Of Agents, Secret and Literary

They seem like a low-key, bookish bunch, literary agents. Some of them wear glasses. Some of them knit. They get agitated when the quiet car on the Amtrak from New York to Boston is not, in fact, quiet – and they are willing to tweet about it. In a list of formidable allies, you might be tempted to rank literary agents somewhere between Labrador retrievers and the Green Party.

This, at least, is what I thought before I met my own agent – Hannah Bowman of Liza Dawson Associates. Only after working with her for months did I realize that all that bookish stuff is just the cover story. Hannah, (and I suspect this is true of most literary agents), is in fact a savvy, formidable operator, comfortable working in ambiguous environments, hostile terrain, and inclement weather. Like Jason Bourne or James Bond, she is at least as much secret agent as literary.

Come again?

Secret agents know people. You’ve seen the movies. Ex-KGB in Moscow, honey traps in Algeria, renegade generals running guns through the deserts of southern Mongolia – a secret agent has connections. It’s what keeps them alive. It allows them to operate in places where you or I would wander aimlessly and afraid before being abducted by a radical separatist group. Not that publishing houses are radical separatists, but Hannah’s familiarity with the tribal terrain is a formidable asset.

Secret agents are pragmatists. We all have our ideals: freedom, democracy, cage-free eggs, literary purity, whatever. Secret agents believe in fighting the good fight, but they also know where the rubber meets the road. A secret agent works in the realm of the possible: we can topple this government, but not that government. We can intercept this shipment, but not that shipment. They tell the dreamers when the dreams are unrealistic. Likewise, a literary agent. A good agent won’t hijack your book, but she will tell you that a selling a debut novel of three hundred and fifty thousand words just isn’t going to happen. Like a secret agent who lets you know which corrupt dictators you can shake down and for how much, she knows what you can ask for in a deal, and what’s just hopeless dreaming.

Secret agents are good with details. There are passports and papers to keep track of, dossiers and dozens of types of currency hidden in briefcases. If you’re a secret agent and you’re not on top of this shit, you’re dead. I am not good with details. Enter, Hannah. My first publishing contract ran to fifty pages, all of which she seemed to have memorized. She reminds me about my tax filing. Left to my own devices, I would be trying to defuse bombs that exploded months earlier. She knows which wires need cutting, and where we stand with the ticking clock.

Secret agents have contacts with foreign agents. Their web of connections, their tactical vision, transcends American borders. It’s great to land an American publisher, but a literary agent might also break you into the Uzbekistani market, or the Kurdish, or Columbian. Just imagine the royalties.

I was conflicted about blowing Hannah’s cover like this, about exposing the entire profession, but I think the public deserves to know the truth. That woman reading manuscripts on the Amtrak quiet car, the one glowering at the boorish businessmen – she’s probably trained to break your neck in twelve different ways.

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