So you want my art job: literary agent

Alex Adset is a literary agent and publishing consultant with over 25 years of experience in the publishing and bookselling industry. She has directed Alex Adsett Literary since 2008 and has worked as an agent or consultant to help thousands of authors review and negotiate publishing deals.

As an agent, she represents more than 50 authors of all ages and genres, including Melissa Lucashenko, Peter Greste, Isobelle Carmody and many more. As a consultant, she reviews and negotiates publishing contracts for authors without an agency.

how do you describe what you do

As a literary agent, my job is to represent authors and their books—that is, finding great new manuscripts by reading hundreds of not-great ones, advocating for my authors’ rights, working with authors on strategies, and presenting new books to the right publishers and sale of ancillary rights such as film and overseas territories. It’s a job that involves knowing the book publishing industry inside and out while also having a lot (many) balls in the air.

How did you start your career?

I started out as a maniac-obsessed reader, and armed with a semi-degree in Arts/Law and some experience in the book trade, I headed to London to try and break into publishing. It took me six months to apply for entry-level publishing positions (I was lucky enough to also work in a bookshop) before I got my first break at Simon & Schuster UK. After three years in London, I worked for three years in the rights and contracts department at Penguin in Melbourne and as a contracts manager at Wiley in Brisbane.

After 10 years working for major publishers, I first set up my own consulting firm to help authors who don’t have an agent negotiate their deals before finding the first “right” manuscript that convinced me to also make the jump into dare the agency. For the first six years I had a part-time job with the company to help pay the bills while I grew the agency, but I’ve been in my own business full-time for four years now and it’s growing from strength to strength.

What do you look forward to most every day in your job?

What I love so much about being an agent and being able to talk to people about books all day still feels like a dream come true. I love the excitement of getting in touch with a new manuscript and the thrill of showing that manuscript to someone else who loves it as much as I do. I love knowing I’m making a difference in the life of an author or reader, I love walking into a bookstore and knowing so many of the authors I see on the shelf.

I’m passionate about making stories happen in the world, and even if the endless avalanche of emails wreaks havoc on you, at the end of the day I might get a package containing one of “my” latest books and the thrill of closing it open This box of books is the same as it was 25 years ago when I was a baby bookseller.

What are some of the misconceptions of your work?

A lot of people think that an agent’s job is to edit manuscripts and while some agents in Australia do that, for most of our roles it doesn’t matter much. For many of us, it’s all about finding the gem of a manuscript and getting it into the hands of the right publisher.

There’s also a perception that all agents are sharks, and while there are some scary agents, most of us try to represent our writers in a way that’s beneficial to both the writer and the publisher. That doesn’t stop me from having the tougher conversations when needed, but it’s not the starting point.

What skills and qualities would you look for in an interview?

There are many types of agents and a love of books and reading is a must. I would also look for someone who also has an underlying respect for authors and sees themselves as an advocate for their client, not someone being dictated to by an agent.

Agentship is a job that builds on industry experience, so someone starting out as a literary agent must already have a background in the industry. I think you also need a good dose of persistence – it’s not an easy job and it takes years to build an income (if ever), so you need to be in it for the long haul. I’m also a huge copyright and contracts nerd, so it would be nice to have more people in the industry who also have this very obscure love.

What’s the best thing happening in your industry?

In recent years there has been a global boom in stories of all genres with underrepresented perspectives.

As an example, let’s say just the young adult category, we have incredible First Nations voices like Lisa Fuller and Gary Lonesborough in Australia, The hate you give Coping with Black Lives Matter in the US, pioneering LGBTIQ advocate by authors like Freya Marske or Alice Oseman heart stopperand then various Australian voices such as Shelley Parker-Chan and Vanessa Len, conquering international award-winning markets overseas.

It was wonderful that underrepresented authors could find such an enthusiastic audience after being ignored or marginalized for so long. Publishing itself still has a long way to go. It was a belated acknowledgment of the lack of diversity within the sector, but is a work in progress.

Otherwise, publishing has been very fortunate to have weathered the last few years better than many other arts sectors, and while debut authors have suffered badly, the industry as a whole has been able to thrive in Australia. We are now seeing audiences returning to writers’ festivals across the country and international travel to overseas book fairs resuming. We hope for blue skies after such rocky years.

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