Agencies, Crosswords, and Diversity In Publishing: An Interview with Julia Kardon
Julia Kardon is an agent at HG Literary who began her career in high school while shelving fiction at the Strand Bookstore. She received degrees in comparative literature as well as Slavic languages and literature at the University of Chicago and has used her experiences to help forge a path as an agent and, occasionally, as a crossword puzzle maker. She is the cofounder of Inkluded, Inc., an independent nonprofit organization that provides tuition-free publishing education. Julia Kardon is a loyal advocate for those she represents.
I spoke with Julia over Zoom on February 17, 2021.
Nicholas Galvez: What made you want to work in the literary scene? I saw that you started by shelving at a bookstore in New York while you were in high school.
Julia Kardon: I was shelving fiction at the Strand Bookstore as my first job, but I didn’t know then that I wanted to be in publishing. I studied comparative literature in school and then I went for a year abroad and taught English in the Czech Republic, and then when I came back I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Most of my education has been in books that have been published a long time ago. Recognizing that there might be a place for me in a contemporary scene required an unpaid literary internship at the Wiley Agency. After that I really fell in love with that side of publishing.
NG: That must be interesting because you’re supposed to maintain connections with the writers that you’re working with, as well as people that have strong positions in either publications or in other agencies. It must be kind of taxing after a while.
JK: I mean, it definitely is a job that requires a lot of emotional labor, but I think that one of the things that is most thrilling about working on the agency side is that you can stay with a writer throughout their whole career. Editors often change jobs, which means they often lose the authors that they publish. Whenever they change publishing houses, they can’t take their list with them. It also means that I feel like I get to pick the things I’m most excited about from a very early level. I’m approaching the people that I’m most excited about and I get to really feel like I’m a tastemaker in that sense.
NG: What would you say to writers interested in self-publishing?
JK: Self-publishing and traditional publishing are very different worlds. I think that you should know exactly why you want to self-publish, if that’s the route you want to go down. For the most part, if you are self-publishing because you can’t get traction by querying agents or by submitting your book to independent publishers, there’s not likely going to be a lot of success if you just upload it to Kindle direct or another self-publishing website. If you don’t care so much about an advance and you don’t care about the cost of building an audience, or you already have an audience, it would make sense to me to self-publish. Otherwise, it’s a lot of people doing it who don’t ever make it that way. If you have a dream of being an author, the most traditional route to do that is through a big-five publisher and the only way to access that is through agents.
NG: Do you think that agencies and publishers will ever go out of style? Especially when we have new apps like TikTok, where artists are finding ways to put their work out there without needing prior exposure?
JK: I think TikTok is a difficult app for writers to become famous on because it’s hard to replicate the experience of reading a book. Instagram has a natural photographic aesthetic value that books can be advertised on, but with TikTok you can’t show how interesting a book is by making a TikTok about it.
I don’t think that the digital world is going to totally overtake books. I think that what seems to be happening and is more likely to happen is that there are going to be only a handful of books that break out and perform well and the rest of the books will be published to much more modest reception. I think that’s kind of dangerous stratification that we’re already seeing. Some books are the million-dollar books and the other books are not getting as much attention, even when the publisher is really trying.
NG: Especially now. I feel like a lot of contemporary novelists are thinking more towards TV.
JK: Right now Hollywood is buying more books than ever before. Right now it’s a really good time to be trying to option your book for film or television.
NG: On your website, when it comes to your interests for projects that you want to represent, I saw that one of the things you’re interested in is “upmarket” fiction. I was wondering if you could elaborate on that, because I’ve never heard the term before.
JK: Everyone has their own definition of what literary fiction is, but it’s often just work that’s very language focused. Commercial fiction feels like there’s a lot of range between the kind of paperbacks you might pick up at an airport that are faster paced and more plot focused, but there’s a lot of work that falls between those two, where it’s something that might be called book club fiction, the kinds of books that have engaging and interesting ideas behind them, but are still accessible and well written. You mentioned Little Fires Everywhere and I think Celeste Ng writes into that space. All the Light We Cannot See was a good example of an upmarket book really taking off.
Everyone has their own definition of what literary fiction is, but it’s often just work that’s very language-focused. Commercial fiction feels like there’s a lot of range between the kind of paperbacks you might pick up at an airport that are faster paced and more plot focused, but there’s a lot of work that falls between those two, where it’s something that might be called book club fiction, the kinds of books that have engaging and interesting ideas behind them, but are still accessible and well written.
NG: Are there any specific works you’ve represented that fall into that category?
JK: Yeah, my client Leah Franqui writes into that space. Her first book America for Beginners came out in summer of 2017 and that book does grapple with a lot of issues. She’s a great writer and her language is very accessible and there’s also a really fun and interesting plot and there’s a lot of lightheartedness in it as well.
NG: I noticed on your website that you create custom crossword puzzles. I was kind of wondering about that. I guess, why?
JK: I just love crossword puzzles. I’ve always enjoyed solving them. It’s the only reason I have the print subscription to The New York Times. I discovered that creating a crossword feels like a more fun version of doing a crossword and one way to make that entertaining is to try to put specific types of clues in there. If someone has a birthday, getting their name and getting their alma mater and a few other things can be a fun challenge but it’s just, I don’t know, I just like playing around with it. I am also a big fan of Scrabble and Boggle but don’t have any partners to play with.
NG: Sounds like those would make really good personal gifts for a wedding or something, because you can custom-make all those sweet sentimental moments with your significant other.
JK: I should have you writing my ads.
NG: What do you and, I guess, other agents look for typically in manuscripts?
JK: I kind of feel it’s the Supreme Court’s definition of pornography in that you know it when you see it. I think the first thing that I will see is your query letter and if that’s how I’m being approached, that is something that a writer has a lot of control over. They’re all pretty formulaic in that you want to briefly introduce the book with a short bit of summary about the book, discuss what you’re trying to accomplish in the book thematically or other comparative titles that you think fit in with yours and then a bio. Even though they have this formula you want to have enough of your own voice coming out that it picks up someone’s interest. Even if it’s the best letter I’ve ever read, the pages have to be good, too. I think that a lot of people assume that we’ll just get through the first few pages and then fall in love with the manuscript once the plot picks up, but I’m not usually going to give a writer that long. I don’t really get paid to read manuscripts that are not my clients’, so if something is not grabbing me ten pages in I’m not going to read another ten pages.
NG: I’m glad that you brought up assumptions. What are some of the common misconceptions about agents?
JK: Some people view agents as an unnecessary middleman, but I think that it’s a little naive because agents are really your number-one ally and the fact of the matter is that they’re not paid unless you get paid. I would really try to view an agent as your potential best ally and advocate and someone who is going to be with you not just for one book, but hopefully your whole career and help you manage it and grow it.
Some people view agents as an unnecessary middleman, but I think that it’s a little naïve because agents are really your number-one ally and the fact of the matter is that they’re not paid unless you get paid. I would really try to view an agent as your potential best ally and advocate and someone who is going to be with you not just for one book, but hopefully your whole career and help you manage it and grow it.
A lot of people do not know what a literary agent is. For a long time, the only comparison that I could really easily use was, like, do you know what a sports agent does? It’s like that but much less glamorous.
NG: A lot of the writers I know are usually resistant to the idea of having to rely on somebody for that kind of promotional work. They just want their work to speak for itself.
JK: Well, I don’t do a ton of promotion, I’m not the publicist or marketing director, but I do think that a lot of my clients are solitary during the day and they really look forward to an opportunity to talk to another person, especially someone who has read their work and has an analytic eye to it and gets to discuss what changes to make, what edits, what the plan is for submission. All of that can be quite exciting.
NG: For the aspiring agents that are out there in the world, do you have any advice or regrets that you wouldn’t mind sharing with them?
JK: Right now, more than ever, to get your foot in the door in publishing, having internship experience is pretty crucial. Thankfully, most internships now are paid, but I do think that they’re worth doing. The nice thing about the agency side is that there’s actually hundreds of small agencies out there, small and medium-sized agencies out there and a lot of them have a lot of flexibility about internships. A lot of agents are open to informational interviews. You might not get a response if you reach out to someone cold and ask them for their time, especially in this age of Zoom fatigue, but there’s definitely a lot of people out there who would be perfectly happy to sit down and try to help.
NG: What genres do you avoid?
JK: I don’t represent anything on the children’s side, YA, middle grade, picture books. Most of that is handled by colleagues of mine at the agency. I always throw out pitches that are based on spirituality or Christianity, they’re not interest areas for me. Also, in the nonfiction that I do, if someone is approaching me with a science book or a history book or something that does political analysis, they really need to have a background in that field that qualifies them as an expert. I would not take on someone who has just a casual interest in the allegations that Donald Trump is a Russian spy and has thus pieced together a manuscript based on news stories, like if you want to do that manuscript, you better work in intelligence to make that credible.
NG: Do you do genre fiction like sci-fi and fantasy?
JK: I wouldn’t necessarily say that I do genre fiction, but I’m open to books that have an element of fantasy or sci fi in them. But I don’t really work in conventional genre for the most part, or romance for that matter, but that isn’t to say that a really smart Jasmine Guillory-style romance wouldn’t be something that I’d be interested in, just not what I generally am focused on and looking for.
NG: You’re also a cofounder of Inkluded, Inc., which is a nonprofit group that’s geared towards great causes in publishing.
JK: Inkluded, Inc. was co-founded by a few colleagues of mine and myself, basically just feeling, well before the events of summer 2020, that there’s been a lot of lip service to the concept of diversity in publishing that mostly results in a few more entry-level hires of people of color, but there isn’t as much done to foster longer term promotions and even just getting that foot in the door.
We were just talking about ways in which we could address that and one of the things that we came up with is that Michael Mejias, who’s one of our co-founders who runs the internship program at Writers House, wanted to create a really intense weekends-only academy that would give people the kind of education they might expect at a program like the Columbia Publishing Course and would prepare them for an entry-level job without making them do any unpaid internships, and his goal is just to place as many people as possible who go through the academy in publishing jobs.
We’ve done two summers of that now and we’ve had a decent success rate in getting people hired and our longer-term goals will be making sure they don’t feel sidelined at work. I think there’s a lot of diversity issues in publishing but making changes from the inside can help create those changes from the outside as well. I represent a lot of people from marginalized backgrounds, so it’s important to me that we see books from people who have been traditionally locked out of publishing being brought into the center of it.
Nicholas Galvez is an MFA Student at Antioch University. He received his B.A. from Florida Southern College in Lakeland, Florida. When not reading or writing, he likes to sing, sleep, and water plants.