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

In the third hour of the conversation, glutted with food and alcohol, the panel agreed to speak anonymously on a range of subjects that would be awkward to discuss for attribution. The participants swore a blood oath never to reveal who said what, and a number of verbal tics have been altered in order to throw any sleuths off the scent.

Tell writers something they should know about editors but may not.
Editors are worried about their jobs. It's a fact of life. It's a business, and they can get fired, and they have to keep their jobs.

You're probably going to have your agent for a lot longer than you're going to have your editor.

The smaller the editor's list, and the smaller the imprint, the more freedom they have to be selective about what they take on and the more time they have to be really responsive and really detail-oriented. It's a lot harder for an editor who's under pressure to buy a lot of books to be able to really be with you every minute.

Tell me about some editors who you think are really good for fiction.
I really like working with Stacy Creamer. I think she's really smart and has a great commercial eye.

Reagan Arthur. She's really selective, so when she loves something, you know that she's insanely in love with it. She will go to the mat and do anything for the book. And I never feel like she is lying to me or giving me company bullshit.

The best editors are the ones who can get people in-house to pay attention. And they have the track record to show for it. You said Reagan, who has an amazing track record, and I would say Sally Kim.

I would sell a kidney to have a book with Courtney Hodell. She's one of the smartest, most interesting people I know. When she buys a book, she is so passionate and articulate about it.

When writers are trying to pick an agent, what are some warning signs that they should watch out for?
They try to charge you money.

They promise you the sun, the moon, and the stars. They say, "I can get you six figures. I can get you national media."

Agents who say, "This needs an edit, and let me recommend you to someone" who will charge you ten thousand dollars. A real agent should be able to help you shape something.

Somebody who says, "I'm really excited about your book and I'd like to sign you up," and then three months later you still haven't heard back from them.

Tell me how you feel about lunch.
Lunch is part of the job. Some days it's really fun and you come back totally energized and inspired, and some days you come back and think, "In six months, that person is leaving publishing and I will never send them anything, they will never buy anything, and that was an enormous waste of my time."

Sometimes you come back from lunch and you feel small and insulted and insecure.

It's like having five blind dates a week.

Sometimes you score big time, and sometimes you're like, "Could I have the waiter call me on my cell phone and pretend that I have an emergency?"

My most terrifying lunch, which turned out to be absolutely terrific, was when I had worked up the guts to start submitting to Julie Grau. After a while she invited me out to lunch. She called me the day before and said, "I'm going to bring Cindy [Spiegel] with me, too. Is that okay?" It turned out to be lovely, but I was so scared.

I had that same lunch with Sonny Mehta. I was like, "I...I...I...I'm not even sure I'm going to be able to get through this lunch and speak coherently."

What are the dumbest mistakes that writers can make in terms of dealing with their editor or agent?
Saying bad things about them. Ever.

Sending seventeen e-mails about seventeen different things in one day. I mean, put it all together in one e-mail and think about whether you really need to be asking these questions. Think about how busy your editor is.

Going over your editor's head unnecessarily.

When they don't tell you about their next project. For example, they've written a great thriller that you sell, and then they write a horror novel. They say, "Guess what? I just wrote a horror novel." You're standing there with this horror novel and thinking, "What am I going to do with this?" They have to communicate about what they're thinking about doing next.

Be very careful about what you blog. Not just talking about the publisher once you're being published, but even before that. If I am submitting your book to publishers and an editor wants to buy it, they're probably going to Google you before they even call me. And if they find things out there that are curious or disturbing? Just know that whatever you're putting online is going to influence their perception of you.

If you take my rejection letter and post it on your Web site, there are few other agents who are going to be willing to put anything in writing to you. We look upon those writers in a bad way.

What are the biggest things that editors do that drive you crazy?
Besides not getting back to us?

I hate when an editor calls me and says, "I'm really, really excited about this project," and then a week or two later they call back and say, "On second thought...." That usually means the publisher shot them down. A lot of young editors do this. They think that if they call back and say, "My publisher shot me down," I won't send them anything else. In reality, it's the exact opposite. I'd much rather hear them say, "I love this book. I fought for this book. But the publisher said no." What better excuse is there?

At least I'll submit to you again. But if I think of you as a flip-flopper?

I hate it when editors toe the corporate line. They give you, "We don't do that. At our house, we don't do that." Or they say, "We're doing a great job. We are doing everything we can. I don't know what you would expect from another house. We are doing everything that any other publisher would do." You know what? It's not true. You people only know what you're doing, and I know what everyone else is doing.

I'd rather hear them say, "I have fought tooth and nail for more money for marketing, and they will not give it to me. I don't know what to tell you." At least they're being honest. In those situations I blame the marketing department, I don't blame them. Some of the most powerful editors in the world aren't necessarily going to be able to convince the publicity or marketing departments to give their books more money.

Then they can come to me and say, "Here's the thing. I fought tooth and nail for x, y, z. I couldn't get it. You might consider—off the record—calling so-and-so or emailing so-and-so. Or going to your author and asking if they can contribute some funds to this."

The editor who is honest with you about the real situation is giving you an opportunity to fix that situation.

But just to play devil's advocate, I will call editors up and say, "Look, it's just you and me here. We're working together. We both want this book to succeed, despite the fact that your marketing and publicity people suck." And the editor will say, "We're doing everything we can," as opposed to saying, "Okay, here's the problem." But if the agent is a certain type of very loud and powerful person who will go over the editor's head and cause problems, then I can see why they don't want to level with you.

But if you have a good relationship with the editor and they say, "Listen, here's the deal. We have these five books all publishing this month. The other ones have really obvious hooks. Ours doesn't. Sales is not responding to it. I don't know how we're going to get it attention," then at least try to do something about it. But if you hide behind the corporate façade, then there's no chance the book will ever work. And I will always feel like you are that team's player and not our team's player.

Are writers conferences useful for writers?
Yes, but not for the reason they think. The problem with writers conferences is that most of them are aimed toward getting the book published, and they should be aimed toward forming a community of writers who can communicate and help one another get endorsements and things like that.

When you're on the fence about taking something on, what are the things that will push you one way or another?
Am I still thinking about it when I wake up the next morning?

I think, "I shouldn't be on the fence."

For me, "maybe" equals "no."

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.

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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