A Conversation with Carrie Howland, Literary Agent at Donadio & Olsen
Welcome to Akashic in Good Company, a weekly column featuring managing editor Johanna Ingalls’s interviews and profiles with many of the remarkable people in the publishing industry today. Over the past fifteen years, Akashic has worked with an amazing array of talented, hard-working, committed people and Akashic would not be the company it is today without their help and advice along the way. This week’s installment features Carrie Howland, literary agent at Donadio & Olsen.
Last year, despite much controversy and community uproar, the Barclays Center opened in Brooklyn, NY, mere blocks from Akashic’s former office (where Johnny and his family still reside). I will risk receiving negative feedback by saying I like the Barclays Center—a lot—and my first visit to the brand-new arena was an Akashic outing with Johnny, Ibrahim, and our spouses to see one of our favorites: Jay-Z.
Jay-Z, for me, is old-school Akashic: working out of Johnny’s apartment, listening to Hot 97, and lots of lugging boxes of books up and down stairs. We don’t work in Johnny’s house anymore, and we don’t listen to Hot 97 these days due to iPods and Pandora, but we (Johnny, Ibrahim, and I) still love Jay-Z. The Barclays show was great and my only regret was the hangover I had as I boarded a plane to Georgia the next day, where I was to represent Akashic at the wonderful Crossroads Writers Conference in Macon.
It was in this hungover state, waiting at the airport with Adam Mansbach and others who had been invited to the conference, that I first met Carrie Howland. We shared a van ride to the conference hotel and I quickly excused myself upon arrival to prepare for the 10 minute talk I had to give the next morning. (I was told by the conference organizer that my talk should be “something inspiring, like the TED talk J.J. Abrams gave.” Huh?!)
I woke up the next morning, refreshed and ready(ish) for the TED-esque talk and the various publishing panels I was participating in. I was already predisposed to like Carrie from the moment I learned she had worked for Ira Silverberg, a former literary agent whom I have a great deal of respect and admiration for. Carrie started working for him in 2005, and she credits Ira with much of what she learned about being a good agent.
“I’m the agent I am today because of him . . . He taught me the importance of hard work and personal connections in this industry. Ira was the kind of agent who was always the first in the office and the last to leave, which is the schedule I keep to this day . . . From Ira, I learned what true dedication to your job—and your authors—means. As an agent, Ira went above and beyond for his clients, and I truly hope that my authors feel the same!”
What I learned while spending the day with her, going from panel to panel, is Carrie Howland IS the perfect agent to fill the void left when Ira moved on to work at the NEA—and I mean this as a huge compliment. She has a wonderful combination of passion and dedication mixed with a wicked sense of humor.
I will admit, over the years, I have definitely been less than impressed by some agents who seem to disappear as soon as a book deal is signed. While I listened to Carrie speak at Crossroads, I could see she was not that type of agent, and I knew I wanted to profile her as an example of what every author deserves from his or her agent. So, with very little editing, many jokes, and more parenthetical asides than even I could manage, here is my new favorite literary agent, Ms. Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olsen.
“I was born and spent my first six weeks of life in a town called Southfield, Michigan (a suburb of Detroit). Go Tigers! (Yes, I know, I can feel the Yankees fans coming for me . . .)
Just as I was getting settled into my crib (of the baby, not MTV variety) my family moved to Flemington, New Jersey, which is where I spent my formative (at least the first five) years. I then traded my Jersey accent for a Midwestern one, when my parents moved us back to Michigan, this time to a small town called Marshall. Never heard of it? Not surprising. The town consists of approximately seven thousand people and pets and the (unofficial?) mascot is a pineapple. (A supposed symbol of hospitality, not climate. Again, it’s Michigan.) . . . I attended Lakeview High School (Go Spartans!) and the Battle Creek Area Mathematics and Science Center (yes, I was, and really still am, a nerd). So now, you may be saying to yourself, Battle Creek, MI sounds a bit familiar. Think you’ve heard of it? You probably have. Or at least you’ve read it on a cereal box. It’s the home of Kellogg’s Cereal. I still can’t seem to go more than a week without consuming Frosted Flakes. (And really, why would I want to?)
“I attended what I believe to be the best college . . . anywhere, a small liberal arts school called Albion College, located in Albion, Michigan. Initially I chose Albion for a few reasons. Rather importantly, they gave me amazing Biology/Environmental Research and Pre-Med scholarships. (Our colors were also purple and gold, which I thought would be an easy transition from the purple and white colors of my high school.) I always say that I’m probably one of the few literary agents who has taken, passed, and even enjoyed two semesters of Organic Chemistry. (Though this is largely due to an amazing professor who shared my love of Bob Dylan and allowed me to sit in his office and listen to Highway 61 while he explained things like synthesis and nomenclature. And, in an incredible turn of events, when I told him that I was more interested in poetry than polymers, he was not only supportive but, I dare say, proud? Can I give a shout-out to Dr. Cliff Harris at Albion College? Favorite professor of all time.) After declaring a Creative Writing major, I decided to spend a semester off campus. By this time, I’d become the poetry editor of our campus literary journal, The Albion Review, as well as a reporter for the campus newspaper, The Pleiad. So, to me, it made sense to study ‘abroad’ . . . in New York City, where I asked to be placed at a publishing house or journal. My advisor called one day from New York and, in an accent reminiscent of my Jersey days, asked if I’d like to interview at a literary agency. My response: “Absolutely!” Then I immediately got off the phone to search for the definition of ‘Literary Agent’ online. (Yes, we had the Internet when I went to college. We didn’t have texting or Facebook, but we had the Internet!) In the end, I landed an internship at a well-known boutique agency with one of the most impressive client lists I’d ever seen (Peter Matthiessen, Robert Stone, Chuck Palahniuk, and Mario Puzo, to name a few). The agency was Donadio & Olson, Inc., and I’m happy to say, it has been my ‘home’ ever since.”
Her “home”—Donadio & Olson—has been around for over forty years and includes an incredibly impressive backlist of authors whose work they still represent, including Edward Gorey, Nelson Algren, and Studs Terkel. The three agents—Carrie, Neil Olson, and Edward Hibbert—represent approximately sixty active clients in addition to the estates they manage.
There is no doubt that they are a successful agency, and I can see why Edward Gorey’s estate needs a reputable, experienced agency to handle his affairs. But what about contemporary, up-and-coming authors? As Carrie knows, while large, corporate publishers require an agent to submit an author’s work, Akashic and many of our indie colleagues do not (at this point, we do work with a mixture of agented and unagented authors). So I ask Carrie why an author whose work may be best suited for a smaller independent company over HarperCollins, for example, still benefits from having an agent.
“Of course the simplest answer to the ‘Why get an agent?’ question is, ‘Because you have to.’ But, as you said, there are amazing publishers, like Akashic, who will look at unagented material. However, this is akin to my argument against wearing Crocs: just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” (Thank YOU, Ms. Howland!) “You’re a writer, that’s your job. Why worry about matching your book with the right editor when there are people like me who do that for a living? Developing relationships with publishing houses and editors is really a full-time job in itself. I can read a book and immediately think of ten editors who would appreciate seeing it. For you, as a writer, coming up with that list could take weeks of research—time that could be better spent writing. Beyond the initial point of contact, an agent works for you. We’re here to negotiate on your behalf. We know the ins and outs of contracts, the best royalty rates, advantages of a fall vs. summer pub date, and who to call if you just REALLY want to try to place a piece in the New Yorker. We deal with translation rights and audio rights and film rights. And, of course, we make you money. There’s no reason to talk around that. We negotiate for a living, so even after you allow for our commission, we’re still almost certain to get you more money than you can on your own. It’s our job; it’s just what we do. We launch books, and, in my case, I like to say I represent careers. I never take on a project that I don’t absolutely love, and when I have a passion like that for a book, you can be sure that I will do everything to make that book, and your career, a success.”
I ask Carrie to continue to speak about what she loves about her job (though this seems obvious):
“Can I say everything? I truly feel like I have been blessed with the best job in the world. I get to read books and hang out with writers for a living. What could possibly be better? (Ok, full access to the Vogue accessories closet, perhaps.) I love seeing the process of a book, from the first submission by the author to the day I hold finished copies in my hands. I don’t have kids, but I have to believe it’s like watching a child grow up (without the whole diaper thing). It has always been important to me that my authors see me as approachable. I went into publishing because I simply love being around writers. Therefore, I want to be at all their readings, to give them notes on as many drafts as necessary for them to feel comfortable with their manuscript, and I absolutely want to see each and every one of them at my birthday parties. (I could really use a private jet to fly in my dear out-of-town writers. Can anyone help with that?) I think when you love what you do, and who you work with, going that extra mile never feels like a distance.”
And what frustrates this clearly positive and upbeat person, one might wonder? It turns out Carrie would simply like more hours in the day. Similar to our lives at Akashic, 8-9 hours in the office is only part of the job. We all read submissions, edit, and copyedit at home on our “own” time.
Since we met at a writers’ conference and it became apparent during the panels we did together that we had much in common, I’m curious to hear Carrie’s feelings on Crossroads and the importance of writers’ conferences in general.
“I think being part of a community is so important, especially for writers. I absolutely love writing conferences. I try to do as many a year as I can, and would really encourage writers (and other publishing professionals) to do the same! I know writing can seem like such a solitary act, but once you’ve completed that manuscript, you need the support of a community of writers, publishing professionals (agents, editors, publicists) to take your book and make it a reality. I think conferences are wonderful places to foster these relationships. They’re not simply a place to go to learn about how to get an agent, or how to pitch your book (though they’re great for that, too); they’re a place to build a community of people who will be there when it comes time to read drafts, to help promote your readings, to give you blurbs, and all those wonderful things that come along with writing a book. I say this so often, but being an author isn’t just about writing—it’s about who your writing reaches and whose writing reaches you, and that’s where this idea of community comes in. Plus, attending conferences will give you that special insight into the publishing community that can only be acquired in person. Where else will you learn that I like to wear biker jackets, even in summer; that you (Johanna) and I have a shared obsession for our City Lights tote bags (we own many, folks, and they are BY FAR the best); that the rich literary community in the South is comprised of some of the NICEST people you’ll ever meet (I’m looking at you, Sarah Gerwig, Chris Horne, and Molly Wilkins); and that NaNoWriMo founder, Chris Baty, really is 10 feet tall?”
In closing, I ask my typical question: What is she looking forward to working on this spring (either books coming out this spring/summer or new authors she’s just signed on)?
“Because we met at Crossroads, I’ll mention that I’m now working with the very talented young adult writer, Catherine Scully, who I met there. She’s working on a brilliant YA horror novel that I’ll be going out with soon (stay tuned!). One of my other phenomenal writers, Koa Beck, was recently named editor-in-chief of Mommyish and has delivered a new novel that is such a departure for her, but in such an amazing way. I can’t wait for people to get a taste of just how multitalented she is.
“And finally, a project that has been so dear to my heart for the past year and a half is Scott Cheshire’s remarkable debut novel, High As The Horses’ Bridles. Scott is one of those rare writers who is not only incredibly gifted, but also a dream to work with. We spent months in this sort of organic editing process that I love to have with my writers. (Scott may have wanted to hit me over the head with all my notes, but you’ll have to ask him.) I then sold the novel to one of my absolute favorite editors, the lovely and talented Sarah Bowlin, at Henry Holt . . . I’m so proud to represent Scott and this book (which will be out in 2014). Scott Cheshire is certainly a writer to watch.”
As I mentioned at the start of this piece, for authors looking for a literary agent to work with, I hope Carrie’s interview further explains just exactly what you SHOULD get from an agent. And if they happen to be as fashionable, personable, and humorous as Carrie and her former boss Ira are, well, that’s just a bonus—a really great bonus.
Posted: Mar 14, 2013
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