Today, we have literary agent Andy Kifer of The Gernert Company on the blog. Thank you, Andy, for being here!
AN: How did you become an agent?
AK: My path to agenting was by no means direct. I tried a lot of other things first – I was a high school cross-country coach at a boarding school, and worked in my small share of crummy coffee shops – before starting out in publishing as a literary scout. I often tell people that scouting is the best first job a person in publishing can have: you have to know everything that’s going on in New York publishing at any given time, and your job is to report to foreign publishers on the state of the industry: who’s up, who’s down, what submissions are hot, which hyped-up books they can safely ignore, which under-the-radar gems they should really be paying attention to. I learned more about the market – about what works and what doesn’t work, about what publishers are looking for – in two years as a scout than I would have in twice that time anywhere else.
It was a great job, but we mostly interacted with editors, foreign rights directors, and foreign publishers. Having relationships with authors just wasn’t part of the equation. I decided to make the switch to agenting after spending one night with an author whose book I had helped get published in France. It was me, the author, his agent, and both of their wives. We were having beers together on Bleecker Street after the author had given a reading, and I remember watching these two couples really settling in over their drinks. It was the first time the wives had met each other, and you could tell that these were four people who were kind of settling in for the long haul, that they were laying the groundwork for a relationship – a working relationship, yes, but also a friendship – between the four of them that was going to last a long time. And there I was, the literal and metaphorical fifth wheel, very much aware that though I’d had an important role in what we were celebrating together, it was also an ancillary role – an ancillary relationship – compared to what I was witnessing in front of me. I looked at the four of them, agent and author, and their respective spouses – and thought to myself, that’s what I want: long term, collaborative relationships – and if I’m lucky, friendships – with writers whose work I really admire. So I came to work at The Gernert Company.
AN: Many of my readers are aspiring authors and are actively looking for their first agent. Can you tell them a little bit about what the author/agent relationship is like? What can they expect after they sign with an agent?
AK: I sometimes liken my reaction to a manuscript I want to represent to falling in love: you can’t put your finger on why this novel grabbed you in a way that hundreds of others didn’t, but the “why” hardly matters because you know how you feel. I want my relationships with the authors I represent to contain – as it’s starting point, as a kind of a priori reason for existing in the first place – a reckless enthusiasm on my part for their work. If that kind of love is absent from my work with them, I don’t think either of us are going to be happy in the long term.
I don’t always get there immediately, though. I’ll often ask authors for revisions before they officially sign on with me, and a big part of what I’m thinking about when I do this is, on the one hand: can they do the work? But I’m also wondering: how well are we working together? Are we speaking the same language, editorially, even when we disagree? Do our conversations feel generative? Does the author’s talent and my perspective add up to something that’s more than the sum of its parts?
But, since you’re asking more generally about the author/agent relationship (not just mine, specifically) I will say that I think that this approach is generalizable. What I mean is: an agent who doesn’t really get what you’re doing may be able to sell your book, but this industry is built on honest enthusiasm and relationships, and when you see books really succeed it starts with a very personal connection between a reader and a story. An agent who can call up an editor and say “this is one of the most inventive books I’ve read in years” with absolute honesty is going to be, in the long run, a more effective agent for your work than someone who is kind of hawking their wares. I have a number of fantastic mentors here at Gernert, and if there’s one thing they’ve taught me it’s this: if you feel like you’re selling, if you’re feeling all sales-y, that’s probably a bad sign. I think the best agents can call up an editor and, when they say “this is the best thing I’ve read all year,” it’s convincing because it’s true.
AN: What are you looking for right now in fiction submissions and not getting? Are there any subjects or genres that are near and dear to your heart? And on the flip side, what are you getting too much of?
AK: I’m quoted elsewhere online as saying that I’m really into smart genre fiction and love stories, which has led to an influx of pretty out-there fantasy and romance submissions. I’m not interested in romance at all (there’s a difference between a romance novel and a novel with a great love story in it), and while really great sci-fi is something that I love representing, I’m seeing a lot of it right now, which makes me wish I was seeing more seriously intentioned, ambitious, squarely non-genre literary novels. I would love a great, simple coming-of-age story. Or a kind of strange, eerie novel for young adults. I’d love to see a love story that spans decades. But most of all, what I often say is that I love novels that straddle that increasingly thin line between literary and genre.
AN: What is one thing about you that a writer would be surprised to learn?
AK: Right now on my bedside table is Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Vol. 5 of Neil Gaiman’s wonderful Sandman comic book series. Back in college I read Sophocles in the original ancient Greek, but before that I grew up tearing through my dad’s 1970s-era X-Men that I’d found in a musty box in the attic.
What I mean is: one of the best things about my job is that I get to bring my highbrow and my lowbrow tastes to bear on my work every day.
I think the best writers, and the best readers, are cultural omnivores.
AN: Best piece(s) of advice you can give a writer we haven’t talked about yet?
AK: Don’t worry too much about what we, the so-called “publishing professionals,” think. We’re one part – an important part, I like to think! – of the ecosystem of literature in the 21st century, but nothing turns me off from a submission more than the feeling that a writer is writing cynically – e.g. putting what they think we, the Gatekeepers of Publishing, want to be reading above what they actually want to be writing. Novel writing is just a very specific kind of storytelling – like epic poetry, or like telling your friends a good story over a couple of beers – and like all storytelling its goal is to communicate, and to communicate something that feels true. So do it genuinely, and with passion, but ultimately with your readers – who are your real audience (not me, and not your editor) – in mind. If you’re doing that and are doing it well, the rest will probably take care of itself.
AN: Are you open to submissions? If so, how should a writer go about submitting?
AK: I am! And I promise I read everything, though I tend only to respond if I’m interested in seeing more material. Please send an e-mail describing your novel – with my name in the subject line somewhere so that it finds me – to firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to include the first few chapters: I actually prefer to see how your novel is working on the page right from the start. After all, how a book feels on the page is more important to me than how well you can summarize it!