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

How do you feel that the consolidation of publishers has affected being a writer today?
KLEINMAN: It's totally a drag.
ZUCKERBROT: As an agent, you have fewer places to submit. It's supposed to be about competition. But if you go to Penguin, only one imprint can bid. At Simon & Schuster there's a house bid.
BARER: At Random House they can bid but they can't be bidding against just each other.
KLEINMAN: It's not just that, it's the loss of personalities.
BARER: They all used to have such distinctive personalities.
ZUCKERBROT: And now every house has like twenty-five imprints. The editors have their own personalities and their own styles, but sometimes I can't differentiate which houses want what because there's so much crossover. After a while, they lose their identities. What's the difference between Imprint A and Imprint B?
KLEINMAN: It's so insane when you go to these various imprints that sound so similar—they're doing the same kinds of books—and they say, "This isn't the kind of book we publish. This isn't right for our list." You're like, "Dudes, your lists are all generic now. What are you talking about?" You don't always get that, but sometimes you do.
BARER: Look at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I love HMH. But I loved being able to go to both of them because I felt like they had distinct flavors.
ZUCKERBROT: It goes back to what an agent can do with your book, and how to place it. That's where it hurts writers.
BARER: Here is what kills me: Everybody is looking for a big book. Nobody wants to take the chance on a kind of unknown, odd debut novel that maybe you don't pay a lot for. Even the houses that you used to think of, now they read the book and say, "We're not sure we could get out fifteen thousand copies, and if we can't do that, we don't really want to do it." It's like, how do you know you can't get out fifteen thousand unless you buy the book and convince yourself to try? They want a sure thing.
KLEINMAN: But you don't know who the market is, you don't know how to position this thing, you don't know how to sell it to somebody. It's a commodity.
BARER: But I also think it's about the fact that every publisher wants a book that everybody reads. And when we're talking about fiction, it's impossible to know.
KLEINMAN: No. They just want books for which you can clearly delineate the market. It has nothing to do with everybody.
BARER: But I'm talking about literary fiction where maybe...I'll give you an example. Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite books of the last decade. I must have recommended that book to at least fifty people, half of whom were like, "You're right, this is one of the best books I've ever read," and half of whom were like, "You're fucking crazy. I don't get it. It's weird. What is this book supposed to be? Is it science fiction?" If that was a debut novel, if it wasn't Ishiguro, and I had said to a publisher, "Here's a book that some people are going to love and some people are going to think is fucking weird," it's possible that a publisher would have said, "We're looking for something that everybody's going to love. We want a book that has mass commercial appeal." That is not that book, and the times when publishers are willing to take chances on those books are fewer and farther between.
LAZAR: It's true. But I think one of the reasons why agents exist is that after a while, fingers crossed, you get to a point where something like that can be a big book because you say so. "Because I say this is a big book, this is a big book." Even if it's weird. Look what Eric Simonoff did for The Gargoyle. Whether or not it sold well, he said, "This is a big book," and it was.
ZUCKERBROT: If Nicole Aragi says, "This is a big book," you don't think editors sit up and listen?
BARER: Now we've just convinced all these writers to send their books to Nicole and Eric instead of us!
ZUCKERBROT: Everyone already knows who they are.

That's an interesting point. How do you guys compete with people who have been around longer?
LAZAR: I compete. I either lose the author or I win them over with my enthusiasm, my speed, my ideas for their book, and the books I've done that I can point to.
BARER: I am so picky about what I take on. I really don't take on a lot of stuff. So if I am so crazy about a book that I want to take it on, somewhere deep inside of me I believe that it's not possible for somebody else to be as crazy about it as I am. So you will never have as passionate an agent as you will have in me.
ZUCKERBROT: But you also talk to them about your vision for the book.
BARER: You do a lot of editorial work with them.
LAZAR: You give free notes.
ZUCKERBROT: And sometimes you lose.
BARER: Sometimes it works against you. Some writers don't want those notes. I have lost books where I have said, "Here's what this book needs. I know exactly how to take it to the next level."
LAZAR: Then you know what? You would not have been the right agent. For example, when I read The Art of Racing in the Rain, I admired it very much but I thought it needed a little more x, y, z, let's say. I remember writing a very nice note to Garth and saying, "This is very impressive, but blah blah blah." Well, the next thing you know, some other motherfucker sells it for $1.25 million the way it was. [Laughter.]
KLEINMAN: Call me a mofo.
LAZAR: Okay, a mofo. If I had taken that book on the way it was, I either would have put him through editorial hell or I would have sent it out the way it was and maybe—not intentionally—underpitched it and if someone tried to preempt it for, you know, a hundred thousand dollars, I would have been grateful.
KLEINMAN: You want to know how I handled that, just because I think it's kind of interesting? I read the first fifty pages and knew exactly what was wrong with the book. I called him and said, "Here's what you need to do to fix it." He said, "Do you want to see the rest?" I was like, "No. There's no point. I know you have to fix this first." He was like, "Yeah, you're right. I see exactly what you mean." All I can say is, I don't feel like I'm competing against other agents.
BARER: You never feel like you're competing against them?
KLEINMAN: I don't want to think about it like that. I feel like I've got to have a relationship with the author, and it's me and the author.
BARER: Do you ever lose things?
KLEINMAN: Constantly.

Do the rest of you feel competitive?
LAZAR: I feel competitive with a certain pool of agents.
BARER: I feel competitive all the time. But some of the people I compete with the most are the people I admire the most. So when they get a book that I really wanted, I feel validated and really happy for them. But it's impossible to not feel competitive in this industry.
KLEINMAN: What I hate is when you don't know if something is out with other people. I had this woman, and I should have known that she had her book out with other agents. I wrote her this nice rejection letter, gave her my comments, and thought I was sort of done. Then she calls me up and we have a conversation about the freaking book. Then we meet at some conference and I talk to her about the book. She implements everything and sends me the book, and a week later I get, "I have an offer of representation."
ZUCKERBROT: But maybe she was taking comments from a whole bunch of agents.
KLEINMAN: Probably.
ZUCKERBROT: And you could have asked her.
KLEINMAN: Oh, yeah, I totally should have. But I don't think about it.
BARER: You don't have to give exclusives to agents, but you have to be up-front and say, "Other people have this."
ZUCKERBROT: I hate it when I'm in the middle of reading something and somebody e-mails me and says, "I just want to let you know that I've received an offer of representation and I'm taking it."
BARER: Yeah, kiss my ass! Thanks so much for giving me an opportunity! But I think it's okay to say, "I've gotten an offer, I'm considering it, and I'd love for you to read it as soon as possible and let me know."
ZUCKERBROT: That's the way to do it.
BARER: There's no clock on this. If one agent offers you representation, and you have the book out with other people, that offer, if it's genuine, will not evaporate. Take your time. Ask questions. Give other agents a chance. Don't jump at the first guy who offers you a ring.
ZUCKERBROT: But they get scared. The other thing to remember is that you're hiring an agent to work for you. It's been flipped in such an odd way. You have all these writers who are so desperate. But the truth of the matter is, they're hiring us to work for them.
KLEINMAN: So much of it's about responsiveness. My favorite story is about this book I got from a doctor in San Francisco. He'd written this novel. He sent it to me on a Wednesday, and I was doing the whole "I'm going to be an important literary person" thing and I thought, "I'll read it on my at-home reading day on Friday." So I took it home on Friday and read the book and totally loved it. I called the author and said, "I would love to represent you." He said, "Well, Elaine Koster just offered representation, and I'm going to go with her."
LAZAR: Oh, man.
BARER: Not even a conversation.
KLEINMAN: The book was called The Kite Runner. [Extended whooping and laughter.] And I think he did absolutely the right thing. She was totally on the ball.
LAZAR: You lost The Kite Runner? I lost The Art of Racing in the Rain, but you lost The Kite Runner? That trumps everything.
KLEINMAN: The point is, I think so much of this business is egotistical agents who make writers wait.
BARER: But you weren't making him wait.
KLEINMAN: I totally did. I was like, "I'll read it on Friday."
ZUCKERBROT: But that's only forty-eight hours!
LAZAR: You know what? Thank God for those agents who make people wait. Because then we have an advantage. We're faster.

What should writers know about agents that they don't know?
ZUCKERBROT: We're human.
KLEINMAN: Nooooo.
LAZAR: Don't tell them that.
ZUCKERBROT: We're overworked like everyone else?
BARER: We're subjective readers.
ZUCKERBROT: We're basically decent people who are just overwhelmed with submissions. What I always hear is, "Agents never get back to me. They don't do this, they don't do that."
BARER: I had 175 e-mails today. I just can't humanly get back to everybody in one day!
ZUCKERBROT: We're always looking for new writers, but our priority is our existing clients. It's a balance between taking care of our existing clients and finding new writers.
KLEINMAN: I have two things to say. First of all, I think all agents are sheep. I think they all follow the herd. They're subjective, but they're subjective within a limited vocabulary. They want to do certain kinds of things. So if they do commercial fiction, they like the same kind of commercial fiction. Because they know it sells. So that's the first thing—agents are sheep. And the second thing...crap, I had this really good second thing and now I can't remember what it is. Forget it, there's only one thing.

What about you, Dan?
LAZAR: I'm so irritated by what he just said that I can't think of anything.
BARER: I have to agree. I think that's so wrong. I'm not a sheep.
ZUCKERBROT: Maybe a lemming.
BARER: I'm not a sheep or a lemming!
KLEINMAN: I just remembered the other thing. I think agents are absolutely no busier than any other human being in modern times. So Julie got 175 e-mails today. I'll bet you most first-year lawyers get 175 e-mails a day. I honestly think it's a job like everybody else's—it just may take a little longer than others.
BARER: I'm not complaining about the fact that I get 175 e-mails a day. But I do want to speak to the busyness. Just because it may take me two or three days longer than another agent to read your material doesn't necessarily mean that I won't be the best agent once I read it and fall in love with it.
KLEINMAN: I actually agree. Because you could have a bad agent read it fast.
BARER: Absolutely.
KLEINMAN: However, I think responsiveness is important. I think there's a huge problem in this business because the balance is so shifted. I have gone out to lunch with big agents and felt like we had to order for three—me, the agent, and the agent's ego.
BARER: But to me it's not about ego. To me it's that I want to give all my clients everything I have. I spend my day giving my clients as much attention as they need. Which means that it's harder to find the time for new writers.
LAZAR: It's also supply and demand. There are just a lot more writers out there who need agents than there are agents.
BARER: But the thing is, I'm always looking for new writers, and I want to represent new clients, but I really want to take care of the clients I've already made a commitment to. So if I have a client who calls me and is having a meltdown because they're stuck in Arizona or something or they can't finish a chapter....
LAZAR: What are you, a travel agent?
BARER: Yes! I am shrink and mom and lawyer and editor and marriage counselor. There are days when I spend five hours handling problems for somebody.
KLEINMAN: I think that's a woman thing. I don't feel like I do that at all.
BARER: That is 50 percent of my job.
LAZAR: That's a dangerous thing to say: "I think that's a woman thing."
ZUCKERBROT: You don't get calls from clients who say, "My husband's left me," or "Oh my God, my house burned down"?
BARER: "I'm stuck on this chapter and my kid's in school now and I think that's part of what's making it so hard"? My job is to help them get through that.
LAZAR: You do become sort of an amateur therapist and an amateur financial advisor.

What is getting harder about your job?
BARER: Selling books. Selling good literary fiction is getting harder.
ZUCKERBROT: BookScan. If you have a literary writer with great reviews, but the sales aren't going in the right direction, it's really tough. The editor punches in the ISBN and there's the sales history. It's really tough if the writer's third book hasn't taken off.

So what are you guys doing, or trying to do, for writers who find themselves in that situation?
KLEINMAN: This is why we have people on staff. We have a marketing person and a lecture person. I think it's really important for people in this business to be thinking outside the box. I really feel like so many of these agents are dinosaurs. They have a model that works for them because they have a huge backlist. Those backlist books keep selling, and that's the way they work. But I don't think that's going to work in ten years. I think you have to be thinking of other ways of doing it. One of them, for instance, is speaking. People are speaking in different kinds of venues and selling books. The question is, How can you get those books tracked through BookScan? But there are answers to that kind of thing.
BARER: I think it's important to think carefully about what the next book is. I often say to my writers, "What are you thinking about writing next, and why?"
KLEINMAN: But that's still passive.
BARER: I disagree. I've had writers who had first books that didn't perform extraordinarily well hand me fifty or one hundred pages of their second novel and I've said to them, "This will not break you out. I can sell this book. It will keep you in the midlist, but it will not help your career. Put this book aside and start something else." And they have.
KLEINMAN: Can I ask a question here? I want to figure out how to change the dynamics of the power. Because no matter how you're doing it, it's, "Okay, write another book." It's always us saying to the publisher, "Please get that co-op." It's all about distribution. And we are powerless.
LAZAR: We aren't powerless. But we can't do everybody's job. If that were the case, then I should just quit being an agent and become a publisher and do it myself. Which I'm not going to do, because I don't know how to do it.
KLEINMAN: If you do, can I come work for you?
LAZAR: No.
KLEINMAN: He means that in a nice way. But to me a lot of it has to be a question of shifting the power and figuring out what the publisher can do really well and how we can get them to focus on the stuff they do really well. And the stuff that they can do really well and we can't is distribution and co-op and getting those books into stores.
LAZAR: And they can do it aggressively and excitedly when they have a book that's exciting. I think Julie's point is a good one. I had an author whose first book, without going into too many details, just tanked. It probably sold less than a thousand copies. We had a long, long talk, and she's really smart, and she changed her new book around. She got a new idea. She looked at books that were working and changed the way she constructed her second novel. And if that first book sold under a thousand copies, the new one isn't going to sell a million copies, but it's probably selling between five and ten thousand copies. Which is a step in the right direction.
BARER: It can sound really crass to talk in those kinds of terms. Sometimes I'll meet writers and they'll say, "Well, you're not talking about the craft, you're talking about the commercial aspect." No, I'm talking about both. If you're a really strong writer, then you should be able to really think about story. What story is going to appeal to a large number of people and what story is going to appeal to five people? The books that don't work these days are those wonderful little books that I loved in the eighties—those very quiet, introspective, interior, family coming-of-age books. I loved those books. But they just don't work anymore.

What is the worst part of your job?
LAZAR: Rejection on a book you love. When no one can see how brilliant you are. You think, "This book is brilliant and I'm brilliant for loving it," but nobody agrees.
KLEINMAN: For me it's getting fired. I've been fired by two authors so far, and I will never, ever forget it.
BARER: I would say that not being able to sell a book and having a book that you've spent two years editing, selling, and publishing die upon publication are equally horrible experiences. The other thing that writers may not realize about agents is that I lie awake in bed at night and I think about the books I couldn't sell or the books I sold that didn't work and it's all I can do not to cry myself to sleep. It hurts us as much as it hurts them.
ZUCKERBROT: And you do postmortems. I sometimes think, "Why doesn't everybody see this book's brilliance? Did I somehow not do my job selling it?"
BARER: "Did I let the author down? Was there another editor I could have tried?"
ZUCKERBROT: "Did I go to the wrong editor at this house?"

What's the best part about your job?
ZUCKERBROT: Discovering a great new voice and having lots of editors want to buy the book and then making a great deal. That's really what it's all about.
BARER: I have to agree. I think the first part is the greatest part of the job. When you finish a book and think, "Oh. My. God. This book is so amazing, and right now I am one of the few people in the world who knows how incredible it is, and pretty soon everybody will know. And I will help make that happen." But nothing comes close to calling a writer and saying, "Your book is going to be published."
LAZAR: Selling the book that you've had a hard time selling, and then having it work. Calling the author is really cool too. Their reactions are so funny because they range from dumbfounded silence to screaming in your ear. I'm like, "I'm not fucking kidding you, I'm not fucking kidding you." One of the absolute coolest things is being on the subway and seeing someone reading one of your books.
KLEINMAN: I like plotting. I love the whole process that you're all talking about, but I also love when you're sitting down with this team of people and coming up with these plans, and you're thinking it through, and you feel like you're all working together. That's really cool.
BARER: Acknowledgments! I love the acknowledgments! I love going to a bookstore and being like, "Look, there's my name!"
LAZAR: Authors should always do that. When I get a finished copy of a book and it doesn't have acknowledgments, I don't feel bad, but it feels much better when you get acknowledged.

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.

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