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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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So who are you looking to?
MASSIE: I don't know who to look to yet.

STEIN: Nobody's really stepped up yet except for Bob Miller. He's really the only one. Jon Karp had a great idea ahead of everybody else but he hasn't done anything that's quite like what Bob Miller is doing.

I feel like paperback originals might be one place to look in the short term. What if some established publisher said, "Hardcover books are the eight-track of the publishing industry. They don't make sense anymorein this culture, in this economyand we just aren't going to do them anymore"? Would you all continue to sell them books?
ALL: Yes.

RUTMAN: Because every house with a serious line of original trade paperbacks is usually publishing some really interesting books. Think about a handful of years ago when Vintage was making a concerted effort and publishing what I guess they were designating as more "difficult" books. One of the most beautiful trade paperbacks they did—it had French flaps—was Notable American Women by Ben Marcus. That thing was just too cool. It was the perfect trade paperback. I thought, "Okay! Maybe this is a kind of turning point." Not because it was a book that was ever going to sell Jhumpa Lahiri numbers. But that turned out to be a small little experiment that seems all but discontinued.

STEINBERG: I think it's always attractive to agents when publishers have a vision. If they said, "We're just going to do trade paperbacks, and we're going to make it work," that would be immediately attractive. Because they have a vision. It's not just like, "Oh, let's publish this and see what happens. Good luck to us all! Bye!" [Laughter.]

RUTMAN: But if you sell a book and it's acquired with the intention of making it a trade paperback, and three or four months later the publisher comes back to you and says, "We've reconsidered. We're going to make this a hardcover," it's not even implied—it's basically stated—that "we thought we were acquiring nothing, and we've actually had a change of heart. We think we have something. Congratulations to us all." If you were ever under the delusion that there was no hierarchical relationship between the two, it's dismissed pretty thoroughly. And what's going to change that? The Great Depression II might go some way.

STEIN: It used to be about reviews. There was this idea that you couldn't get reviews for trade paperbacks. But there aren't reviews anymore so we don't have to worry about that.

STEINBERG: Silver lining.

MASSIE: Grove's had a couple of original trade paperbacks on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. So that's not the story anymore.

STEIN: Grove does wonderful trade paperbacks.

Stop it, you're going to make Morgan blush. But seriously, I wish the whole economics of advances would change so that we could do more.
RUTMAN: And if e-books are costing about what trade paperbacks cost, maybe we can have a more uniform price for books. So you wouldn't have this disparity.

STEINBERG: But one of the goals of agents is to get a good advance, and the way that publishers get to higher numbers is by doing hardcovers.

STEIN: But that could change a little bit. If there wasn't the sort of hardcover-paperback hierarchy, and if we started doing a lot more trade paperbacks, the price of paperbacks could rise a little bit. And there's no reason we should have such low royalties for paperbacks.

STEINBERG: Someone in publishing told me that that's why publishing still exists—because publishers held agents off from having escalators on paperbacks. That's where the money is made.

STEIN: But we need a little of that money if we're not going to ask for high advances.

What are you most worried about with regard to the industry?
STEINBERG: I think if Barnes & Noble folds, or something like that, it might be so devastating that we can't get around it. If Barnes & Noble were to fold, what would happen to all of us? I mean, there's no way that publishing could really continue. We've put too many eggs in one basket.

STEIN: Publishing could continue.

STEINBERG: It could continue, but it would be at a much different scale.

STEIN: Agents would just sell the books to Amazon. It would be the publishers that would be out of business.

STEINBERG: Isn't Barnes & Noble like 50 percent of the market?

RUTMAN: But there is also a pretty astounding percentage of books that are sold in non-book-retailing locations. Which is problematic at least for the likes of most of us because we don't do so many of those books.

MASSIE: They tend to take a certain kind of book.

STEIN: Which is why, although we're very grateful to Amazon, we need to keep our bookstores in business. So if you're going to buy a book, buy it from an actual bookstore.

MASSIE: Look at Harry Schwartz.

It's really sad.
MASSIE: That was really devastating. And it's like a new one every day.

STEIN: If you buy a book from Amazon, you're killing us.

RUTMAN: There, she said it.

STEIN: And you're killing yourself. Thank you. [Laughter.]

What are the other things you're most worried about?
RUTMAN: That the balkanization of commercial publishing will be so complete that an even smaller number of books that claim all of the available resources will take up even more available resources and the ghetto for everyone else will end up being vast. That the midlist will come to encompass everything that isn't a couple of titles.

STEIN: That the midlist, and the kinds of books we do, really will become the new short stories or the new poetry.

RUTMAN: The assumption is that you can still anticipate something that will work commercially. Which I guess sometimes you can, but not often enough to justify that as a prevailing strategy. I mean, can we stop paying senators and politicians—sorry, Flip [Brophy, a colleague at Sterling Lord]—and various other famous people tons of money for stories that are—and I apologize, readers everywhere—insubstantial in the extreme?

With one exception, right?
RUTMAN: Obama. [Laughter.]

He's a great writer.
RUTMAN: Exactly. If they write their own books and they write them well, then we have a crucial exception. But generally speaking, this thing of giving somebody, on the basis solely of name recognition, disproportionate resources that could be so much better spent elsewhere? Why do we do that?

STEIN: Imagine a world where books would have to be submitted without the author's name. Obviously there would be no platform. So if the proposal was really shitty, and the writing was really shitty, there would be no sale.

Anna wants a meritocracy in publishing.
RUTMAN: Aw, that's sweet. [Laughter.]

But that raises an interesting point. Why do you all focus on serious literary work when it's so obvious that the real money is elsewhere?
MASSIE: It's what I like to read.

STEINBERG: I like going to work every day and the feeling of liking what I do. I think if someone said to me, "You can do only fiction, and no nonfiction, forever. Will you do that?" I would say, "I don't think I'll like that very much, because I still like nonfiction, but I'll do it." But if somebody said to me, "You can do only nonfiction. No fiction," I'd be like, "I'm just going to quit." There wouldn't be any point.

RUTMAN: I just don't feel equipped to make judgments about anything other than what I like. I feel like my capacity to gauge commercial prospects is kind of restricted. The only thing I can really respond to is what I think works in some way that means something to me.

STEIN: I'm a hopeless optimist, and I think somehow, someday...well, look, Revolutionary Road is on the best-seller list right now. I'm an optimist, and because it can happen, I think it will happen, and I want to be on the front lines when it does.

Are you encouraged by anything you're seeing on the front lines?
STEIN: Our president is a writer. We have a president who loves books and who's all about promoting the arts. That's amazing.

STEINBERG: I like the Kindle and the Sony Reader. I think they're a step forward and sort of address the cool factor. I think it's cool that with the Kindle you can think of a book you want and have it at your fingertips a minute later.

RUTMAN: It's also nice because it means that books are eligible to be included in the world of new technology.

STEINBERG: When you're on the subway, people are intrigued by it. They're like, "What's that?" And that intrigue factor is important.

STEIN: Except they can't see what you're reading.

MASSIE: It also feels like the YA world has really taken off in the last few years and kids are really excited about reading. It feels like there's a whole new generation of readers out there, doesn't it? And it's not just Harry Potter. There are all these authors, people like Cornelia Funke, and all of my nieces and nephews have their favorites. They've all discovered their own different authors who they're so excited about. It's great. I feel like there was a generation that sort of skipped that.

RUTMAN: I'm also encouraged by the things that succeed, for the most part. Look at something like A Series of Unfortunate Events. You have this very self-conscious, writerly line of books that kind of flatter kids' ability to appreciate a certain context in which the books have been written. And kids seem to live in a text-filled world in a way that even we didn't. I don't know if it's the right kind of text, but it might function as the basis for some broader appreciation of written communication.

MASSIE: And look at the YA books that are doing well—they're doorstops. Look at The Invention of Hugo Cabret, that Brian Selznick book. It's huge.

STEINBERG: My daughter loves that book.

MASSIE: My son loved it too.

STEIN: Is it good? Have you guys read it?

MASSIE: It's great. I loved it.

RUTMAN: I think the girth of a fat children's book is a factor in its success. Kids must feel like they're being entrusted with something enormous. It's like, "I don't care that you're only eight. You're going to read 960 pages of epic...." And now that they wheel their backpacks, it's okay. It's safe.

At the end of the day, what's the best part of your job?
MASSIE: Working with great authors. Discovering new voices. When an author's book arrives for the first time—when you get that messengered package and rip it open and there's the book. That's the best feeling. Getting the book in your hands is better than getting the deal.

RUTMAN: Having some part in the creation of a book that you feel strongly about. However incidental your role may be. I mean, I haven't written any books and it's really nice to have helped bring some of them about. That's more than I expected from a workday.

STEIN: I agree with all of those things and, for me, it's also just about making the author happy—making the author's hard work pay off in a way that you just know their endorphin rush is going to go on for a week. That's what makes your endorphin rush happen. It's not the deal. It's their scream.

STEINBERG: I love dealing with creative people on a daily basis and just seeing how their minds work. It just makes me so happy. I think that's probably why I do what I do. I just love what they come up with. Great twists in plot. Things that are unexpected but extraordinary. That's always the best part. I'm really sad when I'm not reading some great piece of fiction for work.

RUTMAN: Constant access to people who are smarter than you is a really nice part of the job.

STEIN: Smarter. More creative.

STEINBERG: More disciplined.

RUTMAN: Better. Just better.

AGENTS ANONYMOUS
In the third hour of our conversation, with a few bottles of wine sloshing around in their brains, the agents agreed to speak anonymously on a variety of topics that would be difficult to discuss for attribution. Any number of verbal tics have been altered in order to disguise the identities of the speakers.

What would you say to writers if you could be anonymous?
Work harder. Be gracious.

Don't be so needy. Don't need constant affirmation.

Once you make a decision to go with an agent, trust that agent.

When authors leave their agent to go to a "better" agent, it is almost always the author's fault. I don't blame agents for poaching. I blame authors for allowing themselves to be poached.

And nine times out of ten it's the wrong decision.

Tell me about some overrated publishers, in your opinion.
Little Random. I think the reputation they built in the era before we came into the industry has gone out the window in the past five years. I can't think of one book of theirs that I've read in the past five years that I've admired. They have no vision. There used to be some good literary editors there—Dan Menaker, Ann Godoff—who had some vision. I think the house publishes schlock now, for the most part.

Spiegel & Grau. They just care about the celebrity-type books. Even if the writer is not an actual celebrity, they only want to buy big books by the sort of literary celebrities. They pretend they're in it for the art but in my view they're not.

Scribner. It's kind of strange because they have this great literary reputation, and I've always thought of them as a great literary house, but I just can't think of anything of theirs that I've admired in a long time. Maybe a little bit of their nonfiction, but not much of it. I can't figure out why that is because, you know, it's Nan Graham and that shouldn't be the case.

Riverhead, these days—after Cindy [Spiegel] and Julie [Grau] left—has not found its footing yet. I mean, the books that have done well for Riverhead lately were under contract already. Junot Díaz. Khaled Hosseini. Aleksandar Hemon, but Sean [McDonald, his editor] was there before the new regime. We'll see what Becky [Saletan] does.

What about on the flip side of that? Which houses do you think are underrated?
Algonquin. They do a great job and they have integrity. They know the right amount to pay but they don't overpay. And they do great publicity.

I wish more houses were like Norton. They have a pretty big list but they also acquire carefully, for the most part, and there's a nice range of serious editors. Their acquisition process is rigorous and they don't often go nuts to overpay for something. They're an employee-owned company and everybody is invested in what goes on. Their offices are really crappy, which is kind of reassuring. And they take chances on books that are ultra-literary while doing unapologetically commercial stuff too.

I feel like Algonquin uses them almost as a model. They're similar in a lot of ways.

They're the last of a dying breed. How many independent houses of that size exist anymore? And there's a reason we haven't heard about any cutbacks or financial issues at Norton. They operate responsibly.

Tell me about some editors you really like to work with.
I'm working with an editor I've never worked with before, Tom Mayer at Norton. He's tireless and will do anything for this book. The author wasn't happy with the cover, and Tom went and got them to hire somebody else. I mean, that never happens. Usually editors are trying to say, "We all love this and the author should too." I've never seen such an advocate for a book.

I would say Kathy Pories at Algonquin. She has amazing taste and she's also a fantastic editor. She makes novels the 25-percent better that they need to be. She's such a straight shooter, she's fun to talk to on the phone... [Laughter.] That can't be discounted! It's a joy to call her. And it lets me be a straight shooter myself and not need to spin anything. That's a nice feeling.

It's only been one instance, but if somebody's had a better experience with an editor than I was lucky enough to have with David Ebershoff, I would wish it on all of you. The level of attentiveness and awareness of the whole process from beginning to end was just incredibly heartening, from securing a publicist to being honest about certain potential impediments. His advocacy was inexhaustible.

Molly Barton is the same way. She will not let a book die. She's still there after publication. She's still there after paperback publication. She just keeps a book alive and does absolutely everything possible. She does things for her books that I didn't even know were possible. She came up in a slightly different way and has a sort of big-picture publishing knowledge that a lot of editors don't have.

Anybody have any horror stories from lunch?
I once had lunch with an editor at HarperCollins, and this was so long ago that I don't even remember his name or if he's still there, but he talked the whole time—very excitably, kind of spitting his food—about television shows and action movies. It's kind of a cliché to talk about going to the bathroom and seeing if you can figure out a way to slip out. But I actually went to the bathroom and thought, "I can't go back. I can't get through this lunch. This has got to be Candid Camera. I can't do it." But I went back and finished the lunch. I thought the whole thing had to be some sort of joke. But it wasn't. It was real and he was real.

I had one lunch where the editor called me by the wrong name the entire lunch. He didn't even know my name! And I didn't correct him because I was so angry. After lunch I went back to the office and wrote him an e-mail so he'd see my name and know.

Of all the people and places who write about the industrynewspapers, Web sites, blogswho are the smartest and who are the dumbest?
I feel like Publishers Weekly has really gone downhill. I know it's a trade magazine so it's supposed to be boring, but I think it's really boring. I also don't trust the reviews. I kind of liked Sara Nelson's column, though. Just as a barometer of things.

I always feel like when I'm reading Michael Cader he might say something intelligent. Publishers Lunch is one of the better ones.

I thought Boris [Kachka] got a little too much shit for his New York magazine piece. I don't think it was a dumb article. I felt more sympathetic to what he was trying to do than I think most people did.

I think that guy Leon [Neyfakh] at the Observer is really good at digging in and getting scoops. He really keeps going.

It's his first job.

And he knows how to become friends with you and get stuff out of you. He's very good in that way. And he treats publishing like it's something to care about, which is nice. It's like he's always looking for some secret that will be amazing. The things he finds are usually kind of silly, but at least he's trying.

Which is different than Motoko [Rich, of the New York Times], who approaches it like it's a business. A business that doesn't make any money.

Don't you always feel a little surprised that the Times will cover a publishing development as prominently as they sometimes do? They're like, "Layoffs at Doubleday!" and you're like, "That warrants coverage in the New York Times? Really?"

Anything else that you want to get off your chests?
I think book jackets are incredibly important but they're one of the weakest parts of the business. We need to pay jacket designers more money. We need to attract better people. It's one thing that we can control.

We should steal all of the indie-rock designers and bring them into books. Because that shit is great. Walk through any record store. They are so consistently good, and they get paid nothing.

I emphatically second that idea. And I think raiding another industry could be the way to do it.

There are so few things you can control, and the jacket is so important. It's what people look at. Women's legs are not inherently interesting as cover subjects.

Or shoes.

Or the face of an adolescent girl who is blowing bubbles.

Oh, I disagree with you there. I'd love to support you, but I can't. [Laughter.]

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

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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