Interview with DongWon Song, Literary Agent and New Adjunct Instructor

Fri, 01 Jan 2016 18:00:49 +0000

Literary agent DongWon Song moved to Portland from New York City almost two years ago. He works remotely as part of the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, where he’s on the lookout for “science fiction and fantasy—especially epic fantasy or high fantasy—for both adults and teens . . . [plus] nonfiction, especially food writing, science, and pop culture.” Before becoming an agent, Song was an early hire at digital publishing startup Zola Books and an editor at Orbit Books US; for the latter, he launched bestselling series like The Expanse, beginning with Leviathan Wakes, now a Syfy television show. As of winter 2016, Song will be an adjunct instructor of book editing for Portland State’s graduate book publishing program. If you’re looking for an agent, he’ll be taking pitches and giving a pitch workshop at the 2016 Write to Publish conference on January 30, 2016, and he is currently open to submissions.

I met with Song in November 2015 to discuss his impressive editorial experience, his experiences of fandom as a publishing professional, and how he plans to approach teaching book editing.

Why did you move to Portland?

Mostly [for] a change of pace/scenery. . . . I was still working for Zola at the time.

How did you decide on a career in publishing? Was it a long-held goal, or did you come to the industry another way?

I like to read a lot. . . . Honestly, that’s why you get into publishing: you like books, you want to do more of it. It’s sort of misguided in some ways, because once you actually get in the business, you no longer have time to read for pleasure, and you’re just reading for work. But you get to work with writers, and it is amazing and rewarding and super fun.

Was a publishing career always your original goal, or did you start somewhere else?

To say that it was would imply that I had more direction as a teenager and in college than I actually did, but I always knew I wanted to move to New York. My first job out of school, I actually was working in TV news; I was a research PA for PBS. Working there, I realized I wanted to stay in media, but books made a lot more sense. And I was an English major in college—it was either go into publishing or go into academia, and I chose publishing.

How has working in the science fiction and fantasy genres within the publishing industry affected your experience of fandom?

I had no relationship to fandom before becoming a professional in the field. I was a huge fan, but I wasn’t engaged with other fans in a substantive way. And the experience of being in it, over time . . . I’ve got more and more into fandom as a result. Sort of a process of letting go of some previous ideas I might have had earlier in my life, and now just being an enthusiastic participant in the genre. Having a lot of friends who go to [events] helps a lot; I just get to hang out with them most of the day.

Leaping off from that, how has working professionally in genre changed your experience of reading and selecting books?

I’m definitely more aware of context sometimes. There are certain authors I might not have found otherwise. . . . Nnedi Okorafor, for example, is not someone I’m sure I would have been aware of as just a regular reader. As someone who’s a participant in the genre community, I see how she’s hugely important and exciting, and I’m really into it. And I think it’s a shame that she doesn’t have a bigger profile as a result. At the same time, what she’s doing is very literary, so I understand the reasons why. So I think fandom can make me really aware of things I wouldn’t have been otherwise—and it other times makes me aware of things I wish I wasn’t aware of: the whole Sad Puppies controversy and things like that. There is definitely a downside to being stuck in it as well, because you get caught up in the politics of it . . . but you see something like that happening, and you don’t let that slide.

How do you plan to approach the teaching of developmental editing and other aspects of editing in your book editing class?

My plan is to come at it, really, to talk more about the role of an editor overall. Developmental editing is a component of it, and for teaching the developmental side, it’s less about, “Here’s the structure of this and things you need to do,” and more about, “Here’s how you talk to writers; here’s how you approach thinking about these things.” And what I’d like to communicate is having a holistic way of approaching a manuscript that’s not just about the text itself but about the publishing program. How to edit to a joined-up strategy around cover design, marketing, publicity, and all of those components. How are you going to make sure that this has the best chance once it’s out in the marketplace? I think getting people to think about it from that perspective, rather than as something that’s kind of precious—it’s an artistic endeavour, you’re working with writers, but you’re explicitly on the business side; you’re explicitly someone who is trying to sell books to make a profit.

What are some of your favorite aspects of agenting?

Finding people. I love finding manuscripts. When you run across a thing that’s great, and you’re up all night reading it, that’s a magical moment. And every time it happens, you [think], “Oh, right—this is why I do this.”

What advice would you like to pass on to neophyte publishing professionals?

Meet as many people as you can; just talk to everybody. It doesn’t matter what role they have—if they have anything to do with the industry, just find out what their deal is, how they do what they do, what their job is. . . . Go into bookstores and talk to booksellers. They know more about this business than almost anybody. Talk to writers. Talk to agents, editors. . . . We all get into [this] business because we like to sit in dark rooms and read, because we’re all introverts, so the hardest thing is to go out into the world and say, “I would like to sit down and talk to you or meet you because of X, Y, or Z.” And it shouldn’t be hard, but it is, it’s hard for anybody. . . . It’s not being afraid to go out and ask for an interview or a conversation. . . . I think everyone talks it up [as] schmoozing or networking, and I think that’s true to some extent, but really what you’re doing is learning. At some point, someone’s going to remember you, and they’re going to call you up and say, “We need X, Y, or Z.”

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