Gretchen Stelter got her BA in English from Ball State in 2003. She studied in Australia before receiving an MA in professional writing from Portland State. Since then, she has worked with writers as an agent and editor for more than a decade. More than 500 books she has worked on have been published by traditional publishing houses. She’s worked on writing at every stage, from development to copyediting and proofreading. She also writes for Books for Better Living, Healthline.com, and Elephant Journal. See some of her work here.
Gretchen lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.
How did your English major lead to your current position? What skills did you learn as an English major that helped you transition into that job?
After I finished my English degree at Ball State, I went to graduate school for a degree in professional writing with a focus in book publishing at Portland State. From there, I actually helped start a literary agency with a classmate, which I co-ran with her for five years before I started editing and writing freelance full-time. The writing skills I gained while at BSU, as well as literary analysis, have helped me in both roles as the editorial director of the agency, and as a writer and editor.
Truly, the ability to read a manuscript and discuss what makes it strong, what makes it appeal to a specific demographic or not, and what sorts of themes it contains has served me very well in my career.
What’s a typical day like for you?
A typical day for me is one when I work from home, which I do about 99% of the time if I don’t have in-person meetings with clients or colleagues. I respond to emails in the morning, because I live on the West Coast and most publishing house clients are on the East Coast. By the time I’m up and at the computer, I’ll have a few queries or check-ins I need to respond to.
After I’m done with emails in the morning, I get started on whatever my most pressing deadline is, which I devote the bulk of my day to. That could mean proofreading, copyediting, developmental editing, or writing. I like to have a variety of projects at any given time, so if I hit a wall with my concentration, I’ll start work on one of my other projects to give myself a mental refresh. For pretty much all of my work, I’m on the computer with a number of files and internet windows open to do research, update style sheets, and double-check dictionaries and style guides. I work into the evening, but how late depends on just how pressing my deadlines are. I’ve been known to work until midnight when I’ve got something due soon. On a regular day, depending on how long my lunch break was and how quickly I got to work after my emails that morning, I work until somewhere between six and eight.
Throughout most days, I post on social media any book or writing news I have, like my articles being published or books I’ve worked on having their pub days, getting good reviews, or winning awards. I set aside one day a month to put those updates on my website. Most of the time, that’s the only publicity I worry about, as I get most of my work through referrals these days. On any given day, I may have a call or online video conference with a client, but most days, I’m in front of my laptop for the vast majority of the time.
Do you have any advice for English majors who are trying to figure out what comes next in their lives?
Don’t be afraid to explore careers that you’ve never heard of or know nothing about.
When I was approached by a classmate to see if I wanted to start a literary agency with her I enthusiastically said yes…and only then asked what a literary agent did.
Also: network, network, network. When I transitioned from agent to editorial director, and then to full-time editor and writer, I had many, many colleagues who were also agents, editors at publishing houses, production editors, publicists, etc., who were ready to recommend me to authors, both agented and published, and those looking for representation/publishing contracts. When I was starting out, it was the contacts I’d made, the way I’d treated those people, and my work that got me clients. Don’t just avoid burning bridges, but actively try to build them.