Jim McCarthy interned for Dystel, Goderich & Bourret while studying urban design at New York University. Upon graduating, Jim realized he would much rather continue working with books than make the jump (as he had originally intended) to the field of city planning. Twenty years later, he remains at DG&B as a VP and agent. As an avid fiction reader, his interests encompass both literary and commercial works in the adult, young adult, and middle grade categories. His clients include New York Times bestsellers Richelle Mead, Morgan Rhodes, Victoria Laurie, Robin Talley, Livia Blackburne, Joy McCullough, and Michael Arceneaux along with critically celebrated and award winning authors such as Tehlor Kay Mejia, Fonda Lee, Remy Lai, and many more.
Why did you become an agent?
I began interning at DGB when I was in undergrad. All I knew about publishing was that I liked to read. It was in that part-time job that I discovered not only what an agent does but how integral they are to the publishing process. The opportunity to partner with artists and guide them meaningfully over the course of an entire career was irresistible to me. I love working with authors long term, navigating the ups and downs, and finding the best way forward.
What does daily life look like for you as an agent?
Every morning starts with an overview of what new emails have landed, and then from there I tackle anything that feels urgent before diving into my to-do list which on any given day could include vetting contracts, organizing a submission list, typing up editorial notes, following up with editors on any number of questions, reading queries, or any number of other tasks from chasing down payments to reaching out to co-agents about teaming up for film rights. The most consistent thing is that there typically isn’t time between 9 and 5 to do reading, so that ends up getting slotted into nights and weekend. It’s a lot of moving parts and trying to keep all the balls in the air but also a ton of fun.
What do you like the most about being an agent? What is most challenging about being an agent?
I’m cheating a bit here, but the best and worst parts of being an agent are related to how attached you get to your projects. So nothing feels better than being able to tell a client that their debut novel is going to be published. But nothing is worse than having to pass along bad news like passes or a book going out of print. I get pretty attached, so I love getting to celebrate with my clients over the long course of a career, and that means that conversely, I have a hard time when the news isn’t good.
What’s the most important thing to you in a query letter?
What I want from a query is that it’s clean, concise, and sounds like the project or perspective is new to me and my list. I wish there was a magical trick to point people towards, but really, clarity of vision, whether in terms of plot, theme, or position in the marketplace, is more important than anything else.
What do you look for in a Twitter pitch?
Twitter pitches are tough, and not every kind of book is particularly well-suited to the Twitter pitch process. What stands out most in these events are projects with big hooks, ideas that can be succinctly captured and feel incredible fresh in under 280 characters. And compelling comp titles are especially helpful in a small space. For those books that this is a match for, great! But I want to make sure not to make every author feel like they HAVE to be able to do this for their book. There’s nothing wrong with needing more space to stand out.
What is on your #MSWL? What kind of stories are you looking for, particularly from API creators?
I love stories about regular people facing extraordinary circumstances—that can be something as straightforward as falling love or as fantastical as traveling through universes. Specific to API storytellers, I don’t know that there’s one thing I am most looking for so much as one I’m not: I feel like a lot of people decided to chase the next Crazy Rich Asians. Frankly, I don’t need to spend all that much time with the super-wealthy. Again, ordinary people’s stories win my heart most often!
How many new authors do you sign annually?
Probably about 5? It depends on the year and how full my client list is at any moment!
What are the trends in the industry at the moment? How do you think API creators should navigate these trends?
I’ve been having trouble noticing distinctive trends as of late. On the adult side, there does seem to be a bit of a return to romcoms of late, but there hasn’t been a really massive trend of late that I’ve identified. And maybe that’s for the best because trying to write to a trend can be a touch of a fool’s errand as once you know what the trend is, it tends to pass quickly enough that you can’t get there fast enough because of how slow publishing is.
How do you see the Big 5 becoming the Big 4 impacting API creators? Smaller publishers have produced many blockbusters this summer; do you foresee the merger changing that?
PRH acquiring S&S is bad news for authors and agents. Less competition means less people who can bid against each other and more of an ability to stick with policies that are author-unfriendly (like PRH’s four-part payout structure). And the larger a publisher is, the more chance there is of someone getting lost on a list. Continuing to gobble up their competition is…concerning at best. I hope more indie publishers are able to have huge breakout successes. Nothing would make me happier.
What are the Dos and Don’ts for creators when querying an agent?
Do your research: if you can personalize a query and explain why you’re reaching out to this specific person, you’ll stand out in a good way.
Don’t be overly chummy: this is ideally the beginning of a business relationship, so make sure you keep it professional.
Do you have any advice for API creators when choosing an agent?
Even if you only have one offer of representation, ask questions: find out how many clients the agent has, ask for references, make sure their vision for the book matches yours. There is no us without you, so even if we’re not trying to beat out competition to win you, we should always be putting our best foot forward and be fully accommodating.
After signing, what does the relationship look like between you and a client? How often/how do you communicate? What can a client expect?
While this varies a bit depending on a client’s needs, everyone receives editorial feedback before submission. Everyone then is taken out to editors to be shopped, at which point you should be able to ask your agent for information on who is considering it and how many people have responded. Different agents share information in different ways, but you are entitled to know where your book went. And then from there, the hope is of course that you have a book deal and dive into that part of the process together with your agent there to answer questions and keep track every step of the way. Worst case, if they can’t sell your book, hopefully you’ll be able to move on to a next project that they can pursue as enthusiastically and aggressively as the first.
What is one thing you wish querying API creators knew before sending their query letter?
Nothing about publishing is easy, but at it’s best, it can be unbelievably rewarding. And no one out there WANTS to reject you. We have to pass on things because we can’t do it all, but we genuinely want to find projects that we will fall head over heels for.