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

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

What can a writer starting out today do to put himself in a position to find an agent?
They can send stories to the Paris Review, Conjunctions…there are so many places. If you're writing short fiction, once you have two or three short stories in those magazines, and you're working on a novel, then agents begin to wake up and say, "We'd like to see this." So they have an entrée right there from the quarterly world. And I think everyone is desperate to find a good novel. We are more desperate than ever.

Do you feel a sense of competition with other agents and agencies?
Well, yes. I think all agents feel some sense of competition. As publishers do. If we didn't, I think we'd be very lazy and lax in our jobs. I think everyone feels they have to be on their mark today. You can't ever get complacent. You can't ever say, "Well, I've got enough clients and they're all wonderful and they love me." They could march off the next day. One doesn't know. It's like a marriage. Friendships break up. It's personalities. And they're professional and personal. The thing about our business is it interweaves the professional and the personal life. That's the way in which it is incredibly different than other businesses.

What is the single biggest problem with the book world today?
Distribution. Especially for smaller books. Because the bookstores won't take a chance. And if a writer has a not-so-rosy track record, then they won't order more and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Then, if the book happens to get good reviews, you're caught out of print and have to reprint and maybe the books don't get to the stores fast enough. And distribution is a problem on the other end, too, with books that are overprinted, books that may get on the best-seller list. It may look good to the outside world, but the returns may negate the rosy picture.

One of your agents here, Eric Simonoff, has sold a novel by James Frey to HarperCollins. Tell me about that decision, the decision to represent him. Is that something you sign off on?
I don't know anything about it. I haven't read the book. Eric can do anything he wants. He's codirector of the agency. Tina and Eric are very important forces in this agency. I don't mind it anyway. Get over it; it's fiction.

But tell me how you feel about him, about Frey?
I have no feeling. I haven't read the novel. But Eric says it's brilliant. And he wasn't going to take him on until he read the novel. I didn't want to meet with him early on. It's very interesting because Nan [Talese] backed him so much and Gay was so opposed to him. But Gay is a consummate journalist, and this memoir thing is another thing. Memoir involves such an unreliable narrator. And of course James Frey got into problems because he kept defending himself. But do I think everything in A Fan's Notes happened? No.

Nor A Moveable Feast. Actually one of your clients, Nancy Milford, wrote a piece about this in the Washington Post during the Frey thing, which I thought nailed it. But tell me how you feel about this move toward nonfiction and memoir.
I think it's unfortunate. I think it's mirrored in every part of our culture. Look at the reality programming on television—people want to know the truth, they want to identify. This memoir craze has eaten away at fiction. A lot of people will read memoirs but they won't read a novel.

What do you read for pleasure?
I mix it up. I try to read books that are current that I don't represent. For example, I read Eat, Pray, Love. I read Larry Wright's book [The Looming Tower]. When I travel, I read books about where I'm going, or maybe a piece of fiction. I read Joseph Roth's Berlin diaries when I went to Berlin. But I have to read so many manuscripts that I have to squeeze them in.

Who are some of your favorite editors to work with today? Who is doing interesting things, who is effective in how they're publishing, who are you admiring?
I like a lot of people. They all bring different things to the table. I like Jonathan Galassi [at Farrar, Straus and Giroux] as long as Jeff Seroy's there. Jeff Seroy is an incredibly important part of the way they publish. Now Jeff is much more than just head of publicity, he's vice president. Jonathan is an old-fashioned editor, which is great, but when you run into problems you need somebody like Jeff, who's dogged, who will take them up. I do a lot of business with FSG. And I do have a lot of authors with Knopf. I work with various editors there. I represent Gita Mehta, Sonny's wife, and I know the Mehtas very well. Alice Mayhew is who I do Carter with, and I've know her for years. She's an eccentric. But she doesn't do fiction. I think Paul Slovak is a very committed publisher and editor. I think Molly Stern's kind of great. I moved Susan Choi to her. Molly's very energetic, she can really dig into the publishing process as well as be an editor, too. Frances Coady is a consummate editor. And Jonathan Galassi is a wonderful editor, there's no two ways about that. But in this current era we have to talk about people who also involve themselves in the publishing process, which is what Jeff does. Sarah Crichton has been a very good addition for them.

Can you pinpoint any mistakes you've made in your career?
Sure. I turned down Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. And I read it in many drafts, which perhaps colored my opinion of it. I mistakenly read it as a true crime book, and there wasn't really a payoff for that. I didn't understand or respond enough to the atmospheric quality of the book, and the fact that it was a roman noir in its way. So we all make mistakes.

Do you have anything to share with younger editors and agents starting out today, maybe to help them avoid mistakes in their own careers?
I feel sorry for editors who want passionately to take on a project that the house makes them turn down, and it goes on to be a big best-seller.

That happens all the time.
I know. So that's a mistake. Not a mistake, but it's a problem.

What about younger agents?
I think they can take on too many clients. I think that can be a problem. You have to be selective. If you're not selective, you have too many people who perhaps you don't care enough about, and you don't give them good enough service, and their books don't sell, so they blame you.

But you do have to rely on your gut.
You do. And if you really feel passionate, okay. But you can't just sort of throw a fishing line out.

How do you know when a book has you. Is it a visceral feeling?
Yes. It's about the voice. You think, "Oh my God. This is an arresting voice." To me, voice matters almost more than narrative. Because it shows an originality. Many people can write good narrative—actually not many people; it's hard to write good narrative. But to have a style? Voice is what makes Joan Didion a great writer. Andy Greer and André Aciman have it. Have you read him?

Oh, you should. Call Me by Your Name is a brilliant novel. And Out of Egypt is now considered a classic. It's wonderful. It's just so much fun to read. Tina Brown e-mailed me this week and said, "I'm so glad you told me to read André Aciman's book, it's brilliant." But it had a hard time breaking through because of the subject. It's not a gay novel. He gave this to me—he's under contract to FSG for a very long novel, it's about New York life, it's very layered—but he brought this novel Call Me by Your Name to me two summers ago. He said, "Look, I wrote this novel in a month, two months. Read it and tell me if you think I should publish it." I took it home that night. It was a hot summer night, I remember. And I wasn't going out. I read the thing straight through. Oh my god. I called him up the next day and said, "André, of course you have to publish this. Are you joking?" He said, "Well, let me see what Susan says." He hadn't told Susan, his wife, about it. He comes back and tells me that Susan said yes. So then I gave it to Jonathan [Galassi] and he said, "Of course we're going to publish it." It's unlike anything you've read.

People have such romantic notions about the publishing world. To you, what are the things that ultimately make it special?
It's given me a fantastic life. I have met so many interesting people. I have gone to so many interesting places. It just continually opens doors for me. I just came back from George Weidenfeld's eighty-eighth birthday party in Berlin with Springer-Verlag. Angela Merkel gave one of the toasts. It's a wonderful life because you're dealing in ideas, with literature, with interesting people.

Is there anything you'd still like to accomplish?
I'd love to find and represent a couple of new extraordinary young writers. It's exciting; it's fun.

Anything else?
I just want the business to keep going. I want it to flourish. I just hope people continue to read books and see them as a source of pleasure and not as some daunting task.

Is there a memoir in your future?
Definitely not. I don't think I would have the patience to sit down and write a book. I admire people who can. And I promised my mother I would never write a memoir. I'm joking, but I did promise my mother that.

Any final thoughts?
What makes me happy is seeing these agents I've trained doing so well. It's been great with Tina and Eric—seeing their careers flourish. I certainly know with Tina and Eric that they care deeply about the business, they're 100 percent committed to the writers, and that they're thoughtful, intelligent people. So that makes me happy.

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