Literary agent Sandra Dijkstra, Ph.D. ’76, is an author’s lifeline.
There’s an old joke in the publishing industry—a writer returns home to get the message: “Your house burned down, your spouse left you, your dog died and your agent called.”
The writer replies, “My agent called?”
There are two truths to be found in this: one, the power of a literary agent is immense in the life of any writer lucky enough to have one. They can often make the difference between stardom or starvation. And truth number two: They can often be as elusive and aloof as the success one hopes they’ll bring to an author.
Sandra Dijkstra, Ph.D. ’76, completely shatters this last stereotype, along with many other longstanding beliefs in the literary scene. In fact, her entire career is built upon breaking one of the most longstanding notions in publishing: that one can never make it outside of New York City.
“They call it being ‘out there,’” says Dijkstra. “Early on, many New York friends said it couldn’t be done—I’d have to move back east. Now they say just the opposite.”
Yet before she could make her name “out there,” she had to get noticed in the Big Apple. Dijkstra’s break into agenting came about in part by accident, and with an almost literary level of irony, her success was born from the very kind of rejection that she now unfortunately has to dole out to others, along with the good news, of course.
Dijkstra was fresh from UC San Diego, sporting her new Ph.D., when she took a trip to New York in 1979 as a member of the MLA Commission on the Status of Women, with the hope that publishers might be interested in her dissertation. The houses all declined to read it, saying they needed a book proposal. She had just happened to bring along a proposal from Lillian Faderman, a friend introduced to her by then-Geisel librarian Fran Newman. Faderman’s book caught the attention of publishers, and the bidding began.
“I came back home and told Lillian, ‘They think I’m your agent!’” Dijkstra recounts. “And she said, ‘Well then, do it!’”
Faderman’s Surpassing the Love of Men would become Dijkstra’s first sale. It was an exciting moment, tempered by the devastating loss of Dijkstra’s mother, who left her with the means to do something bold. While teaching literature at UC San Diego, she started the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency, and in a few years became a major player in the industry from out west.
“Keep in mind this was before the internet. I loved books, yet I knew nothing about publishing. How could I possibly make it work from out here?” Dijkstra says. “But I told myself: ‘Yes, you can!’ and went to New York and made an appointment with every head of every major publishing house.”
Dijkstra made it work. She added writers to her list and hosted the show “Books West” on KPBS, interviewing authors and publishers visiting Southern California. Then, in 1987, she sent a letter of interest to a then-unknown writer named Amy Tan, ultimately rescuing Tan from a technical writing day job and making her a phenomenon with the mega-bestseller The Joy Luck Club. Yet one wonders if the book would have become such a hit—or even been a book at all—had it kept its original title.
“Amy named it Wind and Water, from the I Ching,” Dijsktra explains. “It was appropriate, but I told her how publishers already think California is ‘woo-woo,’ and if we send them something with that title, we’d be laughed at. I looked down at those three magical words—Joy Luck Club—and asked if that could be its name. The rest is history.”
Critical advice like this is just one aspect of the work Dijkstra does every day for the many writers she currently represents. Dijkstra’s is a “full-service” agency, working with authors on a manuscript or proposal, selling the book to a publisher, negotiating the contract and keeping watch over presentation and promotion, and also representing film, audio and foreign rights. “We place value on a book,” says Dijkstra, “and then help it realize its full potential by finding the best editor, best house and best deal.”
Dijkstra’s team includes a number of other UC San Diego alumnae, including Thao Le, Marshall ’11, who interned at SDLA while working toward a management science degree. After beginning on the business side helping with the agency’s financials and rights management, Le has begun agenting herself, building a list around her interests in young adult sci-fi/fantasy. “I’ve always loved books,” says Le, “but never thought of it as a possible career. It was serendipity; I found my niche and I was here at the right time.”
From her days a UC San Diego student, and later as an employer, Dijkstra has led a long and productive literary life, with a Nobel, two Pulitzer Prizes, and a number of bestsellers on her list, all of which have given countless readers pleasure. Had she chosen any number of alternative careers—if she’d stayed in academia, for instance—or if any setbacks in her life had deterred her, she, and our entire literary arena, would be all the poorer.
“My story is one in which rejection and loss can become engines of success,” she says. “I’ve been lucky, but I also fought to make my luck.”
Given the canon she has helped produce, the success of her authors and the millions of readers inspired by their work, that Dijkstra found her calling is something for which we can all consider ourselves lucky.