When I was in college, as a naive twenty something, I imagined a literary agent to be on par with a unicorn: a magical being that can transport you from one place (unpublished) to another (published) in one swoop. They lived in a faraway place (New York City) and no one ever really saw them, or could prove their existence. Yet, we needed to believe in them. It was what kept us going as writers. Years later, as I was shopping my memoir, and found myself knee-deep in form rejection letters, I started to revert to that notion. Are literary agents real? I wondered. Or are they mythical creatures that only few will ever see in their lifetime? Just as I was giving up hope, I met Weronika Janczuk, a literary agent with Lynn Franklin Associates in New York City.
Weronika is a rare gem. She is open and straight forward, honest and passionate. She fights hard for the best deals for her clients, and her enthusiasm for her line of work is unparalleled. And while I’m pretty sure she’s not an actual unicorn, her majestic presence in an otherwise ordinary realm can be felt just by talking with her. I recently interviewed Weronika on the ins and outs of her business. Here is our interview:
Amye Archer: Tell us how you came into agenting?
Weronika Janczuk: I was in school, working for Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center, which organizes an array of literature and literacy related programming for the Twin Cities metro population. I was on a team of young adults that wanted to engage teens in writing, and my interest in the process of engaging, producing, and providing literature led me to ask questions about the publishing industry, “what it really looked like,” and finally I stumbled upon Flux, an imprint of Llewellyn, which is a medium-sized publisher in Minnesota. There I interned for the acquisitions editor, Brian Farrey, and learned about the entire process of publishing a YA novel. I was hooked. More internships followed until I connected with the multitalented Bob Diforio at D4EO Literary Agency, who allowed me to take on clients while I assisted him electronically. My addiction to good books and to the market hasn’t waned since.
AA: What was it like to move from your previous agency to one in NYC? Do you feel location is important?
WJ: I was lucky enough to be working out of NYC, despite D4EO being based in Connecticut, but I didn’t work in a real, true office space until I joined Lynn Franklin Associates. (Real offices help bunches.) As for location—yes, and no. Yes for anyone starting out. It’s impossible to network actively without being present in NYC. Agents outside of the area are at a huge disadvantage—I, for example, have lunch or drinks or coffee at least two or three times a week, now that I’m still relatively new and looking to connect with hungry editors. There are so many. (Part of my volume is due to my interest in all genres, so I’m meeting editors across the board.) But still—to know all editors, and to know them well, one has to be in a place where that kind of face-to-face interaction is easy. Once that network is established, travel back to the city a few times a year suffices to fill in the dots with any newer editors.
I agree to be the writer’s advocate on the front line: to love, to edit, to submit, to advocate, to never lose enthusiasm… — Janczuk
AA: Once you like an author, and you’d like to offer them representation, what does that look like? (For example, how long do they sign for, what’s involved, what do you agree to do, and what do they do?)
WJ: I offer representation, of course, and discuss everything I offer as an agent—youth, enthusiasm, editorial guidance, more enthusiasm, passion, knowledge of the market, a track record, etc.—and then discuss what the agency offers—translation and subsidiary rights sales, decades of experience and networking and contracts background, etc. Our agency agreement is for eighteen months, and in that time, I agree to be the writer’s advocate on the front line: to love, to edit, to submit, to advocate, to never lose enthusiasm, to seek out avenues for publicity/marketing, to know, to answer questions, to guide, to direct, etc. I do pretty much everything, even though my relationship with each of my clients varies widely. As for my writers—they commit to work hard, to accept my guidance and to challenge it when they are uncomfortable with it, to be open to possibilities. To be open to waiting, because this is a slow, slow business.
AA: How involved is the author in terms of picking and choosing which publishers you approach?
WJ: I tend to send a list of my ideas for a first-round submission, after the manuscript is ready to go, and am always open to suggestions or changes (either then, or upfront). I always work to take into account my clients’ reasoning, and in certain situations, I’ll agree to submit to editor X versus editor Y at a particular house, whereas in other situations, I’ll explain that such a submission is a big no-no. It’s about constant, open dialog.
AA: What does it mean to have a book go to auction?
WJ: Auctions take place in various formats, and may occur between two houses, or as many as it’s possible to submit to (though the former is more likely). In an auction, an agent will typically set standards for editors and their imprints—standards advance- and/or royalty-wise, perhaps with an addition of publicity/marketing—and a round-robin will take place, with houses bidding until they can no longer. Authors will typically speak with the editors; they may also visit those editors in NYC. In the end, the agent and the author will consider the whole spectrum of details—from money, to publicity/marketing, to personal connection and suggested editorial guidance.
AA: When you sign an author for one book, do you get exclusive for a second, or does the process start all over again?
WJ: Some agencies will sign agreements per book—what those agreements look like, I have no idea, though I imagine most agencies will request exclusives or offer agreements for multiple books, per book, upfront. Our agency agreement is time-based, so in that space, the writer and I commit to work with each other on all projects that we’d like to submit. The agency agreement includes clauses that explain what were to happen if a book was on submission while the author chose to end the agreement, for example.
AA: What’s one piece of advice you would like to impart to those authors who have yet to find that perfect agent for their book?
- Query widely, but smartly.
- Write something new.
- Write what you love, and what you know, and what you don’t know, but don’t forget to think about the market—a high concept never hurt anyone.
Memoirs have to offer something fresh, something different. — Janczuk
AA: Do you see any trends in the memoir publishing world right now? Is it on an upswing, or downward slope?
WJ: It’s a tough, tough market, and as always, it’s a niche market—so while there are some trends, they are often short-lived, and they never dominate the niche as a whole. I also think that the memoir market stays rather stagnant in terms of growth. The stuff that sells, sells. The stuff that doesn’t, doesn’t. And the stuff that is selling well for most imprints is voice-driven, often universal, likely humorous, and always very, very well-written—there isn’t enough room for anything else in such a competitive marketplace. Memoirs have to offer something fresh, something different.
AA: Finally, I know you are a pretty well-established and prolific writer yourself. How normal is it for you to work with a writer on revisions?
WJ: Very, very normal—most clients will go through multiple rounds before the manuscript sees the light of day (or an editor’s eyes). One round minimum. Intensive editorial letters included fifteen, twenty single-spaced pages of notes, and often resulted in a rewrite; less intensive included a line edit and a round of increasing stakes, dramatizing the ending, etc.
AA: What’s one moment in your career that you are most proud of as an agent?
WJ: I’m proud of everything. I would change very little. But I’m proudest of the moments that I fell in love with the underdogs—writers who’d been querying for a year, it turned out, or were querying their third, fourth, fifth novels—and then went on to sell them. There’s room for quirky, witty, different—I’ve made books like those happen.