Q&A with Author and Literary Agent's Assistant, Christine L. Herman
Today I'd like to welcome my fellow Pitch Wars 2016 mentee, Christine L. Herman to the blog! Born in Manhattan, Christine grew up in Japan and Hong Kong and came back to the United States to study at the University of Rochester, where she earned an Honors English degree. In addition to her day-job working as an agent's assistant at Greenburger Associates in New York City, Christine is also an author of Young Adult fantasy, represented by Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary Agency.
Hi, Christine! As an agent’s assistant for Matt Bialer of Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, give us a quick rundown of what you do.
Hi Megan! My job as an agent’s assistant varies day by day because of the flexible nature of the publishing industry, especially on the agenting side. But the most important overarching tasks of my job are fairly consistent. Essentially, I function as the agent I work for’s eyes and ears -- I sort through the query inbox, I read requested manuscripts, and I assist with reading and providing feedback on client manuscripts as well. I also help prepare materials for submission, build editor lists, and track manuscripts and proposals while they’re on sub. My boss, Matt Bialer, has been a wonderful mentor who’s taught me so much about the agenting process since I started here in August.
Another big part of my job is contracts. I’ve spent the past 9 months learning a whole lot about contracts (although I’m still figuring out new facets of a standard publishing agreement almost every week!) and logging the relevant information from each new deal my boss makes in our financial tracking system. I also deal with many admin tasks -- mailing out contracts and royalty statements; ensuring that people receive their payments on time. That sort of thing.
What has your experience been like working at a literary agency? Has anything surprised you?
Every literary agency functions differently. Some are small, one-person operations; others are much more traditionally corporate. Sanford J. Greenburger Associates is somewhere in between, a mid-size agency where most of us come into the office daily. I personally enjoy this because I’m a big fan of all my coworkers, and having everyone around means I’ve been able to learn a lot from my fellow assistants and the other agents.
Oh goodness, so many things have surprised me, but I’m going to go with the snacks. My office is great at sharing, and it seems like someone is always bringing in cookies or brownies or chocolates. Since I’m a total foodie at heart, I love it. We had ice cream cones yesterday to celebrate spring finally descending on New York City!
I’ve also been surprised by how much editorial work is involved in agenting. Again, this varies widely depending on the agent, but I enjoy working with clients to revise their manuscripts before they go on submission. Signing with an agent almost never means your book is ready to go to editors ASAP -- instead, it usually means one or more rounds of edits!
What are some of the most common mistakes you see in queries?
I actually wrote a post about this for a blog I contribute to called Writer’s Block Party! So for a more in-depth look at my query advice, you can check it out here.
But I think the singular most common mistake I see in a query is confusion surrounding stakes vs. exposition. Lots of authors think they need to explain every last detail of their book in order to show an agent what makes it special. But that’s not the case. A query is not a summary. It’s a brief, enticing glimpse of a novel that makes an agent want to read more. The best way to do that is to focus on the two or three most compelling elements of your book, tell the agent the genre + word count, and have strong, clearly understandable comp titles.
Tell us—how has your time in the query inbox, reading manuscripts, and drafting edit letters informed your own work?
I think it’s certainly made me a stronger writer. It’s at least made me more aware of the traditional conventions of story structure and genre. I think a lot more about why I do what I do when I write a book.
It is worth noting, though, that the pressure of writing a query when you read queries all day was essentially a Kafka-esque nightmare. Since I started this job, I’ve been working on building my non-book-related hobbies, because it’s made me realize that all publishing, all the time is not a sustainable life plan if you want to have any kind of emotional distance from the process. And emotional distance is key when the business is as strange and fickle as publishing is.
What is the biggest challenge of the job?
People assuming I read books all day! No, haha, seriously -- I’m here because I love books, but there is so much more to my job than that. The biggest challenge has definitely been taking on unexpected tasks & learning completely new skill sets, whether it’s filling out foreign tax forms, learning how to read a royalty statement, or getting a feel for what times of year are busier than others.
In addition to working at Greenburger, you’re also a YA author represented by Kelly Sonnack of Andrea Brown Literary Agency! Is there anything you can tell us about your current WIP?
I’m currently working on revisions for the manuscript I signed with, a YA contemporary fantasy called THE DEVOURING GRAY. It’s best described as The Raven Boys meets Stranger Things -- a horror-tinged fantasy book filled with small town intrigue, four rival family lineages, 3 POV characters, a creepy forest brimming with secrets, and the occasional dark ritual.
What’s your #1 piece of writing advice?
If what you’re writing doesn’t scare you at least a little bit, whether it’s an ambitious concept, a new genre, or a different type of structure or focus, you’re not challenging yourself enough. Ideally, you grow as a writer with every project you tackle, and you can’t do that without stretching your boundaries!
I love all the advice Christine shares here and I'm sending her a million thanks for carving out the time to share her experience from 'the other side', as well as giving us a glimpse at her gorgeous work-in-progress, AND some relevant writing/querying tips that you can apply RIGHT NOW no matter the genre/category you write in!
If you connected with Christine's interview and benefited from any of this thoughtful advice, please be sure to hop on over to Twitter to tell her yourself at @christinexsists. For more, check out her author website at christinelynnhermanwriter.wordpress.com.
And last (but not least!), if you missed the link above for the extended post on queries Christine wrote for Writer's Block Party, I highly encourage you to click on this image to be redirected. DO NOT miss these great insights and tips for crafting outstanding queries!