Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Lynn Nesbit

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the January/February 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Why did you eventually decide to leave ICM and start Janklow & Nesbit? Was the decision affected at all by how the publishers were doing that—combining forces and becoming conglomerates?
No. My decision to leave ICM was more because I wanted to become an equity partner. I didn't want to just work for a big organization as a salaried employee. That's pretty much what drove it. And I'd probably been there long enough, and it was getting very big. I like the way we can focus more here. I have much more time to focus on the clients here because we have such a strong back office. It frees me to do more representation, not to worry about things.

Looking back, what would you say were some of the crucial turning points in your career?
Going to Marvin Josephson was a big turning point—getting to start a literary division. And then I got Charlie Portis and True Grit. That was a big deal. I had him from the beginning too. Tom [Wolfe] was a big thing. He was a big deal before I signed him. Michael [Crichton] wasn't. Victor Navasky was my first client. He was very helpful in introducing me to people in New York. We used to have this thing at the Algonquin, the round table—Victor tried to resuscitate the Algonquin round table. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt and I used to go, Kurt Vonnegut, Bud Trillin, Marvin Kitman, Knox Burger. People would come and go. We'd have it like once a week. This was in 1961, when Victor was starting Monocle and signing a lot of good people on.

Donald Barthelme was a big turning point. Donald was the one who introduced me to William Gass. That's another book that was turned down everywhere and David Segal signed it, Omensetter's Luck. That was a huge literary event. David was crucial.

I never thought, "Oh, here's an obstacle." I didn't think about building a career. It just sort of evolved. James Mills became a client. He wrote Panic in Needle Park. That was a big book. That was when I was at ICM. And Joan and John wrote the screenplay. That might be how I met John, by representing Jim Mills.

When did you meet Jimmy Carter?
I met him when I was at ICM with Marvin Josephson. He was just leaving the White House and Marvin and I went to the oval office to meet with him. I said to him, "You know, I'm one of the few Protestants in New York publishing." And I think he liked that. So he signed with us and Marvin and I divided the selling of the presidential memoir. After that, he began to write more and I completely took him over, and then he came with me here.

How do you see your principal roles and responsibilities as an agent? Have they changed over time?
You are part of a writer's support system—a very important part. The role of the agent is more important today than it was when I was starting out. Because the publishing world is so corporate, and editors move around so much, you are increasingly the only fixed point for the writer. That's one way it's changed. Another thing that I notice here, with younger agents like Tina and Eric, is that they do a lot of editing, and we didn't do that when we were young. I think it's partly because of the editors. There is such pressure on editors to come in with something that's almost ready to go that the agents are assuming part of what the editors used to do.

When did you start to recognize that as a phenomenon?
Probably just in the last eighteen years, or ten years.

Did you ever edit?
Not to the extent that they do.

What is your editorial process like? Will you give notes?
Oh, yes. For example, Andy Greer is a young new client of mine. I've read the draft of his new novel, which is coming out next spring, five times. That doesn't often happen, but with Andy it did. It was fascinating because I kept seeing how he kept enhancing and changing it.

What kind of specific thoughts would you give?
Just sort of general thoughts. Is this character really working here, or what about this scene.

But what you see with younger agents is more getting in there with a pencil and editing?
Especially on proposals.

What are the implications of that?
I think the implications are that editors need to see something very polished because everyone is so nervous. Books are an endangered species, especially fiction. I do think that younger agents work more on the nonfiction proposals, with extensive notes, before they go out. But with fiction, everyone is so nervous about it.

What do you mean exactly by "nervous"?
Nervous that fiction is very difficult to sell. An editor wants to see something that's more near completion, that the idea or the thrust behind a novel is more fully realized. Twenty-five years ago an editor would say, "Oh, this has promise," and sign it up. Today, editors want to say no rather than yes. Unless they see it as a big book.

And this is because of corporate pressures? Profit pressures?
Profit pressures. You must know that fiction is very hard to sell. Today it's almost that fiction needs to seem like it's going to be an event. It almost has to open like a movie, on the commercial side, or else the editor has to be convinced its going to get such praise, such positive literary acclaim, that even if it doesn't sell a lot you're launching a real voice.

Everybody talks about how the model for a writer's career has changed. You just talked about a book opening like a movie. There's this blockbuster mentality, especially for debut novels, with astronomical advances and very high sales expectations. How do you feel about that in relation to writers and their careers over the long haul?
Well, if it works, it's fine.… If they spend a lot and the book works, then everyone's happy and your career is launched. If they spend a lot and the book doesn't work, then it's a problem. Because as you know, everyone can see the numbers today. There is no fudging. And that's because of the chains. There are two or three big outlets. It used to be that we couldn't sell as many copies per book. We could argue that this is very good, this new chain system, because you can sell more copies.

Tell me how you feel about these changes, the blockbuster mentality.
I think it's kind of unhealthy. Because a movie is a movie, but when you're building a writer's career…. As I said, if it works, it's great. If it doesn't, I think it's a huge black spot on that writer's career. Everybody knows what's gone on. In the old days, we could fudge it a bit better. But today everybody knows if a book's been a success or a failure. There's no fudging. The problem is not the first book. It's the second. At least nobody asks me that question anymore, "How hard is it to sell a first novel?" The first novel is the easiest to sell. But if it doesn't do well, you're up a creek. You have to reposition the author, probably move them to a new house, because the publisher doesn't want to take another bath. So you sell it to a new house and say X overpaid and maybe they didn't do as good of a job as they should have, and the author probably understands that he probably has to take less money.

If you were a first-time writer and you were offered a big advance, would you be wary of it?
I think I would probably take it. There are very few who could resist it. Sometimes an author—and it's happened here at the agency—they'll take a somewhat smaller advance because they prefer the editor or the house or whatever. But it's never that much less. It's not a hundred thousand dollars less. Maybe it's twenty thousand dollars less. But you never know what will happen. The Elizabeth Kostova book worked. I mean, I don't think that's literature. It's sort of what we call, you've heard this term, faux literature. But it sold. Can we think of a book that was a real bomb?

It can be devastating to an author's career.
Well, not devastating, but not hopeful. Let's put it that way.

In terms of the book industry itself, what would you say are the most troubling or frustrating changes today?
What worries me is that there aren't as many younger people who want to become editors as there used to be. Because at a certain point they get frustrated. There's not enough money to make the job palatable, and they don't have enough freedom. So they feel that they have this corporate bureaucracy imposed on them and yet they're not making a decent enough salary. What I see is this flow of young editors becoming agents. There are hundreds of agents. I can't believe how many there are. When I was starting out, there were agents, but not at the number there are now. Because today they can operate out of their apartments with a telephone. Or they think they can. I can't imagine that because in an agency you do need a big support staff of people who handle the foreign rights, the first serial, the permissions. We have two lawyers on staff who go over the contracts. So I can't imagine operating that way.

What other changes are you seeing?
I said this earlier as sort of a joke, but I'm beginning to think there are more writers than readers. I get these e-mails pouring in from people who want to write their life stories. It's because of the memoir. Everybody thinks they have a story. I also feel there are fewer and fewer civilians—I mean people outside of our business—who I meet who have time to read. They all say, "I'd love to read, but I'm just too busy." What worries me is that people are on blogs, Web sites—there is a lot of that going on—but they aren't reading books. That phenomenon, to me, is not a product of the industry, it's a product of how our culture is changing. People's attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. And everybody has their specialty. I don't ever look at blogs or Web sites because I would never get anything done. I'm tempted to because I hear about these great things.

What does that mean for the future of books and reading? A lot of people seem to think an iPod-like device will come along for books.…
Great. That would be terrific. I have no problem with that. The more forms in which people can read intellectual content, the better. I don't care if they read it in a real book or on an iPod. If they're more likely to read it on some device, great. I have no fear about that. I have no idea why people do. It's the content that matters, the intellectual content. As long as we can keep it copyrighted. I also look forward to books on demand. Jason Epstein has been working on this machine for years, and he tells me that other people have been trying to do it too. The modes of distribution are so antiquated.

Epstein also seems to think that publishers are getting too big and will eventually collapse from their own bigness and fracture into smaller shops.
Like what's happened in Hollywood. I think it will happen. I think it's happening now, with all these imprints. There are so many imprints. And once they get the distribution figured out…. If these machines really do become effective, and there are more efficient ways of distributing books, then I think there will be more and more independent producers. And independent producers use a distribution outlet. So the publishers will be more like distributors. I think it could happen. I don't know because this business is so primitive—the publishing business—so unsophisticated. It takes so many years to make a change here that I don't think it's ten years away.