DongWon Song and I met at Park Avenue Cafe for an informational interview on the world of agenting, and I was delighted he was willing to let me turn it into a blog post. Anyone who has taken his Book Editing course knows that he has business savvy and a sharp eye for a great story. His interview did not disappoint—and even managed to dispel some of the anxiety I felt about entering the workforce after graduation.
What do you feel were some of the raw skills and talents you went into this industry with and what developed over time?
I’ve had a lot of different roles in the publishing industry. I started out working with an agency, so I had an agent’s perspective going in. I spent years as an acquiring editor for a Big 5 publisher, then as a product manager for an ebook startup. I came into these particular roles with a wide set of skills, and I used them all equally. Having the agent perspective was helpful, but not critical. Working as an editor gave me confidence in my taste and vision, and I developed a set of publishing instincts. I think of lot of agents have deal-making instincts, but they don’t always have the publishing vision in terms of knowing how to strategize with how you present a book, a series, or an author. Then there is the business sense I got from working with a start-up, managing a team, pitching to businesses, figuring out work-flow . . . having a really well-rounded skill set is key to surviving.
So one of the struggles of being in this industry is approaching a manuscript from a marketing standpoint versus as a work of art. There is a balancing act there. Do you have a tactic for how you approach projects that may not be the most lucrative or have a large audience, but that you still feel very passionately about?
At the end of the day, we’re all in this as a business, and if no one is going to buy it, you’re not doing anybody any favors. If I take a project on and I don’t sell it or I sell it badly, I haven’t actually done anyone any favors. That said, I recently had a project where I was really worried it would be too literary, we weren’t going to sell it, and it was too specific. We sold it in under a week. Trust your judgment; if something really sticks with you and you can’t let it go, you’re probably not the only one. Listen to your instincts.
Do you feel that there are certain kinds of events that are best for those looking to be a literary agent to go to?
Not necessarily. You never know who you are going to connect with. You talk to everybody because you never know who you are sitting next to. You never know who people will become. If you go to a reading there typically isn’t a big crowd, but the people there usually know the author in one way or another. Talk to those people, see what their deal is. Don’t be afraid to ask questions—it’s okay to not know what the answers are. You’re going to spend a lot of time going to events, and you’ll get home and think, that was a real waste of my time. You know, are readings the most time-effective? No, but conferences are expensive, and there are readings happening every week. Parties and cocktail events are better; basically any time you can mingle and talk. Show up early and hang out for a minute at the end. Don’t just run away.
Are there any publishing newsletters or subscriptions that you would recommend?
I look at Publishers Lunch every day. Mike Shatzkin’s blog is really useful. I don’t always agree with him, but I like to track what he says. I generally rely on Twitter or my RSS feeds to bubble up the interesting stuff.
Well there you have it, folks—straightforward and practical advice that, while tailored toward literary agents, has value for any young professionals looking to make it in the publishing industry.
DongWon Song is an agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency representing science fiction and fantasy for adults, young adults, and middle grade audiences. He also handles select nonfiction. Previously, he was an editor with Orbit. He has also worked as a digital bookseller for ebook startup Zola Books. He lives in Portland, Oregon.