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A Look at Literary Assistants (Part 1): Suzie Townsend's Story of From Assistant to Full Agent

The title "assistant" never does anyone justice. It conjures images of the inexperienced, the temporary hire, the noob.Yet just as the magician's sequined accomplice is responsible for meticulously timed moments of audience misdirection, so too will a writer never truly know what percentage of that surprise acceptance was bestowed by the magic wand of an agent's assistant. Jude Tulli, has written for several recent editions of the Writer's Market and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market.

The title "assistant" never does anyone justice. It conjures images of the inexperienced, the temporary hire, the noob.Yet just as the magician's sequined accomplice is responsible for meticulously timed moments of audience misdirection, so too will a writer never truly know what percentage of that surprise acceptance was bestowed by the magic wand of an agent's assistant.

Far from noobs, today's literary assistants are well-educated, well-read, and well-positioned to become tomorrow's agents. Many are, unbeknownst to the writers who query their offices, already taking on clients of their own—pulling literary rabbits out of a slush hat like magic. This, even before they've shed their assistant hats, replete with befuddled cottontails who haven't yet heard the sidekick has also become the star of her or his own show.

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Guest column by Jude Tulli, who lives in the
Sonoran Desert with his beloved wife Trish and
a small pride of housecats. He has written for
several recent editions of the Writer's Market
and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market.
His short fiction has appeared on Scribblers
and Inkspillers' Copper Wire and the
Enchanted Conversation.

But don't take it from me. We are fortunate that assistants who have already spun the bookworm silk of their souls into dew-glinting chrysalises have volunteered to spill their trade secrets before they emerge to stretch their fully-speckled butterfly wings.

SUZIE TOWNSEND: FROM ASSISTANT TO FULL AGENT

FinePrint Literary Management's Suzie Townsend will graduate to full agenthood on April 11, 2011. Her first year as an assistant started with an occasion for fireworks. She sold her client Lisa Desrochers' Personal Demons. It's a novel "about a good Catholic girl with a devilish streak who finds herself caught between an angel and a demon who are both fighting for her soul, and ultimately her heart." Townsend beams, "It sold as a three book deal, at auction, to Melissa Frain at Tor." It was published in September 2010.

From such beginnings, things just keep getting better. Not unlike the monuments to reading inside her home, her stack of sold books grows steadily taller. Townsend says, "I didn't shed any duties as I took on more clients, but I certainly slept less."

Far from shabby for a former "executive assistant/agent" who is just now preparing to train a replacement to perform vestigial duties. Lingering assisting "responsibilities include reading and responding to [Rubie's] queries, reading manuscripts he's considering and manuscripts turned in by his clients, as his second reader." As if that wasn't enough, "as intern coordinator," Townsend says, "I delegate jobs to the interns in our office. I keep track of the royalty statements and contracts coming in and going out of the office. There are also a lot of administrative duties I perform, like filing, data entry, phone calls, supply orders."

Suzie Townsend. Art by Realm Lovejoy

She also wrangles the slush pile. "Peter usually skims his queries when they come in. If something catches his eye, he'll request it, if not he puts them into a folder for me to read." Those are left to Townsend's discretion. Fortunately for querying authors, her consideration is of a considerate nature. "Whether I'm reading queries for Peter or for myself, I think about everyone in the office. If I find something that looks like it might interest one of the other agents in the office and seems well-written, I'll forward it on to them to see if they're interested." She's glad that "At FinePrint we ask for the query plus the first few pages ... because sometimes the voice will really grab me even if the query didn't."

LANDING IN NYC WITH AN INTERNSHIP AND A DREAM

Townsend arrived in New York with an internship and a dream. "I got into publishing after switching careers (I taught high school English for six years) ... Peter hired me as his assistant before the internship ended and when I found a manuscript I loved and wanted to take on as my own, he was excited to let me do just that." Now she represents "a range of different genres [in] children's and adult fiction. Right now I enjoy being involved in a little of everything at the office."

Yet the siren song of agentdom leads her onward to ferry chosen writers' dreams safely past Scylla and Charybdis, through the tempestuous straits of publishing. "Of course my favorite part of my job is that I also read and edit manuscripts my own clients send me," she says. Another enjoyable aspect of the trade: "Ever since I started taking on my own projects, I've been meeting a lot of editors for lunch or for coffee, which is always fun, especially when they bring books." Townsend somehow manages to fit all of her innumerable duties into her daily routine. "At the end of my day," she says, "I answer any of my own queries, and on my train rides I read - either a published book, client projects, or requested material."

When a submission meets with Townsend's approval, it still has a few hurdles left to jump. "I always go to Peter whenever I want to sign anything. After getting a few second reads from people in the office, I give him the manuscript and discuss the project and the author with him." Fortunately for the few affected, Townsend has heretofore found the final footfall a formality. "So far whenever I've gone to him with a manuscript I love and am passionate about, he's been very supportive."

18 CLIENTS AND COUNTING...

Townsend has posted her submission guidelines on her blog. "At the end of 2009 I had six clients," she says. "Three were referred to me from other agents, two queried me after seeing an interview I did on a writer's blog, and one I contacted after seeing her query in a contest." She'll be carrying 18 clients with her as she crosses the threshold to full-time agenthood.

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