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Agent Smackdown: East Coast vs. West Coast. Which is Better?

The world of literary agents seems divided into sub-worlds: there is New York, there is California, and there is a smattering of boroughs and burgs in between. For better or worse, New York literary agents have often been stereotyped as aggressive, pushy and relentless. Underlying that notion is another: New York agents are the ones that will move your book along, get it in front of the right editors and get it into print. Of course, that implies another consideration: If you ain't got a New York agent, you ain't got squat.

The world of literary agents seems divided into sub-worlds: there is New York, there is California, and there is a smattering of boroughs and burgs in between. For better or worse, New York literary agents have often been stereotyped as aggressive, pushy and relentless. Underlying that notion is another: New York agents are the ones that will move your book along, get it in front of the right editors and get it into print. Of course, that implies another consideration: If you ain't got a New York agent, you ain't got squat. Is the West Coast counterpart of an NYC agent mushy, touch-feely and emotive? Is there a bagel/vegan muffin divide? And what about agents smack in the middle of the country—are they just waifs in publishing's prairie winds? 

To find out if there's any substance to the pigeonholing, the only people to ask are the agents themselves, who were happy to let their own words reveal how they feel about their stateside rivals.

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Guest column by Tom Bentley, freelance writer,
editor and copywriter. He's published articles in
Writer’s Digest, the Los Angeles Times, Wired,
the
San Francisco Chronicle, Traveler's Tales
and many others. He is also the winner of
multiple short story contests.

EAST VS. WEST

Stephen Barbara, an agent and contract manager at the Donald Maass Agency in New York offered connectivity, not attitude, as the East Coast advantage: “Most of the top agencies are here, most of the major trade houses are here, not to mention the great writing community and a wonderful city with tons of culture and a great social scene which connects publishing folks regularly over lunch, drinks, book parties, award ceremonies, and the like. The energy here is really incredible. That’s not to disparage out-of-town agents, and the world is flat, of course, but we do feel it is advantageous to be in the thick of things here.” Barbara did add that there are great agencies on the West Coast, and in Boston and DC (though he didn't say anything about how good their lunches might be).

Sandra Dijkstra of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency in Del Mar, Calif., offers that it's not all location, location, location: “Where an agent is based is much less important than how well-viewed and how well-connected that agent is, to both the publishing community and to the specific author’s work," she says. "Proximity to the NY pub world can also be a disadvantage, because agents need to remember for whom they work—the author—and playing volleyball with publishers in the Hamptons, traveling up and down elevators with them in NYC, etc., can also lead agents, like the White House press corps at times, to dangerous confusion on this front. Distance from NYC, on the other hand, can afford agents a vital perspective on the mad world of publishing, and beyond it too. In any case, in the Age of the Internet, we are sometimes all too connected.”

Though it is hard to slight connections (and once again, there are those lunches), Daniel Lazar, of the New York–based Writers House agency, takes a broad view: “I think for a new, young agent starting out, there is an advantage to being in New York. There are lunches and mixers and parties where young editors and agents are meeting. Getting to know editors personally is an important part of this business. Matching up a project with an editor usually involves a personal chemistry you can’t replicate entirely on the phone. However, for an agent with some kind of experience, whether they used to be an editor or a publicist or an assistant to an agent or a sales rep somewhere, all they need is a computer and a phone. You can do that from Times Square or from the Grand Canyon or wherever.”

AND THE MIDDLE

And from a perspective that can look both East and West (and talk about lunch on her own terms), let’s listen to Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary Agency in Denver, Colo.: “NYC agents have the advantage of being able to go out to lunch more often with the editors, but is that a tangible benefit? In other words, does lunching more often make one a better agent? I've talked with many editors about my being located in Denver. Not one of them has ever cared where the agency was based. What they cared most about was my reputation and whether I send good projects their way. Interestingly enough, many editors have told me that they thought my location was an added benefit. I'm not New York-centric, and, in their eyes, that can be a huge plus. There are many terrific agents in New York (several of which are personal friends) and there are many terrific agents outside of NYC. An agency’s reputation is far more important than its location.”

BURYING THE (IMAGINARY?) HATCHET

As for a certain New York state of mind (or mood): Daniel Lazar summed it up in a tone that reflected the sentiments of many of the agents. “I know some very sweet and mild agents here in the city," he says, "and some formidable agents based miles and states away.”

East Coast, West Coast, Middle-of-the-Country Coast ... let’s call the alleged feud off—and then let’s have lunch.

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