How This Literary Agent Built An Established Agency

By Cheryl Robinson

One area of business where women dominate the statistics is a sector of the publishing industry. As a result, the number of female literary agents has steadily increased over time. According to Zippia, 58.5% of agents are women. The publishing landscape has changed with the advancement of technology, making self-publishing more accessible and streamlined. These changes impact the desire, the need and the chances of signing with a literary agent. Even though more authors are turning to print-on-demand options to publish their books, traditional publishing still has prestige. It’s been reported that the odds of working with a literary agent are 1 in 6,000, based on the number of inquiries one receives and the number of new authors the agent is looking to sign for the year.

For over two decades, Jennifer Unter, founder of the Unter Agency, has helped new authors land deals with publishing houses. As a respected agent within the industry, she speaks at conferences around the country. Most recently, she’s been asked to participate in The Atlanta Writers Conference in November. Her clients have won many awards, including Indie Next, Reading the West Award, Bank Street Best Book of the Year Award and Green Earth Book Award. Although she expands her roster of authors annually, she’s strategic in her selection.

“A lot of authors look at what’s happening with the biggest players, the best sellers or even the very popular series,” Unter shares. “They say, ‘Oh, well, Penguin Random House is doing this for that person. Why wouldn’t they do that for me?’ They don’t realize how many books are published, how many authors really get little to no publicity, and how much they have to do themselves. So the really successful authors are the ones who come in knowing that and have a platform and know-how to be on social media and play that game in a good way. The ones who think things are being handed to them are the ones who are going to not have a realistic expectation of what publishing is like.”

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Unter realized early in her career that she didn’t want to work at a publishing house. So she then began assisting a literary agent while finishing law school. She worked at a small entertainment firm for a couple of years with her new degree before deciding it wasn’t a good fit.

Eventually, she transitioned back to an agency, but this time it was a sports agency with a literary department. The agency represented sports writers and managers. Here she had the autonomy to build out her roster and work on projects that excited her. Unfortunately, after eight years, the agency let her go without warning.

“It was actually the best thing that ever happened,” she smiles. “I had been talking about going out on my own. I knew I wanted to go out on my own, but I had two young kids, and my husband had his own business. I was the one with the health insurance. I was the one who had a steady income. It was not a good time for me to do that. I kept thinking that when my husband was established, great. I will [go out on my own]. But that’s not what happened. That night, I came home in tears. We sat down, and he said, ‘We’re starting your LLC right now.”

Although Unter never doubted herself, it was 2008, and the recession affected the majority of businesses. Just because someone lands a publishing deal doesn’t mean they get paid right away. If not a year, it takes at least months to see some cash. Through her contacts in the industry, she remained steadfast. Over the years, she’s expanded her portfolio’s genres to include adult books, children’s books and nature and environment.

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Besides the quality of the writing, it takes patience, persistence and a strategy to secure a contract with a literary agent. Attending writing conferences is a great way to meet agents looking for new writers. Query letters with an attention-grabbing first sentence can up the chances of hearing back from an agent. Also, refrain from sending a blanket email to potential agencies. Focusing efforts on a specific few agents is a better strategic move.

As Unter continues to evolve her practice, she focuses on the following essential steps:

  • Research what you want to transition into. It will help you make better-informed decisions with minimal regrets or lessons learned.
  • Make sure it’s a good fit culturally. Find out what the demographics are. Is there room for growth? Or would it just be a stepping stone?
  • Develop your Rolodex. In many industries, it’s all about the people you’re connected to that drive your success and vision forward.

“Mentally, I knew that I could do it, but seeing how hard it was, was very demoralizing,” Unter concludes. “I just kept pushing. That defeatist mindset is detrimental to success.”


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