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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Four Young Literary Agents

What do you mean by that?
KLEINMAN: I just find that so much fiction these days doesn't capture me.
ZUCKERBROT: Have you read Knockemstiff? Donald Ray Pollock, debut collection, set in Knockemstiff, Ohio, in the sixties and seventies? I read a lot of things and think, "Eh, I like it but I don't love it." I went gaga for this book. It's one of the best collections I've ever read. I read it and thought, "I'm jealous that I didn't represent this." Now, I don't know who's buying it. It's probably women like me who love Lee K. Abbott, Ray Carver, Richard Ford, those kinds of writers.
KLEINMAN: See, I don't want to read short fiction. I don't want to curl up with a collection of short stories. It's totally boring.
BARER: You're what's wrong with literary fiction today.
ZUCKERBROT: It's not boring at all! How can you say that?
KLEINMAN: I want to get captured by a book and find myself five hundred pages later—
BARER: You can be captured by a short story collection.
ZUCKERBROT: You totally can. Did you read Kissing in Manhattan by David Schickler?
KLEINMAN: No, I keep falling asleep before I can get started on those things. I see their covers and I want to fall asleep.
BARER: Lorrie Moore? Alice Munro?
ZUCKERBROT: Did you ever read Eudora Welty?
BARER: This is why story collections are so fucking hard. Ninety percent of the world doesn't want to read them.

Tell us what isn't captivating you.
KLEINMAN: If I want to read a book, and I'm going to spend thirty bucks, I don't want to read about a bunch of characters who are going to come and go. I want to fall in love with these characters. I want to fall in love with these characters and the world they're living in so completely—
BARER: Julie Orringer! Jhumpa Lahiri! Nathan Englander! There are so many great collections out there.
ZUCKERBROT: What about the people who say, "I don't have time to read a novel"? Short story collection! You can start and finish in a short period of time.
KLEINMAN: No, to me the reason they don't have time to read is because the books are not keeping their interest.

What is not keeping their interest?
KLEINMAN: I think there's so much MFA stuff with such a standard voice and such a standard protocol. Everything is—
BARER: Jim Shepard's last short story collection!
KLEINMAN: I'm falling asleep already.
ZUCKERBROT: I think it's so personal. Seriously, that's why I love something and another agent turns it down. It depends on your life experiences that you bring to that book at the moment. Does it speak to you or does it not? It's the same thing with movies. There must be movies you love and I hate. It doesn't mean they're good or bad. I think that's the case with a lot of literary fiction.
BARER: Fiction is subjective, and I really believe that part of what I take on and what I pay attention to depends on the mood I'm in and what's going on in my life. If I have just had a horrible breakup, and a novel comes in that's all about some incredibly intense love affair, I'm probably not the best reader for that book.
KLEINMAN: I think it's much wider than that. I think the problem is that we're all sheep. I think we're all coming from the same complex. We're all either in New York or affiliated with New York and have the same kind of vision because "this is the stuff that sells." I think there's a uniformity.

Now you're talking about a problem with the publishing industry.
KLEINMAN: Let me tell you what I mean. I have a house in Virginia, and I have friends come down and visit. I had this friend of mine who edits diet books come to visit. We went to IHOP for lunch. She ordered an omelet. Have you ever had an IHOP omelet? You get an omelet and pancakes and toast and all this other stuff. When it arrived, she was frantic. She was like, "Oh my God, I can't believe there's all this food. What are we going to do? How can these people do this?" She sells diet books. That is her market. That's what she does for a living. I kept thinking, "You sell diet books and you don't even know that this is how America eats." And I honestly feel that's how it is with fiction, too.
ZUCKERBROT: People in New York are out of touch?
KLEINMAN: New York is a whole different planet. And I don't think writers and publishers are thinking about the market.
BARER: I disagree. I think there are still—and these might not be the seven-figure or even the six-figure deals—but there are still editors out there who fall in love with a story and feel there is at least enough of a hook that they can use as their marketing angle to take a chance that a book might be the next big thing. Or even if it's not the next big thing, it's still a worthy book to pursue. I have sold novels for not a lot of money to editors who feel like, "I just love this story and I can't let it go. I can't give it up." And maybe it'll be huge, because of some fluke, and maybe it won't, but clearly this writer is gifted and this is a wonderful book and hopefully they will go on to do bigger and better things and turn into somebody like...think of all those writers for whom publishers got in on the ground floor.
LAZAR: Stephen King.
BARER: Ann Patchett.
ZUCKERBROT: Lorrie Moore.
BARER: Writers who were published for years and years and somehow their third or fourth book exploded, and it was because somebody stuck with them.

But now there's so much emphasis on the first book because of how bookstores are ordering based on the sales track. If the first book doesn't sell, you can be in trouble.
LAZAR: My first New York Times best-seller was by a woman whose first book sold for not a huge sum of money. But the reason it worked was because her editor, Jeanette Perez at Harper, threw down for that book from beginning to end. She was there from the beginning of the publication to the end of the publication. She bought the author's next book, and she bought the author's third and fourth books. On the first book, they changed the title three times. They changed the cover four times. And because they didn't pay so much money for the book, it could have fallen through every single crack in the publishing floor. But Jeanette just did not let it happen. She's wonderful to work with because she will get behind a book and push and push and push. An author can make a world of difference, but the level of success we're talking about requires a publisher to get behind a book and get a lot of copies out there.
BARER: Put that book into stores. Convince your sales force that they need to convince booksellers to order that book. If the book is in stores, it has 100 percent more chance of selling than if it's not in stores. If you only print ten thousand copies and people walk into Barnes & Noble and look on the tables and it's not there, how are they supposed to know to buy it?
KLEINMAN: The publishers pay for that co-op.
LAZAR: Co-op is the most amazing thing. I have a couple of books that I'm watching, and these are not authors who are huge sellers. But they got three or four weeks of co-op and the books are selling twelve hundred or fifteen hundred copies a week. The week the co-op ends, the sales go down to two hundred. It's like the book just disappears. That's why I think it's fair to let authors know that distribution and placement are so important. If you put something in front of people's faces, they'll buy it.
BARER: Having worked at an independent bookstore, I think it's true that a lot of people don't know what to read. They want to buy a book but they don't know how to pick a book. And the easiest way to pick a book is if it's on a table. I think a lot of book buyers don't know that the reason a book is on a table is because it was paid to be put there. And I think publishers even choose which books are eligible to be paid for.
LAZAR: This is a really interesting subject because it's something we all know about and talk about all the time, but as agents, we have very little control over. As an agent, one thing that I like is having control over things. Sometimes, watching a publisher publish a book, and knowing everything that we know and all the tools you need and all the things that should fall into place, and just watching a book...it's so amazing when it happens and it's so painful when you can just feel in your heart that it's not happening.
KLEINMAN: That's the reason we started Folio. I was going so insane thinking about all these things that weren't happening. I kept thinking, "Why aren't people doing something?" So we have a marketing person, a lecture agent, a bunch of things like that.
BARER: You took it out of their hands and put it in your hands.
KLEINMAN: When Harper was publishing The Art of Racing in the Rain, they published the James Frey novel on the same day. I was just ballistic. But I could call up the publisher and say, "Okay, I know you have a book that is going to be much more media important for you," and I could at least say to them, "Let's use my person." It was this amazing power thing. All of a sudden I could feel the balance of power changing. "Oh, it's not always begging the publisher to do something." That was cool.

Do you guys think editors still edit as much as they used to?
ALL: Yes.
BARER: I think it's a myth.
ZUCKERBROT: I think it's a myth that might have been started by dissatisfied and unhappy authors.
KLEINMAN: Who says that stuff?
LAZAR: Just from having read [Michael Korda's] Another Life, it sounds like in those days, on a scale of one to ten, if a book was at three, an editor could buy it. Today a book has to be at six or seven and then the editor can take it to ten.
BARER: The difference is not that they don't edit. The difference is that they can't buy it if it's not at a certain level.
LAZAR: Yeah. They aren't any more or less talented than editors fifty years ago, but their hands are tied when a book is not at a certain level. That's why we have to spend so much time on the editing.
ZUCKERBROT: Also, editors today, as opposed to editors fifty years ago, spend most of their days in meetings. Editing is done at night and on the weekends. It's a very different thing.
BARER: I think Dan's point is really true. I will not send out a book until I've done three line edits and I cannot think of a single other thing that I can do to help it.
LAZAR: And the writers sometimes get—
BARER: They're ready to kill me! They're like, "Please, please let it go. Please, can't we just try it?" No! I will not send it out until it is perfect to me, and then it will be edited again by your editor. But it will have a chance at actually selling.
LAZAR: What Renee said about meetings is so true. This week, for some reason all of these foreign publishers are coming to meet with us. Yesterday, I had five meetings not including my lunch date. My e-mail piled up, my desk piled up, and I remember getting back to my desk and calling someone back after the whole day had passed and thinking, "I will never again get mad at an editor I like who takes a day to call me back." Now I understand that I may have caught them on the day when they had their editorial meeting, their jacket meeting, and their positioning meeting, and they just physically were not able to call me back. I remember getting back to my desk and going, "Where the hell did my day go?"

How else have things changed? Did everybody read that end-of-publishing article in New York magazine?
LAZAR: I read it and couldn't decide if I should buy up every issue I could get my hands on and throw them off the top of the HarperCollins building, or if I should throw myself off and make it faster. But I talked to Amy Berkower and Al Zuckerman and Robin Rue, who have been in this business for a lot longer than I have, and they all said, "We read that same article every single year."
BARER: People who are not in the business say that to me all the time. "Oh, isn't publishing dying?"
ZUCKERBROT: But the music industry is dead. Of all the media that's really dying or dead, it's music. Books are healthy compared to music. But when people talk about the Kindle and the Sony Reader? Books are pretty much a perfect technology. So all this stuff about how e-books are going to—
KLEINMAN: You freak! What are you talking about? These things [grabs a book] are Paleolithic!
ZUCKERBROT: It's portable. It lasts. If you want to read something, what's broken about it?
KLEINMAN: I don't want to read it there. I can't search that. It's heavy.
ZUCKERBROT: Are you serious?
KLEINMAN: I'm totally serious.
LAZAR: I agree with you, but I don't think the Kindle is the answer. It's going to be something that's not here yet.
ZUCKERBROT: Maybe in fifteen or twenty years.
LAZAR: But whatever the iPod of books is going to be, it's going to come sooner than we think. It's going to change things.
ZUCKERBROT: But does that change the fact that people don't read the way they go to the movies or the way they buy music? That's the question.
KLEINMAN: No, the point is that you simply have to make the device and the medium more interesting to people who do listen to music and go to the movies.
ZUCKERBROT: Don't you have to make the words on the page more interesting? Or is it a combination of the two?
LAZAR: Yeah, I think it's both.

I just don't see how the iPod-for-books analogy works. Books and music are different. The problem with music was that you had to carry around all these CDs or tapes. But you're only reading one book at a time. Most people, anyway. And you want people in the café to be able to see what you're reading so you can look cool and pick up girls.
BARER: It's always all about picking up girls.
KLEINMAN: My wife and daughter do books on tape, and they love them. They take them to the car, then they carry them in to the CD player in the house, then they carry them upstairs and listen to them in the bedroom. The idea that an audio book is different from a printed book strikes me as just ludicrous. They're the same thing.
LAZAR: I listened to audio books all through high school, and I loved them. But it's different.
KLEINMAN: It's a different experience, but it's the same stuff, whether it's on the page or you're listening to it. It's the same book. I'm saying that we should be thinking about something totally different. There should be a device that deals with the text in whatever medium it's in, and obviously that's why Amazon bought Audible.
ZUCKERBROT: Reading the words on a page and listening to them are not the same experience. I wish I was a neuroscientist so I could really explain it.
KLEINMAN: You're doing the head of the pin thing. It's not important. The point is that you have content that you're downloading into your brain, and it doesn't matter if you're reading it or listening to it or touching the page with Braille. Words are traveling into your head, and however they're getting there, they're getting there. We need a single device that will do that and make it somehow interesting and exciting and fun and interactive. There's all this stuff that books can do, and they're not doing it. The answer is always, "This [holds up a book] is the perfect device. It's perfect. It's been perfect for five hundred years...."
ZUCKERBROT: What I meant is that when we talk about how to create more readers, people aren't not reading books because carrying them in your bag is so difficult, or opening it to the page is so difficult.
KLEINMAN: I think it is.
ZUCKERBROT: It's not. This is a technology that's been around for a long, long time, and it works, unless you happen to leave it out in the rain.
LAZAR: I bet the Kindle would break if you left it out in the rain, too.
ZUCKERBROT: The point is, how do we create a new generation of readers? That's one of the many reasons why Harry Potter has been so fabulous. We have to grow new generations of readers. And technology can help. I'm a dinosaur. I grew up with books and typewriters. But this new generation wants all the gadgets. They want to be able to play with it and they want to be nimble.
BARER: I have to say, I really hate this debate of either/or. That we're either going to become this electronic world or we're going to be dinosaurs. Hopefully we will continue to grow readers, and people will read in several mediums, whether it's on their computers or on their e-book-version whatevers or on the printed page. The goal of agents and publishers is to keep finding ways in which we can reach as many of those readers as possible and provide as many opportunities for them to read our books as we can. Not just one way, but many ways.
KLEINMAN: That's the problem. I don't think that's what publishers are doing now. They are going by the same old Paleolithic ways of doing things. They are translating this ancient technique of reading into the Kindle. But it's the same thing. And I think it needs to be something different.

Reader Comments

  • JAFO says...

    An incredible article. I'm certain the wine helped to open up these agents/owners/literary business people. I learned a great deal about literary agents from this article. They came across as open and honest in their responses. Some of those responses had me laughing out loud--not because I have any experience with being a literary agent, but rather because they were such human reactions; they reacted to questions the way my friends in business would react. It is a business after all. Cudos to the author of this article. His approach to this project was magnificent.


  • ejjjjder says...

    Thank you, i have read all of it takes 30 minutes completely and i liked this part very good. "I have a trick that works every time. I use it a lot, so I should probably retire it at this point. But I write in the subject line, "People who owe me a phone call." Then they open the jokes e-mail and number one is "The Pope." Number two is "Britney Spears." Number three is "You." Then I'll say, "If you can explain numbers one and two, that would be great, but I'll settle for number three. I'd love to hear from you." They always get back to me. [Laughter. Compliments.] It's good because it's a little passive-aggressive, but it's also polite.
    BARER: I know an agent who once sent an editor who wouldn't call the client a fake phone and phone card and a whole little package of messages. Like, "Hello? Pick up the phone!" It's just astonishing and insulting.

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