Elizabeth Evans is a Literary Agent-turned-Editor-turned-Ghostwriter based in the Greater Milwaukee Area. After twelve years of experience as a successful literary agent (she sold over sixty books and guided dozens of aspiring authors through the publication process), she became an editor to focus on working directly with writers. Most recently, she pivoted again to become a ghostwriter. In each of her roles she has learned what it takes to succeed as an author today, and, having been one, knows what agents and editors are looking for. Gotham asked her about her journey and about tips and tricks she has for fellow writers—especially those looking to be published. Learn more at elizabethevanseditorial.com or by following @EMEvans11 on Twitter.
Tell us about your career. When did you know to make the decision to take the leap into a new role (literary agent, editor, ghostwriter) and what was that decision like?
I wish I could say my career has been a series of savvy strategic moves, but in reality each new role has felt like a natural adaptation to other life changes. I’ve always trusted my instincts when I felt it was time to make a change.
I fell into agenting in my early 20s through an internship opportunity arranged by one of my instructors at the MFA program at the University of San Francisco. I loved the work and gradually took on more hours until I was agenting full time. After several years working from the West Coast, I followed my gut and moved to New York. That decision probably had the biggest impact on my career. I loved the publishing community, and met many talented people in the industry. One of the editors I worked with was a bridesmaid in my wedding, and I’m close friends with many former clients and colleagues. Eventually, I felt it was time to return to my hometown of Milwaukee, WI. I was newly married and thinking of having kids. The time seemed right. I agented remotely for a few years from WI, but didn’t feel the same thrill as I did when I was in New York. I also had two kids under three years old and was looking for a better work/life balance. I decided to launch my own editorial and consulting business. I agonized over whether or not to leave agenting, because I’d worked hard to establish my client list and reputation, but once I made the decision I never looked back. Working for myself has been thrilling. I was always a hands on agent who did a lot of editorial work before sending projects on submission, so work-wise the transition was natural. I began to offer ghostwriting services a couple years ago after receiving several requests. I was looking for a new challenge, and I’ve found ghostwriting very rewarding.
In which stage of your career (literary agent, editor, ghostwriter) would you say that you have learned the most? And what are your biggest lessons?
Attending an MFA program was a transformative experience. It sharpened my skills as a writer, but perhaps more importantly, it taught me how to be a good editor. All those workshop critiques, receiving them and giving them, showed me the most effective ways to deliver feedback and alerted me to many common mistakes and craft challenges writers confront. It was also immensely helpful to start my career in publishing from a writer’s perspective. I felt that I was a writer and I understood writers.
Agenting taught me how the industry works. It gives you a terrific view of each stage of the process, because you’re with your author every step of the way, often from idea through finished book, and hopefully over the course of many books together. I believe this combination of craft and industry knowledge has set me apart at each stage of my career.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned over the years is to trust yourself to take a leap into new territory. An agent friend of mine once gave me a giant eraser that said, “Smart women know when to make changes.” I used up the eraser long ago, but I’ve always remembered that statement.
What about the best piece of advice for getting published or navigating the publishing process?
Be kind and respectful to your agent, editor, and publishing team, and listen to everyone’s advice, but remember that at the end of the day this is YOUR book. Speak up if you have concerns, and don’t wait. In publishing, timing is very important.
What advice would you give for how to identify the right literary agent and how to approach said agent?
Agents find clients through submissions all the time, but I think a writer has the best chance of catching an agent’s attention through a referral or in-person meeting. If you don’t have connections to any agents, consider attending a writers conference like Grubstreet or the San Francisco Writers Conference. Look for events that offer opportunities for an agent or editor to read and critique some of your work. Yes, they cost money, but they also guarantee you’ll get eyes on your writing. If you’re fortunate to get a lot of interest from agents, conferences also provide an opportunity to meet many industry professionals and determine who might be the best fit.
Is there a specific moment in the process when you most advise getting an editor?
In short, no. I’ve learned over the years that every writer works differently. Some enjoy collaborating from the beginning, brainstorming ideas and talking about the market; others work independently until they feel they’ve taken their project as far as they can on their own. Many writers hire me to help them with a specific problem. They might get several full manuscript requests but no agent offers, and they’re wondering what’s holding them back, or they might have a more specific issue, like a plot or character problem they can’t resolve. I’m happy to come in at any stage of the game. I love being a helper.
If a writer can afford the expense, I think it’s a terrific idea to do a query consultation before submitting their work. They’ve already put the major time and effort into developing a book and it would be a shame to have a one page query letter be the thing that holds them back.
How do you balance your own projects with your ghostwriting projects?
I don’t publish my own work often. Most often I’m balancing editing and ghosting gigs. Finding my way into ghostwriting has rekindled my original love of writing. It feels like my work is coming full circle in a wonderful way. It’s occurred to me that the role of author is one of the only hats I haven’t yet worn in book publishing, so it’s possible I’ll rededicate myself to my own writing in the future. For now I’m enjoying the challenges and rewards of ghostwriting.
How often do you take on ghostwriting projects? What have you learned from those experiences?
I prefer to focus on one big project, such as a proposal or full manuscript ghostwrite, at a time, and then I sprinkle in smaller editorial and consulting work when I can. For me, ghostwriting and developmental editing require intense focus and brainpower. Putting together an agent list for a client or doing a query critique feels much easier because they’re short-term projects and more predictable. I’ve found I can juggle a few short-term projects with one long-term project simultaneously, but I really need to give that big project its own room to breathe.
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