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

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

I'm always thinking about this issue of distribution—and returns, which is this convention that came about in the Depression that allows bookstores to return unsold books for full credit. It's very complex, very fraught, and it's a huge problem. But nobody really talks about changing it because it would scare booksellers.
I think the only way to solve the problem is these machines, books on demand. Then we won't have to have returns. We'd have a storefront with a display of books, and you'd go in and print out the book you want.

But what would that mean for booksellers, and for the aesthetics of being a book lover?
I'm right next to Borders. To go in there is such a nightmare. I love to go in and browse up near my country house in Millerton, New York. We have quite a good bookstore, an old-fashioned one. But even with these machines, they'll still probably display books. There will probably be some stores where people can go in and browse. I think it's going to hurt the chains more than anyone. Or maybe it won't. Maybe Barnes & Noble will get this machine. If there were print on demand, maybe some independent stores would come back. I mean, people want to go in and physically pick up a book, and it's hard at a big chain store. It's so big and the sales clerks don't want to help you.

What effect has the decline of independent booksellers and independent publishers had on books in this country?
I'm not sure which is the chicken and which is the egg. Of course Barnes & Noble and Borders—the chains—helped kill the independent bookseller. But on the other hand, there are so many stores available to people—in shopping malls, in places that probably didn't have a decent independent bookstore. So, in a sense, we can say the chains have helped the book business. They certainly have been able sell a lot more copies. The blockbuster books sell commensurately much more than they did thirty years ago.

I don't think that many people have a real sense of what agents do all day. Obviously all days are different, but walk me through a typical day.
You spend most days divided between things. You're reading the final draft, talking to the editor and to the writer. I'm having dinner tonight with Jayne Anne Phillips, who just delivered the final draft of her new novel. I read about five drafts of this one, too. And I was talking to her editor, Ann Close, yesterday. Questions like, "When are we going to publish this?" The question of course this year is the election, which is not always the case. Ann is sort of pushing for fall of '08, and everyone is sort of nervous about it, but on the other hand, is the election really going to affect a novel? Maybe it's a good time to publish them, Jayne Anne's included. You have all these questions. Then you have the question of the cover. We often have to go through many sketches before we get a cover. We also have to send the books out for first serial, which is right at the time when we get the manuscript in. And then we start thinking about foreign rights, and we try to submit a manuscript to the U.K., because the U.K. edition should come out simultaneously. So we hope that the U.S. pub date isn't so close that we can't have our best shot at getting a U.K. deal. And then in some cases there's a question of movie rights. In most cases with literary fiction you want to wait until there's some buzz.

So you spend your day deeply involved...
Yes. Deeply involved in all the minutiae—it's important minutiae—of the print runs, the jackets, the timing of the pub date, first serial, foreign rights. And then, if you've represented an author for a number of years, you have their backlist. Someone wants to make a movie out of Ann Beattie's "The Burning House." So you're dealing with that.

Say you have a novel from a new writer. How do you typically go about selling it? Do you pick up the phone and call one person, or five people, or ten people?
If it's of literary quality but I don't think it's going to be a megabuck sale, I probably submit it to the key editors who I think would respond to it at maybe a half-dozen houses.

How do you make those decisions—about which editors you send it to?
It's part of my job to know editors, to know what they respond to and what they like. I just intuitively know that from working over the years.

Are you ever consciously trying to match dispositions or personalities between a new author and an editor?
That wouldn't be my primary concern, but I think of that as a secondary problem. Will this person really mesh with so-and-so?

What's your style when you have several publishers interested in a project?
I would want the author to meet the editors, and probably the publicists, and maybe the marketing people. Then we would make a decision together, or the author may have strong feelings about who he or she wants to be with. I think you have to get a feel for it.

Do you know how many new clients you take on in, say, a year?
I really don't, because sometimes I'll take on an odd project. I took on Sherry Lansing's book. I mean that's a one-off. Or perhaps she'll do another book. That can happen. Right now I have two new authors I'm ready to go out with pretty soon. I don't know how many I take on.

How are new clients finding their way to you at this point?
They come in recommended. A client of mine will recommend them to me. A lot of my writers teach, like Deborah Eisenberg, Ann Beattie, Roxana Robinson, André Aciman—a lot of them. So they'll recommend someone and often I'll give them to some younger agent here. I mean, Vikram [Chandra] came to me through Barthelme and I gave him to Eric. And Edward P. Jones came to me and I gave him to Eric.

Tell me about some of that, about some of the mentoring you're done over the years.
I hired Binky [Urban] and Esther [Newberg] and trained them.

But what does that amount to?
They weren't agents. They were working in other jobs. Esther had been in politics, Binky had been working at New York magazine. I hired them when I was at ICM, and they would tell you I trained them. I hired Suzanne Glück and trained her. John Sterling worked for me at one time at ICM as an agent.

What do you look for in an agent?
Enthusiasm, energy, commitment, and taste. Eric and Tina are probably the two stars. Do you know Tina? She was with my daughter in graduate school at Yale. Tina was a few years older. Priscilla called me and said "Mom, you've got to hire this woman." Mort and I looked at her resumé and said, "This is amazing." And Eric should be an editor! He was at Norton.

Now put yourself in an author's shoes, an author who finds herself in a situation where she's lucky enough to have her choice between a few different agents who want her. What are the factors you would use to make the decision?
I think a lot of it is chemistry between the two people. I would also want to know a lot about how the office works, how much of a support system there is. I don't want to just sing our own praises, but I think our agency offers that more than any other agency because we are completely book oriented. There is not another book agency in New York that has two lawyers and a paralegal devoted to our authors and their contracts. We have four people in foreign rights. I would want to know, "How does this agency work?"

What other factors?
I would obviously want to know the agent's reaction to my work. I think it's important to feel out the level of commitment they have. Unlike twenty or thirty years ago, the agents now—at least here—are not going to take you on unless they're going to go gung ho. Because they know how tough the market is. They're not going to speculate.

What about in the industry at large?
I don't know. I can't speak to that. But I have a feeling that some of these more independent agents who are just starting out will take more people because they need it more.