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


March/April 2009


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We may as well name them.
NASH: Nicole Aragi, presumably.
GARGAGLIANO: Tina Bennett. Lynn Nesbit. Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Suzanne Gluck.
CHINSKI: Eric Simonoff. I mean, I know from friends at other houses that when a manuscript comes in from certain agents, they start circulating it before they even read it because they presume it's going to go really quickly and for a lot of money. And that's not true with other agents. It just changes the game entirely. I think an author has to understand what they want. They have to do some soul searching, for lack of a better phrase, and figure out if it's just the money they need or if they need something else. And it's hard to hold that against someone. I know that editors always bitch about having to pay too much, and obviously it can have big consequences in a house—if a book doesn't earn out and so on—but you can't really hold that against the author. We never know exactly what their circumstances are. Maybe they have five children who they need to send to college. But they need to figure out what their priorities are. I do think we've often stumbled up against this thing where, in the same way that people think advertising equals love, they think that the advance equals love. And that's just not always true. But people assume that the more you pay, the more you love a book—that if you offer fifty thousand dollars more than another house, then you love it more and will be more devoted to it—and that's not necessarily the case. I think a good agent will explain to the author what all the different variables are, and specifically within the context of what the author needs, whether it's financial or their career more generally, and that is the ideal way to make the decision.

How do you guys feel about auctions?
CHINSKI: We try to avoid them if we can.
BOUDREAUX: I don't mind an auction as much as I hate a best-bids [auction]. And I don't mind a best-bids as much as I hate a best-bids and then the top three get to do it again. What the hell? Everybody does that now. It's insane to me. And the other thing is, does everybody have to talk to the author now, or meet the author, before you get to make an offer? What happened to the arranged marriage? "Eric likes me, Eric likes you, how 'bout we do a book together." I mean—
CHINSKI: Have you gotten the one where you don't get to talk to the author unless you promise to make an offer in advance?
GARGAGLIANO: Oh, that's horrible.
BOUDREAUX: That happened recently. You weren't allowed to talk to the author unless you'd ponied up however many six figures.
CHINSKI: There's an admission price to even talk to the author. That drives me crazy. At FSG, we try to avoid auctions. We decide what we think a book is worth, make the offer, and the author either decides to come or not come, and we bow out if it doesn't happen.
NASH: I mean, any economist will tell you that the winner of an auction has overpaid. In a lot of worlds, outside the publishing one, certain auctions get structured so that the second highest bidder wins. Because the presumption is that the overbidder has overpaid in such a way that it could imperil the business.
BOUDREAUX: I love that! Second place wins—let's hear it for all the B-students!
CHINSKI: All you A-students are crazy.

I hear what you're saying, Richard, but what about with books like Everything Is Illuminated or Edgar Sawtelle? You're not the loser if you won those auctions.
NASH: But I mean in aggregate. Any of these things are statistical, so there are always outliers.
CHINSKI: Actually, I came in second on Everything Is Illuminated.
BOUDREAUX: Were you the underbidder?
CHINSKI: I was, actually.

Apparently I was wrong.
GARGAGLIANO: To be fair, there is a benefit to an auction, which is that, at least in my position, the whole house has to pay attention to the book. You end up getting more people reading it and talking about it, and that creates a certain excitement that isn't to be negated entirely. As long as you don't overpay too much, within that excitement, I think it can benefit the book.
CHINSKI: But what about the problem—this is rare, but we've all seen it happen—where the money becomes the story behind the book. That gives me a queasy feeling. Even if it doesn't happen in a negative way, which we've obviously seen happen. But if that's the driving momentum that gets a book attention? I guess, on one level, great. We'll take what we can get. But on another level it just makes me queasy.
GARGAGLIANO: There's a huge difference between an auction that ends at two hundred thousand and an auction that ends at a million. There's a huge spectrum there. But if you're in an auction with five different houses, your publishers are going to pay attention. Because everybody else is paying attention.

Do you guys think you feel the money you're spending in the same way that maybe Richard does?
BOUDREAUX: I don't know if you sweat the difference between 150 [$150,000] and 175 [$175,000]. But you definitely...One [$100,000] and five [$500,000] are different. And five [$500,000] and three million are different. I'll tell you what's easier: three million. Because then everybody did have to get on board. You are not out there on your own saying, "I believe!" But those middle, lot-of-money numbers when maybe nobody else read the whole thing and somebody is letting you do it? You do feel responsible for that in a "Boy do I need to make sure I don't make a single misstep the whole time. The manuscript has to be ready early. I've got to have blurbs early. We've got to get the cover right. I've got to write those hand-written notes to people." You feel the need to justify it. But at the same time, you don't have to lose sleep every night because you won the auction by going up ten or fifteen thousand dollars. I think auctions can be not horrible when you agree on the number beforehand. What I hate is feeling like the ego contest has begun and somebody thinks so-and-so across town has it and you're trying to guess who it is—or somebody inside the house, when there's a house bid situation. The bullshit competition drives me up the wall. Being in an auction and saying we think it's worth three hundred or we think it's worth eight hundred—I don't sweat that if we're making a decision beforehand. It's when you get into the middle of it and suddenly the book that you thought was a great two hundred thousand dollar book...You're paying four [$400,000]? Just because there are still four people in it? I mean, when an agent calls and says they have interest, that's fine and dandy. But it's not going to change my mind about whether I liked the book or not, and I don't want the publisher deciding because three other houses are in and "We should get in on that, too." So if you can make these decisions before the craziness starts, it's fine. It's when the craziness begins—
CHINSKI: The feeding frenzy.

But it seems like that's how it works now. You're getting that email from the agent right away.
CHINSKI: But don't you feel like you get that more and more?
GARGAGLIANO: I don't feel like it changes my mind, though.
CHINSKI: No, I just mean more as a strategy to get people to pay attention.
BOUDREAUX: I feel like, when you get a submission, you know that it's so easy to send that everybody on earth has it already. And it's twenty a day and there they are on your Sony Reader and the attention paid to things has diminished just by the ease with which everything gets slotted in and slotted out. And then the agent's like, "I've got interest! I've got interest!" Well, "I've got a ‘No!'" I can email fast, too! [Laughter.] Unfortunately, that's how it ends up working sometimes. "You've got to get back to me quickly!" "Okay, well I guess I won't be deliberating over this very long. I've read ten pages and we can be done, then." If everybody just wants to speed it up that much.
CHINSKI: But I've heard so many agents say that it's becoming more and more difficult to sell a literary first novel that it almost seems like this is compensation for that. There's so much resistance now—everybody's trying to find a reason why they shouldn't buy something because it is so difficult. It seems like we get more emails now that say "There's a lot of interest" just to kind of built up that intensity from their side.
NASH: What I get to do in those situations is say, "Congratulations. I'm thrilled for the author. Next time." I just can't play at that level. That makes my life a lot easier. It's a much less complicated thing than what you guys have to go through in terms of evaluating the difference between two hundred [$200,000] and four hundred [$400,000]. That's one thing I don't ever have to worry about. But I really learned a lot from what you were saying about how when the money gets really big, you aren't accountable anymore. Not that you aren't accountable—but there's a lot of shared responsibility and the buck isn't stopping entirely with you. Whereas there's an in-between spot where it's large enough that you're exposed but not so large that anybody else is going to be wearing the flak jacket with you.
BOUDREAUX: The first book I ever preempted, I hadn't finished reading it. It had come in to another editor who gave it to me. So I was starting it late and I hadn't finished it and I went in to tell the publisher, "We've heard that somebody else is going to preempt." The publisher said, "Okay, go offer" several hundred thousand dollars. "Okay!" So I did, and we got it—what do you know?—and the next day the publisher asked, "So what happens at the end?" I still hadn't finished it! I was like, "They all...leave...and go home." I didn't know what happened! [Laughter.] That was kind of scary, and I did feel like "This one is all on me"—because not only had nobody else read the thing, but I wasn't even certain it would hold up. As I was editing it I was like, "I hope that's what happens at the end...." Otherwise the author's going to be like, "Really? Why would you suggest that at the end?" I'd have to be like, "I just think it's important that everything works out that way."

When you look at the industry, what are the biggest problems we face right now?
CHINSKI: I think they're all so obvious. Returns. Blogs.
GARGAGLIANO: And just finding readers.
CHINSKI: The end of cultural authority. That's something we talk about a lot at FSG. Reviews don't have the same impact that they used to. The one thing that really horrifies me and that seems to have happened within the last few years is that you can get a first novel on the cover of the New York Times Book Review, a long review in The New Yorker, a big profile somewhere, and it still doesn't translate into sales. Whereas six years ago, or some mythical time not that long ago, that was the battle—to get all that attention—and if you got it, you didn't necessarily have a best-seller, but you knew that you would cross a certain threshold. Whereas now you can get all of that and still not see the sales. I think that phenomenon is about the loss of cultural authority. There's just so much information out there now that people don't know who to listen to, except their friends, to figure out what to read. And that's the question we wrestle with the most. I think publishers have to communicate more directly with readers—that's the big barrier we're all trying to figure out. How much to use our websites to sell directly and talk to our readers directly?

So what are you doing to try to do that? What are you experimenting with?
CHINSKI: I can think of one thing. I mean, it's a small thing, but we recently started the FSG Reading Series uptown at the Russian Samovar. It's amazing. It's actually turned into a kind of scene. The New York Observer and the New Yorker have written about it. And I mean "scene" in a good way. In all the ways that we were talking about before, what makes us most happy is when a book forges a community around itself. It's a small thing, but now if we can somehow bring that online, or expand it in some way, it will be a way for FSG as a name to mean something, which will mean that we have another way to bring our writers to readers. The names of publishers, notoriously, are not like "Sony" or other companies where the name means a whole lot to readers. It may mean something to reviewers or booksellers, but I think we all need to figure out ways to make our names mean something. That's another way to establish authority so that people become interested in the individual books. That's a big challenge, and there's no easy solution to it.

What else are you guys trying to do, beyond the hand-written notes and the bigmouth mailings? What are you lying awake at night thinking about doing for this novel you're publishing that doesn't seem to be going anywhere?
BOUDREAUX: I pray that the people in our new media department who are supposed to be figuring out this problem are staying up late at night. That's what I think about as I roll around at night. And they are always coming up with things that I hope will work.
CHINSKI: And now we have this amplification system, supposedly—the Internet—which is supposed to amplify our ability to create word-of-mouth. But I don't think anybody's quite figured out exactly how to do that—or at least how to make it translate directly into sales. We all can see, in certain cases, our books being talked about a lot online. But what does that mean in terms of sales?
NASH: In our case, we've never really relied much on cultural authority, although we've certainly used it here and there. But for the most part, to the extent that we've been successful, it's been through the things that you're asking about. I check our Web metrics several times a week, whether it's Quantcast, Alexa, or Compete. These are places for measuring traffic. I try to figure out what the traffic is and what the demographics are. So I'm doing a lot of stuff that would probably make you want to shoot yourself.
BOUDREAUX: I'm glad you're doing it, though, so I can read about it in this article. Then I can call somebody and say, "You should do that! That's brilliant!"
NASH: One of your new media people, Amy Baker, was briefly involved with Soft Skull back in the day. She played on our street hockey team that was known as the Soft Skull Sandernistas, which was named after my predecessor. [Laughter.] But seriously, as Eric says, the Internet is amplified word-of-mouth. The things that are happening online are amplifying a process that's already in place. I mean, the genius of Oprah has never been her ratings. Her ratings aren't that spectacular compared to a lot of other shows. It's that Oprah connects to her audience in an intimate way, as if she were one of eight women who have lunch together every Tuesday. And that intensity of relationship—plus the fact that it is able to occur on a reasonably broad scale—is her genius. So what you do is go looking around the world for people with a certain level of trust. Authority, in a certain sense, has been partially replaced by trust. Part of what you can call "trust" today is the remnants of authority. People "trust" the New York Times.
CHINSKI: And people trust their friends.
NASH: Exactly. People trust Liesl Schillinger. People trust Ed Champion. Or they hate them. And you're just trying to get your stuff to people who are trusted. In my case that involves doing it myself, in a lot of cases.
GARGAGLIANO: This is one of the things that I get most frustrated by, partly because I didn't care about book reviews when I wasn't in publishing. I would never read the New York Times Book Review. I just wanted to walk into a bookstore and find something. But people don't do that anymore. People aren't interested in the community of books. So it's finding the niche markets. I just published a book called The Wettest County in the World. It's a novel about the author's grandfather and granduncles, who ran a bootlegging ring during Prohibition. It's amazing. And we've gotten IndieBound, we've gotten lots of things for it, and it's gotten amazing reviews. But the sales aren't going to happen on that alone. So I've been mailing it to bloggers who have beer blogs and whiskey blogs, and bourbon drinkers, and distilleries. I'm trying to find the niche market. I think that's the way things are going. I think that kind of thinking is much more exciting—you're more likely to find the readers who are interested—but publishers aren't set up to find niche markets for every single book.
BOUDREAUX: That's the thing. Do you do the whiskey mailing and then the beer mailing and this mailing and that mailing? It seems like there aren't enough hours in the day and there isn't enough staff—the Amy Bakers of the world—to do that.
NASH: That's where the writer needs to come into it. And interns. That's one of the ways in which interns can be so valuable. That's great work for them to do—a Technorati blog search on whatever. It's not hugely difficult, and it's kind of interesting.
GARGAGLIANO: It can also be useful for books down the line.
CHINSKI: That raises an interesting thing for writers to consider. I mean, how many times have we all heard that a certain book is going to appeal to this audience, that audience, and everybody else in the world? You just know that it's not true. But if you can go really deep into one community, you might sell ten thousand copies of a first novel, which most first novels never sell—at least the ones that are supposedly going to appeal to everyone. I don't think novelists should spend too much time worrying about who their audience is, but it's something to consider. I just think that line—"This book is going to appeal to everybody because it's about love or family or whatever"—doesn't work. I think the author and the publisher need to think more specifically. If you could sell one book to everybody on two city blocks in New York, you'd probably be selling more copies of that book than we do of the ones we just send out into the world and hope are going to sell magically. But how do you reach everybody on those two city blocks in New York and get them to buy the book? That's the task, metaphorically, that so many of us are facing: how to get to them and make them believe us. Because at the end of the day we're companies, and all of those people online who are talking to each other aren't necessarily going to believe that we have their best interests at heart. They'll think we're advertising to them through other means. So we have to establish a certain amount of trust with readers, not just as companies but as people who also love books in the same way they do. Again, it's a small thing, but the idea behind the Samovar reading series—not that it's a totally new idea—is that the editors at FSG love books, and you guys love books, so let's get together. And it's not just about trying to sell our books to you.
NASH: One of the things that that accomplishes that may not be obvious from the get-go is transparency. You're putting yourself out in the world and exposing yourself in a way—making yourself vulnerable. I have never understood why the staffs of publishing houses are invisible to readers, who are ultimately the people who pay our salaries. I mean, my wife is a corporate lawyer, and her photo and bio are on her firm's website. Book publishers just refuse to allow their staff visibility to the world. If Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Whatever are willing to allow all the partners' and associates' photographs and bios to be seen by the world, what about publishing is so important that we can't be allowed to be seen? I know that part of it is that we don't want authors bugging us too much. But I think that's part of what the Samovar reading series accomplishes: a certain willingness to participate.

Just in the space of your careers so far, what has been the most destructive new thing that's come about in the industry?
NASH: It's technology. It's been both constructive and destructive at the same time.
CHINSKI: So do you think e-books have been both?
NASH: E-books are one of the last ways in which technology is playing itself out. One of the first ways was desktop publishing. Another way that's been more incremental is the ability of digital printing to be commensurate with offset printing and for various machines to flatten the economies of scale. But, yeah, the ability to satisfactorily download a book digitally is turning out to be one of the last things that technology is accomplishing. I guess the other thing is just the capacity of e-mail and the Web—the social Web, in particular—to flatten communication. And it's all simultaneously destructive and constructive. It's destroying cultural authority but it's enhancing one's ability to cost-effectively reach individuals who might have other kinds of cultural authority. It's lowering barriers to entry, which is constructive because new presses can come along. BookScan is based on technology and has constructive and destructive components. The kind of supply-chain inventory management that Baker & Taylor and Ingram are doing, where they can now say to us, "We only need two months' worth of inventory; we don't need four months of inventory," is destructive because my working capital needs go up by 20 percent on that one phenomenon alone, but it's good in that I can actually see Ingram's demand building and respond to it. If I see big Ingram demand in the month before I publish something, I can say to myself, "I'm going to print advance orders plus two thousand as opposed to advance orders plus five hundred." So it's fucking me and helping me at the same time.
CHINSKI: I agree with Richard. Obviously a lot of things are changing right now, and some of them make things a lot more difficult, but they also—and I don't mean to sound like a Pollyanna—offer some opportunities. I'm always really wary of the sky-is-falling thing, this idea that we're at the end right now.
GARGAGLIANO: We're just at a place where we have to reinvent ourselves, and we haven't figured out how to do that yet. People have started reading in this other way that I don't understand because I don't read that way. But it's our job to figure out how they're reading, and then to figure out how to deliver something they want to read.
CHINSKI: Are you reading on a Sony Reader?
GARGAGLIANO: Yes, and I love it. It's the best thing ever.
CHINSKI: I'm still adjusting to it. We just got them in the last few weeks. On one hand it's great. On the other hand, I still want to write in the margins and it's hard to go back and forth and figure out where you are in a manuscript. I actually physically find myself reaching to turn the page.
GARGAGLIANO: I do that all the time. It's really disturbing!
CHINSKI: Your brain gets tricked into thinking you're actually reading a page. But on the other hand, as I was saying, it's great, and we're seeing sales of books.... I mean, I saw something recently about the Kindle. People who have a Kindle are actually buying more books. So on one hand, it scares the shit out of me that people are reading on Kindles and Sony Readers. But on the other hand—
CHINSKI: For no reason other than that it's different.
GARGAGLIANO: I think it's so exciting.
CHINSKI: That's what I mean. It's also really exciting. It will bring a lot more people into reading. And this younger generation is so used to reading online that it doesn't really matter. It doesn't mean the death of literature.
BOUDREAUX: I was amazed at how quickly we all got used to the Sony Reader. It's still a little different from an actual book. But when I first got into publishing I remember reading a manuscript, instead of a finished book, and feeling like it seemed to lack a certain presentational authority. It took me a minute to take a manuscript seriously. It will be the same way with the Sony Reader. But, my God, we've all adapted in a period of months? Imagine the twenty-year-olds who are reading everything online all the time and switching back and forth among seven screens that are open all the time. The notion of not reading that way must seem odd to them.
GARGAGLIANO: I think that in several years the book object is going to be more beautiful and more precious.
BOUDREAUX: It's going to be like vinyl records.

Reader Comments

  • Victoria Mixon says...

    Once again, I am simply blown away by Ferrari-Adler's insight into the current publishing industry and ability to bring out the smarts and enthusiasm in the best agents and publishers. I work every day with writers just breaking into publishing, and there's so much confusion and anxiety and unhappiness about what's going on and how publishing has changed in recent decades. I never stop recommending to them Ferrari-Adler's P&W interviews.

  • abinks says...

    My first novel "The Summer Between" will be released this Spring by Nightwood Editions and I am busy editing my second novel for what may be the hundredth time. I feel I have finally taken the curse off it and arrived at a very resonant place. It's like when you were a kid, or even as an adult, and you wet your finger and circled the rim of a wine glass until it hummed. The language in the previous draft was attempting to be clever, and could have been effective in another story, but it just didn't ring true. I never got the sense that there was someone telling me the story. When I finally started the painful process of taking away, that glass started to hum. It didn't happen until page 100, about a third of the way through, so I have worked through this draft and returned to page one with my machete! During this process I never thought in terms of how many pages I could get through in a day; I sometimes spent hours on a sentence or paragraph. For the first time I could look at a paragraph and say it was damn good. All the best to all. Persevere and you'll know when it is right. Thank you.

  • Andy B. says...

    "A refreshing firehose of a roundtable, followed by spirited towel-snapping." Many thanks to Richard Nash, Lee Boudreaux, Alexis Gargagliano and Eric Chinski, and to Jofie F-A for bringing them all together. I learned much in a hurry, without the usual painful side effects. - AB

  • jonathanmendelsohn says...

    Tonight I went to a little club. A colleague was playing guitar, singing some songs he wrote. He'd made flyers. Asked all of us at work to come. Three of us came. Three. Thats's how many people were in the audience. But this colleague, who is shiny head bald and nearly 60, who wears circle frame glasses and seems rather reserved, downtrodden at work, he came alive onstage. He had soul on stage. Personality. And even though he was so desperately - how could he not be? - dissapointed in the turnout he gave me a kind of hope. So did reading about the passion these four put in their work. It's just heartening to know. When junk food TV and internet are everywhere and you are staying up late, after long days, trying to finish that first novel, it's good to know there are people who, if it were good enough, care to read it. Thank you.

  • sesgaia says...

    This article/interview is so timely for me. Having completed what I know to be a "well-crafted but (somewhat) tame" novel, I've sent it to agents despite my lurking belief that it needs to go to the next level, wondering or hoping if perhaps an agent or editor would be willing to help me figure out how to get it there. Still, instead of just waiting for that slim chance, I've begun a new novel- one that I am risking all for. The first time around, my courage went into seeing if I could write a novel in terms of sheer craft. Ok- been there, done that. Now, as I write the next one, I can direct my courage toward what it is I really want to say. As someone pointed out to me- "You've had the singing lessons, done the scales. Time to get out there and sing."

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