One of the things that now distinguishes you is how quickly your submissions are read. That wasn’t always the case.
No, it was not. Agents don’t have magical powers. The truth is, editors are tremendously hungry for good books. The writer who’s outside of the business views the business as this fortress designed to keep him or her out. And in fact, what I see is an industry in which we want nothing more than to discover an amazing new voice. Who wouldn’t? If you actually have a great book, it matters who sends it out, because you want someone who understands the business, who has the best possible relationships, and who can negotiate the right deal for you as a client. But your book will get discovered regardless. It might just be a question of when.
That said, it’s much nicer to have things get read overnight than have to call three weeks later and say, “Hey, have you had a chance to read that book I sent you three weeks ago?”
How did you distinguish yourself from other agents at first? Was there ever a writer you really had to fight for?
I don’t recall going head to head all that often. I used to go visit the Iowa Writers’ Workshop every couple of years. The first time I went I was twenty-eight, and it was incredibly heady to get out of New York City and to arrive at this hotbed of literary creativity and competition.
Students would sign up to meet with a real live literary agent and talk about the state of the business and whether people buy short stories or not, and I would give a talk about the state of the business and what exactly it is literary agents do. One year I went and kept hearing this name, ZZ Packer. People kept saying, “Have you met ZZ Packer? You’ve got to meet ZZ Packer. Have you read ZZ Packer?”
And ZZ Packer did not come to my talk. ZZ Packer did not sign up for a meeting. And if she hadn’t attended a party for a writer who was in town reading at Prairie Lights, I never would have met ZZ Packer. But I finally met her and I said, “Oh my God, you’re ZZ Packer! You’re the person everyone keeps talking about. Can I read some of your stuff?”
She was surprised, and a little reluctant. Even after that, I had to chase her and say, “No, really, please, please send me anything you want to send me.” That was almost more of a challenge than being up against another young agent. She was just not thinking in those terms, which is also quaint when you think about it in this day and age. There are some writers who write one story and think, “Okay, time to get an agent.”
You were twenty-eight when you first went out there? What else had you accomplished by then?
I can’t remember if had accomplished anything by the time I was twenty-eight. [Laughs.] I do remember vowing when I was twenty-eight that I would have a New York Times bestseller by the time I was thirty.
Did that work out?
I did not, no. I can’t to this day tell you what my first New York Times bestseller was; I don’t remember. But that was the goal I set for myself, and failed at.
It’s funny, there was an Observer piece around that time, in which Nick Paumgarten, who’s now at The New Yorker, was tasked with writing about the up-and-coming young agents. I found it when I was moving offices four years ago, and was interested to note first of all what a good job he’d done picking the young agents of that day, and secondly how little I accomplished by the time I was twenty-eight.
You were among them?
Yes, but I hadn’t really done anything to merit being among them.
Who else was in that list?
The only person who isn’t a literary agent anymore is David Chalfant, but Sarah Chalfant, Kim Witherspoon, Sloan Harris, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh, Nicole Aragi, and me, I think.
Do you feel competitive with those people today?
I don’t, strangely enough.
Are there other people you feel competitive with?
I don’t think that way, I guess. In fact, many of those people are very, very close friends, and have been for years and years and years.
Did I feel competitive with them? I’d rather my books succeed, I’d rather WME’s books succeed, than anyone else’s books, insofar as I feel competitive.
Publishing is doing surprisingly well given all the reports of its demise, and yet I feel that it’s still challenged enough that any time there’s a great success story, it’s good for all of us. That mitigates the feelings of competition.
Did you set other goals for yourself after the bestseller deadline passed?
I don’t really remember. One thing that you learn by doing is what you’re good at, and what you’re not good at. It’s certainly possible to have beginner’s luck in certain categories. But part of the learning process, of maturing as an agent, is recognizing that there are certain categories that you’ll never really understand.
I remember having a lunch with Jennifer Enderlin when I was a young agent, and she was talking about how much she loved women’s fiction and romance. She undeniably has an eye for it, and it comes from genuine passion, love, and understanding of it. She can tell a good one from a bad one. And I realized I will never be able to tell a good one from a bad one. It’s not where my passion lies. I have huge admiration and respect for her, and still do, because she is really good at something I will ever be good at.
Was that a tough lesson to learn?
Sure. The complicated thing about commercial fiction, especially, is that there’s well written commercial fiction, which I get, and then there’s badly written commercial fiction, which I don’t get. I wish I got badly written commercial fiction. I wish I understood what made a badly written thriller a million-copy seller. But I don’t.
What other lessons did you learn as you were launching yourself?
I think as an agent you have to remember that you have many clients and they all have one agent.
Tell me more about that.
It’s a lonely job being a writer. Years ago, a client said to me, “You’re the only person I’ve spoken to today.” That was a very sobering moment, and I realized what a lifeline an agent can be to an author. I probably spoke to fifty people that day, and this client spoke to one person, and the one person he spoke to was his agent.
I’ve had clients say, “Five years ago you said something that really stayed with me,” and had them repeat that trenchant piece of advice back to me, and I thought, “Wow, that’s a really good piece of advice! I have no recollection of giving it to you, but I’m glad that it helped.”
You’re talking about the importance of the relationships between you and your authors.
Can you characterize the ideal relationship between author and agent?
Everybody’s different. There are some authors who are very clear about what they are looking for, and there are some authors who say, “I don’t need any hand-holding, I don’t need any therapy, I just want you to go out and kill for me and get the best deal possible.” And then there are authors who need a lot of editorial give-and-take, need to contextualize where their work fits into their personal lives, need to know that you know when to give them a pep talk, and when to let them down easy.
When authors are picking an agent, it’s easy to be dazzled by a big name, whereas in many cases, the bright, sharp up-and-coming agent—especially if he or she has the support of a mentor—understands the work better, understands the writer better, can kill for the writer, can devote more hours of the day to the writer, and might be a better fit.
There’s no rule covering all of it. But it’s a relationship worth getting right.
Every relationship is different, but at a place like William Morris Endeavor, you’re probably looking for some uniform level of excellence.
How do you define excellence as an agent?
First and foremost, communication. That is, if you can’t adequately communicate to the community—not just to the publishers and editors, but to the wider world—your passion and commitment to the writer, you probably won’t be able to follow through with the rest. You have to understand the value in the writer and the work, and to encapsulate it in as compelling and cogent a way as possible. That’s a lot of what we do: crafting the pitch. If you understand the work that you’re representing correctly, half the time you’ll end up seeing your own words in the flap copy of the book. There’s also being a member of the community. That is, not sitting behind your desk all the time, but being out there in the world, engaging with all kinds of people. Engaging with editors and publishers, but also with writers, literary festivals, MFA programs, the much wider world of letters.
WME does these amazing retreats every January, in California, where they bring incredible speakers to talk to the assembled offices. London, New York, Nashville, Miami, Beverly Hills—they all convene on this site in California. One of the speakers was talking about collisions—the number of times you bump into somebody serendipitously, and how hugely stimulating to creativity that is.
I find it to be true. Bumping into colleagues and getting out into the world and having those lunches and bumping into people at the lunch spot that you didn’t expect to see tends to be where the real work happens.
What have your writers taught you about staying creative?
If you’re a writer, and you’re working on a book, your job is to wake up in the morning and tackle that which you have set out for yourself, whether it’s solving the problem of chapter three, or getting your character from point A to point B, or starting at page one and meticulously improving the language of every sentence. The dangerous thing about almost any office job is that it’s very easy to become merely reactive. If I’ve learned anything from my clients, it’s that you do have to make your own day.
How involved do you get in helping writers work out a writing problem?
I get involved, but mostly in the form of belief. That is, I believe fundamentally in the talent of my writers and that they will find their way out of the thicket. Also, there are so many examples of writers, even recently, who have gone into the wilderness for ten or more years and returned with masterpieces. Look at the lag time between The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex, for instance, or the lag time between Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. You can tell a writer, “You know what, it’s been a while, but look at these other guys. They did okay.”
How much editing do you do? Is that something you feel in your gut, or is it an intellectual decision?
I do think a good agent edits, but he edits only when he knows that he can make a book significantly better. The last thing I would want to do is screw up a perfectly good book. It is something you feel in your gut. I take on very little in the way of new clients these days. Even so, there are times when you read a story and you think, “I can’t not offer this person representation.” Usually it’s a gut impulse that’s then bolstered by a meeting, or by further exploration of the author’s work. I’ve taken on three first-time writers in the past four or five years.
Can you take me through your experience with one of them?
One of them was Karen Thompson Walker, formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster, as you are now.
A terrific writer.
Beautiful person, too.
Lovely person. And that doesn’t hurt, by the way, that she’s a nice person. She sent me a query pretty much out of the blue, saying that she graduated from the Columbia MFA program and that she was working on a novel. There was a line about the premise of the novel, which sounded incredibly compelling, the first forty pages of the novel, and maybe three excellent short stories. I read the forty pages of the novel first, because there’s still a bias in favor of novels in the industry, and you could love the stories but it’s going to be an uphill slog if the novel isn’t working. I was completely blown away by the first forty pages. Those pages exist in her first novel, The Age of Miracles, largely untouched from when they crossed my desk. They were absolutely arresting.
You meet her, you love her, you take her on. Then what?
Then I wait. And I wait, and I wait, and I wait. I waited for four years, I think. A couple of great things happened bam, bam, bam. One was she was promoted to full editor at Simon & Schuster. The other was that she won the Sirenland Fellowship, an all-expenses-paid trip to Positano, Italy, to hobnob with other notable writers. And shortly thereafter she sent me the whole manuscript. I held my breath, thinking, “I really, really hope she pulled it off,” hoping beyond hope that she really did pull it off, and then, as page after page went by, recognizing that she absolutely had pulled it off. When I sent it out into the world, it was greeted with exactly the same reaction that I experienced: jaw-dropping appreciation for what a marvelous writer she is, and what an amazing novel she’d created.
Did you know her book was going to be big? You are known for selling big fiction, and big nonfiction, too—books that garner advances with life-changing numbers of zeros. A lot of people want to know how you do it.
Yes. I knew that book was going to be big. The answer to the question “How do you do it?” may sound facile, but I would ask you, or anyone who’s a serious reader, this question: How many great books do you read a year? How many books do you read that you would recommend to almost anyone you know? For most people the answer is a relatively small number.
If as an agent you read a book and recognize it as that, a book that you know the people you give it to are going to want to give it to other people…those are the big books. Good isn’t enough.
When you have a book that’s truly extraordinary, and you realize the money is going to be significant, do you ever caution writers not to take the money?
No. And you can put this in parentheses after that: “He didn’t hesitate while saying that.” No.
Walk me through the consequences.
I think there are no consequences. Maybe that’s a terrible thing to say. I would rather my client have the money than CBS [which owns Simon & Schuster] have the money. [Laughs.] And this is not to single out CBS. I love my colleagues at Hachette and News Corp. and Bertelsmann and Macmillan. But I’d rather my authors have the money. No one puts a gun to a publisher’s head and makes the publisher pay this money. They pay large advances because they can’t bear the idea of not publishing a particular book. They go in with their eyes open. What’s the worst that happens? You’re paid way too much money for a book that then gets an enormous amount of attention that it probably wouldn’t have gotten if you hadn’t gotten a huge amount of money for it. These enormous advances, which are fewer and farther between than they were prerecession, are still, as you described them, life changing. They are that rare thing that enables someone to say, “I’m a writer,” and mean it. That is, not a writer slash teacher slash freelance editor slash anything else. To say, “This is what I do because I am able to sock away enough money from that crazy first advance to spend my days writing my second and third books.” Not a bad thing.
“The writer who’s outside of the business views the business as this fortress designed to keep him or her out. And in fact, what I see is an industry in which we want nothing more than to discover an amazing new voice. Who wouldn’t?”