Working as a Literary Agent in New York—a City Where Books Live and Breathe
Three years ago, at midnight, I received a phone call with a 212 area code. The voice on the other end was upbeat and friendly, with a strong New York accent. It was MacKenzie Fraser-Bub who, that night, became my literary agent. She has read my most personal stories, questioning every last sentence to make each one better. Although I have only met her in person twice, in some ways, this woman may know more about me than some of my closest friends.
Today I turned the tables on MacKenzie. Born and bred in Manhattan, I asked her to tell me more about her life in the Big Apple: from growing up in a closet, to living in the centre of the publishing industry. She told me about the importance of place in the hoards of manuscripts she receives and the secret spot in the upper east side that she loves most.
MacKenzie Fraser-Bub walking through Sutton Square on the Upper East Side, 2017. Photo by Calvin Teoh for Lindsay.
Can you tell me about your first ever New York home?
When I was born, my parents lived in a teeny tiny Manhattan apartment. My bedroom was a closet! I lived in that closet until I was two-and-a-half years old. I have the vaguest memories of my parents squeezing into my closet to read me bedtime stories. One parent at a time, of course.
Reminds me of Harry Potter—a book that was seminal in me falling in love with writing. When did you first decide you wanted to work in publishing and, looking back, do you think there are any books that informed that choice?
My younger sister and I loved The Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley series. We were intimately familiar with the entire canon and collectively read all the books, all the series, multiple times.
Our complete immersion in these books meant we would occasionally spot what we found to be very puzzling inconsistencies. When I learned that Ann M. Martin and Francine Pascal did not personally pen every single one of my beloved books I felt incredibly betrayed. How could some random person have been entrusted with my treasured characters? This certainly explained why Mary Anne was confused about where her first date with Logan had been. No wonder Enid seemed to suffer from multiple personalities.
My godmother, an editor at Doubleday at the time, was impressed with my attention to detail and quick to explain that while Ann and Francine had created these worlds and characters, they had been aided by entire teams of people. I was fascinated; I couldn’t believe that working on a The Baby-Sitters Club book was a job. My sister and I had written dozens of spin-off stories about Jessica and Elizabeth and Kristy and Stacey—maybe we could plot out their next adventure! Or maybe I could simply give pointers for what could be better about their stories, like my godmother did. I liked to draw; maybe I could design a cover. Perhaps I could tell the bookstore how many copies they needed. I couldn’t believe all the possibilities for my future with Ann and Francine and the thought of being involved in any of these in any capacity was a total dream.
My first internship in publishing was reading manuscripts and writing reader’s reports. I’d aged out of The Baby-Sitters Club/Sweet Valley demographic by then, but my interest in making books come to life had just begun.
“I wanted to live in a city where books lived and breathed; where the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park or Eloise in the Plaza would propel me back to childhood.”
I know you spent some of your childhood in South Carolina. Was it your decision to work with books that made you decide to settle in New York?
New York City is the epicentre of the publishing world. Professionally, I knew if I wanted to work in a big traditional house, this was the place to be. And personally, I wanted to live in a city where books lived and breathed; where the Hans Christian Andersen statue in Central Park or Eloise in the Plaza would propel me back to my childhood. Any book I desire is at my fingertips in the New York Public Library or the Strand. I can wander by Truman Capote’s apartment, the Chelsea, the Algonquin; and I can see and speak to my favorite writers at the 92nd Street Y or B&N. I’m very lucky that my professional aspirations go hand-in-hand with how I like to spend my personal time.
MacKenzie Fraser-Bub at Argosy Books, Midtown Manhattan, 2017. Photo by Calvin Teoh for Lindsay.
I know you spent several years working in the marketing department of Simon and Schuster. What made you decide to transition from working in that position to working as a literary agent?
What I learned about the inner, and often very strange workings of a publishing house, made me a much better agent. Being a literary agent is the best way to have a hand in everything, from idea inception to publication and thereafter. I also appreciate the freedom that I have as an agent to work exclusively on projects I feel extremely passionate about. I also enjoy telling people what to do.
“I love that area of town—it's close to several agencies and publishing houses, so it makes me feel connected to the publishing industry.”
I was so excited when you told me last year that you started your own literary agency, Fraser-Bub Literary. Since I’ve never been there, can you tell where your office is and why you chose it?
My office is in the Flatiron District. I love that area of town—it’s close to several agencies and publishing houses, so it makes me feel connected to the publishing industry. There are so many great restaurants and the proximity to transportation makes it easy to meet up with people for lunches and drinks. Madison Square Park is a great place to see some green and grab a minute of serenity. The most important thing about my own office is that it’s quiet. I really like silence when I’m working, especially if I’m reading or editing.
The Diary of Virginia Woolf on the bookshelf of Argosy Books, Midtown Manhattan, 2017. Photo by Calvin Teoh for Lindsay.
I’ve always been curious about the everyday reality of working in publishing—I imagine it is very different to being an author (long walks and pyjama pants). What does an average day look like for you?
I am a morning person. I get up early so I have time to run and watch morning news—I love CBS This Morning and Morning Joe. I try to be at my desk by the time Today’s Deals from Publishers Marketplace lands in my inbox. (The Starbucks order-ahead app has helped make that possible.) My mornings are usually devoted to returning emails and calls, and now that I have my own agency, administrative work.
One of the best parts of this job is lunching. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve had a boring lunch—editors are incredibly interesting and it’s so much fun to talk about books with people who love to read. It’s like having mini book club multiple times a week.
I try very hard to carve out time to read and edit in the afternoons. I try to fight the compulsion to respond to every email ASAP, but it’s difficult not to—it’s what people expect. If I have a lot of reading to do, I can do it from home. That’s one of the huge benefits of being my own boss.
Now that you are your own boss, I imagine you have a lot more freedom with the clients you take on. I know you receive manuscripts from all over the world, so I’m interested, how important is a sense of place when you are looking at these submissions?
I receive a lot of manuscript submissions. I like books that are so rich in atmosphere that you can feel the place come alive, as if it’s a character. I think the cliché “write what you know” is especially relevant here: your book should be set somewhere you’re intimately familiar with. I receive a lot of manuscripts that are set in Charleston and Savannah. I understand the appeal: those cities are saturated in history and culture. But I can always tell if the writer has been there once for a weekend. You can’t manufacture that atmosphere.
MacKenzie Fraser-Bub at Argosy Books, Midtown Manhattan, 2017. Photo by Calvin Teoh for Lindsay.
“These parks are tiny little microcosms of the search for solitude and inclusiveness, and the constant unexpectedness and predictability that defines New York City.”
Finally, what’s your favourite place in New York City?
My favourite place in New York City is in the Far East Side in the upper 50s. There are a number of tiny parks nestled between ivy-covered townhouses that overlook the East River. I lived in New York for years before I knew they existed. They are elegant and scrubby, romantic and lonely, and secluded and public all at once. Sometimes they’re inhabited by classic Upper East Siders—nannies with baby carriers, women in headbands, dog walkers—but I’ve also seen a kids’ birthday party culminate in the smashing of a Donald Trump piñata; tourists paralysed in their fear of a wandering wide-eyed possum; a man with a pigeon sitting on his head; and most ubiquitous, a couple engrossed in intimate conversation, illumined by the skyline of Roosevelt Island, blissfully disinterested in anything other than each other. These parks are tiny little microcosms of the search for solitude and inclusiveness, and the constant unexpectedness and predictability that defines New York City.
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Issue No. 1
In Issue No. 1 we meet Australian fashion icon Jenny Kee, translator from Italian Ann Goldstein and French-Cuban music duo Ibeyi. We learn about Ramadan, the Aboriginal ball game Marngrook, the Kiribati dance, the art of pickling, and the importance of home. And we see what it’s like to dress up in Myanmar, live in Cuernavaca, make ceramics from different soil, and walk the streets of Florence.
Issue No. 2
In Issue No. 2 we meet New York-based Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, NASA astronaut Stephanie Wilson, and Croatian painter Stipe Nobilo. We discover how the French protect their language and the way women—all around the world—have used textiles as their political voice. We listen to lovers rock, prepare a boisterous Korean barbecue, venture to go to Feria de Jerez and eat our way around Hong Kong.
Issue No. 4
In Issue No. 4 we meet Nigerian-born artist Toyin Ojih Odutola, Indigenous Australian Elders Uncle Bob Smith and Aunty Caroline Bradshaw, and Palestinian-American chef and artist Amanny Ahmad. We peer inside the Parisian ateliers Lesage and Lemarié, muse over the iconic lines of European chair design and celebrate the colourful woodblock prints of Japanese artist Awazu Kiyoshi. And we venture along Morocco’s Honey Highway, get lost in the markets of Oaxaca and discover the favours of Ghana.
Issue No. 5
In Issue No. 5 we travel to the mountains with Etel Adnan, along coastlines wherever waves roll in, and then all over the world through the photographic archive of Lindsay James Stanger. We celebrate hair braiding in South Africa, Salasacan weaving techniques in Ecuador, Vedic jewellery traditions and the new sound of Ukraine. We meet artist Cassi Namoda, choreographer Yang Liping and lace-maker Mark Klauber. And we visit a bakery in Tel Aviv, discover the joys of making arak, and spend a summer stretching mozzarella in Italy.