That will be gratifying for people to hear.
For the few people who get paid too much money?
Everybody aspires! And as you said, those are the books that publishers want to take a crack at too. But when a publisher really takes a bath, it doesn’t feel very good.
Let me say this. If a publisher overpays for a really good book, and that really good book garners rave reviews and does really well by almost every other standard other than the giant advance, they don’t feel good about it, but they don’t feel bad about it.
Every publisher I’ve spoken to who has been in that situation has said, “I’m steadfastly proud of the job we did on that book. I’m proud to have had anything to do with that book,” whatever that book may be.
And then there are the books that earn out, the ones that actually become the sensations that they were destined to be in the first place. And you think, “Wow, I should have gotten more money for that one.”
Do you think the short story collection is in a commercial renaissance?
I certainly hope so. It’s a great American art form. In terms of WME’s ability to sell them in translation, we have a big foreign rights department, and we never sell translation rights to publishers. We reserve those rights to the clients and sell them internationally. There are territories that we find it very difficult to sell short stories in, in which it is very easy to sell novels. Some of the best short story collections do find a lot of foreign pickup, but it usually takes a certain amount of massaging to get publishers on board internationally.
Domestically, I think publishers would still say that in the aggregate, novels far outsell story collections. Every year there are notable exceptions. The question is, how many? In recent years, between Daniyal Mueenuddin and George Saunders, and Junot Díaz, Nam Le, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edward Jones, there have been a number of commercially successful short story writers. But each year probably doesn’t allow more than four or five.
In the case of George Saunders, or in the case of Sam Lipsyte, who’s a new client of mine—he used to be with Ira Silverberg, a friend and a phenomenal agent who left agenting—there’s a feeling almost of, “Now it’s time.” In the case of George Saunders, or in the case of Sam Lipsyte, who’s a new client of mine—he used to be with Ira Silverberg, a friend and a phenomenal agent who left agenting—there’s a feeling almost of, “Now it’s time.”
You’d think that in a short-attention-span age, it’d be much easier to sell story collections than novels. Yet the initial investment a reader makes in establishing where he is in a fictional landscape is only made once in a novel, but is made ten times in a story collection. Short story collections ask a bit more of the reader than novels do.
In literary fiction, there is usually work associated with figuring out where you are in each short story, who is telling the story, what the parameters of the world being described are. In a novel, once you get your feet wet in the first fifty pages or so, you can kind of glide on through.
What do the words “literary fiction” mean to you?
People outside the business ask that question on occasion, and it took me a while to figure out how to respond. When you’re in the business, it’s one of those you-know-it-when-you-see-it sorts of things.
When you have to actually put some thought into it, you realize that what defines literary fiction is an attention to language on a word by word and sentence by sentence level that is equal to or greater than attention to plot. How’s that for a definition?
I’m probably going to steal it.
And then in purely commercial fiction, plot is paramount. You have to have a ripping good plot in commercial fiction to hold the reader every sentence and every paragraph. Regardless of the craft of the writing, it’s really about transmitting a story. Pure, unadulterated storytelling. With literary fiction, yes, it’s storytelling to a greater or lesser degree, but it is as much about reaching the reader through the nuance of word, rather than merely getting the reader from point A to point B.
Earlier you said that you respond first to voice. It’s easy to see how that relates to the craft of sentences in literary fiction. But you also represent commercial writers. What does voice have to with, say, your attraction to Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston?
What Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston’s books bristle with is intelligence. There’s an incredibly strong voice that comes through their work because there are these two enormous intelligences operating in it. In the same way that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works tend not to be described as literary fiction, there is an intensity of purpose, care, and attention to characters and character development, and yes, plot, in the works of Preston & Child. It makes you think, “Ah, I’m not wasting my time. My mind is being engaged by this work, because I know that I’m in the hands of two incredibly smart writers who are taking me someplace I’ve never been before.”
Are you somebody who prefers a linear narrative, or kind of a curlicue one that hops around in time?
It really depends on the book. I’ve certainly encountered clients’ novels, I can’t think of any particular titles off the top of my head, that in draft were clearly linear books that were made into curlicue books unnecessarily. Sometimes the only editorial note you need to say is, “You know what, just tell this one chronologically. It’ll be fine.”
There’s a tendency to think it’ll be more literary if it’s structurally complex. And in fact that’s not necessarily the case.
Does poetry have a role in your professional reading life?
When you’re a publishing professional and you’re consuming huge amounts of text, both professionally and for pleasure, reading poetry slows everything down. There’s a speed at which you can consume prose, even the densest prose, that poetry just does not allow you.
For me, reading poetry is like putting the brakes on. It’s a conscious act. It requires you to truly stop what you’re doing, and focus not just on the paragraph, but on the word. I feel like it stimulates a different part of my reading brain than reading prose does.
Is it sort of a recalibration of your reading mind?
That’s a good way to put it. I think it is that.
When do you need to recalibrate?
I still read submissions and everything my own clients write, which is a lot. I also read a lot for pleasure, and I encourage all the agents here to read for pleasure, which is paradoxical in an industry in which we’re just absolutely overwhelmed with work reading.
In the same way that you use a different critical faculty reading poetry, I think you use a different critical faculty doing pleasure reading than work reading. You can turn off bits and pieces of the critical apparatus that, when you’re reading for work, are saying things like, “Can I fix this? Can I sell this? What’s the editor going to make of this?” You can dial those down and think, “I’m just a reader engaging with a good book.”
Poetry serves a parallel function. I can’t say that I reserve any particular time of day to read poetry or manuscripts, but as you can imagine, I have an apartment littered with books. Sometimes it’s just a question of picking up one that’s been lying there for a while.
What was the last truly magnificent book that you read that is not on your list?
That’s not on my list?
If you want to choose, okay, but I figured you would say, “I couldn’t possibly. All of my children are tall and handsome.”
I was blown away by Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Wow. It’s both very sly and readable but packs an unbelievable emotional punch. I think everything he writes is incredible.
There’s an amazing biography of Talleyrand by Duff Cooper, written in 1932, that biographers still talk about. I just read that, finally, after years of meaning to, and it was phenomenal. I was tweeting about it.
In your pleasure reading, how far back do you dip? Do you ever go back and say, “It’s time for my Milton fix?”
Absolutely. I have a thing for Dante, so I read a lot of different translations and attempt the Italian. I finally read Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary translation last summer, which was fantastic. I’m never finished with the past, but I like to mix it up between what’s coming out now and what came out some time ago.
Are there any books that you’re embarrassed not to have read?
Sure, don’t we all have books that we’re embarrassed not to have read? Do you want me to name some?
Well, it might be interesting.
I have never read The Faerie Queene. And I’ve never read The Golden Notebook. How about that? Have you?
No! I haven’t read either one.
OK, then I feel a little bit better.
But then again I’ve been around for a lot less time.
[Laughs.] That’s true, I’ve had more time to catch up. I haven’t finished Proust. I’ve only read three of the six, I think. How volumes are there? Six? I don’t know. Someday.
I ask because some readers expect gatekeepers like agents and editors to maintain an extraordinarily vast knowledge of letters from the beginning of recorded time. Yet few of us could live up to that expectation. Do you see yourself as a gatekeeper?
Yes. I think we all are. And I would argue, without any grandiosity, that agents, editors, and publishers are performing a public good. I’m sure that one of your questions is going to be about self-publishing, and I think the opportunity that digital self-publishing offers writers is enormously to the good in terms of breaking down those barriers. But I think that most consumers are actually looking to gatekeepers, though I think gatekeeper is probably the wrong word.
What word would you use instead?
The word I would use is “curator,” in the same way that, coming from outside the music industry, I’m looking for people who spend all their time listening to music to help me identify which bands I want to listen to. People who read for pleasure are looking to people who spend all of their time reading books to tell them what books they might be interested in reading. It’s not crazy to expect that people who have developed expertise over many years as to what makes a really good read would be in a position to help consumers make that decision.
I often hear the word “curator” in context of someone arguing that books are merely “content.” Would you say that we’re in the book business, or the content industry?
Well, they’re certainly not mutually exclusive. I’ve been at WME for four years and part of what’s thrilling about it is being a part of a much larger entertainment industry and field. There are so many creative people passing through this office. Some of them write books and some of them write plays and some of them write music and some of them write movies and some of them direct movies. But they’re all in the content creation business. I don’t see it as a pejorative at all, nor am I such a purist as to say that the only form of intellectual appreciation is that for books.
I wouldn’t much want to meet someone who only ever read books and never listened to music and never went to see plays and never saw movies. There’s no shame in contextualizing books as part of a larger content universe. And yet I think book lovers are sentimentalists. I know I am.
I love books, first and foremost. That’s why I’m in the book department at WME and not in the motion picture department. But I love interacting with my colleagues who are in those other businesses because they feel absolutely as passionately about what they’re doing as I do about what I’m doing.
You mentioned stacks of books around your apartment. Do you prefer to read print books, or digitally?
It’s funny, I went largely digital when the first Kindle was introduced however many years ago. I was really enamored of it, especially for work, and then my pleasure reading migrated to a device for four or five years. And then I went back.
I realized that I missed the experience of reading paper, and I missed having the trophy around afterward. I was also influenced by my kids, who are biased very much in favor of paper. They’re big readers. My daughter, who’s ten, will read on a device in a pinch, but still prefers the physical book. And my thirteen-year-old son simply refuses to read on devices. He will not do it. Do you read on a device?
I do, but mostly for submissions. It’s much easier to hold an iPad on the subway than it is to hold four hundred pages of manuscript. But the reading experience is something so richly textured, and the print book is a piece of technology so deeply refined, that an e-reader can feel rude in comparison to a print book for pleasure reading. It’ll do, but…
Yes, and I think there still is a divide for me, and apparently among the larger world of consumers, between a kind of book you feel you need to own, and a kind of book that you can perfectly well read on the device without missing afterward.
Do you have any thoughts on how magazines and newspapers have managed their transition online and on devices?
I exist on the periphery of the magazine and newspaper business, and our authors and clients interact with them much more directly. There’s probably not quite the degree of sentimentality around print newspapers and print magazines as there is around print books, in part because they’re less permanent objects.
I still own every book that my grandmother bought me at Gotham Book Mart, but I don’t own every newspaper I’ve ever read—otherwise I’d be one of the Collyer brothers. It’s the same with magazines, although God knows my parents had stacks and stacks of National Geographic that they never got rid of.
Having switched to reading The New York Times on the iPad, it feels different to me. I don’t have that feeling of starting at page A1 and looking at every single page in the newspaper until I get to the end, and knowing that I have at least read every headline. It’s a different engagement with the information.
From a business point of view, I wouldn’t presume to speak for the future of the newspaper and magazine industries, but as a consumer, it’s somehow more different engaging digitally with magazines and newspapers than I find it is with books.
There are lots of debates going on in the publishing business about e-book royalty rates, the value of digital editions, how e-books may be sold, and so on. How much should an author actually pay attention to?
It’s good to be informed about your business. If you’re a writer and you want to make writing more than an avocation, it makes sense to have some understanding of the industry. I don’t think writers should obsess about it. But it’s fair to know how all the different pieces fit together.
I’m always a little surprised by how much ink is spilled by The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal about our business, seeing as it’s dwarfed by other entertainment businesses. If a million people read a book in America, it’s a huge bestseller. If a million people go to see a movie, it’s a disaster. It’s just the nature of the numbers. There are many more moviegoers and TV watchers than there are readers.
“It’s good to be informed about your business. If you’re a writer and you want to make writing more than an avocation, it makes sense to have some understanding of the industry. I don’t think writers should obsess about it. But it’s fair to know how all the different pieces fit together.”