YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Call My Agent; It's Local : Publishing still revolves around New York City, but thanks to phones and faxes, literary representatives such as Pat Teal and Sandra Dijkstra can build careers from here.


If Fullerton literary agent Pat Teal has heard it once, she's heard it a hundred times.

"Every time there's a writers' conference," she says, "all the agents from out of New York get asked, 'How do you work outside of New York?' And we always say the same thing: 'Our work is done on the telephone. It doesn't matter. We have a big telephone bill, but it's all done in the mail and on the phone.' "

Operating a continent away from the heart of the publishing industry hasn't hurt Teal, who sports a tiny gold necklace that proclaims her a "Super Agent."

Over the past 15 years, she has earned a reputation as one of the top representatives of romance writers. Working out of two converted bedrooms in her Fullerton home, she sells more than 100 books a year on subjects that range from mysteries to hang-gliding and dying with dignity.

Teal's success defies the stereotype of the literary agent who lunches daily with editors at chic Manhattan eateries and spends her evenings at glamorous publishing soirees whose stellar guest lists are fodder for the Liz Smith column.

Literary agents may have historically been based in New York City, but thanks to phones and faxes, that's no longer necessary.

Although a majority still operate out of the 212 area code, a sizable number are scattered throughout the country--from Los Angeles to Chicago to Seattle. Even Wichita, Kan., and Hampton, Va., boast of literary agents.

"The truth is that one can be an agent almost anywhere," says Sandra Dijkstra, a prominent agent who works out of Del Mar, the San Diego County beach town best known for its horse racing track.

"To have a presence in New York you don't have to live in New York," she says. "You just have to have material you believe in and you persuade others to believe in. You don't have to be in New York to do that."

Dijkstra, whose clients include Amy Tan, Le Ly Hayslip and Maxine Hong Kingston, says that "almost any person can put a stake outside and say, 'I'm an agent.' Which is one of the dangers for unknowledgeable authors. . . . But the fact is only legitimate agents are paid attention to."

What does it take to be a successful agent? "An eye for talent, an ear for a new voice, a taste for the market and trends and a mind for negotiating and"--Dijkstra laughs--"for navigating the sometimes murky waters of publishing.

"It's a wonderful career," Dijkstra says. "What you're doing is helping talent find its audience."

Dijkstra, who has a master's in comparative literature and a Ph.D. in French literature, taught literature classes at the University of Virginia and then at UCLA and UC Irvine during what she calls her "gypsy decade" of the '70s.

She became an agent in 1983 after a friend asked her to shop around her proposal for a women's history book during a trip Dijkstra was going to make to New York. Dijkstra sold the book and was in business.

"I think the skills of a teacher translate very nicely to the skills of agenting," she says, "because in a sense teachers are pitching ideas, and teachers have to know a little about a lot."

What began as an office in a single room in her home 10 minutes up the hill from the beach has expanded into an entire wing staffed by five employees who help her field 300 submissions a week.

Teal was just completing her master's in English literature at Cal State Fullerton in 1978 when she teamed up with fellow Fullerton resident Sandra Watt to form the Teal and Watt Literary Agency.

The two women had known each other socially: Their husbands played tennis on weekends, and they'd all go out to eat afterward. At the time, Watt was a vice president of an educational publishing house in Orange County and, Teal recalls, "she got tired of making money for somebody else. She said, 'Why don't we start an agency?' I said, 'I don't know anything about that, Sandy.' And she said, 'I can teach you.' So in we went."

It didn't take long before the new agency made its first sale.

Shortly after opening up shop, Teal ran into Cal State Fullerton English professor Rita Balkey at a campus social event. Balkey, who taught a class on the Bible as literature, had been free-lance writing commentaries for a local newspaper.

"I complimented her on her articles, and she said: 'Well, I've written a book. I've sent it all over the place, and I can't sell it.' So I thought her book would read very much like her wonderful, nostalgic articles and I said, 'Oh, why don't you let me read it and let me see if I can sell it.' "

Said Teal with a laugh: "It turned out to be a really torrid bodice ripper! I just couldn't believe it."

Teal says she sold Balkey's historical romance novel "so fast I thought this was an easy job--only to find out it isn't."

That sale, however, set the tone for the fledgling Fullerton agency.

Los Angeles Times Articles