Agent Talk: 7 Questions With Literary Agent Rob McQuilkin

Rob McQuilkin

Rob McQuilkin

By Sean Tuohy

Literary agent Rob McQuilkin has seen the print world turn digital during his more than 20-year career in publishing, but has always kept his hand on the pulse of the market for his clients. Best of all, he’s a really interesting guy.

McQuilkin took time away from his duties at Lippincott Massie McQuilkin literary agency to sit and talk about what he has learned while helping writers realize their publishing dreams.

Sean Tuohy: Tell us how you got your start in publishing.

Rob McQuilkin: As a Columbia undergrad at the tail end of the 1980s, I thought originally that I'd major in art history, with a minor in English. The idea was to go on to work in museums, so the internships I pursued during freshman and sophomore years were all based in the art world: for example, the chairman's office at Christie's and  the Old Master Drawings department at the Morgan Library.

Then, the summer before junior year, I had this wonderful internship at The Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., working with the archivist there, Gene Gaddis. At the time Gene was circling a possible book project, a biography of the legendary museum director Chick Austin. And so over that summer of 1989, between all of the labeling of objects and other administrative duties deep in the bowels of the Atheneum, I worked as well to help Gene out with research for the book proposal he was drafting, and to edit the text of the proposal.

It was fun.

Two notions began to take shape in my mind throughout that experience:

First, that the sort of professional latitude Austin had enjoyed back in the 1920s and 1930s (when he was showing and buying the first Surrealists, for example, and building the first International Style museum pavilion, all the while nearly single-handedly re-establishing a taste and a market for Mannerism and the Italian Baroque, which had not been anyone's favorite for quite a while by then) had been, well, a wonderful aberration—a whirlwind of provocation and achievement unlikely ever to happen again in quite that way.

Also taking shape in my mind that summer was the notion that putting together a book project, on the other hand, might allow for—albeit in miniature—just the kinds of risk and reward and, for lack of a better word, "play," that had distinguished Chick Austin's career.

Leaning forward on the edge of my seat as Gene regaled me with stories about the figures he'd been interviewing for this biography of Chick—exquisitely articulate folks like Lincoln Kirstein and Marguerite Yourcenar—or as he brought me up to speed, say, on his latest meeting with a prospective editor (ultimately the project would go to Knopf's Judith Jones), I was soon enough smitten by the process. And it was not long after this that I switched my major to favor English, pushing Art History down into the second spot. Because I began to realize, you know, that publishing was maybe the likelier destination.

Fast-forwarding a few years, I would work first for Jamie Raab, then a senior editor at what was called Warner Books (a decade later she would become publisher of the well-re-named Grand Central Publishing) who, in addition to doing the paperbacks of people like Lorrie Moore and Scott Turow, was publishing huge New York Times best-sellers like Ekaterina Gordieva's My Sergei and Nicholas Sparks' The Notebook. After that I went to Anchor Books/Doubleday, where I worked on the paperback editions of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, edited Anita Hill's Speaking Truth to Power, and acquired Lois Gould's classic memoir, Mommy Dressing: A Love Story, After a Fashion.

One thing that was soon clear during my time on that side of the desk was that I was predisposed to see the author's side of things, and maybe less so the publisher's. One of my bosses (not very happily) pointed this out to me once, and I thought: "Well, she's kind of right." Then again, I'd grown up the grandson and son of writers, and so had some idea of how things could look from the other end of the "supply chain"—just how things could come off to someone who'd spent his or her time drafting, revising and submitting, rather than, say, attending marketing meetings.

Maybe it was inevitable that I would become an agent. Certainly the job felt right the moment I took it on.

I cut my teeth as an agent working for Jill Kneerim and Ike Williams at what was then the Palmer & Dodge Agency—an unusually conceived outgrowth of the intellectual property division at a mid-sized Boston law firm that nonetheless had a staggeringly good list of writing clients, ranging from E.O. Wilson, Joseph Ellis, and Elizabeth Marshall Thomas to Edith Pearlman, Stephen Greenblatt, and Robert Pinsky. Jill and Ike were hugely generous with their time and expertise and helped me to get the hang of things on this side of the desk.

By the time I went out on my own, soon taking on as partners Will Lippincott (previously publisher of The New Republic and strategy + business magazine) and Maria Massie (previously with The Witherspoon Agency and later Inkwell Management), I knew that this was how I was meant to make a living. I also knew how important it was to enjoy and respect both the people you're working for (the clients) and the people you're working with, which means not only the colleagues alongside you within an agency, but also the editors and publishing colleagues with whom you labor to "put on a show."

It's not always the easiest of jobs, this one, but, when it's all coming together smoothly and with the right results, it's pretty hard to beat!

ST: What do you look for when you're reading a manuscript?

RQ: Making a point of keeping an open mind, all practiced skepticism banished for the moment (but not too far!), I dive right into the manuscript before me, you know, ready to be impressed—by language, by wit, by commanding expertise—whatever the fundamental appeal may be, wherever it may lie.

One of those things, though, or some combination, will need to ignite fairly readily, within the first few pages even, in order for the project at hand to seem viable not only to me, but to anyone else I can imagine asking to dive into some form of this same manuscript at some stage down the line.

Best case, there is some sort of ignition in short order; then it just needs to hold, as one turns the pages—to hold and to develop; to take us on a journey of some sort that will somehow reward the reader, be it simply with the power to entertain, with the rush of language working at a high level, or with some new perspective that will leave the reader changed.

It's a tall order, no doubt! And the people lucky enough not only to have the chops to work that magic but also to have hit on just the right idea or subject or scenario in this particular manuscript—an idea or subject or scenario that is genuinely fresh, but also recognizable in its contours and its significance—are, well, few and far between.

ST: What is the most common mistake you see from first time authors?

RQ: Well, I hate "rules," I should say at the outset—you know, do's and don'ts—so am loath to point a finger at particular "mistakes."

It's not that writers tend to do anything wrong, seems to me, at least when we're talking about their work as writers, so much as that they may not end up doing the thing or things that will be uncommonly right.

Having said that, there are some easy bits of advice I can deal out here on a few very basic matters:

First, when querying and submitting to agents, make an effort to familiarize yourself with those whom you're targeting, and try your best to tailor each query in a way that seems thoughtful and not simply rote—let alone half-cocked, with names misspelled, clients misattributed, or your rationale for targeting the agent in question so vague as to be recognizably, you know, one-size-fits-all.

Oh, or perhaps the very worst botch of all: sending out a mass e-mails with other agents in the visible "to" or "cc" field (How to write to a hundred people and receive zero replies).

Farther down the line, assuming you've avoided some of those missteps and begun working with an agent: try and be careful of getting adversarial, for lack of a better word, with that person, particularly at those early stages, before the two of you have even had a proper chance to get to know one another, to find a working rhythm together.

One thing I see again and again are newly signed clients, determined not to be "saps," who feel they ought to run their agents' Author/Agency Agreements through lawyers who may be friends, or come highly recommended as "entertainment lawyers," but who in fact may be entirely unfamiliar with book publishing agreements, industry convention, etc. Not only is this likely to rankle, but it rarely achieves much in the way of concessions, as the vast majority of clauses in any reputable agent's Author/Agency Agreement are apt to be industry convention and thus there for a reason.

The long and short of it, though, is that the agent you're beginning to work with at the outset of a project, and, with any luck, a long-term working relationship together, is at the very center of your publishing team, and you want to keep the emotional baseline of that partnership as friendly and productive and collaborative as humanly possible, right from the start. Sometimes I see authors come into the relationship supposing clearly that they'd be "fools" not to adopt a more jaundiced eye on this new working relationship, and perhaps even an adversarial stance. This of course makes no sense whatsoever! It's just not that kind of business. And it doesn't, in general, attract the sort of individual who relishes that worldview. Least that's the way I see it.

ST: What steps do you recommend an author take when trying to locate an agent?

RQ: This will be, I think, the same answer every good agent gives, but:

1.) Get a subscription to Michael Cader's Publishers Marketplace and make good use of the Deals and Dealmakers database, in particular, in order to familiarize yourself with the agents out there who seem to be having luck with the type of material you see yourself as working in, selling to the types of houses you might imagine appropriate for your work. Let this kind of homework inform the list (not too long, not too short, but always thoughtfully made) of agents you make a point of reaching out to.

2.) Make a habit of flipping through the Acknowledgements section of books you see as being like yours, or what you'd like to see your book as becoming in a perfect world, books you have particularly enjoyed, and that have had the kind of life out there in the marketplace that you'd like to see for your own book. This list of agents should inform the very top of the list of agents you want to query.

And again, make good use of the titles that have brought you to a particular agent. It's one of the very easiest ways to draft a query letter likely to catch an agent's eye, other than dropping the fact that, you know, you're a full professor at Yale or Oberlin, or that you just won a Guggenheim, or have a story being published next month in The Paris Review!

ST: Since entering the publishing world, what major changes have you seen happen?

RQ: Good lord, where to begin?

It's been a period of at once significant growth and painful contraction throughout book publishing these last 20 or so years. At the center of all that flux, of course, is that gruesome American creature that is Winner-Take-All yet boasts a very Long Tail, the beast that broke both the Chains and the Big Boxes, the beast that thrives in this new digital rain forest we find ourselves in now.

With ever more titles being published, by the hundreds of thousands at a jump, the vast majority of them by means of self-publishing or tiny start-ups and glorified vanity presses, the lists within what we see as conventional publishing grow ever tighter, ever harder to sell into, with the good old mid-list a thing of the past.

In a world where everyone's gaze is trained on success, a project that's going to excite one editor is apt to get more than a few others excited, too; one can be forgiven sometimes for imagining that everyone wants the same few things. Just as they do not want everything else. This is not entirely fair, of course, but the perception does engender a certain wariness at every level, every stage, of the publishing process, such that never has "Nope, not interested" been either so reliable a response or so inevitable.

As for the electronic publishing and marketing of books, it is for everyone as much a lifeline as a threat. It is, either way, the reality. The new normal. Few of us, I think, would not prefer to go back to the state of the industry in, say, 1995 or 1997, or 1999, we are. Trying our very best. And still, on a good day, managing to make it work.

ST: Is it possible to predict what genre of book is going to be the next big hit?

RQ: I can't really say, as it's just not the way I approach the business, or my work within it.

ST: What is one random fact about yourself?

RQ: I once performed in a pigskin mini-skirt in an early evening reading of Dennis Cooper's rather transgressive novel Frisk at The Kitchen, on 19th Street, only to catch a cab back up to the fraternity where I was to don a jacket and tie to run the weekly meeting, with all of those musty robes and morbidly ossifying candles: two kinds of drag that went not especially well together!

To learn more about Rob McQuilkin, visit his official website or like his Facebook page