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

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May/June 2009

5.01.09

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What are the hardest decisions you have to make as an agent?
STEINBERG: A lot of times it's books that you know you could sell for a lot of money but you still say no.

STEIN: Or you take the preempt because you know it's the right house, or you take the lower offer because you know it's the right house. And you hope that you're right.

MASSIE: Another hard one is telling an author that his newest book is not there, or not the one, or you're not happy with it, or you just don't see it or know what to do with it. That's a really hard conversation to have, especially with someone you've worked with for a long time. For me, at least, that's the hardest conversation I ever have.

STEIN: Firing a client.

STEINBERG: Or not being able to sell her work. That's one of the hardest things about the business. You take things on because you inherently love them. That's why you do it. You think you'll sell them, and you think everyone will be happy, and then you come to that end of the road where you've done your second round of submissions and wracked your brain for the last three unlikely suspects and they all pass. That's a very difficult conversation.

STEIN: And that's the novel that haunts you for years. That's the novel you think is, in some ways, the best novel you've ever taken on.

But that's not a decision you have to make.
RUTMAN: We're just eager to get to the "What are the worst features of the job?" question. Can we skip right to that? [Laughter.] Seriously, though, deciding what to take on is probably the hardest decision. I find myself sitting on fences a lot more often than I would like. Sometimes I feel like I just run out of critical faculties. My discernment just isn't guiding me very authoritatively and I can't decide whether I ought to be working with a book or not. Because you see its virtues, or your hesitations kind of nullify each other enough to make it hard to decide.

When you guys find yourselves in that situation, how do you decide?
STEIN: If it's something brand new—if the author is not a client—sometimes it's about the writer. If I have an editorial conversation with the writer, and I'm sort of feeling out the situation, that will sometimes do it for me. Because if they're with me, and I feel like we'll have a good editorial relationship—we need to have a good editorial relationship, probably for a long time, before we send out the book—that will become clear. If we have those initial conversations, and I feel like we won't work well together, for any number of reasons, then the decision becomes much easier.

MASSIE: If I'm on the fence for too long it's not a good sign. My feeling is that usually, when I love something, I'm jumping all over it. So if I'm on the fence it's probably not good for the writer and it's not good for me. If I can't imagine myself getting on the phone and calling ten editors and saying, "I love this. You should read this right now," then it's probably not right for me. It also wouldn't be fair to the author for me to take it on.

RUTMAN: You're right. It's not fair to the author. But I also have the misfortune of having my enthusiasms located on some difficult-to-access frequency. Sometimes I'm just not sure what I think, and I'll react differently to a book on different days. I've certainly had the experience where I return to a manuscript and think, "I was wavering about this? This is obviously exceptional and I should take it on." And, less happily, the reverse. It's nice to have access, or confident access, to your feelings.

STEINBERG: It's also nice to know when you're not ready to make a decision. "I'll wait till tomorrow because I'm in a bad mood or tired or whatever it is." And I also use the phone call as a sort of determining factor. But, like Maria, I'm not really on the fence that often. I think that's a good thing.

MASSIE: I just know from experience that if I take something on that I've been on the fence about, it won't necessarily take priority. If I take on something with guns blazing, and I totally love it, that's at the top of my list all the time. If I've been on the fence about something and I decide to take it on thinking, "Okay, I'm on the good side of the fence now," I've been there and I can sense that it won't take priority and I'm not going to give it as much as I should. It's just not fair to the author. It's not fair to me, either, because I have only so many hours in the day.

STEINBERG: I think editors can sense it too.

MASSIE: Editors totally know. They absolutely know.

STEINBERG: Just as we're good at sensing things, they're good at knowing when the agent isn't enthusiastic enough.

STEIN: And you will see all the doubts you had about the book in the rejection letters. You can often gauge your true reaction to a book by the rejections. If it's something where you're really guns blazing—if you really love it—when you see the rejection letters you think, "You. Are. Out. Of. Your. Mind. You're out of your mind!" And that's how you should feel all the time.

MASSIE: Exactly. You see the rejections and you think, "No. I don't agree at all. You don't know what you're talking about!"

RUTMAN: When you strenuously disagree with a rejection, that's a really reliable gauge. Because a fair number of times I think, "Oh, well, yeah. I half anticipated that and I suppose I can see your point." When you sharply disagree, you were right to take it on.

STEINBERG: I think it's also the art of the agent to anticipate the rejections from the editors and try to fix the material before you get the rejections. One thing that I'm cursed with is that when I read the material I sort of see the rejections go across my eyes. I can see how people will reject it, and you work on the material in light of that. Invariably, whenever I don't listen to my own instincts and fix that thing that was nagging at the back of my mind, I will get a rejection that says the very thing that I should have fixed. It's like, "Damn. Listen to your instincts." That's a big part of the job these days, especially because editors are looking to pass. They have a billion things on their desks and they think, "Oh, I figured it out. This is how I'm going to pass on this book." You can't give them that. You can't let them find their entry point to pass.

STEIN: Which is why we'll have that extra paragraph in our pitch letters in a year that will basically say, "This is how you can publish this book. I've already thought it through and this is how you can publish it."

STEINBERG: It'll be like a marketing section for fiction, just like nonfiction proposals.

MASSIE: Exactly. That's got to be the next thing, right?

STEINBERG: That's depressing.

Tell me a little about how you spend your days.
STEIN: The morning is all e-mail.

MASSIE: E-mail, phone, contracts.

RUTMAN: Not reading.

MASSIE: I never read in the office.

STEIN: Manuscripts are for travel. Trains. Planes.

MASSIE: Thank God for the Sony Reader.

STEIN: I can't get mine to work. I can't get it to charge.

Sony's not going to be happy to hear that.
STEIN: Sony can send me some swag to make it up to me. [Laughter.]

MASSIE: I don't know about you guys, but I feel like I sit in front of my computer doing e-mail all day.

RUTMAN: Sometimes I feel like a typist.

MASSIE: You're just dealing with whatever's in front of you. Answering questions. Sending things out.

RUTMAN: How many stray issues are floating in front of you at any given moment? How many small but unignorable questions are hovering at any given moment?

STEIN: By the afternoon I can start returning phone calls and dealing with shit on my desk, whereas the morning is just an e-mail suck.

STEINBERG: It's reactive.

STEIN: Exactly. It's e-mail suck reactive. But sometime after lunch you can start—and when I say "after lunch" I don't necessarily mean going to lunch, because we don't necessarily go to lunch anymore—but in the afternoon you can start to look at the contracts and return the phone calls and whatever else. Unless you're submitting a book, in which case it takes up the whole day.

What about after the afternoon?
STEIN: Drinks.

MASSIE: Home to the kids.

RUTMAN: Roundtables, mostly. [Laughter.]

STEIN: If I'm not going out, I work until nine. Not that I do that often, but that's what I do. And I'm not reading manuscripts. It's more of the same stuff.

So when do you read?
STEINBERG: If I have to read, I don't go into the office. I've tried that before and thought, "Okay, I'll do some work and then I'll read for a few hours." But it just doesn't work. You get sucked into your e-mail and the other issues of the day. Sometimes in the morning, when my brain feels fresh and I can really concentrate, I'll go straight to Starbucks or somewhere that's not my office and read or work on some material. I try to read late at night but I always fall asleep. My wife finds me on the couch with the manuscript pages fallen off onto the floor.

STEIN: I won't take a manuscript into my bedroom.

MASSIE: I don't either.

STEIN: Only books.

MASSIE: Me too. I have to read at least ten pages of a book that I have nothing to do with.

STEIN: For me it's twenty-five. Not that I actually make it to twenty-five, but I try to set that as my goal. I say twenty-five so that I make it to maybe eight.

MASSIE: I have to do that to clean my head. I try to read for at least an hour after my kids go to bed every night.

STEINBERG: I love to read on airplanes. I get so excited. I'm like, "I'm going to read this whole thing!" That's a great feeling.

STEIN: As long as there aren't really good movies on the plane.

STEINBERG: I have a rule that I won't buy the headphones.

STEIN: I don't have a TV at home, so I get very excited when I'm in front of one. [Laughter.]

STEINBERG: I also have a rule that if I'm on a train or something, I'm not allowed to buy the newspaper. Because I have to do work. But I'm allowed to look at other people's newspapers.

You mentioned before that editors are looking for excuses to pass on projects. I'm curious what else you see as changing about your jobs. Or what's getting harder?
STEINBERG: One thing that's changing is that everyone is reading on Kindles or Sony Readers. I've made an adjustment in my head and when I envision an editor reading the material, they're sitting somewhere and reading on the Kindle or the Sony Reader. I don't know how that affects what I submit yet, but it's certainly something I'm thinking about.

STEIN: With nonfiction I think about trends all the time because it follows trends in a much more obvious way than fiction does. With fiction, none of us follows trends—we fall in love. We also fall in love with nonfiction, but there's a measure of practicality that goes with it, which also has to do with our own interests. I'm particularly interested in politics but I haven't wanted to take on a political nonfiction book in several years. And I don't envision wanting to anytime soon. Well, aside from Cory Booker. Do you hear me, Cory Booker?

What about Jon Favreau? Wouldn't he be the biggest get right now?
MASSIE: Everyone must want him. Or Reggie Love.

STEIN: But if I'm interested in something and I need to help shape it—because often nonfiction will come in as an idea rather than a real proposal—I definitely try to think about whether there's a market for it considering where we are now, and where we are in our times. That's not something that's different from ten years ago or five years ago. But I think that considering the shrinking market will become all the more important. There just isn't room for books that are kind of interesting to some people anymore.

MASSIE: I think about the lack of book reviews. All of these places are getting rid of their book review sections. I think about that in terms of "How is a book going to get out there? How are people going to find out about it? What can I do and what should the author be doing beyond what the publisher is doing?" When you think about how overworked publicists are and how small publicity departments are and how many books they're working on, it will sometimes keep you up at night, especially if one of your clients has a book coming out. I think, "Oh, God. What should we be doing? What should we be thinking about? How do we get the word out?" Because there's no such thing as a review-driven book anymore.

So what should writers be doing? What are your authors teaching you about that?
MASSIE: To think outside the box. To think about other ways of getting the word out. It used to be that you'd have a meeting with the publicist, or a phone call, and there would be almost a checklist you'd go down. "We're going to send it to the newspapers and the magazines and this, this, this, and this." That doesn't exist anymore. It's a whole new world. There are so many other distractions out there. You really have to think, "Well, how do people find out about books? Where do they hear about them?"

And what are you learning about that from experiencing it on a daily basis?
MASSIE: I think a lot of it is word of mouth. It seems like there's a critical mass that a book has to achieve in order to work. You have to get all the big reviews, and if you don't, how do you get that critical mass? Is it the independent booksellers hand-selling a book? Is it having great placement in the front of Barnes & Noble? I mean, I don't know. I'm still trying to figure out what you have to do.

STEIN: I do think, with literary fiction, it's about getting it in the hands of the bloggers, who we don't read. When I say that I'm joking, but I'm also not joking. I should say the bloggers who a whole new generation of readers are reading. And the social networking. Everyone should have a Facebook page. Part of it is personality. Some authors are incredibly magnetic and funny, and that's not something you can tell your author to be. You can't tell your author, "When you do your readings, make the audience fall in love with you."

RUTMAN: "Be more charismatic." [Laughter.]

STEIN: That's something that just happens, and that sells books. There are certain authors who are very funny at their readings and draw crowds, who maybe at a different time wouldn't have sold as well as they do now. But they're just the right thing for the blogging atmosphere and just the right thing for buzz. There's something underground about them because they give almost stand-up comedy routines when they read. I think it's going to be different for every author in a way that it wasn't before, and that's why we have to think about how to publish each book individually in a way that we didn't have to before.

What else are they teaching you?
STEINBERG: I have a client named Keith Donohue who wrote a book called The Stolen Child, and Amazon optioned it for film. I think it might have been the only time they ever did that. So they had a vested interest in making the book work. And they made it work.

But that sounds like an exception to me.
STEINBERG: That's my point. We have to do exceptions. With fiction, these days, you have to work under the exception rule because fiction does not have a platform. Publicists are stumped. That's why I think nonfiction has come to the fore a little more. Publicists are sort of like, "Well, no, we don't know what to do. We're not really sure." They used to be able to rely on reviews and now even that's gone. One thing I ask myself, even though I said that writers shouldn't put "I think this could be a great movie" in their query letter, is, "Could this novel become a movie?" I used to work at the agency that represented Chuck Palahniuk, and before the movie version of Fight Club came out, that hardcover had sold about five thousand copies. And after the movie came out I think the tie-in edition sold something like a hundred thousand copies in the first few months. So that's something I think about. I'm like, "Wow, I need to re-create that for my clients." If a book is made into a movie, no matter how small, it helps the writer forever.

STEIN: This is kind of an abstract thing to say, and I don't know exactly what I mean because it hasn't happened yet, but I think the agent's relationship with publishers has to change a little bit. I think that it has to become a little bit less adversarial and a little bit more open and cooperative. Which means that the publisher has to do their part so we don't have to be adversarial. But there can be a way for everybody.... Look, we're all in a sinking ship. So all fucking hands on deck. I think there's a little bit of editors not wanting to tell agents what's really going on and agents feeling like they have to sort of choose their shots with regard to when they call editors and ask for numbers, ask what's going on with publicity, ask about the marketing plan, all of that stuff. And we shouldn't have to do that. We're partners in this thing, and we're all trying to do the same thing. We shouldn't have to feel that way, and the editors shouldn't have to feel like they have to keep secrets. I mean, if there's a secret, or if there's something to feel ashamed about, we should figure out what to do about it.

RUTMAN: Preemptive sharing is really great. When editors keep you overly appraised—there's no such thing, really—and just give you information without having to be asked, it is deeply appreciated. I find that when a book works, it's almost always in that situation. You feel like all of the parts of the house are working in tandem and the editor is inclined to update you because they're pleased with the way everything is coming together. If you have to excavate the information—

STEINBERG: It feels like pulling teeth.

RUTMAN: Or there's just nothing planned.

STEIN: But Jim, let's say you do have to excavate. Or the editor is in a position where they feel like maybe something at the publishing house has fallen short. In that situation it's best that the editor is up-front with the agent so that they, with the author—because it's the author's job too—can all save the day as much as possible. It's just got to be all fucking hands on deck. You can't be all hands on deck if everybody doesn't know what's going on.

MASSIE: There's no transparency. You ask, "What's in the budget? What's in the marketing plan?" You're constantly asking and you think, "Why can't you just know what's in the budget for this book? Why can't you know what's being allocated for this book?" They're like, "We'll see, we'll see, we'll see." No.

RUTMAN: I think there's an assumption that you will find it lacking, and will want—

MASSIE: But it's so much better to know. It allows you to manage expectations. It allows you to think about what else you can do. It's so frustrating to constantly.... Managing an author, especially a first-time author, is difficult enough. Just trying to find out what you have to work with is so frustrating.

STEIN: They aren't used to this new wave of reasonable agents. [Laughter.]

STEINBERG: It's also this frustrating catch-22 where they don't throw money at a book until it does well.

MASSIE: Which means it's not going to do well. That kills me.

STEINBERG: That is incredibly frustrating to agents because a book isn't going to do well unless you're actively doing something for it. You can't just wait and see if it does well and then try to make it do even better.

I hope you know that that's frustrating to editors, too. We aren't the ones making those budgeting decisions.
STEIN: That's my point. If nobody else at the house is doing anything for a book, the editor and the agent and the author, every now and then, can have a flash of brilliance and come up with something that might work.

STEINBERG: It's hard. Sometimes you get to that conversation and you're like, "Let's think of those out-of-the-box things that no one usually does, and let's do them," and there's sort of silence on the phone.

MASSIE: Total silence. They're like, "Um..."

STEINBERG: You can hear the crickets. They're like, "Well, anyway, I've gotta go..."

MASSIE: "I'll think about that and get back to you!"

STEINBERG: "I'm going to brainstorm tonight and I'll get back to you tomorrow."

Reader Comments

  • robert5515@msn.com says...

    One more thing I would like to add, I belong to Rice Creek Writers. It's a group where mom and dad stay home and other writers critique one anothers work. Sometimes it gets pretty harsh, but that's what is needed.

  • robert5515@msn.com says...

    What I found very helpful is what you said about the cover letter and synopsis and also the advice about when I think I'm ready to take another year and rewrite it. I did that! Twice! Maybe more. I have been working on the query letter and synopsis. I believe the query is good. I also the think the synopsis is good. But I know After the Fact, the novel, is great. And after reading the Q&A, I realize The query and synopsis doesn't have to be great. Althought, I would like it that way. Thank you, all of you.

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