to writers, editors, publishers," Liss says. "With my writers, sometimes I shoot the breeze, sometimes they need a break. Mostly I get progress reports on their work."
She spends the majority of her time talking to her stable of 20-odd writers, including Richard Paul Evans, author of The Christmas Box and five other best sellers, and Dave Pelzer, who wrote A Child Called It.
Fresh from a three-month maternity leave, the importance of phone work was brought home upon her return. "I thought I had kept in touch, calling once a week or so. Relative to where I was, I was out of touch. It was eye opening."
In fact, just picking up the phone brought the biggest moment of Liss' career—discovering Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County.
Advice to writers: "I don't like queries by e-mail. It clogs up my e-mails. And don't write a 1,200-page first book. Mostly what a 1,200- page book means is that it needs to be edited by three-quarters. Look, Shakespeare wrote in short form." Advice to aspiring agents: "Read and familiarize yourself about the marketplace. Read about agents, talk to writers, to editors. Find an agency that does the kind of books you like to read. If they don't do the type of book you like to read, you'll hate your job." Lucky break: The Bridges of Madison County. Salary range: "You can make up to $1 million in a year. But most of the agents I know in New York make from $50,000 to $100,000."
About 10 years ago, while working at Aaron Priest (another literary agency) one summer Friday, the assumed weekly holiday in New York creative circles, Waller called.
"We talked for about an hour. And at the end of the conversation, I said, 'Sure, send your book.' I thought, 'Oh great, another writer from Iowa.' I let it sit on my desk for about three weeks. He called and asked if I read it and I said I would. I sat down and read it on a Sunday and thought, 'Oh my gosh, there's something in this.'"
Although standard operating procedure is to submit proposals in writing to agents, "he didn't know the process and didn't care. The chances of calling and getting one of the best-selling novels of all time sans Harry Potter is unbelievable."
While phone calls are important, there's other work to be done. Going through 30 to 50 queries occupies about a half-hour each day.
Receiving 75 queries a week, the agency requests additional materials—proposals, sample chapters, full manuscripts—from only three or four.
What catches her eye? "A really good, interesting letter. What makes it uninteresting is people who write, 'My mother thinks this is the best book she's ever read. I swear my mom is really smart and not biased at all.'
"Pictures make it really unappealing (too). I have never had someone who's given me a picture of themselves who could write."
Another turnoff—bossy letters. "When letters begin, 'You are going to take on my book because ...' I always turn it down. It's almost always sub-par.
"And, don't send me a query letter that says, 'I am the next Danielle Steele.' My reaction is, 'No you're not.'"
Liss says that the query is really important. "What is good to me is if a letter is written really well, grammatically correct and lists the agent's name correctly.
"I need to get the impression that the writer knowswhat they're talking about. If you can't write a letter, how are you going to write a book?"
Three to four hours each day are spent working with editors and publishers on ongoing projects and negotiating future deals.
Then, there's writing. "I closely edit proposals. They should be very straightforward—overview, table of contents, sample chapters. There's no need to reinvent the wheel.
"It's a 24-hour-a-day job. Part of the job of agent is maintenance. When a client is on a book tour, they can call day or night, even if they just need to complain to someone."
As a result, personal chemistry with a writer is highly important. "If I don't like someone I can't be their agent."
Upon graduation from Sarah Lawrence, she had brief stints as a bookstore manager and in television production, before landing at Aaron Priest. She stayed there four years before moving to Klinger, where she's been for nearly seven years.
"I still look at writers with a sense of awe. To think up a story, how to tell it and then get it down on paper is mesmerizing to me."
Julianne Hill has written for the Associated Press, Advertising Age and A&E's Investigative Reports. She lives in Chicago.