Welcome to Ask WNDB! Publishing is famously opaque as an industry. Our goal is to help even the playing field by demystifying it and offering answers to burning questions about timely topics. This week we’re pleased to welcome to the WNDB blog Larissa Melo Pienkowski from Jill Grinberg Literary to discuss something that’s relevant whether you’re looking to be published or considering a career as an agent: how to break in.
How did you get into agenting and what is your practical advice for folks looking to get into the profession? Does it help to have a certain background/experience? Should you get an internship and work your way up?
I actually got into agenting from the publisher side of things. While I was getting my Master’s in Publishing and Writing at Emerson College, I interned at Beacon Press and Barefoot Books before becoming a freelance editor and the assistant publisher of Dottir Press, a feminist indie publisher headed by Jennifer Baumgardner. We published a couple authors represented by Jill Grinberg, so I was familiar with the agency’s phenomenal reputation and dedication to championing authors’ careers. I was excited to apply when I saw an open position for a literary agent.
It certainly helps to have a background in books in some way, whether it’s via interning in different publishing departments, editing manuscripts, bookselling, or even having a successful Bookstagram or BookTok platform—working your way up from interning at a literary agency is only one way to stick your foot in the door, and you don’t have to take a linear path to get there (I didn’t!). Ultimately, any experience where you learn to notice and put words to what draws readers to certain books and what elements make for a compelling, well-written story will serve you well as you move closer to becoming a literary agent.
Agenting can be a tough industry for diverse people to break into, especially since it tends to be commissions-based. What can be done to change that landscape?
People in the industry are becoming more vocal about how the apprenticeship model isn’t sustainable for BIPOC and other marginalized people, and the same goes for the commissions structure of agenting. (To be able to do the work I’m passionate about, I’ve had to work three jobs at a time for years now.) But it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to be that way. We can look to the UK as one example of a more balanced compensation model: there, agents often receive a base salary with partial commission on top. I’d also like to see US agencies offer co-ops to BIPOC, who could earn a base salary for six months to a year in exchange for working full-time, reading submissions, writing reader’s reports, and taking care of administrative tasks. In other words, BIPOC could build relevant resumes sooner while learning directly from more experienced agents and supporting themselves in the process, and agents could dedicate more time to supporting their clients while finding gems in their submissions pile faster.
There’s been a lot of chatter on Twitter about how querying is tougher than ever right now, as agents are overloaded / burnt out, editors are leaving and publishers are merging. If you could tell an author beginning the querying process right now one thing, what would it be?
As one might assume, patience is key, but not only when it comes to waiting for a response from agents. It also takes patience to remember that no matter how frustrating and disappointing it can be to receive passes on your work, you’re not just looking for any agent who’s vaguely interested—you’re looking for an agent who’s head over heels in love with your work and firmly believes they’re the right person to champion it in the marketplace.
What’s your best piece of advice for writers as they work toward publication?
Keep writing! The publication process is long, winding, and full of endless waiting. Time can drag if you don’t have another project to work on, so I always recommend that authors keep themselves distracted by writing.
Through what avenues have you found your clients? Cold querying, #DVpit, conferences, referrals, etc.?
All of the above! I’ve found most of my clients through cold querying, but a few have come to me through various Twitter pitch events, conferences, and even some personal referrals as well.
What is one pitfall you wish authors would avoid when querying agents? When working with an agent?
When querying, I wish authors would pay close attention to what each agent is looking for—I can’t tell you how many queries I get for in-the-trenches war novels, which I don’t represent—and know that it goes a long way when their query is personalized to that specific agent. And when working with an agent, I think it’s important that authors are upfront with their expectations and hopes for their work, so that everyone is on the same page.
Have you seen the book bans sweeping the country affect how editors consider projects? Are the book bans a consideration when you are pitching client work to publishers?
Personally, I haven’t seen book bans impacting acquisitions, and they definitely don’t impact what I take on—if anything, I think it’s more important than ever that I keep focusing on uplifting historically excluded voices in publishing.
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Larissa Melo Pienkowski grew up outside of Boston and attended Simmons University, where she earned her degree in Social Work and Sociology, performed poetry competitively and recreationally, and edited a number of literary magazines. Larissa later went on to receive her MA in Publishing and Writing from Emerson College, where she worked with the likes of Beacon Press and Barefoot Books before becoming the assistant publisher of an independent feminist press. She joined JGLM as an agent in 2020 and represents a wide range of adult and children’s fiction and nonfiction, with a deep-rooted passion for championing the stories of authors from historically excluded backgrounds. The daughter of Brazilian and Polish immigrants, Larissa speaks Portuguese and Spanish. She lives in Philadelphia with her fiancée and very fluffy husky, Olaf, and when she isn’t curled up with a good book or traveling the world, she can be found in her ceramics studio, where she makes wheel-thrown and hand-built porcelain pieces.