Rachel Orr is celebrating her seventh year at Prospect Agency. She previously worked for eight rewarding years at HarperCollins Children’s Books, and now uses those editorial skills to help prepare her clients’ work for submission. Rachel represents all genres, from picture books to YA. Some of her clients include Kit Alloway (DREAMFIRE, forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press), A.C.E. Bauer (COME FALL, Random House), Jake Bell (THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF NATE BANKS, Scholastic), and SCARLETT, UNDERCOVER by Jennifer Latham (forthcoming from Little, Brown). Rachel lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, with her husband and two young children. She has no spare time—-but, if she did, she would spend it dancing, running and reading, of course.
AN INTERVIEW WITH RACHEL ORR
The Wardrobe: Can you give a full explanation as to what an agent does? What’s your normal day look like? Take us through a day in the life of Rachel Orr. Is it hard to handle work and raise a family?
Rachel Orr: An agent has many roles depending on the stage of the writer’s career. The first step is to prepare a writer’s work for publication. Editors really need to see a polished manuscript before they can make an offer, so I spend a lot of time working with my clients on preparing their manuscript for submission. This is especially important for first-time writers, but also for writers who have already been published. (Also, please note that many agents—but not all—will work with writers on their work before submitting for publication. I tend to be more hands’ on because I have an editorial background; I worked at HarperCollins for eight years before joining Prospect Agency. However, other agents may come from another background and prefer to work differently. The trick is to figure out what you’re looking for in an agent, and then do your research ahead of time to see who might be the best match for you.)
Once my client and I both feel a manuscript is ready to submit, we’ll come up with a list of 6-8 editors to send the manuscript to for the first round. After a month, I’ll follow up with editors to get a response. Hopefully (fingers crossed!), we’ll have an offer—but, if not, then we’ll take a look at the comments and see where to go from there. If the comments are all across the board (i.e. Editor #1 loves the characters, but Editor #2 hates them), then we’ll just continue sending out the manuscript. But if there’s a common problem that keeps creeping up (i.e. there needs to be higher stakes in the plot), then my client may go back and revise before I send it out for a second round.
When we receive an offer, then it’s time for the negotiations to start. There are generally two stages of the negotiation process. The first stage is when I negotiate with the editor until we agree on the advance, the royalties, the territory (i.e. whether or not we’ll retain foreign language rights for our foreign rights manager to try to sell abroad), the subsidiary rights splits, and any other major language that needs to be decided upfront. The second stage is negotiating the contractual language once I receive the contract itself. (Those negotiations are typically between myself and the publisher’s contract manager, although that varies from house to house.)
Once the contract is signed, I remain involved to whatever degree my client wants me to. Because I come from an editorial background, I try to be very careful not to step on any editorial toes, and I know that the best thing for my client is to have a close working relationship with his or her editor. However, I also don’t want to come across as lazy and am absolutely willing to help out in whatever way that I can.
As for a typical day in the life of Rachel Orr? Sadly, they’re all fairly typical—and none of them allow for as much manuscript reading as I’d like. First off, in the mornings, there’s a mad rush to get the kids off to school. (I have a 5-1/2 year old son and a 3-1/2 year old daughter.) My son goes to school every day, but my daughter only goes on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from about 8:15 to 11:45. So those are my “office hours”, so to speak. I try to schedule brunches with editors in the city on those days. I live (and work from home) in Hoboken, New Jersey—right across the river from Manhattan—so I typically have just enough time to go into the city, meet with an editor, and then rush home again to pick up the kids. This morning, for example, I had a lovely meeting with an editor at Farrar Strauss Giroux at a little café near the Flatiron Building. I had sent her some picture-book manuscripts—which she ended up rejecting—but we still had a lovely chat about our love of puns and unusual animals in books. The meeting was made all the sweeter by a pink praline brioche roll and a good cup of coffee. Another perk of the job!
After pick-up, there’s playground time, followed by lunch and then an hour of TV time for the kids while I catch up on my emails. Today, I spent the hour corresponding with a client of mine over the renewal of a subsidiary rights deal for a picture book on Jane Goodall that had sold in Korea, and updating her on some of her other projects. I also reviewed the outline for a middle-grade novel by a writer (from Luxembourg!) who was recently one of my students in a Mediabistro online course on middle grade novel writing. The course is over, but I think her story has potential, so I’m trying to help her shape the plot and get it just right. Once she has the full manuscript written, I’d love to consider taking her on as a client.
Once the kids’ TV time is over, we usually head back out to the park again (although today was particularly cold and breezy, so they played inside while I tried to organize their arts and crafts supplies). Then it was dinner (tacos, with a homemade seasoning that I totally botched with too much paprika), and a game of Go Fish, and the bedtime routine…
And now it’s nearly 10:30pm. Time to begin work!
So, yes, it’s certainly challenging to work while raising a family—especially while working from home. However, I do have a really supportive husband who is both an avid reader and a designer, so he often gives me feedback on my illustrator clients’ work. Also, it’s just nice to be able to keep my mind active and think about things other than the kids’ schedules and how not to botch my homemade taco seasoning again. (Actually, that second point is easy. I’m just sticking with the packaged variety from now on!)
TW: How did you become an agent? Was it something you always wanted to do? How would someone become an agent? What’s the best route to take?
RO: I became an agent the usual way: I was laid off from my editorial job. But, a month prior, I had met with Emily Sylvan Kim, the head of Prospect Agency. I had expressed (in vague terms) that I was possibly thinking of agenting some day, since I was newly married and thinking of starting a family soon, and I was hoping to have a job with more flexibility. Emily had expressed (in equally vague terms) that she was possibly thinking of expanding her agency. So the day I was laid off, I called her and asked if we could have that conversation for real this time. And we did.
When I began my editorial career eight years prior, however, I never had any intention of becoming an agent. As an editor, I was generally scared of agents and thought they only cared about the money (probably because my interaction with them was mostly during the negotiation of the advance). Yet, looking back, I think I’ve always possessed some “agent tendencies”, so to speak. For example, whenever I fell in love with a manuscript but was unable to acquire it, I would send the manuscript to another editor friend of mine at another house (if the writer was unagented, of course. Back then, I don’t think as many writers were agented as they are now). When I finally became an agent, my friend said, “It’s about time! You’ve already been agenting for years now.”
My advice for someone looking to get into agenting would be to work for a few years at a publishing house first. Personally, I think it’s imperative to understand the workings of a publisher—and to meet/understand editors as well—but maybe that’s my personal bias because that was my own route to the job. Emily started out at Writers House, which is one of the largest and most reputable agencies in New York, so that was a great foundation for her. Other agents have law degrees, while still others yet have experience working in the subsidiary rights divisions of publishing houses. These are all great and acceptable routes to take into agenting.
TW: What are some of the perks of being an agent? Flaws? From a writer’s perspective, what are the perks to having an agent? Flaws?
RO: One of the perks of being an agent is that, once I fall in love with a manuscript, I get to support it from start to finish. That wasn’t necessarily the case when I was an editor. Often, I would absolutely fall in love with a manuscript, but I wouldn’t be able to get it past our editorial or acquisitions board. Maybe we had just acquired a manuscript that was too similar, or maybe my colleagues weren’t as passionate about the characters as I was, or—who knows. Maybe the Editor-in-Chief had eaten some bad tuna salad for lunch that day. Whatever the reason, I would have to call the agent back and let them know that I wasn’t able to acquire the manuscript. And that was an awful, awful feeling. (What was a great feeling, however, was seeing those books years later on the shelves of Barnes and Noble—published by some other house—and knowing that there was something special about that book after all.)
Anyway, as an agent, it’s still an awful feeling having to call/email my client and let them know that a publisher has rejected their manuscript. But, because I believe in the story, I can keep sending it out to publisher after publisher—and, eventually, I can call my client to let them know that he or she finally has an offer. And that’s one of the greatest feelings in the world.
I suppose one of the flaws of agenting is that I work entirely on commission, which means that I can sometimes work on a manuscript for years and never make any money on it if the project never sells. Even if it does sell, by the time I receive and negotiate the contract, then wait to get paid, it can sometimes take another half year (or longer). And advances are typically not very big to begin with. But, then again, no one ever went into publishing (or any other creative field, really) for the money. Sometimes, when I get frustrated that I’m working so hard for so little financial reward, I remind myself that if I wasn’t agenting, I would spend my free time reading. So I figure that it’s better to get paid little for a job that I essentially would be doing regardless.
From a writers’ perspective, I would say that it’s helpful to have someone in your corner, always rooting for you. Also, it’s probably nice to have an agent to do the dirty work of negotiating and talking money, so that the writer can keep his/her relationship with the editor pure and focused on the craft. (Plus, the contracts can be a nightmare to understand, so it’s best to have someone you trust be well versed on that front.) The downfall for a writer, of course, is that the agent receives a 15% commission on any money made on the project—from the advance to royalties, forever—and, like I said earlier, most advances aren’t very large to begin with. Yet I do feel that it’s best (and also essential) to have an agent, since most major houses these days will only accept manuscripts from agented writers.
TW: How do you choose what author you want to work for? What are the requirements for an author to have you as an agent? What do you look for in an author and in their writing?
RO: The two most important traits I look for in a client are 1) someone whose work I love, and, b) someone whom I can work with for the long haul. Every agency operates differently—but, at Prospect, our intention is to work with a client throughout his or her entire career, as opposed to on a book-by-book basis. So it’s important to me that a client is professional, is confident enough in his/her work to be able to take criticism well, is serious about writing, is willing to do the work and knows how to revise. This is why I enjoy (and often prefer) meeting potential clients through courses or conferences. That way, I can get a sense of their work ethic and whether or not we’d be a good fit.
TW: What advice would you give to others who want to become an agent?
RO: I would suggest trying to get an internship with an established agency. These are typically unpaid, but at least it’s great experience and the experience will look good on a resume. (Also, agency interns can generally work remotely, which is great news for job seekers far from publishing-central New York!)
To learn more about Prospect Agency, visit Rachel online at www.prospectagency.com.