“I want clients to know that it is most important to find joy and meaning in each step of the writing and publishing process.” –Julie Stevenson, Massie & McQuilkin
The 2023 Agents Symposium is a year-long program of monthly events with literary agents – taking writers step by step along the journey to publication. We’re happy to share Q&As with some of our featured agents here. To register for Julie Stevenson’s presentation on November 18th on “Building a Writing Career,” click here.
An Interview with Julie Stevenson
Julie Stevenson is a literary agent with Massie & McQuilkin in New York. She represents literary and upmarket fiction, suspense, memoir, graphic novels, narrative nonfiction, young adult fiction and children’s picture books. She is drawn to storytelling with unforgettable characters, an authorial command of voice, and a strong sense of narrative tension. She looks for work that both entertains and explores the depths of human experience, particularly the many facets of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, social class, and regional backgrounds. She’s agented books that have won the Pulitzer Prize, the MWA Edgar Award, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the Carnegie Medal for Excellence, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Caldecott Honor. Before she became an agent, Julie worked in the editorial departments of Tin House and Publishers Weekly. She received her bachelor’s degree in English Literature from Washington University in St. Louis and an M.F.A in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York.
Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?
Julie Stevenson: I am a passionate about my job and I love working with writers. I can’t think of anything more exciting or worthy of my time than helping writers get their work into the world, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, adult or children’s literature, graphic novels, or even screen adaptations of books. Writers are a powerful force for change in the world. Storytellers can shape and alter the mindset of a culture. They can envision new ways of doing things. They can see the past through fresh eyes. They can bring empathy and compassion and dignity to places where it was lacking. Writers inspire me. I think it takes this kind of passion to be a good literary agent because agenting is a brutal and competitive field that is full of uncertainty and risk — risk that is not unlike what writers take on when committing to their art. We need that drive and passion to see us through the hard times.
I’ve been in the agenting field for 15 years and before that I earned my MFA in fiction at Sarah Lawrence and before that I was journalist and newspaper editor, and I was an English major as an undergrad, so I’ve been in the world of writing for about 25 years. I draw on that experience when I work with writers. I enjoy the editing process. I think it is an important part of my job and part of what helps me find success for the writers I represent. I often go through several rounds of edits with a manuscript before I put it on submission to editors at publishing houses. This process takes time, sometimes a year or more of back and forth, but ultimately, I think editing gives us a better shot at selling the work to a publisher because it is such a competitive field. There is a lot of rejection to contend with for writers and for agents too. Making it through the maze and actually succeeding in getting a book published by a major publisher is a huge accomplishment and a very rare occurrence. So getting a manuscript in the best shape possible before it goes on submission to publishing houses is important step for me to take as agent. Then, when an acquiring editor at a publishing house buys a manuscript, I will continue to act as a reader and offer input through additional drafts, but I will intentionally take a backseat and let the acquiring editor and the writer continue the editing process.
I try to set realistic expectations for clients. A professional creative life is more of an ebb and flow than a straight-line trajectory to fame and glory. There will be ups and downs. There will certainly be something to appreciate in every step along the way. There will be things to continue to strive for. I want clients to know that it is most important to find joy and meaning in each step of the writing and publishing process. To me, it really is as much about the process as the product. When a writer publishes a book, the focus turns intensely to the product of the book in the marketplace, and that’s important to consider, but it is different from the creative process. It is important not to conflate the value of these two things.
I stay by the writer’s side (and in the cc loop on emails) throughout the entire process–helping to shepherd a manuscript from its earliest stages through publication and beyond. I am my client’s advocate and guide in all stages of publishing. That can be really important because once a publisher buys a manuscript, the writer benefits from a guide and an advocate who knows the publishing world and knows how to ask the right questions of the publisher and who can be the squeaky wheel, especially when it comes to matters of marketing and publicity.
I would add that an agent is an important negotiating partner. We will get the writer a higher advance from the publisher than the writer could get alone, and better royalties, and a more favorable publishing contract. An agent earns her 15% commission many times over.
Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?
JS: I look for a strong voice, confidence and command in the storytelling, unforgettable characters, propulsive storylines, psychological complexity, social importance.
I look for writers who are not only talented, but who know how to structure and pace a narrative. Voice and raw talent are often inherent — you either have it or you don’t — but pacing and structure, in my view, are learned through practice. It is usually immediately apparent to me when a writer has practiced and mastered the architectural skills of building a narrative.
I hunt for stories that I can’t put down. Stories that demand I keep reading. A writer accomplishes this through an alchemy of character, voice, narrative structure, and also a certain kind of drive or boldness that rises from the page. Most of the submissions I reject are competently written, often by writers with impressive pedigrees, but their work doesn’t stand out in a compelling way. It’s not all that memorable. When I take on a work, it is because it rises above the level of highly competent and manages to do something more, something different, something unforgettable.
I don’t shy away from work that examines the more difficult aspects of the human experience, such as dislocation, war and political strife, loss, addiction, poverty, homelessness, abuse, political concerns, and works with feminist undertones that deal with women’s struggles. With these darker stories, I look for threads of survival, recovery, personal or political revolution. I love stories that, through individual lives of characters, also address larger societal systems and forces. I gravitate toward underrepresented voices and writers who challenge status quo assumptions about race, gender, sexual orientation, regional and class backgrounds.
I also have a soft spot for fabulist, absurdist or speculative fiction that needles the subconscious. It’s harder to take on and tougher to sell and must be extremely well done and convincing, but I love fiction that can be described as surreal or dreamlike.
It is of the utmost importance that the first 50 pages of a manuscript be compelling and hook the reader. If I read the first 50 pages and I’m not engaged, then I won’t continue to read, and neither would an acquiring editor at a publish house. If a writer feels, for instance, that the chapter in the middle of his novel is better than the material in the first 50 pages, then the writer has more editing to do, and it is not the right time for the writer to look for an agent.
Scribe: What’s one piece of advice you find yourself giving to others time and time again?
JS: If there is one piece of advice I can give writers or anyone in the arts, it is, first and foremost, to find validation and meaning for your work by doing the work and developing your craft – and not by seeking the external validations such as landing an agent, getting published, winning prestigious awards, getting amazing reviews, hitting the bestseller lists, selling a million copies, getting a movie deal, etc. Those things are wonderful when they happen and should be celebrated, but don’t hang your self-worth or the meaning of your artistic existence on them. Worldly artistic recognition is sparse and fleeting for most writers. The two most difficult things to master as an artist are believing in yourself and finding time to work. The world doesn’t pat you on the back and give you time and money to be a struggling writer. You must give that to yourself.
Most people, even in your own family, will wonder why you spend your time making art and they will ask you for worldly proof of the value of your work, not knowing how hard that is to come by, how many years writers typically spend working on a manuscript that may or may not sell and become a book one can buy at the bookstore. Don’t worry too much about those people. Instead, find your people — find a smart, supportive group of like-minded writers with similar goals, share your work, offer to critique their work.
People who write tend to be high achievers who want recognition. It’s ok to want that recognition but be careful not to make recognition your purpose. If you see the path to being a writer as only a series of prestigious achievements to collect, then you will probably end up disappointed and frustrated. I say this as someone who spends her time plucking manuscripts out of the slush pile and sometimes making dreams come true, and working hard to get editors, readers and reviewers to recognize great art. I love this part of my job. I also know that for every writer I am able to work with, there are hundreds more who deserve my time and attention and who deserve recognition that they may not ever receive. I do my best, but I can’t read all the manuscripts. I am only one person. The same goes for any “gatekeeper.” There is great work out there that will never be read or published. That doesn’t make it any less worthy of existing. Know that this business is a gamble all the way through, and plain old luck and timing comes into play a lot whether it is finding an agent, landing on the bestseller list, and everything in between.
Do the work, put yourself out there, be an avid reader, be a part of the artistic community in which you want to participate, and if you get published or you get rich and famous or win important awards, then by all means celebrate. If you don’t, well, understand that’s the more likely outcome and truly take time to celebrate the fact that you spent your time developing your craft, appreciating the art, meeting people with like minds, and doing something that helped you apprehend your life and the world you live in. There is real value in doing the work.
Scribe: What excites you the most about the publishing industry today?
JS: What excites me is the connection writers makes with readers and the potential writers have to change our national conversation. I love to see people buying, reading, and discussing new books — and discovering them in many different places, whether online or a favorite bookstore or an audiobook. I think we have many more opportunities and portals through which to encounter writers than we did even 10 years ago.
I love seeing the forcefulness and passion of BIPOC writers and their allies who are working together to change the publishing landscape. There is still a lot of work to be done. Part of that work falls to readers. If we want a diverse, vibrant creative culture, then we need to develop and perpetuate a culture of readers. We all need to support writers, bookstores, and organizations that represent a diverse and inclusive literary community.
Writers are one of the most important influences upon culture – they help us understand who we are, where we’ve been, where we want to go. They are vital to our future. Publishing and writing are notoriously labors of love. Most people involved in publishing, even agents, are scrapping by. They choose to do so because they love the work, and they think it’s important. We need the larger community to chip in, support writers, pay attention to writers, and buy new books by new voices. When I see that kind of grassroots engagement with writers, I think that’s really exciting.
Scribe: Tell us about a recent book/project that you worked on that excited you and you want everyone to know about?
JS: I can’t wait for readers — especially readers who are writers — to discover PLEASE UNSUBSCRIBE, THANKS! by Julio Vincent Gambuto, which will be published in early August of 2023 by the Avid Reader imprint of Simon & Schuster. The subtitle of this book says it all: “How to Take Back our Time, Attention, and Purpose in a World Designed to Bury Us in Bullshit.” This brilliant gem of a book is an astute mix of social commentary and smart self-improvement and time management, and it will help people give themselves permission to disconnect from platforms, systems and people that don’t satisfy them on a deeper level, even when doing so feels like a radical move. I like to think of Julio Vincent Gambuto as the Marie Kondo of capitalism. He asks some deep questions about how we live as Americans and what we really want as a society, and how corporate and tech forces try to shape that vision and automate the taking of our time and money. Julio wrote a powerful essay for Medium that went viral during the pandemic called “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” and it was about how none of actually wanted to return to “normal” because “normal” was pretty messed up and exhausting. The pandemic showed us that people have a lot of power to change the way society functions and what it values, if they would only use. So how can we take those lessons from the pandemic and carry them forward? That’s what Julio shows readers how to do. It’s an incredibly liberating read.
Click here for more information on the 2023 Agents Symposium, an event that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.