Any low points you want to mention?
Oh my God, yes. I tell the agents here are that the list of authors I have passed on is far more impressive than the list of authors I represent. And they laugh and think I’m kidding and I wish that I were, but everybody misses something.
Every editor I’ve spoken to has an incredibly impressive list of bestsellers he or she has passed on, and every agent I know has a list of gems that they didn’t see, didn’t get around to reading, or weren’t in the mood for at the time. The only thing for it is to let it go. You have hold onto the ones that you were ready for, the ones that you did recognize, and especially the ones you nurtured and brought into the world.
And then the other thing: Every agent at some point fails to sell something. It feels like an enormous personal failure to the client. It’s an awesome responsibility to have someone entrust not just their baby over to you, but their literary life. To fail to find the best publisher for it feels like a very public failure. But it’s not nearly as public as it feels, because everyone’s much more worried about their own work than yours.
Some people think that if you’re Eric Simonoff or Binky Urban or Lynn Nesbit, this has never happened to you. But it’s happened to everybody. It’s the worst telephone call to make. There’s that call between the Paul Giamatti character and his agent in Sideways, where he’s standing outside the vineyard and she says, “We tried everybody.” That’s the worst.
Is there a circumstance in which you would advise a client to self-publish?
WME is actually positioned to publish an author’s works digitally if we deem that the best way to go. But without the marketing and publicity piece provided by publishers, you really aren’t doing much more than making the work available. This is the problem of self-publishing. Unless you have an enormous platform of your own, or a huge social media footprint, or a way to make your self-published work go viral, it’s like dropping it down a well.
The media stories that you hear about the wildly successful experience of self-publishing are usually three or four titles a year. Those are not great odds. They’re just not. The odds of being published by one of the mainstream publishers in New York and having your book actually sell a decent number of copies are pretty long too. Which makes you realize how much longer those odds are when you take out the marketing and publicity piece, or the triage of agents and editors, or all the other things that come from having a physical book in bookstores.
Can you describe what you mean by “platform?” How would you define a good one?
Platform is the ability to get the ability to get your message out to as many people as possible, who are already existing fans of yours in one form or another.
Bill O’Reilly has a very good platform. He has the highest rated cable news program on TV twice a day, every weekday. Every time he goes on television, he sells books. That’s a great platform, but it’s not the only platform. If you are a hugely committed tweeter, if you have an enormous following and people hang on your every tweet, you have a platform. You can reach a committed fan base, a committed readership. If you have a syndicated radio show, you might have an even bigger platform. If you have neither a radio show nor a big Twitter following but you speak to sixty speaking dates a year, you have a platform that is convertible into book sales.
Publishers find it enormously reassuring to think that they are not the only ones who are going to be drumming up business for a particular book, so “platform” is shorthand for that. Can you bring readers to us? Can you bring book buyers to us?
An agent once told me that the phrase she despises hearing an editor say the most is, “I just didn’t love it,” and that a close runner up is, “The platform just isn’t there.”
Well, we’re talking about different kinds of books, I think. Karen Thompson Walker, when we sold The Age of Miracles, did not have a platform. She was not on TV, radio, or social media. She wrote an amazing first novel. You didn’t read it and say, “I just didn’t love it.” You read it and said, “Oh my God, I have to have this book.” I said it before: Good isn’t enough.
Would you say that a platform isn’t enough?
Platform isn’t enough for a bad book. I think even with platform you need a good book. Consumers of all kinds of media care about content and quality. So it’s not enough to have a big platform. You also have to have a really good product to plug into that platform.
This is true of Bill O’Reilly’s books too, which have been enormously successful. If they weren’t good, if people didn’t love to read them, they wouldn’t be selling like they are, eighty weeks after initial publication. People really like them. Would they have been this successful without the platform? No, they wouldn’t have had the initial push to get them to a critical mass to explode the way they have. Nonfiction and fiction are very different in that respect.
I don’t resent either of those statements, “I just didn’t love it” or “the platform just isn’t there,” because it’s not fun publishing books that nobody reads. That’s not fun for anybody. It’s not fun for the author, and it’s really not fun for the publisher. And it’s not fun for the agent, because the agent has a second book from that author. If the first wasn’t read by anybody, that makes the second one impossible to sell.
A writer’s relationship with his or her agent is likely to outlast the relationship with any given editor. Such is the nature of the business. How can an author make the most of being inherited by a new editor?
It’s sadly and increasingly a fact of life, especially if it takes you more than a year or so to write your book, that at some point in your career you’ll be orphaned and inherited by someone else.
If at all possible, you should meet that person quickly and try to forge a feeling of ownership between editor and author. Editors are human beings and they like to take pride in their work. They would rather be instrumental to the process than peripheral to it. This is human, and normal. If they feel they are merely babysitting someone else’s author they will not have that feeling. And if they do not have that feeling, and they are given five minutes in a large marketing meeting to advocate for one of their books, they’re not going to advocate for your book.
It goes back to this question of relationships. The author-editor relationship, regardless of whether it’s the original acquiring relationship, the editing relationship, or the person who inherits the book merely to shepherd it through the remainder of the publishing process, is an important one. People work harder for people they are engaged with. And I hate to say it, but people work harder for people they like, and who they feel beholden to in some way. It’s also the agent’s responsibility to make sure that that book does not fall between the cracks.
How do you do that?
By being a pain in the ass. [Laughs.] And there’s a nice way to be a pain in the ass, and there’s a jerky way to be a pain in the ass, but sometimes it’s just a question of persistence and being a reminder. We all recognize that our actions have consequences. If an editor inherits a book and does a really good job, I’ll remember it. If an editor inherits a book and does a really bad job, I will remember it.
I think most editors still operate from a place of self-preservation and realize, if I do a good job on this person’s book I will get more business. You want to earn your acknowledgment in the book. You don’t want your acknowledgment to be obligatory. It’d be nice if you felt that you were acknowledged alongside the acquiring editor not because it was for form’s sake, but because you actually made a positive contribution to the book.
I get curious when an editor or an agent decides to get his feet wet and put his own name on the cover of a book.
Yeah, isn’t that amazing?
You’ve done it.
Only a little, really, and that was a fluke.
I’m interested in how it came to be, that book. [Sleepaway, a collection of stories about summer camp compiled by Simonoff, was published by Riverhead in 2005.]
I loved summer camp, obviously, and I noticed that a number of clients and other writers had written summer camp stories. Margaret Atwood, ZZ Packer, David Sedaris. I thought, “Wow, there are a lot of good writers writing about sleepaway camp.”
I was having lunch with Cindy Spiegel, who was then at Riverhead, and I said to her, “We’ve got to find someone to edit this thing, because it’s just lying there.” She said, “Why don’t you do it?” And she made me an offer to edit an anthology, so I edited an anthology. It sold hundreds of copies. [Laughs.] Still very proud of it.
It sold more than that! I looked it up.
It’s out of print, I think, but I’m sure there are plenty of copies floating around eBay. It’s a good book! Diana Trilling is in there, and Jim Atlas, and Lev Grossman.
What I’m curious about is if that experience changed your outlook. You were involved in a new way in publishing a book.
It certainly felt different—it gave me some appreciation for what authors go through. But I didn’t have the nail-biting, nerve-wracking experience of putting something out there and waiting for people to respond to it. That step was completely skipped.
I told Cindy and the publicist, “Just get me on one NPR show. That’s all I want. I want the experience of being in the studio, having someone ask me questions.” And they got me on one NPR show, and it was fun to be there with the headphones on.
One of the humbling things was that BookCourt, my local bookstore, offered a reading. And one thing I didn’t do was feel that I could invite every Tom, Dick, and Harry who I’ve ever met to this reading. I felt shy. I felt embarrassed about begging people to come. And as a result, very few people came. In fact, if the three authors who were reading and their editors and my family hadn’t come, it would have been a very, very sparse reading.
What role does groveling play in successfully publishing a book?
Every author has his own limits as to how much groveling he’s willing to do in the service of getting the word out about a book, how many and what kinds of favors to call in. I would never dictate to an author what I think she should do in that regard.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand Twitter feeds that are all self-promotional. They’re boring. If you hook me by making me interested in what you have to say to begin with, and then slip one in every now and then, that’s palatable. But the people who post every single review they receive of their novels are very quickly unfollowed.
What gets you excited about the way our business is changing?
I think there will always be some place for the physical book. There will always be a core group of people who are attached to the book as object, as my own children demonstrate. But I think the accessibility of books because of ebooks is enormously gratifying—to feel that we’re not losing sales.
I had an author, who will remain nameless out of respect for the publisher, whose book was selected by The New York Times as one of the top ten books of the year in the weeks leading up to Christmas, and was out of stock. Five years ago, you’d lose uncountable numbers of sales. When that happens today, especially with a novel, it’s hard to say how many sales you lose, because there’s the possibility that the customer will say, “I’ll read it on my device.” The feeling that you’re not losing a sale because your local bookshop doesn’t have a copy of the book is a great relief.
Eliminating the inefficiency of printing, binding, shipping, inventory management, and returns for everybody in the business is an attractive proposition—even as the notion of letting go of the look and feel and smell of the book is not attractive.
That authors and individual citizens are able to build up huge followings on social media from their living rooms and parlay that into book success is enormously exciting. And the fact that you can migrate from platform to platform, that you can write TV and film and books and you can lecture and you can be part of the larger media universe and still do what you do best, which is tell stories and string sentences together.
I remain an optimist. It’s a business for optimists. If you have a great book, you will find a readership for it. What else can I tell you?
When you’re looking to represent somebody for a book project, are you also thinking if it could be a movie or a miniseries?
I am always thinking that, but the answer isn’t always yes, and the answer not being yes doesn’t affect my decision one way or another.
Instead I’m thinking more in terms of what the client’s thinking. Does the client want this? Is the client looking to expand into other forms of storytelling? I recently began working with Stephen Chbosky, who wrote The Perks of Being a Wallflower, largely because he’s represented by WME for writing and screenwriting. He was finally able to take this novel he wrote in the late 1990s and put it on the screen in 2012. This book has sold incredible steadily since it was initially published, but the amazing thing was to watch it spike to number one, not when the movie came out, but when the trailer came out. You see what expanding into other media can do for a book, putting aside for the moment the author and the author’s career. It can give a book an entirely new life.
Do you have any predictions about the future of books?
I predict that people will continue to write them. I do feel that there is a persistent and insatiable desire for long- form prose—that there is something about the experience of disappearing into a long piece of writing that has enormous appeal to enough people in the world to maintain the publishing industry through the foreseeable future. It’s not replicable by film or television; it’s not replicable by video games or blogs. It is that experience of immersion, and the fact that it is both solitary and yet communal—that it requires quiet time alone in an incredibly hectic, overburdened world, and that the great satisfaction of it is talking to other people about what you read—that will never be replaced by anything else.
Let’s end on a high note. What are you grateful for?
Outside of a very happy personal life, I’m grateful to work in an industry in which all the people I engage with on a daily basis are involved in some way in the life of the mind. I’m grateful for the publishing community, the group of people who as I described essentially have grown up together in the business, and are all focused on the same thing, discovering great storytellers and bringing them to a readership. And I’m incredibly grateful to my colleagues in every one of these offices, all of whom are the best at what they do, and who allow me to glimpse their work in fields related to but different from the field that I’m in. I’m never bored. I’m always learning. I feel very, very lucky. I’ve got the best job in the world.
Michael Szczerban is an editor at Simon & Schuster.
“I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand Twitter feeds that are all self-promotional. They’re boring. If you hook me by making me interested in what you have to say to begin with, and then slip one in every now and then, that’s palatable. But the people who post every single review they receive of their novels are very quickly unfollowed.”