Julie Barer Busts Eight Myths about Literary Agents

—Compiled by Lookout intern Caroline Orth from Julie Barer’s UNCW Writers’ Week presentation

Congratulations to Xhenet Aliu, University of North Carolina Wilmington MFA ’07 on her novel, Brass, published this month by Random House. We were fortunate that her agent, Julie Barer, was among the literary luminaries at UNCW’s 2017 Writers’ Week.

A founding partner of The Book Group, Barer first worked as a bookseller at Shakespeare & Co. in New York before joining Sanford J. Greenburger Associates and later starting her own agency. At The Book Group, she represents Nicole Denis-Benn, Celeste Ng, and UNCW alumni Garrard Conley and Xhenet Aliu, among other clients. Her authors have been finalists for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and have won of the PEN/Hemingway Award, the Kirkus Prize, and many other accolades.

“I think there’s a mystique about what agents do,” Barer began. “My son still thinks I’m a secret agent.” While recounting how she pitched and sold The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, a novel set on Mount Olympia, Barer helped dispel five myths for the audience about the role of a literary agent in the publishing landscape.

Myth #1: Authors have to navigate the publishing process alone.

 “I say to my clients that I’m like a second spouse,” Barer said. “I’m the first person that communicates to the outside world about your book.” That makes agenting the most fulfilling job she could imagine in publishing. “You get to be involved every step of the way.”

Barer also recognized that negotiating contracts, marketing campaigns, publicity, and book tours shouldn’t fall to the author—their job is to write. “I am your liaison so that you don’t have to know all of this stuff,” she said. “I know all of this stuff, and I can get it for you.” She joked, however, that the author’s main focus—on writing—means that he won’t also hold sway in every publishing decision. “Just because you’re the best person to write your book does not necessarily mean that you are the best person to title your book,” Barer said.

 Myth #2: You should sign with the first agent who offers you a contract.

Barer emphasized how important an author’s relationship with her agent is to success. The best person for your book might not be the first agent to offer you a contract. “Really feel like this person gets what you’re trying to do,” she said.

While that might make the task of securing an agent sound slightly more daunting, Barer recommended a strategy. “Look in the back of the books you love and see who represents them,” she said. Agents are often thanked in authors’ acknowledgments. Chances are that the right agent for you might already be sitting on your bookshelf.

 Myth #3: Literary agents request payment upfront.

Under no circumstances should a reputable literary agent request money from you before they’ve sold your book. Barer noted the industry standard of 15 percent commission on an author’s advance and royalties. That’s how agents make money. “When you win, we win.” Any agent who asks for payment when you sign a contract should be avoided.

Myth #4: A large advance means a successful book.

Not every book will end up in an auction with multiple houses bidding over it, but that doesn’t mean those books won’t still find a robust national audience or be well reviewed by critics and readers alike. “It doesn’t have to be ten people bidding and spending a million dollars,” Barer said. There’s not one way a book can be successful.

 Myth #5: Authors need a social media presence to sell books.

 “Step away from the Twitter.”

That was Barer’s first caution to writers concerning social media. The most important thing to do is to work on the book, she said—building an audience on Instagram comes second. Besides, as Barer explained, the reach of a book is rooted in much more than Facebook ads and catchy photo captions. Your publisher will have established relationships with magazines, booksellers, and book clubs, and can help you achieve wider marketing and publicity goals. “You do not need social media to sell a book.”

Myth #6: The business of publishing is impersonal.

“It’s so personal,” Barer said. The decisions she makes about books are inextricable from her “interests, likes and dislikes.” When she reads a query, “Either I am completely head over heels, and I can’t wait to tell everybody about it, or I don’t sign it.” While this might leave the future of your book up to an agent’s personal taste, Barer views it as encouragement to get your manuscript into even more hands. “Try a lot of agents because you never know what someone is going to be interested in.”

Myth #7: An MFA and/or ivy-league education are prerequisites for a book deal.

“That’s not the only path,” Barer said, “and I have a list of clients to prove it.”

Myth #8: If an agent doesn’t respond immediately to a query, it’s not going to happen.

Barer said that she reads every email in her slush pile over lunch at her desk, and that inbox dings hundreds of times per week. While she considers every author who sends a pitch her way, Barer gives her time first to her current clients. That means it can take a little while to get back to new writers in whom she’s interested. “It’s my job to juggle all of the stages,” she said, “but my priority is to the writers I already represent.”

UNCW Writers’ Week annually brings together visiting writers of local and national interest, UNCW students, and members of the general public with an interest in literature and writing. Activities throughout the week include workshops, panels, and readings. Click here for more information and event archives.

Photo by Melissa Crowe