Creative Writing department hosts valuable ‘Can I Get Published’ event

January 30, 2015

At the event titled “Can I Get Published?” the Creative Writing department invited two literary agents, Ann Collette and Esmond Harmsworth, to speak about the publishing industry. Around 20 enthusiastic students came to the event, which was both entertaining and educational.

Collette had previously worked as a freelance writer and editor when, in 2000, she joined the Rees Literary Agency. She specializes in literary, mystery, thrillers, suspense, vampire and commercial women’s fiction. She also works with narrative non-fiction, military, race and class and works about Southeast Asia. Her author list includes books by Barbara Shapiro, Ashley Weaver, Steven Sidor, Vicki Lane, Carol Carr, Chrystle Fiedler and Clay and Susan Griffith .

A founding partner of the Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency, Harmsworth graduated magna cum laude from Brown University and cum laude from Harvard Law School before becoming a literary agent. He is one of the leading agents for business books in the country. Harmsworth regularly works with the most prominent publishers and has represented works that are Wall Street Journal business review and New York Times best sellers. He has also worked with books on politics, psychology, culture, society, popular culture, health, religion and spirituality, food and media. In addition to non-fiction works, Harmsworth also represents literary fiction; one of his clients, Sabina Murray, won the PEN/Faulkner award. He is also often invited to speak at prestigious conferences and was once the Treasurer of PEN/New England.

Collette and Harmsworth spoke about developing one’s voice, subject matter, style and how and where to get published. They also mentioned that many naive writers think that they can gain much wider readership and large financial rewards if they get published. However, many of these people are misinformed about how writers make a living and how publishing works.

Students learned that literary agents represent authors who have finished their fiction novel or nonfiction proposal and want to be commercially and mainstream published. “Editors get tons of submissions. Agents are your advocate and support system because most writers will not get accepted by publishing companies for their first submission. Some agents will help you edit. If we manage to sell your book, we negotiate your contract with you. Then we advise you on other things like social media presence, which is more important than ever,” explained Collette.

Harmsworth also gave some background on literary agents. “It is not impossible, but very difficult, to publish without a literary agent. The literary agency business started in the United Kingdom in the 19th century. In the early 20th century, most writers made their money from short stories submitted to publications. Books were kind of an afterthought. The business is always changing,” he said.

There are a lot of small publishers that the literary agents know. If something comes in from a literary agent, publishers will know the work fits a certain standard because it has presumably gone through some sort of filtering process. Other than exceptional cases, writers should not get an agent until they’ve finished a fiction novel or have a proposal for a nonfiction book. As for short story writers, it is incredibly difficult to sell short stories. “It is just as good to sell short stories online, on your own,” said Harmsworth. “You should approach an agent when you have two to three publications—it’s kind of like having a resume. You are in a much better place with an agent, or if you have been published somewhere before. We want to see that you are out there publishing, writing and being productive. This shows that you’re out there and forces you to work on your craft and writing.”

At what point does an agent stop reading a submission? “You need to understand that any established agent gets thousands of submissions. A huge number of them fall into the ‘crap’ category for many reasons. There are different reasons why they are crap. Once we get used to looking at the daily allotment of queries, we play games revolving around how many words and sentences before we think, ‘This is going to be bad,’” said Collette. “You can’t define good writing but you can define bad writing … when it’s ridiculously cliché. Many people try too hard with heavy handed self conscious writing.”

Harmsworth added, “I have to live off of everything I sell, not read. So if its crappy, we will not pick you up.” The two agents also stressed the importance of editing one’s work. “Anybody with access to a computer believes they can write a novel. Don’t misspell words. Have good grammar.” Fifty percent of submissions will be trashed for bad spelling and grammar. “We have writers submitting works with words like ‘novle’ instead of ‘novel,’” joked Harmsworth.

When something is good, publishers and agents alike know. “You don’t even need to read in that genre or category of fiction to read the first sentence and know it’s good,” stated Collette.

Overall, the talk was amusing and informative. Unlike most department events, there was good chemistry between the agents and the audience. Collette and Harmsworth were both extremely charismatic, vibrant and delightfully sassy. As a final word of advice, both agents told students that they should not worry about the publishing process and should instead be really working on your craft. “Take chances. When you try that crazy idea, this is the time to do it because you need to find your own voice,” said Harmsworth.

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