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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt

How has your job changed as the industry has changed?
I think there is more frustration. We have to deal with all kinds of bureaucrats. We spend a lot of time arguing about contract clauses. Every time a publisher hires a new lawyer or contract manager, they decide to have new clauses and you have to argue about the wording. And the bigger the firm, the less flexible it will be. Also, there aren't that many publishers around, so they're all, in a way, in cahoots. It's not that they would sit down together and say, "From now on we're going to do this," because then they would have the antitrust people after them. But they might ask the assistant house counsel to call his or her buddy who's the assistant house counsel at such-and-such house and say, "What do you people do about this?" And they find out that everybody—that is, the six big firms—are now paying, say, 25 percent of net receipts on electronic rights. Okay, so there may be a smaller firm that pays 30 percent, but why can't they all pay 50 percent of net receipts like they did a few years ago? They can't because they have done a very close cost analysis and come to the conclusion, after weeks of analyzing—analyzing what, nobody knows, because there are no figures to use for this—that this is the figure. That it really should probably be between 19.25 percent and 23.2 percent, but rounding it out at 25 percent is a generous gesture and, in addition, that's what everybody else is doing. Now, does this matter at all, since there are no sales of electronic books to speak of? I don't know. But we spend a tremendous amount of time dealing with these things because it might be worth something and, like everybody else, we agents feel that if the publishers think it's worth something to them, it must be worth something to us.

But basically we do what we've always done. I remember something my French mentor said to me years ago when there were other issues. He said, "In the end the only thing that really counts is the poor author in his attic in front of his typewriter with his blank piece of paper and what he puts on it." The only thing that has changed is that maybe now he is no longer writing in the attic, and he has a computer instead of a typewriter. But it's still what goes on the page that counts. And everything else really doesn't. Eventually publishers sort of have to do what the more important authors want. Look at the electronic thing. If electronic publishing really takes over, the authors may discover that they don't need the publishers at all. But the publishers will always need the authors to write something.

What would you change about the industry if you could change one thing?
I would love to see half a dozen sons or daughters of millionaires start their own firms, the way it used to be. I think it would put pressure on the established houses to pay attention to things they don't pay enough attention to anymore. But I don't think that will happen. This question also isn't something I think about very much because of my own temperament. I'm very empirical. I feel that you deal with a certain situation and make the best of it. I don't really spend much time dreaming about what could be. I'm not really interested in that.

One thing that always interests me is how people view their jobs and their various responsibilities. How do you view yours?
The main thing, obviously, is to do the very best we can for our authors. To advise them as best we can. It's really different from author to author. It's not necessarily advising them to do what brings in the largest amount of money in the shortest period of time. We have to think of their career—where they are, what their needs are—so it's different with each one. It's not as complicated as it may sound. It's usually fairly clear and simple. But you have to be able to figure it out, and then you have to find a way to come as close as possible to getting them what they want. Practically any of our more successful authors could make more money by moving to another house—you always get more when you're auctioning the rights. But you don't want to do that with every book. With some authors the amount of the advance is not the essential point because there's a constant flow of money coming in from their earlier books. For some authors, ego is the main concern and the mere thought that someone else may be getting more money is much more important. So everything has to be taken into account.

It feels like there are a lot of different threats to authors out there today. What do you think is the biggest?
The main issue is that people may read less. But there's nothing I can do about that. It's true—it's always been true in this country—that people seem to read a lot in college and then get out of college and get a job and basically stop reading. We have two granddaughters. They read when they're on vacation, and one of them—the younger one—has been reading all of these Stephenie Meyer books. But they don't read the way I read or their mother read. They don't read regularly or with the same kind of passion. They're busy with their computers and phones. They're constantly chatting with each other in one way or another. And all of that is changing reading. On the other hand, I'm encouraged by the fact that more and more people are going to college. Some of our books that are read in college—the Michel Foucault books, for example—are probably read more from year to year. Beckett is probably read more. So all of the signals are not bad. But there's no point in worrying too much about things over which you have no control, and where your opinions have absolutely no effect one way or the other except possibly to get you depressed.

Do you feel competitive with other agents?
I don't really feel competitive. I sometimes feel envious. Most people don't like to admit to one of the cardinal sins, and envy is perhaps the worst, but I think we all feel envy. Authors feel envy when they see a book, even if it's by a friend of theirs, reviewed on the cover of the New York Times Book Review. We're all human. So yes, of course I feel envy, just as you would feel envious if one of your best friends, who is an editor at God knows where or even at Grove, gets a manuscript that becomes a hit and is written up everywhere.

Are editors different than they were thirty or forty years ago?
I think they used to feel more self-confident because they were rarely fired. Now, nobody knows if they'll still have a job the following week. I think they used to be allowed to spend more time with their authors. In the old days, saying, "I don't know how Joe is progressing with his book and I'm going to spend a week with him to find out" would not have been considered just another expression of the editor's laziness and unwillingness to do some real work in the office. The editor might even have been encouraged to spend time somewhere with the author. Maxwell Perkins, who is always held up as an example even though he turned down Faulkner for Scribner's, spent a tremendous amount of time editing two of the authors for whom he's best known, Fitzgerald and Wolfe. But now I think Maxwell would be called in to his boss's office: "You're wasting too much time with this author. His previous books haven't sold very well and this probably won't do any better. Can't you bring in somebody like Dan Brown who will really bring us money?"

What do you think the best editors do for their writers?
First of all, they encourage them. They stay in touch with them without nagging too much. You have to find the right balance. It varies with each author. But they should try to spend some time with them. I think most authors would like to have a close relationship with their editor. I have several authors who were so disgusted with their editors that they have an editor whom they pay to edit their books before they get sent in to their editor at the publishing house. Nobody ever hears about it, and if they win the Pulitzer Prize or whatever, the official editor is the one who gets the credit.

You're not going to tell me who those writers are, are you?
No. [Laughter.]

But can you tell me what editors you work with in that capacity? Is it people whose names we would know?
The one who has done quite a bit of this and is supposed to be terrific is Tom Engelhardt, who used to be at Pantheon years ago. But there are others. Many editors who have been fired do it.

What is your biggest frustration with editors today?
The main frustration is one I share with them: They can't make a decision on their own. They have to go to marketing people or other people who know nothing about what the editor and I are talking about to get an offer approved. It's not even just the amount—different firms have different rules about whose approval you need in order to go above a certain amount of money—as much as it is the mere decision. When Bob Gottlieb was at Knopf, I'd send him something and he'd call me three days later and say, "Why should I be publishing this thing? This is not for me. This is not for Knopf." Or he'd say, "Okay, what do you want for it?" I'd tell him. He'd say, "That's fine" or "We can't pay that much." One time I even remember him saying, "The author can't do this book for that little. I'll give you such and such," and it was more than the amount I'd asked for. But the whole thing would take five minutes. When Jim Silberman was the editor in chief at Random House the negotiation would take two minutes.

Now you have the feeling that it's such a cumbersome process. Unless you have an auction going for a book that everybody wants. Then, of course, it immediately moves to the upper levels within the publishing house. I remember that Valerie had an auction for a book that we'd gotten from England, and all of a sudden she had six or eight editors bidding on it and people whom I won't name but who are known to be totally unreachable were calling her and saying, you know, "Just call me on this number and I'll do blah blah blah." But that involved seven figures. At that level everything is different. But at the normal level, things are more complicated and you feel less of the enthusiasm. The enthusiasm gets eaten away by the bureaucracy. But there's still some of it. The amazing thing is that publishing still attracts a lot of really good people—young people, interesting people—who really love to read and want to make it work. They just accept that it's more difficult. And so do we. There's no choice.

That's a frustration you share with editors. Is there anything that frustrates you about the way editors have changed, or the way that younger editors are?
They aren't very different than they were before. I mean, some start speaking this sort of corporate language but others remain themselves. There are some things you see less often now, but you didn't see them much before either. I can give you two examples. One involved Bob Gottlieb when he was the editor in chief of Knopf. He was doing a book of ours by a French doctor that was called Birth Without Violence. It was a new method of giving birth that involved giving birth in the dark and so on. I remember that Bob called me and said, "We just got the cover in for this book. I think you'll love it. Are you in the office? Can I bring it over?" There is no editor in chief in New York today who would do that. But there wasn't anyone else then either.

I also remember—I probably shouldn't say nice things about other agents, but I can't help it in this case—something that Steve Wasserman did when he was an editor at Random House. I sent him a long manuscript by Ted Draper, who used to write for the New York Review of Books. Steve called me the next day and said, "I started reading this in the office yesterday and all of a sudden I realized that it was eleven o'clock at night. This is terrific. Of course we want to publish it." I don't remember if he'd actually finished it, or if it took another week to do the deal, but that's the kind of reaction I'd like to get more often: people who act on their instincts; people who are genuinely excited about something. I don't get it often, but I never got it often.

Who else do you admire in the industry? And what makes you admire them?
I admire people who have managed to stick to their guns and do, essentially, what they set out to do. People like Nan Talese, Kate Medina, Jonathan Galassi, or several of the editors at Knopf. Of course they're influenced by the environment—we all are—but they've essentially been doing what they've been doing all along. So has Morgan, for that matter. I don't really know Morgan all that well, but I'm sure he could have chosen an easier way of living. But he's stuck to it. I greatly admire Drenka Willen. The main reason I'm not mentioning other agents is that I don't really know them that well. Editors know agents much better. We know of each other, but we don't really know what we're like. I've never seen another agent dealing with his or her authors. I've never seen an agent dealing with an editor.

Tell me about some of the high moments in your life as an agent.
One was meeting General de Gaulle when I was in my early twenties. When I was a kid during the war, he was God, and the only hope one had. If I'd stayed in France, of course, I never would have met him. But because I'd come to America and done this thing that nobody else was doing, it sort of made me different. So after I'd sold his war memoirs here, his French publisher took me to see him. He was not in power then, but he had these offices on the Left Bank. He was surrounded by nothing but people who were six feet five and six feet six and so on. I went with his publisher, who came from Monte Carlo and had this short Mediterranean build. So there we were: two dwarves in the land of giants. That was incredibly exciting and heady for me. There was also an interesting moment. The publisher, like many people from southern France, had a tendency to talk a lot and very freely. He accidentally mentioned the name of a magazine editor or journalist who was quite prominent at the time but had been a collaborator during the war. When he realized what he'd done he tried to sort of backtrack. But de Gaulle said, in a very kind voice, "Well, I know he was a collaborator. But he isn't a collaborator any more." [Laughter.] So that's one highlight. I realized that I'd done something with my life that led me into territory where I never would have been otherwise.

But as the years have gone on I think I've become a bit blasé. There have been many highlights—when my authors have won prizes and so on. It gives me great pleasure, but it has become more frequent. For example I was with Anne Applebaum when she won the Pulitzer Prize for Gulag. But I was also with her for the National Book Awards when she didn't win. I was with her at the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes when she didn't win. I may have been with her at the National Book Critics Circle Awards when she didn't win. And just as I suffer from envy, I'm also a sore loser and I don't like to go to these events unless my author wins. But the Pulitzer Prize is much more civilized because you know in advance and it's not a public humiliation. So that was wonderful.

I also remember when Charles Johnson was nominated for the National Book Award for Middle Passage. I pretty much knew he wouldn't win because you only have one chance out of five and why would your author win instead of the four others? It's a black tie event and I hate wearing a tuxedo. I was trying to put on the little studs in the shirt that are very pretty and belonged to my father, one of the few things I have, and I was having trouble with them. I asked Anne to help. All of a sudden I saw that my white shirt had little pink polka dots all over it. Anne had pricked her finger with one of the studs and there were little spots of blood all over my shirt. So I had to change the shirt. Thank God I had a second one. I don't even know why I did because I never wear the wretched things. I thought we'd be late and I was in a foul mood. We sat at the Atheneum table. Atheneum had been bought by Scribner, which had been bought by Macmillan. The head of Macmillan was there, and the editor of the book and the publicist. But the head of Macmillan, who didn't know either of them, thought they were a couple. They were just two employees. But they happened to be young and good looking, so I had to explain to him that they were his employees and not a couple. Anyway, the whole thing was stupid and ludicrous, and I was becoming more and more annoyed, and somebody made a long speech, and then Charles won the National Book Award. [Laughter.] The mood changed totally. I can't remember any moment in my life when I had such a quick change in mood. The book had sold six or seven thousand copies and I remember that people came over from Macmillan saying, "Barnes & Noble just placed an order for x thousand copies" and so on. All of a sudden the book had become a best-seller. I remember Charles asking me, "What's happened? Isn't it the same book anymore?" And I said to him, "No, it isn't!"

When are you the most proud of what you do?
It's usually when we have a new author and I feel that we have really been able to change his or her life. That would not really be true of people like Elkin and Coover and Gardner and Yurick who had already been published. But it happens sometimes. I recently met a writer whose life I feel I sort of changed because she didn't have a life as a writer before in a sense. It's a young woman named Olivia Judson. She is the daughter of a friend of Mike Bessie's, who as I told you was one of my mentors. He called me and asked if I'd be willing to see her as a favor. She had a doctorate in biology from Oxford and had been deputy science editor of the Economist and was coming to America and needed some advice. I immediately knew that she was incredibly bright. The Economist had allowed her to do two columns under the name of Dr. Tatiana. They were a sort of mixture of Dr. Ruth and Dear Abby. Animals would write in about their sexual problems and Dr. Tatiana would give them an answer that was totally accurate scientifically. They would ask something like, "My wife bit off an important part of my anatomy last night. What do I do?" Dr. Tatiana would say, "Well, that's what women are like, but don't worry about it, you'll grow it back." I'm making that up, but I do remember learning from her that most seagulls are lesbians. I was so surprised that I'd gone through life without knowing that. Anyway, I told her she should write a book. We sold it to Sara Bershtel at Metropolitan. It was called Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to All Creation and it did extremely well. We sold it all over the world. It was serialized in France in Le Figaro, which is a daily Parisian paper. We sold movie rights to the Canadian Discovery Channel, although the result hasn't been shown in this country because the Americans found it too obscene. Now she's writing another book for Metropolitan. She's written a number of op-ed pieces for the New York Times. She's making a living as a writer. And she's become a good friend. I love the idea of improving somebody's life.

There's also Bob Fagles, who did the translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. I met him at a dinner party. He was complaining about the fact that he'd translated a play that was supposed to be part of a series of translations for Oxford or somebody. But nobody else had delivered their translations so the project was stuck. He was very frustrated. The next year I met him again at the same friend's. Nothing had happened and he was even more frustrated. I said, "I'm sure your contract must have a pub date. You can probably cancel it and take the book somewhere else. Show me the contract." I sold the book to Viking, and then he did another one, and then he did the Odyssey, and then the Iliad, and then the Aeneid, and it totally changed his life.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It's when you can bring good news to one of your authors. Their book just went into a fifth printing. We found a home for that short story that we both liked but so-and-so didn't want. Or we just sold, say, Catalan rights to their book. Or Basque rights. I didn't even know there was such a thing! I knew there was a Basque dialect but I didn't know that people actually read in Basque. To be able to make those phone calls gives one so much pleasure. Every day brings some kind of crisis and unpleasantness, but just about every day also brings something like that. I don't make the calls about the translation rights anymore because that's our daughter Valerie's domain. But I get a vicarious pleasure out of the pleasure she feels, and the author feels, when she gets to make one of those calls.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.

Reader Comments

  • susan@glimmertrain.org says...

    Another fantastic and significant piece by Jofie Ferrari-Adler. Thank you.

  • lynn@sagantechnology.com says...

    Although, because "he is he and I am I", I loved Georges Borchardt from the moment I met him at his midtown office, your splendid profile (by Jofie Ferrari-Adler brought to my attention by my beloved publisher, Chelsea Green's Margo Baldwin) intensified my feelings of love-admiration. [Indeed for both agent & publisher]. Our Georges (with an "s", just like the calculating scientist-protagonist, Georges Standon, in my only published fiction, Luminous Fish: Tales of science & love) is unique and fabulous in a way precisely captured by Ferrari-Adler's insightful writing. In this near miracle interview, Ferrari-Adler has gently revealed Borchardt's genius, his capacity for survival, love and his own version of success. We, his clients, and direct recipients of his wisdom and good taste, are grateful for the revelation, in his own words beyond French, of some of his many secrets. Although he claims not to remember much, maybe Ferrari-Adler can get him to write, and then auction himself, Georges' very short autobiography. It will be worth millions.

  • cjewel says...

    What a wonderful, enthralling interview. Thank you to everyone involved.

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Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Georges Borchardt (September/October 2009)
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