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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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But what are the out-of-the-box things that are working?
MASSIE: I think it depends on the book. But I also think about, "Does John Grisham really need a full-page ad in the New York Times every time he has a new book. Really? Does he? Is he not going to sell those books?"

STEINBERG: His agent would say yes.

MASSIE: Fine. But do the authors who are so well established really need the biggest piece of the marketing budget? Their audience is there. They know when their books are coming out. They're there and waiting. Why not use that money for establishing an author?

STEIN: Think about when a really big band goes on tour. They always have a couple of opening bands, and those opening bands get exposure. So why isn't Grisham giving some exposure to a young writer or two? Why isn't he doing the same thing? Why isn't he going on tour and saying, "This is my opening act and I'm supporting them"?

MASSIE: That's a great idea.

STEINBERG: I think somebody like Stephen King has thought of that and is doing it in Entertainment Weekly.

MASSIE: Stephen King definitely does that.

STEIN: Absolutely.

RUTMAN: A book campaign gets interesting when it starts to look like another industry's campaign. I was lucky enough to work on a book where we did really cool tour posters, for example. And one day the author suggested, "Hey, it would be really nice if you guys would print up some guitar picks. I would throw them out to people at readings." The publicist said, "That's a great idea. Let's print up some guitar picks." That doesn't take a huge effort, and I don't know that it made the difference for the book, but swag is always appreciated. I'm not saying that that's a uniformly good approach, but thinking about a book as a potentially cool object—something you could covet in a way that you might covet some other cultural product—is, I suppose, the way it's going. Publishers probably don't need to be encouraged to treat books more like products, but at the same time, something basic is changing, isn't it? I mean, if book review outlets are as fleeting as they are.

STEINBERG: I think we're in an in-between time period. Reviews are going away but there's nothing there to take their place. It will be the Internet in some form, but nobody knows how, exactly.

STEIN: If those short-form book reviews that are just like, "This is the book, here is the plot, thumb up, thumb down, or thumb in-between," are the ones going away, so be it. If what's left behind are the book reviews that actually say something about books, great. Let's do something exciting with what used to be the space for those, frankly, boring synopses of books.

STEINBERG: I think we can also take a lesson from something I saw in a bookstore in Salt Lake City once. I was there for a writers conference. I went into the YA section and all of these teenage girls were talking about books as if they were cool. I was like, "That's what we have to do. We have to make books cool again." How do we do that? I don't know.

RUTMAN: Was there a time when books were cool? I guess there was.

STEINBERG: I don't know. But the vibe in that YA section? Those girls were all like, "Oooh, what did you read?" They were trying to one-up each other with what they'd read. It was amazing.

RUTMAN: Kids talk about books differently than adults do, and that's why a handful of YA books are such spectacular successes. There's this unself-conscious discussion and inclination to share. I don't know how we appropriate that and make it a possibility for adults. When we're considering a manuscript, one of the things that we're trying to glimpse is whether or not it might be adopted by book clubs. How often do you get something that you feel could become the subject of conversation among people who, you know, maybe their first inclination is not to evaluate the merits of a book. And the books that tend to get that far probably don't do it because of an especially successful campaign. The frustrating possibility we're always forced to consider is that it's not really within anyone's control, even if a publisher makes a really concerted effort. Part of our job, and certainly part of our responsibility, is to see that the publisher carries out its duty as fully and faithfully as possible. But they certainly do that and books still fail to reach more than a few souls. I don't know what makes people like books. There's a basic mystery.

STEIN: But I just saw Revolutionary Road this weekend and walked out of the movie and could hear everyone saying, "Have you read the book? Have you read the book?" I thought, "Thank God. Thank God people are saying that." And that book is on the best-seller list now.

I find that amazing. It's one of the bleakest books of all time and it's been on the best-seller list for fifteen weeks.
STEIN: It's totally bleak, and it's brilliant, and it's so much better than the movie, not because the actors didn't give it their best shot but because Sam Mendes was a terrible director.

STEIN: But that's the thing. People want to read that book. That's exciting. It's cool and it's hot and it's depressing all at the same time. And maybe after they read Revolutionary Road they'll want to read another depressing novel. It's cool to read depressing novels.

RUTMAN: There's little that I find cooler.

You guys work on commission. How does that affect the decisions you make when it comes to selling a book where maybe you have multiple offers?
STEINBERG: It's always a combination of the money and the right place. What that combination is varies, but you have to take both into account. I've taken less money a lot of times to have the right publisher—probably not a lot less money—but a little less money to be published in the right place.

MASSIE: The right place for a little less money, over time, could be more money. It can't just be about the money. There are so many different factors.

STEINBERG: An advance is an advance against royalties, and royalties are an aspect of it.

MASSIE: Right. And if you don't earn out that advance, your next one may not be as big.

STEIN: And to clarify, when we say "the right place" we mean the place we think will be just as enthusiastic, or even grow more enthusiastic, from the moment they buy the book until it's published, and make it a best-seller if possible. And the place where the book won't disappear if, you know, Alan Greenspan or Hillary Clinton or Obama happens to pop up on their list.

STEINBERG: Stability is also important these days. I was selling a book recently and there were a few publishers that I'd heard weren't doing so well. I definitely took that into account. Because it can take a year or two for a book to be published after you sell it. Will that place be around in two years? Will the editor be around? Stability is so important to writers, which is why this time period is even tougher than you may think.

RUTMAN: What we do is really hard, readers. We just need you to know that.

STEIN: We have to think a lot. [Laughter.]

You're joking but my wife is an agent and I know that it is really hard. Especially when you're less established than some people. How do you compete with people who are more established?
STEIN: I thought you were going to ask, "How do you pay your rent?" [Laughter.]

STEINBERG: If you want to talk about what's at the forefront of our minds....

But seriously, how do you compete with people who are more established?
STEIN: I don't. I don't think that I compete with people who are more established. I think they throw me a bone every now and then, if they're too busy. People who are really established? If they want a writer? I don't think I'm going to compete with somebody who's been in the business for twenty-five years. I think that's unreasonable. Why would I compete with somebody who's been in the business for twenty-five years? Unless it's a perfect match, for some reason. I just can't see a competitive situation unless, for example, a writer is recommended to an agent who's been in the business for a long time and some younger agents and there's very good chemistry and a good match. I think that experience in this industry is really invaluable, and I respect experience a lot. So if I were in the shoes of a writer who was choosing between good chemistry with somebody with a lot of experience and good chemistry with somebody who was young, I would probably go with the person with a lot of experience.

RUTMAN: The only thing at your disposal in that situation—if you're at an experience and success quotient disadvantage—is the quality of the attention that you can offer the writer.

STEIN: That's true.

RUTMAN: And that's what you're presenting to them. It's like, "Look, I will talk to you more often."

MASSIE: "And I won't pass you off to my assistant."

RUTMAN: And we're probably going to be more engaged in things that they want to be engaged in. You know, talking about what's wrong with the material in a closer way than somebody else. What else can you really offer? And that's something.

STEIN: "I'll edit your book."

RUTMAN: All you can really do is try to work up superior chemistry to the chemistry you think they may be working up with somebody who just doesn't have the time or inclination for them in the way that you might. I also don't like to know—I don't need or want to know—who I'm competing with.

MASSIE: I don't either. I never want to know.

And they should never tell you, either.
MASSIE: Some people do, though.

But they shouldn't.
MASSIE: You're right.

RUTMAN: They shouldn't. You want to say, "Really? Oh, she's really good. She likes this? Congratulations!"

STEIN: But how do you guys feel about this. If there's an agent who you really respect—who's been in the industry for a long time and who you may even think of as a mentor—and if you were a writer, wouldn't you go with somebody like that, even if you knew they were busy, over you? Or would you go with you?

RUTMAN: I'm supposed to be me in this scenario?

STEIN: You would give them more attention and more of your time, and that person might have them dealing with their assistant more often, but that person is a mentor to you for a reason. They have so much experience and knowledge that you couldn't even begin to have.

STEINBERG: In my experience it's so rare that you compete with other agents. I don't really think about it too often. It's not like being an editor, where one agent submits to twelve editors and you know you're competing with other editors. As an agent, usually it's a single submission, just to you, because you know the person somehow. Or you get to the material so much faster than everyone else because you're immediately drawn to it off the slush pile and you know that other agents aren't involved. In my experience it's very rare.

RUTMAN: You don't find that with referrals? Where maybe some thoughtful referree has given the writer three or four names?

MASSIE: Of course. I always assume that.

STEIN: I assume that too.

RUTMAN: And then you think, "Oh, crap. This is really good. Agent so-and-so is probably going to see this too." And then they do.

So what do you do? That's what I want to know.
MASSIE: You fight as hard as you can and you argue why you're the best person for that project and that author and you hope that they agree.

RUTMAN: Or why Anna is, depending on the situation. [Laughter.]

STEIN: Exactly. I try not to get clients as much as possible. Can you tell?

STEINBERG: Speed is a great help in those situations. You can be like, "I'm going to read this tonight and call you tomorrow."

MASSIE: That is so hard, though. I have two small children so I just can't do speed.

STEIN: I don't like to tell writers that they need to make a decision right away if the book is still out with other agents. I think it's important for them to have a choice, in the same way that we want a choice between editors. We like to be able, if we can, to shop an offer. We like to be able to make a decision between editors. I think authors are entitled to that decision between agents, too.

RUTMAN: You also don't want them to go with you if they have doubts in their mind. Because that will affect the relationship down the line. There have been instances when I've been like, "Oh, go with the other person," because I could just tell that they wanted to. That's fine. Sometimes the other agent is a friend and I'm happy for them. Until it hits the best-seller list. [Laughter.]

Talk to me about what editors do that makes you the most frustrated.
STEINBERG: The bandwagon mentality. When I submit a book to them and they call and say, "What's going on?" They're not supposed to say, "What's going on?" They're supposed to either say "I hate this" or "I love this" or "It's okay" or whatever. It's their job to tell me what's going on at that point. I've done the work, I've submitted to you, and you're supposed to tell me what's going on. If you're calling me and saying "What's going on?" then you're just wondering what you might miss out on because other editors might be interested and you're not going with your passion.

RUTMAN: Or perhaps don't call and ask what's going on without having some intention of your own to offer.

STEINBERG: That's very frustrating.

MASSIE: Or flip-floppers. Someone who disappears on you. Somebody who sends you an e-mail like, "Don't do anything without me. I'm loving this and getting other reads," and you never hear from them again. You're like, "What happened?"

STEIN: And we all know what happened.

MASSIE: But call and tell me. We need closure. The author's like, "What did they say? What's going on?"

STEIN: Show your confidence in your taste. And if you lose in the house...

MASSIE: Just say so. It's so much easier. And then you trust that editor. They loved it and for whatever reason the other readers didn't. But be transparent about it. It's so much easier to know what they're thinking than to wonder.

STEIN: And you'll go back to them because you understand their taste.

MASSIE: Yes. And if they don't tell you, you won't go back to them. There are editors who I won't go back to. And I'm sure all of you have your list of those editors.

RUTMAN: Explaining yourself is really helpful. I want to know on what grounds you are saying no, or on what grounds you couldn't get something through. It's all useful because it rounds out your sense of who you're offering a book to.

MASSIE: And it's so important to an author to hear about how people are responding to their work. When people don't get back to you, or they disappear, it's so frustrating because you're the person stuck in the middle trying to manage your author's fears and hopes and expectations. If it's a no, it's a no. It's easy.

STEINBERG: I also don't like when the editor has his assistant write the pass letter. I'm not submitting to the assistant—I'm submitting to you. I didn't have my assistant work up this submission for you. Because you can tell when the assistant's doing the form rejection. Agents should not get form rejections. You just don't do that.

STEIN: It's also frustrating when editors disappear after they've acquired a book. If, for some reason, things aren't going as well in-house as they'd like, they sometimes hide. Or if they're just really busy. Look, everybody's busy. Just say, "I'm busy." The disappearing act is just unattractive behavior.

Do you resent how collaborative the acquisitions process has become?
STEINBERG: I try to submit to places that aren't like that. I go out of my way to try to find the few remaining places where people can make decisions because they want to.

RUTMAN: Is that a matter of place or editor selection? Finding an editor whose opinion doesn't need—

STEINBERG: I guess it's the person.

STEIN: But I also see it—buying by committee—as something that has become pretty necessary. If an editor is really passionate, and everybody else isn't so passionate, it's going to be pretty hard to publish that book. I see it as something that's more and more necessary these days. If you sell a book to an editor who doesn't need all of that back-up, it's kind of tricky. Let's say you end up with sales and marketing people who just aren't that psyched about it. That's not so great for the book. I don't have so much of a problem with the committee as I do with the taste that the committee is coming up with. Which has just been really mediocre over the past few years.

RUTMAN: Good distinction.

STEIN: I don't think that the individuals have bad taste. I think it's just been a taste of fear over the past few years, and I hope that the committees will somehow—and this is just hope—become more courageous over the next few years. That somehow, with the market contracting, instead of thinking, "We need to be more mediocre," they will be thinking, "If we're actually going to be publishing literary fiction, it has to be really fucking good." And that means that some people in the house will kind of hate a book, but see what's amazing about it, and other people in the house will really, really love it. There wouldn't have to be consensus within the committee for the committee to get behind it. It would be a little different kind of committee, if that makes sense.

RUTMAN: And I guess this applies more to nonfiction than fiction, but please acknowledge comp titles as the limited and specious resource that they are, at least as the basis for making your decision.

But in the publisher's defense, it seems like sometimes that's how the accounts are making their decisions. At least to some extent.
RUTMAN: True. But I feel like a house has to have enough consequence, built in, to persuade a buyer. It's not like the house can't anticipate the reluctance that the buyer may ultimately express, and there's got to be a way to overwhelm that reluctance with the fact that they give a shit.

STEIN: But I think that also comes back to us, and to what we advise our authors to do in our nonfiction proposals now. The comp titles shouldn't necessarily be limited to the subject they're writing about. We have to broaden the spectrum to the kinds of books that could possibly work. We have to think about the moment when the sales reps have to face those guys. We have to think, "Jesus, what kind of comp titles could possibly relate to this in a way that could work?" I mean, it's so boring to have to think about that. But we can't rely on them to do that job for us anymore, unfortunately. That's another way that our jobs have changed.

RUTMAN: The anticipation of just about every possible objection. I mean, there are always a lot of possible objections. The list is long. And you try to speak to them as much as possible, even in the introductory conversation. I think we all appreciate how many rounds of approval the editor is responsible for securing, and that they have to create some kind of consensus with a really disparate group of tastes and responsibilities. When you think about all of those different barriers, it's kind of a wonder that as many books get bought as they do. How do you get this much approval from that many people this often? So it's kind of amazing when you hear how many books a certain group within Random House or something is going to publish. You guys are going to publish twelve hundred books this year? This one group found enough to agree on twelve hundred times?

Do you guys think the industry is healthy? Just give me a yes or no around the table.
STEINBERG: No.

MASSIE: No.

RUTMAN: I don't think so.

STEIN: No.

RUTMAN: But I do wonder if there's ever been a point when you could get four people to say yes.

STEIN: But here's the silver lining: It's unhealthy enough that it's an exciting time. It's broken enough that publishers and agents and everyone has to change. Everyone has to rethink what they're doing. So we have a group responsibility, and an opportunity, in a way that the industry has probably never seen before.

RUTMAN: Part of me craves that. If we're near a precipice, we might as well actually be on it. Let's get to the moment when some basic model really gives way to whatever other model that really smart people are going to help conceive of. Is this what Jason Epstein's been talking about for a long time? Maybe. Is the big company going to acknowledge, "Is this business for us, ultimately? We tried this. We kind of gave it a look. Eh, it's okay. Synergy's overrated. It's a stupid word. We're going to abandon that." Is it going to become a business for the fewer? Is it going to return to the financial interest of a select few wealthy people who are prepared to collect a really modest profit, if any? And does that make for more interesting publishing? Possibly. Maybe.

STEINBERG: Or will it go the other way, like you were saying before? Will we start making concert posters and guitar picks for publicity and using other industries' models to promote books? It could go that way and become more like the movie business.

RUTMAN: And those industries are claiming a state of serious unhealthiness as well. So if every single culture industry is ill at the same time, what do we have to look to?

STEINBERG: And maybe we also shouldn't feel so bad.

MASSIE: It's an interesting time, if you think about it. Look at how the music industry got hit so hard by iTunes and iPods. They had no time to react. But the book publishing industry actually has a little time to think about things and explore possibilities and try to figure out what the next thing is going to be without being hit so hard.

What are the big problems in your opinions, and who are you looking toJim said Jason Epsteinfor the solutions? Is it Bob Miller? Is it Jon Karp? Who is it?
STEIN: Those are the first two people I would have mentioned. The big problems are too many books, inflated advances for—

RUTMAN: The few.

MASSIE: Marketing budgets going to big, established authors.

STEINBERG: No one ever hearing about great books that are published.

STEIN: Returns.

RUTMAN: Trend-hunting.

STEINBERG: Barnes & Noble making many decisions for publishers.

STEIN: Inflexible models across the board. For example, it's time for us to be reasonable as agents. We shouldn't ask for unreasonable advances. But in exchange, shouldn't we be able to ask for paperback escalators? Publishers will say, "It's our company policy not to give paperback escalators." But we're going to give a little bit, so publishers should give a little bit.

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.

  • SantoshKalwar says...

    One wise man once said, "You are the Editor of your destiny". I don't see point to pick other human being to judge/evaluate your entire work. The work itself should judge or evaluate not bunch of "agents or critics". My apologies, I am not complaining them, they are there just doing there job...So, sorry if it hurts anybody... Good luck guys! This is how the first page of the chapter 1 begins... :)

  • lsmyers says...

    Thank you for the article - Agents and Editors: A Q&A With Four Literary Agents. I found it interesting and feeling like an observer in a conference which answered questions that I had, without a resource in receiving the answers. A gift given maybe unaware by the participants.

  • LatayneCScott says...

    Great article, Jofie. So much insight. I really appreciate the role of an agent in today's uncertain times. As an author, I reach into the flesh of an issue and like a masseuse focus on "where it hurts." But that's a solitary task until an agent says, "I feel it too," and can convince editors (and through them, readers) to engage as well. This article gave me new appreciation for those who are working with upmarket fiction. Latayne C Scott

  • bettygordon says...

    The interviews reflect our times regarding acceptance of manuscripts and publishing of same. The remarks regarding the synopses were interesting as so many writers spend hours on creating this work rather than polishing their manuscripts. Hopefully, of course, the manuscripts are polished when they create their synopses, but ?? Thanks to all four agents for an insightful piece. Betty Gordon

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