The literary world can seem so glamorous and exclusive, almost unattainable. Literary agent and author Danielle Binks shares with us what it is really like to be a part of that world. In our chat with Danielle, she tells us how she got her break in the industry and has been able to build a thriving career. She also gives us some tips on what you can do to increase your chances if you want to get your book published!
Joanne Corrigan: How did you first become a literary agent?
Danielle Binks: I honestly never even considered it as a pathway that was open to me – it just kind of presented itself. I studied Communications & Journalism at Monash University when I first thought I wanted to be a journalist. That didn’t really work out though, when I realised that I loved writing but tended more towards fictional tales. After graduating from Monash I honed in on my skills and more desired career-path by studying Professional Writing & Editing at RMIT. I thought my career in book publishing would be as a publicist or down an editorial route.
While at RMIT I was book-blogging and reviewing, and then doing freelance work writing critiques and essays for places like Kill Your Darlings literary journal and Books+Publishing magazine. I tended to write in my preferred literary realm of youth literature and romance.
I kept freelancing and blogging upon graduating from RMIT, even as I got new jobs in publicity for independent publishers (and lost jobs in the rather mercurial smaller publishing sector). I just kept reading and doing my book review thing, and finding new topics to explore in the modern publishing landscape.
Then one day in early 2016 I was at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne, when somebody said “I recognise you from Twitter, and I like what you write about!”. It was Jacinta di Mase – a literary agent who represented a lot of authors I’d long admired. Jacinta invited me to sit in on a few round-table meetings, where she and a few colleagues read through unsolicited manuscripts and provide feedback, and decide whether or not to represent an author. We got along very well, and had similar tastes and expectations for stories. Jacinta had been meaning to branch out more into Young Adult (YA) and Middle Grade (MG), but she had her hands full with a successful list of picture book, non-fiction, and adult women’s fiction authors. So she invited me to join her agency with a focus on acquiring YA and MG authors. She basically pitched it to me as I’d get to have some say in the Youth Literature of the future. I could not refuse.
Between then and now I’ve sold eight books as agent, and I can definitely feel that I’m getting to make a mark on the industry. But I really only got here by figuring out what I didn’t want to be, what books meant to me, and by keeping reading and talking about the kinds of books I really loved and championed.
JC: Is publishing a hard industry to break into?
DB: Yes. Incredibly hard. When I first graduated from RMIT I spent a year working in my university job at a local post office, and sending resumes out to every major and independent publishing house, just trying to get my foot in the door. What finally landed me my first gig as a book publicist was a paid internship program organised via the Australian Publishers Association – which I don’t believe runs anymore. But that was a year after graduating, and it was just the lucky break I needed to get some runs on the board.
But it’s a hard industry to break into because nobody is really in it for the money (trust me, that goes for everyone – from writers to editors, publicists, illustrators, cover-designers…). We’re in it because we love it, so nobody tends to leave and let new people come up. Our passion is books, and to get to work in this industry is a dream come true so nobody is really stepping aside until they absolutely have to. But that means it’s really hard to break in as a newbie. Even though ours is an industry that – like so many others – absolutely needs “fresh blood” and new perspectives.
JC: You also write. Can you tell us how you balance the two roles?
DB: Yes, when I studied at RMIT’s Professional Writing and Editing I pretty quickly realised that while I hadn’t loved the practice of journalism via my Monash course – I did love writing, just with more flourishes.
I am very lucky that my passion for books has led me to this career as an agent, and is also helping me to break into the industry from a different angle – as an emerging writer. I was incredibly fortunate to have been asked to be both editor and contributor to a short-story anthology called Begin, End, Begin that Harper Collins put together as part of the #LoveOzYA movement supporting Australia’s youth literature.
Right now I am finding it tough to juggle my many hats – also because unlike most emerging writers, I feel like expectations are already weighing on me and my words. But, I am also very aware that other people – particularly in the US – are successfully living the double-life of “agent and writer”. Jandy Nelson, for instance, was an adult literary agent for a number of years before her debut young adult book The Sky is Everywhere came out, and now she’s a writer full-time. Eric Smith is an agent at P.S. Literary Agency, and a YA author in his own right. Rebecca Podos is another YA author, and an agent at Rees Literary Agency in Boston. Ironically, Rebecca Podos’s agent is also a YA writer/agent – Lana Popovic, of Chalberg & Sussman. So I am somewhat relieved to know that as tough as I’m finding it, other people are out there walking the same beaten path and looking good doing it!
JC: Did you always want to be in some sort of writing / publishing industry?
DB: Well, no – as the aforementioned misguided pursuit of a career in journalism can attest. But I only pursued that pathway because I though it was the only option available to me, if I wanted to have a career that let me write. It wasn’t until my third and final year at Monash, when I had to do an internship in some sort of media-based company that I decided to prod at this idea that books are an industry, like any other. I was lucky enough to score a couple months’ internship at Black Dog Books (now an imprint of Walker Books Australia) and I realised that I could actually have a job I loved, working in books. It blew my mind. But it just never occurred to me until then – books seemed too far removed from reality, to high an ideal.
I’m glad though, that I have found a way to make my dreams a reality. And even if I’m now a lot more “real” about the business side of books, I still get goosebumps that this is my life. My whole world. Teen me, obsessed with Melina Marchetta books and consuming Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series late into the night, would never have guessed this for myself – not in a million years.
JC: What is the best part of your job?
DB: So, I bought this little bookshelf and put a framed quote that a friend gave me on top – SHE BELIEVED SHE COULD, SO SHE DID. It’s the shelf that I’m going to put all the books that I write, and the books of authors I represent. I got to put the finished copy of the very first book published by one of my authors on the top shelf, Margot McGovern’s YA novel Neverland. That was a pretty great feeling. Especially with that book, because Margot and I had done editorial work together on it in 2016, then sold it in 2017, and it’s now out in 2018.
Don’t get me wrong – the reading and discovering exciting stories and new voices is great. I also enjoy editing and polishing a manuscript with an author. And the first time they email you with their cover artwork is pretty great too. But getting to put that finished copy on the shelf? That’s the good stuff.
JC: What is the hardest part of your job?
DB: When an author’s manuscript doesn’t get any offers from publishers. It sucks – and I feel every blow, along with the author.
But publishing is such a total gamble, and it’s very rarely that an author is an out and out “bad writer” (otherwise, I wouldn’t rep them!) but there could be so much going on behind the scenes. You don’t know if a publisher has just acquired a ‘Snow White Space Odyssey’ trilogy, right when we pitch them a ‘Cinderella in Deep Space’ idea. It totally sucks when it’s just me and the author who have this vision for what a story could be, and nobody else shares it with us. But publishing is an industry like any other, and there’s always a bottom dollar. Sometimes the calculations run and we come up short because not enough people can see a way through to selling this story to the general public. It sucks. It’s a rejection for both of us, and that’s never fun and it never gets less disappointing. I have appointed a President Bartlet (from The West Wing) response to these knockbacks though – and that is to say “What’s next?” and move on.
JC: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get into publishing?
DB: Back yourself. That’s all I can say. But especially if you’re a woman – own your ambition and let it lead you. Don’t back down.
Also, think about how your “hobbies” are actually transferable skill-sets for the job you want. Like me, for example, I had a book review blog since 2009, where I wrote these long, rambling essay-style reviews, mostly of YA books and how they intersected with feminism and pop-culture. Then I started getting gigs freelance writing articles that were discussing that very same thing (and using my blog as part of my CV!), because I’d decided to treat my “hobby” as a launching pad and let it guide me to a bigger platform.
I think this really works as advice for anyone wanting to break into publishing too – because it involves stopping thinking of books as your “hobby” and start treating them like the business you want to be in!
JC: Do you have any advice for someone wanting to get their book / story published?
DB: Research. Read. Repeat.
If you are writing a young adult novel, read YA books. Don’t think that having been a teenager once upon a time, qualifies you to know what teens today are going through. For that you’ve got to know them, and read the books that they are loving right now. A good place to start is the Inside a Dog ‘Inky Awards’, which are the only book awards of their kind in Australia, where teen judges choose the shortlist and teen readers vote for the winner.
This is also true if you’re writing picture books, junior fiction, middle grade, travel memoirs, historical romance … anything! You have to read the books that are out now, you have to keep up with the conversations and know that the goal-posts are constantly moving. Romance is a great example. It’s such a subversive and responsive genre, but people who don’t actually read in it are constantly surprised to learn how radical and empowering it is. And it’s a genre that is constantly changing. Sure, happy endings are required, but it’s a genre that changes with the times and social understandings.
Also – research where you’re pitching your work. If you’re sending your manuscript to a publishing house, make sure you’re familiar with the books they acquire and publish. If you’re entering a short-story competition, make sure you’ve sussed out guidelines and themes you’re meant to be writing to.
Ditto if you’re sending to an agent – like me, for instance! I’ve been a book reviewer since 2009 and I am prolific on social media – where I get very vocal about what I’m reading and loving (or hating). I am literally an open book when it comes to my bookish tastes. It’s not “stalking” to follow me on these channels and figure out if what you’ve written is something I’d like. It’s just smart research so that you’re not wasting either of our time.
JC: What do you do when it all seems too hard or you are stuck?
DB: I re-read my favourite books.
I can honestly, hand-on-heart, say that I would not be the person I am today – working in the industry I am now – if it had not been for the books I had growing up, and the authors too. Melina Marchetta, Ruth Park, John Marsden, Margo Lanagan, Harper Lee, John Steinback, Diana Gabaldon, Mary Shelley, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, Gwen Harwood, Geraldine Brooks … if ever I am lost, I go back to those people whose books I found helped shape me along the way, in the hopes that they still have more to say on the woman I am today.
And lately, I’ve been re-discovering old favourites on audiobook … taking the dog for a long walk, with a re-read in my ears has managed to untangle a lot of knotted thoughts. I highly recommend Melina Marcehtta’s The Piper’s Son on audiobook, for instance.
Honestly – there’s not much in life can’t be eased just a little, by going back home to a good book.
You can find out more about Danielle here…