An Interview with Literary Agent Leslie Shipman
We were so excited to get a chance to chat with Leslie Shipman, the founder of The Shipman Agency and the representative of so many poets we admire. Leslie has also launched one of the most exciting projects to come through the pandemic: The Workroom. This is a premier place to find classes and consultations that’ll improve your writing. Their newest Spring courses are now live! Jump in while you can, featuring opportunities from poets like Stephen Kuusisto, Nikki Wallschlaeger, and Patricia Smith.
What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve witnessed for professional writers over the last decade? Where and how do you see writers’ work evolving in the future?
Leslie Shipman: A lot has changed, but I’d say the rise of social media has definitely been a big change and a double-edged sword, the pressure to have thousands of followers on twitter before your work is even considered by a publisher – I think this can be destructive to a writer’s confidence and therefore destructive to the work itself. It’s hard enough to sit alone in a room for hours trying to craft a beautiful sentence, worrying about how to attract attention on social media seems a complete waste of time. On the other hand, I see a lot of writers on twitter using it not only to build an audience but to build community as well – sharing useful information, providing support and encouragement, and lifting each other up.
We are also in one of those periodic moments when the publishing industry is forced to take a hard look at who it’s gatekeepers are, and how they’ve functioned over decades to severely limit opportunities for writers of color, and for people of color trying to get a foothold in this very white industry. I hope this self-examination continues and it’s not just a momentary reaction to the uprisings of 2020. I’ve seen the industry do this before – when the statistics first started coming out about “the unbearable whiteness of publishing” (not my term but a good one!) – there’d be a few think pieces, and then back to business as usual. Hopefully, some permanent, genuine change is occuring.
What most excites you about the Workroom? What sets it apart from other learning spaces for writers?
LS: One of the most important things I do as a speaker’s agent is to put as much money in my clients pockets as possible. Why not offer them an additional income stream by hosting their classes on my website? We handle all the backend stuff, so they can just log on and teach. The pandemic is what prompted it – as much money as the agency was losing, the clients were losing more, so I thought it would be a good way for everyone to try and make some of that money back. The Work Room has been successful beyond anything I would have imagined, and that’s really just based on word of mouth. It’s now a permanent part of what we do.
What sets it apart are three things, I think: the quality of our faculty – these are some of the most prominent voices on the American literary landscape, the quality of our students who are generally working at very high level – we’ve had Work Room students publish in the New Yorker and one got into Cornell’s MFA program, and the quality of the classes themselves. These are graduate level classes that are generally very affordable, and we do offer scholarship opportunities. So, you can assemble your own MFA program for a fraction of the cost and still receive the highest quality instruction.
What advice do you have for new writers working toward publishing their first book?
LS: Take your time, don’t rush something that’s not ready to go out. And have a trusted group of readers who’ve read and commented on your manuscript before you start querying agents. Make sure it is in the best possible shape before you submit it anywhere, and know the tastes of the agents or lit journals or presses you submit to – I can’t emphasize this enough. I sometimes get queries from folks who are looking for a speaker’s agent and it’s’ quite clear to me they haven’t bothered to take the 3 minutes to look at my roster and see what I’m interested in. Finally, be kind! Being an artist of any kind is a vulnerable place in our society – it takes a unique kind of courage to express authenticity. Honor it wherever you find it.
Leslie Shipman is a poet who, before starting The Shipman Agency, spent years working in literary nonprofits, including the National Book Foundation where she was instrumental in creating 5 Under 35, the National Book Awards After Party, and much more. After 25 years, Leslie knew it was time to start something new. Beginning as a vision to serve writers through all stages of their careers, The Shipman Agency has since built an award-winning roster of writers—Alexander Chee, Laura Van Den Berg, Patricia Smith—that reflects what Leslie cares about most: human dignity, justice, and compassion.
Leslie’s innovation has made The Shipman Agency an invaluable hub for the writing community. In January 2020, the agency expanded by offering services from literary agent Annie DeWitt and editorial consultant Mike Levine. Then, a few months later, as lockdown went into high gear, Leslie was forced to grapple with a question that many other business owners also had to face: how am I going to save this business during a global pandemic? In response, Leslie decided to open The Work Room to provide courses and seminars taught by clients, which became important in forging community in a time of isolation. Client, author, and instructor P. Carl notes, “We had no idea how important [The Work Room] would be during a protracted pandemic none of us had ‘budgeted’ for, let alone felt prepared to live through.”