Monday, April 15, 2013

Jean Naggar: How I Got into Publishing

Guest post by a literary agent, author, and founder of the prominent Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc.

Jean Naggar
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.


  1. What a wonderful story!
    It's moral: PERSIST!!!

    1. When I was a kid, it was called "obstinacy." Later it got renamed "strength of character." Trust me, it's obstinacy... so I am delighted that you liked the piece. Good luck with your own challenges.

  2. Your story is really inspiring! I've been trying for the past six months to get my foot in the door (science background, no publishing experience), so thanks for sharing.

    1. Sometimes one bangs one's head relentlessly against a wall and fails to see the open door beside it. I would think that your science background would be a real plus in the right venue. How about specialized nonfiction areas, or university presses? I wish you a toe in the door and a stellar career to follow.

  3. Very interesting! I love reading how people got started. Nice to learn about you, Ms. Naggar!

  4. What a great story! Wonderful to know that it's possible to make a living doing what you love to do--as long as you're persistent!

  5. Your story is truly inspiring and I am looking forward to reading your memoir. As a child I also spent my time reading as well as writing stories. In elementary school I mastered the art of hiding my reading book in my desk or behind my text book to continue reading at school. Although I have been looking for an agent for almost a year, busily writing and reading during waits between queries, I know my breakthrough into children's literature as a career is, like yours was, only one contact away. Best wishes,
    Marcy D. Martin

    1. Best of luck. I hope you get where you would like to be. It may look as if I did, but I'm still striving...trying to write a novel and having a real struggle with it! That's the challenge, the frustration, and the fun.