Daily Tar Heel: What are your main job responsibilities as a literary agent?
Chris Parris-Lamb: Literary agents look for authors that they want to represent, either out of the many, many authors that contact them and want to send them their work for review, or writers that they see writing and publishing in magazines, journals or online.
Once we take the writer on, we get the book or proposal into shape — polish it up to send to publishers. It’s our job to know who the ideal publishers are for the given book and, within those publishers, who the ideal editors are for it. We send it out, and if all goes well, we handle the negotiations on behalf of the authors.
DTH: What do you look for in writing submissions?
CPL: I am looking for something that makes me really excited. It is hard to articulate. It’s really a feeling. You just know that you’re the right reader for something. You know that somebody is really, truly talented.
DTH: How has the publishing industry been affected in recent years with the rise of self-publishing and e-books?
CPL: Publishing is a business based on not just acquiring books and publicizing them, but also on distributing them around the country. With e-books, that entire distribution part of the equation is removed. That affects the revenue that comes in, and that affects how much is charged to the customer and how much is paid to the author. We as agents have had to learn to navigate.
There will always be a place for agents and publishers to serve as gatekeepers. We’re there to find books that we think are worthy of the world’s time because nobody has time to read everything. People are still willing to pay a premium for a great book.
DTH: The talk that you’re giving is called “The Art of Publishing.” What makes publishing artful?
CPL: There can be something artful about it in that it’s a business, but we’re not selling widgets. We’re not selling commodities. One book is not the same as another.
In the stock market, you’re just selling shares of something that the market determines the value for. With these books, we really don’t know what they’re worth and how many people are going to read them.
We make our best guess, and sometimes publishers wager a lot of money on whether or not a lot of people will read something. But at the end of the day, we’re all kind of operating on our gut, and we’re operating on our faith in our own instincts and tastes. There is something artful to that.
DTH: How will Harbach’s book relate to the conversation?
CPL: The story of his book is an interesting way to look at the journey that a book takes from the longhand story written on a pad of paper to a best-selling, critically acclaimed book on a shelf.
DTH: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers who are trying to get published?
CPL: If you want to be doing this you have to be willing to sacrifice, and you have to make the quality of the work the main thing, if not the only thing. You can’t feel like what you’re writing doesn’t have worth until you can show it to the world. You have to be willing to do it and pull yourself into it even if no one else sees it because there’s no guarantee that people will.