AG: How do you think being a poet has given you particular insight into what writers are looking for in a speaking agent?
AG: You mentioned working for many years in literary nonprofits. What lessons did you take with you for how you approach running your business?
AG: What are some of the most gratifying moments of doing this work? What are some of the most challenging? And how have you met those challenges?
LS: The most gratifying is asking for a large fee for a writer for the first time and getting it! Regardless of where they are in their careers, so many writers underestimate the value of their labor—going to colleges and universities, giving readings, doing class visits, craft lectures, faculty dinners. All of those things involve labor, and writers deserve to be appropriately compensated. But artists in this country have been taught to believe that attention is enough, that an artist’s labor isn’t real labor—an idea I will spend the rest of my days fighting. So it feels like an immense victory when we can pull those big fees.
My biggest challenge is saying no to folks. In a perfect world, I’d love to say yes to every writer who has looked at what we’re doing here and wants to join us, but I have to be very careful about taking on too much work. I pride myself on the accuracy of the work we produce; when we send an itinerary to a client, it’s important that the client trust the accuracy of that information; otherwise, what good are we? And all of this work is extremely detail oriented and labor intensive. I am beyond lucky to have two amazing women working with me—Cassie Archdeacon and Katie McDonough. I’d be lost without them.
AG: During the pandemic, when no one was giving in-person readings, you smartly pivoted toward the online-classroom model, where authors could run workshops on craft, novels, short stories, and essay writing. Can you tell me more about how that came about and what the response to it has been?
LS: Of all the things I worried might bring down my business, a pandemic was not on my bingo card! So when I absorbed the reality of what was happening—the cascade of events being canceled, the thousands of dollars being lost, yes, by the business, but even more so for my clients—I had to do something and do it quickly. And as a lifelong student of the craft of writing myself, why not start offering classes? And this goes back to your question about being my own boss. The only people I had to convince that this was an idea worth trying were my clients, and they were totally game. And it was exciting, in a time of great fear and confusion, to offer something like The Work Room to not only my clients, but to the community at large.
The first lockdown happened in March 2020, and our classes were up and running in June, with faculty like Garth Greenwell, Carl Phillips, Sheila Heti, Jordy Rosenberg, Alexander Chee, Patricia Smith, Kaveh Akbar, Maria Dahvana Headley, Andrea Lawlor . . . how could we go wrong? The response has been amazing, and something that started as a temporary response to the pandemic is now a permanent feature of the agency. And the way I think about how this dovetails with my role as a speaker’s agent is this: My number one job is to put as much money as possible in my client’s pockets, so why not offer them an additional revenue stream? So now, when a writer comes here, they have more than one way to produce income for themselves, and I love that.
AG: What advice would you give to younger folks—particularly young women—who are thinking of starting their own literary businesses?
LS: First, stay close to what you love. That really is number one in any career. But second, and specifically for women: Trust yourself, trust your instincts. The patriarchy has done an excellent job of sowing doubt in women, this constant question of “are we enough”—smart enough, competitive enough, confident enough, et cetera. I can’t help but recall all of the men I have fought with in my thirty-year career and how many times I turned out to be right in the end! It took me many years to build the confidence to fight for my ideas, but every single one of those fights, even the ones I lost (and there were many), advanced my faith in my own abilities. I’ve lost many battles over the years, but when I look back at my life and career now, I realize that I won the war.
AG: Is there anything you’re particularly excited about for the future of the Shipman Agency?
LS: I’ve got a million ideas swirling around, but none of them are far along enough to discuss yet. But just expect us to continue to break the mold and redefine what an agency can be. Stay tuned!
AG: Finally, and this is a question I love asking poets: What is your favorite thing about language?
LS: Sound! Words are ultimately units of sound first. Meaning is secondary. (You can tell I’m a poet!) I love the sounds of a poem washing over me, the rhythms, the beauty of syntax. I could go on! My first love was music—I’m a proud failed musician—but poetry is music—it’s origins are in song—so I have the best of both worlds.
Amy Gall's writing has appeared in, among others Tin House, Vice, Poets & Writers, Glamour Magazine, and the anthology Mapping Queer Spaces. She is the co-author of the book Recycle, a collection of collages and text. She is the recipient of a fellowship from the MacDowell Colony and earned her MFA in creative writing from The New School. She is currently working on a collection of linked essays about queer bodies, sex and pleasure.