I do not have an agent. I'm a writer who, like a huge slice of the population, has a half-finished novel and a dozen stories sitting in my desk drawer. Finding an agent seems daunting and a little mystical. I have no good idea how you find the right person; it's like arranging a blind date, with more at stake than a walk of shame the following morning. I'm also deeply cynical about the commerce end of publishing that secures a hack like Elizabeth Wurtzel (author of Prozac Nation and other titles more forgettable) a $500,000 advance while smart, great writers I know go unpublished, or get paid (if they're lucky) the equivalent of cab fare. It's a popularity contest, and I still hate the prep-school kids.
While the Northwest has a strong writing community, it is isolated from the publishing world's epicenter--New York. That's where Seattle agent Elizabeth Wales enters the picture. The first time I speak with Wales, her computer has a virus and she's planning a trip to Homer, Alaska, to meet with an author. If she's at all stressed about the computer and impending trip, it doesn't show. She has a mellifluous speaking voice, and a wry humor that instantly puts me at ease. As the co-founder of Wales Literary Agency, it's her job to make Northwestern literature sound exciting--but she's also obviously fueled by passion and a sense of mission. "You get hooked on bookselling, publishing, bringing to the public the literary arts. It gets under your skin," Wales says.
It's been a lifelong obsession for her. After graduating from Smith College and pursuing graduate work in English and American literature at Columbia University, Wales worked at Oxford University Press and Viking Penguin before eventually relocating to Seattle. After working in city government and serving a term on the Seattle School Board, Wales helped with a marketing project for Seal Press and caught the lit bug anew. She knew she wanted to be involved again. "But I'm out here in Seattle," she remembers thinking. She admired Seal Press, but knew she didn't want to simply work for them. Her thoughts turned to being an emissary of the literary community, an agent finding homes for authors' books.
"I got the idea that I could be an agent--not that I knew that much about it at all, just that I know the people, and the idea at the time was that Seattle was coming into its own," she says. Wales turned to Dan Levant, who had 15 years of publishing experience. "We met for lunch, and he had the same idea. He wanted to get out of publishing but he wanted to keep a hand in the industry, and he didn't want to do the hustle work."
They decided to team up, and Levant & Wales was born. "He provided some legitimacy in the literary community to our venture, and he immediately had some books that he had wanted to find New York publishing homes for reprint," Wales says. "So we had some credibility and some business. He was the name and the experience, and I was the hustler."
Levant & Wales had early successes with reprints, taking three of quirky illustrator Lynda Barry's comics for Real Comet Press and selling them for reprint to Harper. "It took about four or five years to justify itself as a living," explains Wales. "The industry has always been in crisis. Every year is a new crisis. It's always about trying to balance culture with commerce, although commerce clearly has the upper hand when it comes to big business."
Levant & Wales gained a reputation as a boutique agency with a quality list. "We've kept on with some edgy things that some other people would not take on with such enthusiasm," Wales says. She's proud of her client list, which currently numbers 65 authors (one of whom is Dan Savage, and also recently Charles Mudede) and a dozen specialty, feminist, and regional publishers.
Levant retired completely in 1996, and since then Wales credits her great assistants--and the vibrant literary community that swirls around Elliott Bay Book Company, the Richard Hugo House, and the University of Washington's publishing program--with providing input and inspiration.
She travels to New York City, her former home, at least four times a year to meet with publishers and sell her clients' work. "New York is in a sense parochial--anything that happens in New York is important, which is in a sense true," she says. "When I represented Bruce Barcott's book Measure of a Mountain, about Rainier, the publishers said, "Oh, it's a regional mountain.' And I said, in a friendly way, "If this mountain were in New Jersey, it wouldn't be regional.' On the other hand, New York is very opportunistic. The fact is, they don't want to be trumped; they don't want to be late in terms of a great writer or an important story, so they do expect West Coast agents to appear at their door with new voices. That's my job--to convince them I have opportunities."
Despite all of the opportunities and venues for writing in Seattle, I have found that New York is still the measuring stick of achievement for most Seattle writers. A New York book deal or agent is viewed as a symbol of success. Growing up in a region of the country derisively called Flyover Land on both coasts, and now making my home in the Northwestern corner pocket, New York can seem like a figment of the imagination. I even lived there for a while, but it retains its power as a place where true acknowledgment of one's work is bestowed.
This is where Wales' New York connections and East Coast background become handy. She offers agents and publishers a chance to be on the cutting edge in discovering new local talent.