How This Book Agent Turned Her Love of Reading Into a Dream Job
Before Melissa Flashman was an ace literary agent, she was a freelance writer, radio station manager, advertising copywriter (“like Peggy Olson on Mad Men but not as good”), and trend spotter (an actual job!). Now, she’s using her eye to spot the books that’ll soon populate the bestseller’s list—and your shelf—like the 2016 hit, Sweetbitter. See how she made it below.
What were you like as a teen?
I suspect I would find my teenage self somewhat insufferable, but I hope I would be friends with her anyway. I was very earnest and political and into fashion (still am!)...and also very judgmental. Being a high school policy debater will do that to you, but I also think debate was the most important activity I could have taken up. It taught me to question authority and vigorously defend my positions, and also how to understand the complexities of competing positions. If every high school student took debate, we might worry less about fake news!
As an adult, what do you wish you could tell your teenage self now?
You will get your heart broken again and again but that doesn't mean you should give up (this is not just about love but also about your dreams). Or as Stephanie Danler puts it in her wonderful novel Sweetbitter, "You will kiss the wrong boy." I think that's why I responded so strongly to her novel when she first sent it to me as an unpublished manuscript. Her young narrator Tess (all of 22 and new to New York City) experiences a year of ups and downs but still, somehow, emerges at the end still hungry for life. And yes, Tess kisses more than one wrong boy.
How exactly did you get to where you are now, professionally?
I grew up in Lexington, KY. When I was a kid I read The Westing Gameand fell in love with the idea of living in an apartment building and knew I would live in one when I grew up, which meant moving to a bigger city. I went off to college at Wesleyan in Connecticut. I wasn't an exceptional student in high school. I remember being a bit worried that the kids from fancier schools would be far better prepared for college so at first I stuck to political science and economics classes, figuring debate had at least given me some solid grounding in these subjects.
Freshman year, I took an amazing American literature class and I was hooked. I also had a radio show on the college station my senior year in high school, and had a radio show in college and booked bands on campus. This is all to say, I didn't have a clear career or post-college career path. It was just a hodgepodge of stuff that interested me, which seemed like a good place to start.
What's one thing you wish you had known then that you know now about having a career?
Imagine what it is you want in a dream job and then think very clearly about what it will take (and what you are willing to risk) to get there. People can be overly cautious about going after their dream careers or, alternately, bounce from job to job without enough thought, but neither has to be the case. You just have to take some time and reflect on what gives you purpose and then strategize and take initiative.
What work advice do you have for teens or for young people just starting out (whether that’s an internship, or actual job)?
I interview a lot of job candidates, and I would say that taking initiative and showing curiosity is never a bad thing! I know there is a lot of pressure out there to take a certain kind of job, but I would say that you should take the time to figure out what drives you and then once you find that, give it your all.
Anything else you'd like to add?
There's a lot of nostalgia out there for the '90s (when I was a teenager) and while the '90s had some great moments (RIP Sassy Magazine, skater pants and Sonic Youth) the new generation of young women is so inspiring, standing up against harassment, gun violence and for criminal justice reform. Every time I look at a dispiriting headline, I take comfort in the knowledge that there is a great generation coming up. Don't get discouraged!
Oh, one more thing: dry shampoo is a game changer.