Guest post by a literary agent, author, and founder of the prominent Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc.
I was the reader who read voraciously at night under the bedclothes with a flashlight, the reader always in trouble as a teenager for not participating in the spin of family interactions because I “had my head in a book”.
So it came as a huge surprise and caused much mirth in my family when my first paid work after I moved to America, was - in fact - reading.
I always knew I wanted to work with books, and the publishing world seemed a good place to start. My deep secret desire was to be a writer myself, one day. I dreamed of joining the ranks of those magical people whose words and stories I so admired.
Determined to find a place in the world of books, I began by ignoring the fear that sent butterflies fluttering about my stomach. I put through a phone call to the sole contact I had in the publishing world, an elderly literary agent, the only publishing person my own literary agent in London knew in the US.
A senior agent in a venerable literary agency, she was polite but unequivocally discouraging. She was the first to recite a mantra I was to hear again and again for the next six months, as I grabbed at names reluctantly proffered and made my cold calls, hand and voice shaking: “Well,” they said, one after another, “you can't get into publishing if you've never had a publishing job before.”
But she dropped a name, and I made another call.
Six months and many calls later, my mind finally kicked in. I blurted indignantly “Well you must all have started somewhere. All I want is a place to start.” Magic words that introduced me to my first mentor, who chuckled as she invited me to an interview. I was soon at work as a freelance reader of French and Italian books for Harper & Row, and later worked for a summer in their book-lined offices, wading stoically through their slush pile, delving into the teetering piles of over-the-transom manuscripts filling every inch of the room where they were housed.
I thought I had died and gone to heaven, as I sat reading manuscript after manuscript in the palatial office of an editor who was away for the summer. I realized with joy that I was actually getting paid for doing what I loved to do best in the world.
As I reached out into escalating opportunity, I took courses in proofreading and copyediting, and overcame my fear of cold calls. I read at home, in every spare minute, for the Book-of-the-Month Club, for the Literary Guild, for various publishers, a few literary agents, and my own pleasure. I developed a thriving freelance practice, and was hired to translate French novels into English, and articles for magazines from French and Italian. I wrote jacket copy, articles about publishing, reviews for the Village Voice, the New York Times and Publishers Weekly.
When my youngest child started school, I was offered a full time job as an editor at Liveright, a prestigious house with a tiny staff, then struggling to reinvent itself after decades of drift. I loved my work there.
Liveright was sold to Norton in 1972, and I found myself desolate, without a job. But the mysterious forces that have shaped my life pushed me into something I never thought I wanted to do. I became a literary agent, founder of an agency that is going strong 35 years later. I found I loved that too.
A passion for books and reading opened the world of publishing to me. Now, I have even fulfilled my secret desire: in 2012, Amazon Encore published my memoir, Sipping from the Nile, My Exodus from Egypt.