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Emmy Nordstrom Higdon on surviving as a new agent during COVID-19 and reaching out to the publishing community

Emmy HingstonRight before the publishing industry began shutting down physical offices to curb the spread of COVID-19, bookseller and graduate student Emmy Nordstrom Higdon started their new job as an assistant agent at the Rights Factory in Toronto.

In the first post of a new series, Higdon shares how they are coping with the current crisis.

What is your background in publishing?
I joined the Rights Factory as an intern at the end of 2019. As a social-work researcher, I have a bit of an unconventional background in terms of the publishing industry. I came to the agency largely through my work as a bookseller at a local indie in Toronto, Another Story. Our busy season runs from the start of the school year in September through until the winter holidays, and I was looking for job opportunities within publishing for the new year when Sam Hiyate offered me a chance to come in and learn the ropes.

Agenting was something that I’d been thinking about and exploring options around for six or seven months, so I jumped at the chance, and it worked out to be a really great fit. People often overlook how much of an apprenticeship-based industry publishing is, and it’s rare to find experienced people who are willing to take a risk on someone new and give them the hands-on opportunities needed to build essential skills. I have been so lucky that Sam and some of my colleagues at TRF are willing to take a chance on someone and are investing the time and energy to mentor and support me in this new role.

What drew you to agenting?
In my other life, I’m in the final stages of completing my PhD in social work. Last year, I’d come to terms with the realization that pursuing a tenure-track teaching position in academia wasn’t for me. I love research, and the pursuit of social justice is very important to me, but the work that felt the most valuable when it came down to it was my day-to-day handselling at Another Story.

To me, books are more than just entertainment. When someone picks up a book that you recommend to them, they are opening their mind to ideas and feelings that you’ve told them are important and worth spending their time on. There is so much magic in that. When I looked around at the careers that seemed like they might be a good fit for the skills I’ve developed as a bookseller and a researcher, and that would allow me to continue to play a role in supporting the kinds of books that I think are powerful and interesting, agenting seemed like the right choice.

What types of authors and stories are you looking for?
I am casting a relatively wide net when it comes to what kinds of projects I’m hoping to take on as an agent. I am working in both adult and kidlit, fiction and non-fiction. Ultimately, I’m looking to help develop and support books that I would want to put on the shelves in the justice-oriented bookshop where I work, and that I am thrilled to read myself.

I am most passionate about voicey, character-driven #OwnVoices narratives, and I specialize in LGBTQ2S+ books. One of the feelings that I’m always chasing – as a reader and as an agent – is the sensation of absolute devastation of putting down a captivating book. I would say that I am very millennial in terms of my personal tastes. I am heavily influenced by my upbringing in the ’90s, when I lived off of books like Goosebumps and Bunnicula. I am particularly drawn to feminist, contemporary or upmarket stories that incorporate aspects of genre, especially anything spooky, and I (too often) joke that murder is my comfort read.

How are you building your list/relationships in this unprecedented situation?
It’s definitely been a complicated time. Although I would obviously change the context in a heartbeat if I could, in some senses, the shelter-in-place practices have made relationship building much easier. Most of the authors and editors who I’ve been reaching out to over the past several weeks have been feeling more isolated than usual and are very eager for opportunities to talk to other people about something that we both feel excited and hopeful about. I think it really speaks to the ability of storytelling to bring people together in challenging times, and to serve as a kind of escape for people who are dealing with a lot of difficult emotions and unfamiliar situations.

I’ve been spending a lot of time exchanging emails and having long phone conversations with people about what they’re working on, and what kinds of things they’re spending their time doing during such a tumultuous time. It’s certainly not something that I would have chosen to be navigating, but I’m definitely grateful for the chances I’ve gotten to get to know some people in ways that might not otherwise have been possible in such early stages of my career.

How responsive have the people been that you’ve reached out to?
I have been completely overwhelmed with how generous people have been with their time when I have reached out to them; from authors to editors to other agents, I’m honestly humbled. I’ve been doing my best to work toward building relationships with the industry professionals who seem like they will be the best fit to support the authors who I would like to work with. I have had great conversations with people who have long-standing reputations in North American publishing, like Sally Kim, the vice-president, editor-in-chief at Putnam, as well as editors who work for some of my favourite independent Canadian publishers, like Doug Richmond at Anansi.

I’m also consciously reaching out to connect with other people in publishing who are from traditionally marginalized communities. There are some great resources that have facilitated this, like People of Color in Publishing, an organization dedicated to uplifting the voices of racially and ethnically marginalized industry professionals. Through them, I’ve made connections with editors who share some of my deepest values, and I am hoping to keep them at the top of my lists when my clients are ready to submit.

What are your biggest concerns about publishing right now?
My honest answer is that publishing is a very fraught industry, and there are a lot of answers that I could give to this question. The timely answer is obviously that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to have serious ripple effects in publishing for years to come. It remains to be seen how business closures, event cancellations, and shelter-in-place legislation will impact booksellers, distributors, publishing houses, agents, and authors in the long term – not to mention the impacts of the tragic loss of human lives.

Current events aside, international trade regulations are another huge challenge that we face in publishing right now. As a bookseller, I’ve already experienced the impacts of the tariffs that the Republican administration in the United States has imposed on Chinese goods. The wait times for in-demand titles are much higher right now than they previously were when a book is being reprinted by the publisher following its initial release. Many readers probably don’t realize how many books sold in Canada are printed in China, or what a devastating loss the limitation of these imports could be. Higher prices and slower sales will ultimately result in a less sustainable industry overall, and will impact everyone who is involved in the literary community.

Find Higdon’s manuscript wishlist and submission guidelines here.