A Q&A with Agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich

The 2011 Agent’s Conference is shaping up excellently with a great bunch of agents and editors. Today we have a Q&A with agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel and Goderich Literary Management that will give you a bit of insight into the world of literary agents and Jim himself. Even if you don’t plan on going to the conference in 2011 (although everyone should consider going — it’s an great opportunity and fantastically fun weekend!), his Q&A will be an entertaining and informative read.

How did you get started in publishing?

I landed at Dystel & Goderich as an intern in 1999. I needed a part time job, and they were the first people to call me back! I didn’t even know what a literary agent was, but I became fascinated by the inner workings of the publishing industry. When I graduated from college a few years later, a full time job opened up, and I jumped on the chance. And here I am!

What’s the average number of submissions you receive in a month?

I’ve always focused on how many the agency gets, not just me, so I’m not completely sure of this estimate, but I’d say about 500.

If you could give writers one small piece of advice about the world of publishing, what would it be?

Don’t quit your day job. It’s harsh, but it’s true. Even a big advance on one book won’t sustain you forever. Very few authors make a full-time living off of their writing. There just aren’t any guarantees in this business. You might become successful enough to leave work behind, but until you’re absolutely certain that you’ve reached that place, you’re probably not actually there.

Who was your first client?

This question kills me. The first novel I signed up is something I still regret not selling. It was a delightful romp through the world of fashion and celebrity in the vein of Valley of the Dolls. It should have been published, and it still bugs me. But not too long after that, I signed Victoria Laurie who has gone on to become a national bestseller, and we’ve gone on to sell twenty-four books together over the past seven years.

What was the first project you sold?

It was a very fun chick-lit novel called Love and Meatballs by Susan Volland.

What do you love most about your job?

The phone call to let a debut author know that they have an offer on their book. It’s such exciting news to deliver, and it’s never less than thrilling.

What is something that you often see beginning writers doing wrong?

I think a lot of people are intimidated by the query process and over-think it to the point that they lose sight of their own project. I hear people at conferences freaking out about getting something wrong and sabotaging their chances. The fact is any agent can only represent so much, so there is a lot of rejection that happens. You have to steel yourself for that no matter what. But the query process, while painful, doesn’t have to be complicated. Do your research, pick the right agents to query, and then send a straightforward letter that isn’t drowning in bells and whistles. The people who worry so much about their queries tend to be the ones who wouldn’t have made catastrophic mistakes in the first place. So try not to be overwhelmed. Easier said than done, I know.

What is a little known fact about yourself?

Oh, I don’t know that there are little-known facts about me. I’m a compulsive over-sharer.

What book are you reading right now?

I’m working on C by Tom McCarthy and The Secret Historian by Justin Spring. I’m not always so high-minded.

If you could have a beer or coffee with a literary luminary living or dead, who would it be and why?

Stephen King was probably the first author I ever got addicted to, and there’s something about him that seems really approachable. Plus, any horror writer has to be a good conversationalist, no?

Beer or coffee?

Diet Coke. I don’t care if it’s not an option. I will hunt it down and find it. It is the fuel my life runs on.

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