A Q&A with the president of Browne & Miller Literary Associates
Danielle Egan-Miller, president of the Browne & Miller Literary Agency in Chicago, knows a thing or two about books and about running her own successful company.
For more than 15 years she has worked in virtually every aspect of the agency business. Egan-Miller’s client roster includes many award-winning, best-selling authors such as Sandra Dallas, Francine Rivers, William Kent Krueger, and Angela Hunt.
I recently sat down with Egan-Miller to discuss her career and ask her about some of the difficult moments she’s had to deal with as a business owner.
AllBusiness: What are the three aspects of your work that you enjoy the most?
Egan-Miller: First, I like being the owner. I make the rules and I have established the culture here. How I run my business, how I treat my employees, the relationships I have with my clients and with industry peers, even how my office looks, all reflect who I am, what I like, and how I approach life. I love that. I’ve worked for large corporations and I don’t miss it a bit.
Second, I have tremendous flexibility in my schedule. I can accommodate things like seeing my son off to school every morning and leaving my office before 5 p.m. to pick him up. Yes, it shortens my actual time in the office, but I don’t feel guilty. I’ve learned that my work encompasses many things besides sitting at my desk for 40 hours every week. I do some of my best thinking and strategizing about projects while I am driving, for example. I do a tremendous amount of reading related to work (most of it, in fact) at home. My flexible schedule makes me happy because I enjoy many things besides working. And a happy me is a productive me who can deliver the best results to my clients.
Third, I like the relationships. Though I provide a business service to my clients, the very nature of what they do (write books) and what I do for them (represent their work) creates a very personal relationship that often spans many years and many books. I know that my life is richer and more meaningful because of my clients and their creative efforts.
AllBusiness: What are the things about it you don’t like?
Egan-Miller: I don’t love dealing with the “running a business” kind of stuff. I am our HR department, I write all the checks and pay all the bills. I deal directly with the accountants, the lawyers, the insurance companies, etc. I do it all diligently and well, I think, but it’s not my passion.
And I hate filing. Always have and always will. Plus, I don’t like dealing with unpleasant people. I think life is too short to warrant spending copious amounts of energy on being negative and generally unpleasant. Not everyone subscribes to this philosophy, of course, and unfortunately I deal with my fair share of unpleasant, dissatisfied, and rude people.
AllBusiness: Can you share a recent struggle you’ve encountered? How did it get resolved?
Egan-Miller: I had to terminate an employee and it was a first for me. I had never fired anyone before, ever. That wasn’t easy, especially because I have a very small office — just two employees at present. We all work very closely together, we are very friendly and we are somewhat engaged in each other’s lives outside of the office. We often joke that there are no secrets in our office because it’s so small.
All of this made terminating one of my two employees (50 percent of my staff!) incredibly difficult. I felt awful about the situation and I had no experience terminating someone whatsoever. But I knew the state of my business required me to make a change. Still, it took me several weeks to muster up the courage to just do it and let the person go. And in those ensuing weeks, I was silently consumed with emotion. I thought about it constantly; I went through my rationale for letting this person go again and again and I practiced what I was going to say. When the big day finally came, I did it in the best way that I could, and my heart was racing and my stomach was churning the entire time.
Looking back, I certainly learned a myriad of lessons from the experience and I know I am a better business owner because of it. But I hope I don’t have reason to do it again anytime soon.
AllBusiness: As a busy business owner with multiple clients, it must be a challenge to keep on top of the constant changes in the publishing world. How do you keep up with industry developments so that you can maintain your competitive edge?
Egan-Miller: I read industry publications, I attend major trade shows and conferences, I read daily and weekly industry blogs and e-newsletters, I meet with editors and publishers, I receive publishers’ catalogs, I read tons of magazines and tons of books — in general, I make a huge effort to pay attention to what’s going on in my business, in the market, and with my clients. I educate myself constantly; I have to, as the book publishing industry requires it.
AllBusiness: What three pieces of advice would you give to someone who would like to start a literary agency?
Egan-Miller: First, literary agenting might seem like one of those glamorous jobs related to the very impressive world of book publishing that any smart person who loves reading could do, but don’t kid yourself: This is a business based largely upon very specialized knowledge that has been gleaned over many years of experience in various parts of the industry. If you’re not deterred, educate yourself. Literary agenting does not require a license and you don’t have to pass any kind of test in order to hang out a shingle as an agent. But you do really have to know the book publishing business — how it works, the players, and the market — in order to work successfully in it. If you’re starting your own firm, you have to learn how to run a business, as well. The more you know going in, the better.
Second, you also need to make sure you can really afford it. First and foremost, you’ll need clients and projects that are salable, two very major things. Then, know that agents work on spec and without a slate of published titles earning regular royalties (and some regular income for you), you will be dependent strictly upon commission from initial sales for several years. And sales can be hit or miss. The book you thought was a sure six-figure thing might bring in less than $20,000, and that baseball book you loved might never find a publishing home. You have to be financially prepared for the ups and downs and all the uncertainty in between.
Third, you need to truthfully ask yourself, “What can I bring to my clients? Why would someone want me to be his or her agent? Do I really have what it takes to become a trusted career advisor/ soother of tender writerly psyches/ cheerleader/ critic/ armchair psychologist/ problem-solver/ negotiator/ editor/ public relations expert/ salesperson all at the same time? And am I prepared to sell myself, my skills, and my passion to writers looking for representation?” Here’s the bottom line: You are your business and you are the rainmaker.
To read more about Danielle Egan-Miller and her agency, visit Browne & Miller Literary Associates online.