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

Tell me some common problems that you see in the work of beginning writers.
ZUCKERBROT: In a lot of cases, the story just sort of wanders off. You can say, "Well, there's great dialogue. There's great this or that." But if there's no real story anchoring it, who really cares, at the end of the day? You can have great characters, you can have interesting ideas, but there needs to be some narrative momentum, some narrative thrust.
LAZAR: I would say to start the story where the story starts. So often, the story doesn't actually start until page five. Sometimes it doesn't start until page fifty, but page five can be just as bad. As a reader, you just don't get that far.
KLEINMAN: The big problem I see is that people don't spend enough time with their books before they send them to agents. People are way too focused on getting published and not focused enough on really working on their craft.
BARER: You should revise it, and then you should put it away, and then you should revise it again. If you're going to come back to me in three months and say, "I have a better version that you should look at," then you should not have sent it to me in the first place. It's amazing how many people do that.
KLEINMAN: Or they say, "I knew there was something wrong and I was hoping you wouldn't notice."
ZUCKERBROT: I get those queries that say, "I just finished my novel...." And I think, "Well, now you need to write it three more times."
BARER: Keep working on it for another year. Show it to everybody but me.

Talk to me about your ideal client.
BARER: I think an ideal client is somebody who is obviously an incredibly gifted writer who also understands that, these days, being a writer is more than just writing a book. A writer who is willing to participate in the publication. Brainstorming. Working with their publicist. Working with their marketing department. Getting themselves out there. Using their connections. It's hard because I think a lot of writers happen to be introverts who are shy and kind of just want to be left alone to sit at their desks in solitude. I think it's somewhat unfair that the business has changed so much and that we now rely on them. But we do. And, truthfully, the writers who are the most successful sometimes are the ones who are really willing to be a part of the business aspect of it.
ZUCKERBROT: It's a business.
KLEINMAN: I would go a step further, or several steps further. I think it's not just the author who's really well connected—it's the author who's so well connected that he's sleeping with a producer at ABC News or something.
ZUCKERBROT: You have to get out there. Now is not the time to sit at home and catch up on Sopranos reruns. If you have a high school reunion or anything where you can spread the word about your book, get out there.
BARER: If you've written a book, you should want people to buy it.
ZUCKERBROT: From reading Publishers Weekly and Mediabistro and all the newsletters we get, it seems to me that people are still looking for the magic bullet. It's not Twittering. It's not videos for books. It's not whatever the latest trend is. So a lot of that falls on the shoulders of the author.
KLEINMAN: I want somebody who's well connected and whose subject matter appeals to a specific audience.
BARER: And you have to think about what that audience is and then say to yourself, "Okay, I've written a memoir about my mentally ill son. Now I'm going to write an op-ed piece about what happens when you're poor and a single mother and the state fails you, and then I'm going to write a Modern Love column about how I met my husband and how I should have seen the signs that he was also mentally ill but I missed it and then I realized it when my son became mentally ill...."
LAZAR: This is a real client?
BARER: Yeah!
KLEINMAN: This is her life she's telling you about. Her life.
BARER: My life. But yeah, this is a client, and she's doing all of those things. She's saying, "I want to do outreach to the mental health community."
KLEINMAN: But that's a memoir. The issue is novels.
BARER: But even novels. Look at The Heretic's Daughter. The author was like, "I'm going to reach out to genealogical websites. This is a story about my ancestor and I'm going to reach out to all these places." And her publicist and online people were amazing at helping her.
LAZAR: See, that's the thing about these kinds of books. As much as an author can do, you've also got to have Little, Brown paying a million dollars for the book and having everybody focused on it.
BARER: Yes. That is absolutely true.
LAZAR: An author who really hustles can sell maybe five thousand copies on their own. But you don't have a best-seller that everybody's talking about without having a publisher who's really throwing down. And they start throwing down by paying for it. Look at a lot of the books that work in a really big way.
BARER: You need the in-house support. Whether they paid five thousand dollars or five hundred thousand dollars, you need the whole company behind it.
ZUCKERBROT: It starts with the editor.
BARER: It starts with the editor. You need to have an editor who has passion, you need to have a publisher who's behind the editor, you need to have a sales force that loves the book, and you need a publicist who really decides to put their reputation on the line for the book. Without that entire team support, it's incredibly hard.
LAZAR: Can I clarify something? I'm not saying a book needs a million dollars. When I say a million dollars, I'm pulling a number out of the air, even though it's not so out of the ordinary these days. I've never sold a book for a million dollars. [Author's Note: This conversation took place two weeks before Lazar sold Anne Fortier's novel Juliet to Ballantine for seven figures.] But you hear about these books—Jeff—that sell for a million dollars. [Whooping. Laughter.] And that's how you focus people. Unless you're an Algonquin and you're smaller and more nimble and you can get the independent booksellers behind a book. Did anybody read that long article about what they did for Water for Elephants? They didn't pay a lot of money for that book—actually, for them they paid a lot of money—but they made a concerted effort that a larger house usually wouldn't make unless they paid five hundred or a million.
BARER: It's not so much the money, it's whether or not the house decides, "We are really putting all our energy behind this book. When we go out to lunch with [New York Times book critic] Dwight Garner or People magazine, we are going to talk about this book."

But that usually only happens for a few people a season at a house.
LAZAR: Exactly. It's a lottery.

So what are the other people supposed to do?
LAZAR: They've got to hustle.

Give me specifics. Tell me what they're supposed to do.
BARER: In those situations, I end up on the phone with that author brainstorming our asses off. Using every connection I have. Calling the editor and asking who they know, who their friends are. Calling the publicist and saying, "Please, we've got to come up with something."
ZUCKERBROT: You can do a bigmouth mailing on your own.
BARER: You send an e-mail to every friend and family member in your address book and say, "Help this book out."
KLEINMAN: At Folio we have a marketing director, and this is what she does for a living. But even then, there are certain titles for which there's nothing she can do. There's just nowhere to get a toehold. As opposed to books where you can say, "Okay. We have a clearly designated market for this novel, and we can clearly go after x."
LAZAR: Is there a book that she did that especially well for?
KLEINMAN: Yes. She worked on this Civil War novel I sold, Widow of the South, when it came out in paperback. She went and got a mailing list of five thousand Civil War groups and we sent them postcards and e-mails. Who knew there were five thousand Civil War groups? The point is, if you can figure out who the market is, you can go after them in a systematic way.
ZUCKERBROT: But sometimes publishers do that.
KLEINMAN: Publishers don't do that. Publishers never do that.
ZUCKERBROT: Okay, maybe not five thousand.
KLEINMAN: They're way too busy. They're going to pay for the co-op and everything else, but they're not going to do specific, grassroots marketing. They just can't. But the main point is that you've got to get a grasp on the audience for a book.
BARER: But that can be hard for literary fiction. Sometimes you have a literary novel that doesn't have a specific audience.
ZUCKERBROT: That's where the independent bookstores are still so valuable, even though there aren't as many.
BARER: But here's the thing. I am the biggest lover of independents ever. I worked in an independent bookstore. Toby and the people at my local independent bookstore, Three Lives, hand-sold Joshua Ferris's novel like nobody's business. But at the end of the day, there's a limit to the amount of stock that they are physically able to move. I think the ABA and IndieBound are amazing, and they're looking for ways to build their presence and be a powerful force, but I think it's still in development. They aren't always able to move the same number of copies as a B&N Recommends pick. Unfortunately. I think they should. I think more people should be giving them business. Can I get up on a little bit of a pedestal for a minute? This is something I say at every writers conference I attend. If you're a writer and you want to be published, go out and buy a hardcover debut novel and short-story collection tomorrow. And next month, do it again. Buy one every freaking month. Because if you want to be published and you want people to buy your books, and you are not out there supporting fiction and debut authors, you are the biggest hypocrite in the world and I don't know who you think you are. I mean, come on, people!
ZUCKERBROT: But when you're talking about literary fiction—books that can't be boiled down to a sentence, and where you can't target a specific group—how do books like that find their audience? You're saying it's not independent bookstores anymore. Do you think reviews still play a part?
BARER: I think it's word-of-mouth. I think word-of-mouth does more than anything else.
ZUCKERBROT: But where is that word-of-mouth happening now? The Internet?
BARER: Everywhere. It has to be one of those books where everybody you know is talking about it, you see it everywhere you go, it's being reviewed on every Web site.
ZUCKERBROT: Exactly. And the publishers are asking, "How are we supposed to get that buzz going when there's so much noise and everyone is buzzing?"
KLEINMAN: You know what the answer is? The answer is the editor. I'm convinced that if you have a choice between an editor who is a great editor—who really understands fiction, how it works, how to shape it—versus an editor who is a cheerleader, I will always, from now on and forever afterward, take the cheerleader. For a long time I kept thinking, "It's so important to have an editor who can shape the book." I was such a moron.

But let's talk about what your authors are doing that's working. What are your authors teaching you about selling books today?
ZUCKERBROT: I have a client who everybody really likes. She's smart. She's thoughtful. She's genuinely nice. Across the board, wherever she goes, everyone just wants to support her. That's a huge part of it. You've got to be on your best behavior, even if you're in a crappy mood. Always write thank-you notes. Help other writers. I have another client who's like that too. So aside from being smart and writing something really terrific, I think you have to have people rooting for you.
BARER: I'm going to say something that I think will be really unpopular. It always surprises me when seemingly smart writers—I can't believe I'm saying this, it's probably because I'm drunk—who are obviously really talented choose the worst subject matter to write about. I want to say, "Look around you." I respect and understand that some writers don't like to look at other books while they're working on something. But think about who wants to read about this character. If you have spent four hundred pages writing about a deeply unsympathetic person, or an event that's already been written about ten times, or...I mean, the unlikable character thing is really hard for me to understand. If I don't like a character, why would I want to spend four hundred pages with them? Why would you write a whole book about them? Am I wrong about that?
LAZAR: No, not at all.
ZUCKERBROT: But there are some authors who you tell that to—"This character isn't likable"—and they think the character has redeeming qualities and is likable. I have an officemate who has this wonderful nonfiction writer who was working on his or her next book and picked some subject matter that was so obscure. The agent said, "Who is the audience for this?" The writer explained that he or she was really passionate about it. The agent said, "But who's supposed to read this? You may be passionate about it—"
BARER: But you do want people to buy the book.
ZUCKERBROT: Right. It's not that you have to write for your audience. But you have to keep your audience in mind. That's a distinction you have to make. Every once in a while I'll go to a writers conference and meet someone who says, "I don't read contemporary fiction." I think, "Next." I don't want to hear that you're mired in the classics. The classics are great. They're an amazing foundation to have. But if you are not reading what is being published today, and what is selling, who are you writing for?
KLEINMAN: It just depends on what you want as a writer. If you want to write literary fiction that's beautifully done but will be published by a university press and won't get a big print run, then that's great. But don't come yelling at us because we can't sell something that's not commercial enough. I just think it's a different marketplace and a different kind of attitude.

I hear a lot of writers complain about how hard it is to get an agent. What do you guys think about that?
BARER: Try how hard it is to sell a book!
ZUCKERBROT: When you see a great query letter, or a book that's really great, it stands out from the pack. Everyone's all over it. Part of the problem is that most of the query letters we see are sort of generic sounding. People say, "I've written a book" but don't tell you anything about who they are. They don't list credentials. They don't have to have credentials, but they should just say, "This is my first novel." It's not easy, but just try to write a really smart and thoughtful letter. I always think about the people in all these writing groups who spend years working on something. Share your query letter with the people in your writing group. Does your letter interest them?
BARER: I would also say that the first twenty pages count more than anything. As an agent, you have a limited amount of time, and if those twenty pages don't blow you away...
ZUCKERBROT: And you get these people who say, "I enclose the first twenty pages, but it doesn't get good until page seventy." Wrong answer! I think, "Ditch pages one through sixty-nine." I can't send this to an editor and say, "Here's this really great novel, and it gets good on page seventy."
KLEINMAN: But on the other side of the coin, it feels like what people don't want to hear—readers, editors, agents—is that the premise has been done. Or that it's so bizarre that you can't figure out what to do with it. I'll give you an example. I went to this Web site for writers that I spend a lot of time on, and one writer had written a query letter about his book. The character is this guy who is sitting and trying to do something, and this client of his comes in, sits down, and blows her brains out in front of him. That's how the book starts. It's sort of interesting, but there's also this huge yuck factor. You're reading it and thinking, "Okay, I can't imagine calling up an editor and saying, ‘So, I have this really yucky book....'" This author is having a real problem selling the book. No agent wants to even look at it. So what's he doing wrong? According to everybody else, it's all about writing a great letter. And that's what he keeps doing: He's going back again and again and again to work on the letter and make the letter great. Dude, the problem is—
BARER: You have to think about the story.
KLEINMAN: Exactly.
BARER: Every once in a while I think you can transcend that. You'll have an author like Elizabeth McCracken who writes a memoir that sounds so devastating and yet she's so gifted and it's so well done.
KLEINMAN: But that's not even the same universe as what we're talking about. We're talking about first novelists.
BARER: That's right. You're right.
ZUCKERBROT: The thing is, I don't think there are any hard-and-fast rules. There are guidelines.
KLEINMAN: Do you think The Lovely Bones would have been published if it had been her first book?
ZUCKERBROT: I don't know what it looked like unedited, so it's hard to say. I only read the edited version. But I read it in bound galleys and I was hooked from the first sentence. I couldn't put it down.
KLEINMAN: Well, I so could put it down that I actually threw it out the window. I didn't even want it in the house with me.
BARER: I was a very bad judge of that book. I really liked it, but I thought, "This will be really hard to break out because it's so upsetting."
KLEINMAN: "I've got this great book about a dead nine-year-old girl."
BARER: It's so hard to say that to a woman. And let's just put it on the record right now that women buy fiction and men do not. Step up to the fucking plate, men out there, and start buying some fiction—I mean literary fiction—because otherwise we're all just going to keep that in mind when you're trying to get published. Show yourselves! Apparently, for some reason, they aren't. I don't know why. You have these incredibly talented young male writers like Ben Kunkel and Nat Rich who are publishing books, and where are the young men who should be buying them?
KLEINMAN: Totally playing video games, and I don't blame them.

Reader Comments

  • JAFO says...

    An incredible article. I'm certain the wine helped to open up these agents/owners/literary business people. I learned a great deal about literary agents from this article. They came across as open and honest in their responses. Some of those responses had me laughing out loud--not because I have any experience with being a literary agent, but rather because they were such human reactions; they reacted to questions the way my friends in business would react. It is a business after all. Cudos to the author of this article. His approach to this project was magnificent.

     

  • ejjjjder says...

    Thank you, i have read all of it takes 30 minutes completely and i liked this part very good. "I have a trick that works every time. I use it a lot, so I should probably retire it at this point. But I write in the subject line, "People who owe me a phone call." Then they open the jokes e-mail and number one is "The Pope." Number two is "Britney Spears." Number three is "You." Then I'll say, "If you can explain numbers one and two, that would be great, but I'll settle for number three. I'd love to hear from you." They always get back to me. [Laughter. Compliments.] It's good because it's a little passive-aggressive, but it's also polite.
    BARER: I know an agent who once sent an editor who wouldn't call the client a fake phone and phone card and a whole little package of messages. Like, "Hello? Pick up the phone!" It's just astonishing and insulting.

  • YianniD says...

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this conversation with the four agents. I learned a lot, especially as one who is currently looking for an agent for my first novel. However, I must strongly disagree with Barer's statement that men do not buy fiction. As a man, I can tell you I both buy and read fiction, and I know of other men who do the same. I also liked the discussion about technology, which I think is a great tool to use for marketing a book. I do not think that the printing of books will go away because of Kindle or Nook. I just think those mediums are another way to attract people to books. Both will continue into the future. Anyway, thanks again P&W for making this dialogue possible. It's nice to get a glimpse into the thoughts of agents, and it has helped me find at least two more agents I'll be sending my query letter to. Best!

  • downeyr says...

    @journalissimo I think that political correctness stuff is crap...didn't Kleinman say that he tried to buy 'The Kite Runner'...just because there's not an agent of color in this interview doesn't mean that writers of color are being shortchanged--on ande of the other agents in this interview said that they got sent a book dealing with Sri Lanka and she loved it. This doesn't sound like a group of people who look to reflect their own demographic.

  • journalissimo says...

    Very disappointing piece. Looks like every agent on this panel is white. Not one agent who happens to be a person of color in the bunch. Where are the HIspanic agents? Or Asian-American agents? It just gives one a good idea of why the industry is so bland these days, because the gatekeepers, like these four being interviewed, spend most of their time navel-gazing, picking out prospects who reflect their own demographic. PW, surely you can do a lot better than this.

  • greatpoobah says...

    Just read Jan/Feb issue and enjoyed the interview with the four young agent-turks, Barer, Kleinman, Lazar and Zuckerbrot. I found their comments candid and informative. How about a follow-up article with four aspiring writers, not anyone with an agent or who has been published, but four writers who have been struggling to land an agent? Maybe these four agents might learn something that would make them a little more understanding of those query letter writers, and in the end, better agents. I would love to be one of the four struggling writers.

  • mullenjd says...

    As I read the musings of The New Guard agents, an image formed in my brain where it remains today. It is no doubt unfair, and for that I apologize, but I relay it to you anyway on the theory that among your readers I am not alone. A small party of prepsters is sent, for reasons of minor miscreance, to the starving population of a remote and unfamiliar tribe. Their task? To distribute a steady albeit inadequate and dwindling supply of food. As they pinot-up each evening after five, they talk of how they select the lucky recipients, the few who depart that day with a cup of rice and a pint of powdered milk. Eventually the party formulates a list for the benefit of their charges, those for whom they are the agents of the new guard: "The ten things in the begging process that make an agent want to reject an entreaty immediately." John Mullen -- Gloucester, Massachusetts

  • RSMellette says...

    I just happen to be working on a screenplay about radio DJ's back when they actually got to choose the music they played and could champion new bands or new songs, and this article reminds me of that same symbiotic relationship. I suppose in all of the Arts there are the creators and the champions. Visual Artists have galleries. Play/screen writes have producers. Musicians have managers. Dancers have... whatever dancers have. And writers have agents. I'm sure one could find drafts of query letters from artists in the 16th century to potential patrons. Very little changes, even as it all goes digital. Speaking of the digital revolution - there is a great story of a screenwriter who got fed up with hearing about "The (Frank) Capra Touch" when he felt the director was taking too much credit for what his writers had created. This disgruntaled scribe is said to have put brads into 100 blank pages, tossed it on Carpa's desk and said, "Put your touch on that!" The same could be done for those touting digital. Toss them an empty ream of paper and say, "Turn that into ones and zeros." And has no one noticed that the main interface between computers and people is the written word? Maybe I have because I'm dyslexic.

  • little lord says...

    This was fun to read. I laughed out loud enough times that my three-year-old left the Island of Sodor to come drool on my Mac. Anyway, a few references were made to the music industry, and I don't think they should be left unturned. I am a lowly singer/songwriter, and the similarities I noticed are eerily familiar. It's not about the "next literary iPod," although I have run into a few passionate electronic book owners. Nor is the issue simple: writers need to not suck, and readers won't buy crap. But I think that these large publishing companies are doing the same kind of preliminary homogenizing that the big record companies did not too long ago. "Indie" houses, the smaller joints, are going to eventually eat the big fellas' lunches. The ingredients are all there - frustrated and underpaid writers, passionate agents who are tired of running between the talent and "the man," as well as editors who want to be part of something significant. All of whom would love to get paid. Sooner. Just some thoughts...

  • quiquepolo says...

    I find a lot of matters in this article useful and interesting in the sense that it really shows the way the world of literature is now a days. I don't generally write comments about articles because I feel they have no repercussion on the greater purpose, but I am just baffled at how blatant the market is. Literature is an ART and agents freely discuss how a writer should be willing to sell. Writing is not enough? Unawareness in the XXI century really lets me down. There is such a lack of understanding of the very essence of art from agents, who are supposed to understand it. Art lives though and it is not about selling or making millions, in fact the greatest stories are never published. Life itself is the greatest art and agents should realize that the greatest writers are not crazy about publishing, chances are they don’t even care much because they have a day job.

  • kristanhoffman says...

    I always enjoy these Q&As with editors and agents, but I especially appreciated hearing from a younger crowd this time, the kinds of people I (hopefully) would be working with soon. Naturally I found myself nodding in agreement to much of what they said, and cringing on occasion. I suppose it's comforting in a way to realize that they get us frustrated as we writers do -- although it can be disheartening at times as well... Ultimately, though, I agree with petetarslaw's comment about their passion. It's enough to make me a little less scared about sending my work to people like them, enough to give me a little more faith and hope.

  • petetarslaw says...

    This conversation may have taken place over Mexican takeout and wine. But listen to the passion here. The words. Fight. Love. Make me see things I'd never seen. Show me new worlds. These agents may indeed just sit at desks, checking emails, making phone calls. But they are devout members of a religious order. The Order of Books. Like wandering monks, like samurai, like holy fools passing through some Russian forest, these are men and women pledged entirely to a cause. Writing. And because of them, and those like them, the light of Literature has never gone out. And never will.

  • youfunnytoo says...

    On page two of this article, one of the agents describes quite clearly, and in very negative terms, the opening scene of an unpublished and unrepresented novel that he's heard about on some web forum. How is that ethical, either for the agent or for Poets & Writers?

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