Written by Emily Harstone February 15th, 2024

The Other Side of the Desk: Literary Agent Michael Mungiello

Most writers don’t have a clear idea of what it’s like to work in publishing. The many professionals who make publishing possible often work very hard, without much credit.

Our goal with this article, and all of the articles in this series, is to give writers a more realistic idea of what it is actually like to be on the other side of the desk, and what it really takes to make a living (or part of one), in the publishing industry.

We really want to highlight how many people have very different roles on the other side of the desk, and how many of these roles don’t pay enough (or at all).

Often authors can act (or feel like) agents and editors are the enemy, but often they are also writers themselves, and are equally familiar with rejection. I hope this series helps demystify what it is actually like to work in the publishing industry.

If you work in the publishing industry and feel like you are a good potential candidate for a future interview in this series, please send us an email: submit@authorspublish.com.

We are paying all contributors to this series, and the questions will be similar to the ones asked below. These are the questions we think readers most want to hear the answers to. If you have any additional questions you think should be added to the regular rotation please let us know by sending an email to the same address.

For our third article in this series we are very honored to feature Michael Mungiello, an agent at Inkwell Management.

Michael has conducted workshops for the Community of Writers and the Gotham Writers Workshop, among other organizations. He represents literary fiction and non-fiction, and his clients’ books have been praised in the New Yorker, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, with several being named Best Books of the Year by NPR and Bloomberg.

What are the steps you took that allowed you to become an agent?

The first step I took to become an agent centered on just being as consistently as possible in a position to read material and provide feedback. Whether that was doing an internship at a literary agency during summers in college, or reading unsolicited submissions for an independent publisher or literary magazine/website, this kind of work not only allowed me to meet people in the industry but also trained me to articulate why I did or didn’t like a manuscript, what I felt was or wasn’t working in it. It also helped me learn how to budget reading time when faced with a high volume of material.

After those initial steps, and just keeping an ear to the ground for more formal professional opportunities at agencies, I’d recommend any aspiring agent go out of their way to keep up with what’s going on in their favorite literary journals or magazines, attend readings (in person or virtual) as much as possible, and reach out to authors whose work you admire – at the end of the day, like with most roles in the literary world, the work involved consists of maintaining an engaged presence in your community.

Describe a typical day at work.

In my experience, an agent’s typical day centers on a few continually circulating activities, which could broadly be divided into two categories: creative and administrative.

On the creative side, my work would include reading clients’ manuscripts and sending them editorial thoughts or discussing the manuscript with them by phone or in person. Then, once we’re in agreement on the manuscript, I’d start making a submission plan in tandem with the author (i.e. putting together a list of publishers/editors who might be best for the project, drafting the submission letter), and deciding when it’d be best to share the project. Once we’ve had a chance to send the manuscript out, the next phase of creative work would involve discussing the manuscript with an interested editor. Otherwise, absent any particular manuscript in hand, another creative aspect of an agent’s job would just be having conversations with an editor about what they might be looking for in their next acquisition.

On the administrative side, there’s coordinating between editors who may all be interested in a certain manuscript (e.g. scheduling times for them to speak with the author about their reactions to and plans for the project) and negotiating an official offer for a book (including not just the advance but also grants of rights and territories – deciding in tandem with the author, for instance, if a publisher will be given the right to publish their book in foreign languages throughout the world or merely in English throughout North America). Then, once a deal’s been officially closed, my work might entail following up with the publisher for a draft of the agreement, reviewing the contract to see if anything should be redlined, and proceeding to discuss any points with the publisher to be sure the contract is ready for the author’s signature. Otherwise, administrative matters would consist of invoicing a magazine publishing an author’s article/review, a university or institute that hired an author to deliver a lecture, or a production company that’s agreed to option an author’s work for potential adaptation as a work for film or television.

What do you spend the bulk of your time doing?

Part of what’s interesting about being a literary agent is that I don’t predictably spend the bulk of my time doing any one thing. On some days I may be able to do more of the creative work described above – on days like that, it’s more reading and conversations than anything else, so the work is more fluid. On other days, it’s a bit more focused on precise contractual review or concrete negotiation, which provides a complementary satisfaction to the more creative work, I think.

Does this job pay your bills?

I’m very lucky and grateful to be able to say that it does.

What do you think makes you good at your job?

I think I can only really measure whether or not I’m good at my job by evaluating the experience of my authors. And the experience of my authors could best be surmised by their answering certain questions.

First and foremost, do they feel as if I understand their writing? And by “understand,” I don’t mean something like literally comprehend the plot. I think an author might feel most understood when their agent has a sense of the tradition in which the author’s working, a familiarity with a writer’s influences and models; in other words, an agent who’s good at their job should see where their author is coming from. Additionally, the extent to which an agent understands their author’s writing is evidenced in conversation not just about the author’s broader goals or creative priorities but also in specific discussion of their work itself. In my view, discussion of the work itself is one of the more clarifying and exciting moments in the author-agent relationship; ideally, an author should feel that their agent not only sees the book as it is but also as it might best be. When the book is ready to submit, an author should feel that their agent describes the book in the same way one might see it described in a rave in the New York Times: with illuminating enthusiasm.

Otherwise, if an author wanted to determine whether an agent might be good at their job, they might ask themselves the following: Do I feel as if I have a knowledgeable, articulate advocate when it comes to the details of my contract (are rights being retained, are royalty rates standard)? Do I feel as if I understand, in layman’s terms, the agreement I might be signing? An author should be able to answer these questions in the affirmative if their agent makes an effort to be transparent and direct in providing a broad context for the given offer/deal; I think it’s important that an author feel they can ask their agent anything, and that an author feels they understand the literary landscape as well as their agent. I’d ideally like to be seen as something of a resource for my own clients, and authors can best make use of an agent who can level with them about the marketplace (with its attendant challenges and tectonic shifts) while still staking a claim within that territory for their own book.

What is a common misconception people seem to have about your work?

It’s difficult for me to fully imagine what people might misconceive about my work (in all likelihood, I’ll just end up misperceiving their misperceptions), but from what I can glean there seem to be occasional worries that literary agents traffic in a purely mercantile logic (risking callousness). In other words, this misconception centers on the purported incuriosity of the literary agent, the impression that the literary agent is jaded.

This misconception, essentially, confuses realism (being realistic behooves anyone in any industry) with cynicism.

I think that every good literary agent, whether or not they’re a writer, ends up having something of a writer within them. Of course, a good literary agent must have something of a reader within them too, a real reader, a reader ready to have their defenses lowered and resistances overcome, a reader willing to be charmed. But too often, I think, we forget that a literary agent has to identify with an author, and you can only do that if you remain sensitive to how it feels to be an author, whether that’s the weight of waiting for a response or the thrill of finding the right publisher. In order to do their job, an agent has to swear by the qualities most in opposition to jadedness or cynicism: persistence, and a conviction strengthened by experience. You have to love the written word as much as writers do.

What is an aspect of your job that might surprise most people?

I assume most people consider the literary agent’s job to be somewhat transitory—you’re in charge of matching editor and author and once they’ve been connected (i.e. once the book has sold), your job is done. In fact, I’ve found the literary agent continues to serve as liaison between the publisher and writer throughout the production process and well into the publication itself. It’s not uncommon for agents to be kept in the loop and, as appropriate, play a more active role in discussions around the cover of the book, the marketing plan, the process of securing blurbs, and other more granular aspects of the book’s life-cycle.

Have you ever considered quitting your job, and why?

Very boring answer: I haven’t.

What is the best part of your job?

Seeing a writer develop over time is the best part of my job. I’d compare it to the excitement of following the career of your favorite singer or director, the thrill of being constantly on the edge of your seat as you watch an artist coax an ambition equal to their evolving talent. You wonder what they’re going to do next, where else they could take it—and, you get to find out before anyone else does. And, you get to help bring it out into the world. It’s like being the first person for whom Prince plays Purple Rain or the first person for whom Martin Scorsese screens Goodfellas. It’s incredible.

And the best part of course is just getting to be a companion to a writer as they’re forging ahead on their own expedition. The transformation, the widening and deepening, of a writer’s aim and scope over the course of their career is what it’s all about.

If you are a writer, how does your work impact your creative writing?

Although I’m not a writer myself, my work has radically informed my reading life and just how I “read” most things. Because you can briefly inhabit the various expertises of your clients, being an agent lets you look at life through a set of kaleidoscopic lenses, producing a kind of synesthesia across disciplines and outlooks. It lets me look at my life from a historical lens, a political lens, a scientific lens, an economic one, even a fictional lens. Each lens through which I can view it seems to enlarge my sense of my life.

My work has also shaped what I appreciate in different works of art, whether that’s books, movies, music, or anything else. Especially in the early years training as an agent, you read so many manuscripts, and so many different kinds of manuscripts, you learn what to look for and you get a sense of narrative rhythm overall, across genres. Through experience, osmotically, you become familiar with how stories sound; you sort of learn the scales of storytelling, recognize the building blocks and techniques people use to communicate in any medium. To switch metaphors, you get practice seeing the seams in stories.

The more you know where someone’s coming from, the easier it is to intuit where they’re going. And of course different stories, different works of arts, do different things—so my work’s allowed me to appreciate when a unique, discrete story is doing a unique, discrete thing. Before I started work as an agent, I think I had a hope that every story could be for everyone and do everything, but the more you read, the more you see that there’s so many kinds of stories, they can each content themselves with serving their own ends. You have to let stories do their own thing.


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