Overview of a Career in Publishing | Middle Grade Ninja: Literary Agent Molly O'Neill

Overview of a Career in Publishing | Middle Grade Ninja: Literary Agent Molly O'Neill



I am terrible about summarizing other authors books and I'm terrible at summarizing people's biographies so we could just start if you would tell listening audience a little bit about yourself and your background of publishing yes I realized the longer I'm in publishing the longer this story gets so I'm gonna try and keep it condensed I grew up in Texas I went away to college in Midwest when I was 18 my goals for college were to get far away from my family sorry mom and dad and see snow and so I ended up in Milwaukee Wisconsin at Marquette University I was a creative writing major and an elementary education major and the two sort of merged midway and I had the epitome of a really good liberal arts education because I had professors who recognized that I had this growing interest in children's books this was some years ago I graduated college in 2000 so it's been a minute so publishing children's books weren't quite as well known and as visible as as they are today as an industry but I had professors who recognized that I had this this interest and they encouraged the curiosity they didn't necessarily know how to help connect me to publishing because it's a long way from Milwaukee to New York City but they encouraged the curiosity and I kind of found my my own way I did some internships I had a professor who was a great mentor and eventually I ended up in New York City which is where a young person goes when they want to work in publishing how long were you coming from the Midwest when you when you arrived in New York so I took two years between graduating college and moving to New York I went to a very activist college everybody went off to save the world for a couple of years and so I did my version of that I actually spent a couple of years as a youth minister which a lot of people think wow that has nothing to do with book publishing to me it actually has a lot to do with book publishing because it's about building relationships and understanding what's at the heart of humans and and engaging with them around it so I did that for a couple of years but I knew the whole time that my goal is to come to New York and work in children's books the problem is I moved here in 2002 which was not long after 9/11 and the whole industry was in a hiring freeze so I went on lots of interviews where people said you're great we're not hiring eventually I did finally get a job though it wasn't the job that I thought I wanted I wanted to be an editor but I ended up in a marketing job at Clarion Books which is part of Houghton Mifflin at the time I was just hoping they'd flame out so mifflin harcourt and it turned out to be one of the most secretly valuable things that ever could have happened to me because I realized very quickly that no one wanted me to write my English major II five paragraph essays about books and no one wanted me to even decide if I liked books or not my job was to think about who the books were for who the audience was and how to sell to them and so it really kind of recalibrated my whole point of view and has turned out to be ever since kind of a secret superpower I think because had I started as an editor on a floor with only other editors I think it would have taken me longer to understand how the editing part of the puzzle fits into all the rest of publishing and how the publishing industry connects with consumers and book buyers but I was seeing it sort of up close and personal I also worked in a small imprint um we were a team at that time of 14 or 15 and so I really kind of got to look over everybody's shoulders and understand how to all the different pieces of the industry connect to one another and I had a boss he'd been doing her job for 30 years and she was very good at it but she was you know also was very happy to let me go do the things that I was excited about so I learned a lot from that job and I got to interact with amazing authors and illustrators you know I sometimes described that first year that I worked in publishing is it was like every author who'd ever my hero walking off my bookshelves into my email I still remember the first time I got an email from Katherine Paterson and I kind of lost my mind but what an amazing email to receive yes so so that was a great start but I still wanted to be an editor and the problem at the time was that and still a Clarion is a great place to work and no one ever leaves so there you know there weren't any spots coming open they let me put my hand into it a little bit they basically said you seem really interested in this if you want to do a little bit of working on books kind of on your own time we'll let you do that so I actually got to work with you know Dinah Stevenson and Virginia Buckley and some of the great editors on books like Gary Schmidt's books and you know really really wonderful books and got to kind of just look over everyone's shoulders a little bit more closely which just confirmed this is what I really want to do but every time I went on an interview I got the response of your overqualified but you're under-qualified so finally I thought okay I'm gonna be stuck in marketing I've had the little boutique in print experience let's go get the big house experience that way I can kind of decide for myself like what I want my path to look like so I moved over to HarperCollins still in the school and library marketing vain and did that for about another year and a half I worked with a great team there but finally I went to HR and I said I work with great people I'm working on great projects but I'm on the wrong side of the table in every meeting I'm working on very ephemeral things like reading group guides and author brochures and I want to be making things that last for 30 years not the things that you know get stuffed into the you know the duffel bag and and who knows when they get pulled out again and so eventually I was able to move over into an internal position I what was a short-lived imprint although we didn't know it at the time when Brenda Bowen who's now a literary agent herself started an imprint at HarperCollins I moved over to be her assistant editor it was just the two of us for a little while we were joined by another editor then 2008 happened which was the recession in publishing and it hit publishing hard and they ended up closing the imprint because it was so new that it was just an expense and there wasn't any income coming in from it luckily they they laid off Brenda but they kept the other editor and that I was working with Annie and they moved us over to a different imprint um and by that time you know so then then we started working there and by that time I was six or seven years in and I like let me at the books I just want to be an editor and so when they finally let me start acquiring books I hit the ground running in a way that I think no one really expected because I had been watching and waiting for my turn and along the way I had built up a lot of connections and a lot of relationships that mattered a lot to my books so the second book I ever signed up was a book that some folks might have heard of called divergent and that series ate my life for the next couple years because it got pretty big which was exciting at times overwhelming but mostly really exciting I love it was a good time it you know it's interesting to see all the things you can do when a book becomes a conversation piece that everyone's cousin or aunt or sister-in-law is leading when you don't have to stop and explain the book to people you know we could just engage in the conversation with them and it's interesting to see you know what happens when when a publisher puts a lot of resources in tandem with a movie studios resources and it you know can take over the world for a blip which you know or at least to a certain subset of kids the interesting thing is you know Tuscan publishing I mean that first book came out in 2011 which in publishing time is you know both a blink and a really long time ago and the markets evolved a lot since and you know in in terms of what the market is looking for now it's very different things but one of the sort of pleasant surprises of the last couple years for me has been two things that teenagers like new teenagers today is 13 14 15 16 year-olds are still finding that series and reading it which is pretty exciting to realize like oh it's it's living beyond its initial audience you know it's it's gone and refreshed the audience a couple of times um the other thing that caught me off guard but is pretty delightful is that I've had several young editors tell me that they read that book in high school or in college and now they're working in publishing which says something about the way time passes too fast unfortunately so I left HarperCollins sort of to to everyone's surprise including my own because I had an opportunity to go work for a startup and it was I guess in 2003 it was around the time that Random House and Penguin were merging it seemed like maybe there's gonna be more mergers or maybe Amazon's gonna eat the whole industry who really knows and I had an opportunity to go get a whole different skill set and it seemed wise I had built up a relation with a tech startup that was publishing adjacent called storybird they invited me to come on board with them they just gotten a big round of funding and basically said come see what you can do here for a couple of years it was a great experience I learned so much I learned an entirely different paradigm of thinking in publishing a very linear process to make a book you have to pretty much do the same things in the same order every time with you know a small handful of variations of what can go differently but you have to follow the same process every time because you need the end result to be books on the shelf whereas in tech like all the rules are up for grabs all time in a startup especially and you know one minute you're thinking about the micro of here now and you know you're five minutes later you're thinking about the macro of five years from now and it felt like it made my brain a lot more nimble and also a lot more understanding of risk-taking I think you know tech one of the things there there are many things I'm not sure about how it's the tech world but I think one of the things they get right they understand failure differently than a lot of other industries and they understand thing as just part of the growth process and so if something's not okay or if users tell you that they want something different you shift you don't resist and resist so anyways I learned a lot that was very interesting and that stretched my brain and really good ways and I remember that that couple of years telling people that it felt like my brain was just kind of on fire every day in a really good way but eventually as having this startups especially when they are been you know we didn't become the next uber we become the next Airbnb and you run out of funding and it's time to read so for me figuring out okay what's my next move I knew I could go back into the editorial side or I had a pretty strong feeling that I would be able to find a job but I also knew that you know I was was curious about other things my whole career I had thought about agent thing at different moments and for a lot of the time I had thought about agent thing because I couldn't get to where I wanted to be as an editor it's kind of a you know like well maybe this would be almost as good and I give a lot of credit to you know myself–it like 25 and 32 or like whatever those ages were to realize like that's not the right reason to choose agent thing and and something that I feel is really important is you know when decided to work as an agent you're taking on people's careers and you're taking their hopes and dreams into their hands you of course can't control everything would that we could but I knew it was something I didn't want to do lightly it wasn't something I wanted to do if I wasn't really sure of myself or didn't have you know haven't really thought it through um but so anyways at different different moments I had thought about agent hang at different moments people had suggested it to me a lot because I'm sort of a natural connector of people you know I'm the person who's like oh I have a friend that does this thing and you seem interested that might put you two together like just sort of naturally do that in my life is that your ministry skills coming into play you think possibly one of the things that my boss pointed out when I worked at the startup and she said you're a pattern matcher which is not a term I ever had for myself but if much embraced since and it's another sort of secret or as an agent for sure so my brain is good at thinking about okay what's the analog of this thing another what's what's a similar dilemma that's been encountered by the music industry by the film industry you know what are whether other book projects I mean it becomes you know most obviously into play as an agent is okay if I'm putting a submission out there and I have this editor in mind of like you think they're gonna be the one that loves it then I ask myself okay who's the version of that editor at all the other you know who does that same kind of thing and you know it can work out well so so yeah my brain just naturally sort of orders the world that play into finding finding the commonalities I guess finding the universalities of things the center of things so I decided you know what maybe maybe agency wasn't the right different earlier junctures maybe actually now it is and and one of the things I'm grateful to realize if it lasts three years an agent paying a little bit more than three I guess three and a half is that it all these weird sort of disparate roles I've held in has I'm born and lets me pull it all together for the benefit of clients books and their careers and that's really gratifying it's nice to look like yourself me like oh there was something maybe see it but in hindsight it's there anyways that was a much longer winded version that I promised we're gonna go back through and talk about kind of each other each of those steps along the weak side I want to pick your brain just about publishing in general and all the the experiences you've had the expertise that you're bringing it to you

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