An Interview with Agent Jessica Papin
Jessica Papin is an agent at Dystel and Goderich in New York. Prior to that, she was the Director of International Rights at the American University in Cairo Press in Egypt, and an editor at Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing) in New York. With a background on both sides of the desk, Papin loves working collaboratively with clients to shape and refine their work.
She is interested in literary and smart commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, history, medicine, science, economics and women’s issues. In every case, she looks for passion, erudition, and storytelling skill. A wry sense of humor doesn’t hurt.
Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with a writer/client?
Jessica Papin: I take a very hands-on approach to my clients’ work. Indeed, writers uninterested in a rigorous edit would be wise to seek other representation. For nonfiction projects, once a client has a complete, polished draft of a proposal and sample chapters, I usually do a comprehensive mark-up, making queries and suggestions. The client will revise and then send it back to me for another round. We’ll repeat as necessary, editing, polishing and tightening with each iteration. With fiction, I generally begin by sending along an editorial letter that addresses global issues of plot, characterization, inconsistencies and pace. Once those big picture concerns are addressed, we can drill down into particular scenes as necessary. During the submission process, I keep my client as looped into events as he or she wishes—preferences vary widely. After the book is sold, I continue to be an active partner, providing advice, advocacy and structure (as needed) on everything from contract and cover design to career trajectory. I see the author-agent relationship as a long-term partnership, and a strategic union of art and commerce.
Scribe: If a potential client could do one thing to make the experience of working together even better, what would it be?
JP: It’s always useful for aspiring authors to have a baseline understanding of how the book business works—that getting a book published is fraught with challenge, frustration, and is a very bad get-rich-quick scheme. Patience, resilience and a sense of humor are handy. A day job you don’t hate is also helpful, and not only for financial reasons. Cultivating a life outside of writing not only complements and feeds your craft, it can keep you sane. Building friendships within the writing community will give you a sympathetic and like-minded audience when your loved ones grow tired of shop talk.
Scribe: What is your biggest pet peeve when it comes to receiving submissions, reading work, etc.
JP: I fear my answers here won’t be very original, but nevertheless: rookie mistakes, like writing a “fictional novel;” purple prose; improper diction; misplaced modifiers; mistaking my interest in editing for an invitation for half-baked projects. Deliberately provocative letters that attempt to insult me into evincing interest in a project. “Dear Agent, In the unlikely event that you’re not so much a brainless lemming that you can recognize true originality, keep reading…” Perhaps I’m a lemming, but I just can’t imagine this ever works.
If I had a nickel for the frequency with which “I’ve always wanted to be a writer” appears in queries, I’d be a wealthier woman than I am today. I’m not churlish enough to say it’s a pet peeve, but most agents and editors believe that this fire in the belly is a given, and we’re probably less interested in a third grade epiphany than what a writer has since done to realize it.
And I’m less irritated than amused when I encounter lines like “correctly marketed, this book will be a blockbuster!” I, and the rest of the publishing industry, would love to know the secret of “correct marketing.” Connecting a book with its audience is a considerable challenge (whoever said if you build it they will come was not talking about the book business) and for the most part, traditional publishers are neither willing nor able to manage it alone. Hence, particularly in the case of nonfiction, most houses are looking for authors who have pre-existing platforms, who can call upon their own networks and partner with their publisher to spread the word.
Scribe: You often hear that it’s the first ten pages—or even the first page—that sells a story. Is there something particular that you look for in those first few pages?
JP: I don’t think that the first ten pages can sell a story. They can buy a book more time—Scheherazade-style. That’s not to say a great opening is not a powerful invitation. It’s also a writer’s best insurance against being passed over. So it’s probably not a bad idea to forgo the slow burn in favor of beginning with a bang. (In medias res may be an old concept, but it’s a good one.)
I look for voice, I look for evidence of a compelling conflict, I look for a superb and subtle command of the English language. I look for that rare project that prompts me to push aside all other work, ignore my inbox, abandon my to-do list, and just keep reading.
Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?
JP: Keep at it. Pay attention to the ubiquitous accounts of writers who encountered rejection and disappointment but succeeded anyway. Take with a grain of salt the Cinderella stories of authors who went from unknown to the top of the bestseller lists. Publishing is chock full of overnight successes that were years in the making. Expect that it will be hard, but don’t let that deter you.