J. L. Stermer

J. L. Stermer By Britt Gambino

It pays to stay open to opportunity, something Gotham teacher J.L. Stermer has well learned.  Now a successful literary agent (who teaches a course on How to Get Published), J.L. put in a number of years at unfulfilling jobs, searching for her calling in life. Then one night, while working as a cocktail waitress at the Flatiron Lounge, J.L. served drinks to Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency, and her life took a fortuitous turn.

Maass asked her if she was a writer, to which J.L. replied, no. However, she was intrigued by the idea of becoming an agent. Donald gave J.L. his card and she spent six months waiting for a response to her request for a job, while also sending out her resume and making connections elsewhere. Eventually, Maass did hire her. J.L. worked a year as an intern, another year as an assistant, and then she began to build her own list of clients. Voila, J.L. had become an agent. Currently, she works in the literary wing of N.S. Bienstock, a full-service agency specializing in TV personalities. She focuses on nonfiction: mostly cookbooks, pop culture, lifestyle, and science books.

J.L. is always on the lookout for new material. A born and bred New Yorker, she says, “There’s so much opportunity in New York. You can always meet someone who has a book.” She’s a big believer in “planting seeds,” making connections today that may develop into something down the road. But, J.L. has also sharpened her critical skills. “I’ve gotten better at saying no,” she says. “Quicker in my assessment.”

While many people in the publishing business are dismayed at the advent of e-books, J.L. has embraced the opportunity. “It’s about distribution,” J.L. says. “A lot of people are reading now who might not have been.”

J.L. says the best thing about being an agent is, “helping people accomplish their dreams.” On the flip side, she finds it frustrating to put a huge amount of energy into a project that doesn’t work out. In the end, the agent only has so much control of the publication process.

When giving advice to her clients and students, J.L. stresses the importance of maintaining a positive attitude and keeping the lines of communication open. But she also identifies with the writer’s plight of rejection. As she so aptly puts it, “Agents get rejected, too.”

“The thing that’s probably the most frustrating for my students and authors,” J.L. says, “is that it’s not a simple equation. You have to find the right agent for the right author. One thing gets embraced by one person and rejected by another.” J.L. encourages her students to take a step back and readjust their expectations, look for just the right opportunity. She finds that when writers are able to reposition their work, they often have a much better chance of making the market work for them.

Among J.L.’s current projects, she is shepherding a book called Extreme Weather. The author, national meteorologist Bonnie Schneider, had pitched a narrative nonfiction project prior to meeting J.L. The idea got rejected across the board, but Schneider was determined. She reworked the book into something more prescriptive, then found J.L., who has now sold the book.  (Interestingly, the author was working on her tsunami chapter right when the devastating tsunami struck Japan in March.)

This is a quality J.L. prizes in a client—“a willingness to go back to the drawing board and change things up.”