And you immediately knew that you enjoyed the work?
Oh, yeah. It was great because everybody was so grateful. People were so happy that I was there. Loretta would always thank me. The authors were grateful. But even then I think I had a sense of myself. I remember there was this one agent who called up for Loretta. I guess Loretta hadn't returned her call, and the agent just started screaming at me. I said, "Excuse me. You are not speaking to Loretta. You are speaking to Loretta's assistant. You may not talk to me like this. Would you like me to have her return your call? And if she doesn't, you can count on the fact that it is not because I didn't tell her. But do not scream at me." This woman immediately backed off. When I met her years later, I said, "You're the screamer!" She had no recollection of it at all. But I guess even then, if I think about twenty-two-year-olds and how easily frightened they are, I had one thing that was working to my advantage. I didn't realize it was an advantage until I was in the business a little longer: I had a really good voice. I had a voice that was low, and a voice that bespoke an authority I did not feel. I could use my voice to help me wing it. I would speak to authors who I had never met—they were all over the country—when I was impossibly young as though I knew what I was talking about. I would just try and get the job done, solve the problem at hand, give my boss as little as possible to get aggravated about. And the response from Loretta was enormous gratitude.
I love finding something and getting the whole world to read it. Changing somebody's life. Changing a writer's life.
So I'd put books into production. I'd say, "Would you like me to edit this book?" She'd say, "Well, yeah." And why not? Who says that I couldn't edit? Why not learn by doing? What is editing, really, except an experienced eye learning how to respond to a manuscript? Learning when a passage in a manuscript simply falls apart. Obviously Loretta read all the editorial letters that I wrote at midnight and one in the morning, showing off for her. My job at Doubleday was to distinguish myself. And I did.
How did you work your way up?
Oh, fast. They had a sort of indentured servant system. You know, first you were an intern, then an assistant, then an assistant to the editor, then an editorial assistant, then an associate editor.... I mean, talk about hierarchical! You could die waiting. You could be thirty. I had no time for that. I'd been there for about two years. Everything was going very well. I was a fully contributing, noisy person. I went to all the editorial meetings. People were learning that they could count on me. If somebody gave me something to read, I would never let them down. I might let them down with my opinion, but I wouldn't let them down by making an excuse of my life. I made it clear that I was somebody who could be approached for almost any problem. I spent a lot of time socializing, going to the cantina, whatever. I'm very social.
So then the Anchor Press publicity director, Liv Blumer, left to become the director of publicity for Doubleday trade, and I was offered her old job as head of publicity for Anchor. That was a big jump. I wasn't sure that I wanted to be in publicity, but I recognized it for what it was, which was a big jump. It seemed like a really good thing to do—to learn how to run something, to hire people, to learn how to promote and publicize books. And I knew I'd be good at it. That job was very good training for me when I became a baby agent, a year later, because it taught me how to present books that no one really wanted to hear about.
Did you like doing publicity?
In my opinion, the two jobs that are the most exhausting in this business are the jobs of the foreign scout and the publicist. The reason is that there is never an end to the job. If you're a scout, there is always another book you can cover, another house you can do well by, another report you can write. If you're a publicist, for every eighty letters you write, and eighty ideas you try, there are seventy-nine that don't work. But the only ones that the author hears about—and the editor hears about and your boss hears about—are the ones that work. It is a thankless and really difficult job. But I did it.
Were you any good at it?
I had one fabulous moment. I'd started, and I was doing everything. I had hired a woman who had no experience in publicity. She had just finished getting her MA in Shakespeare's Apocrypha at NYU, which proved to be totally useless. So there were the two of us—clueless. Meanwhile, the big book on Doubleday's trade list that year was Alex Haley's Roots, so no one wanted to listen to a publicist for Anchor Press. Everyone was deliciously over-focused on Roots.
After six months at the new job, I decided I had earned a vacation. One of the books I had been publicizing was from the "Foxfire" series. It was a wonderful book by Eliot Wigginton called I Wish I Could Give My Son a Wild Raccoon. In my reading I had come across a newsletter that was written by a woman named Kay Sexton. It was a newsletter called the "B. Dalton Newsletter" that was put out by the bookstore chain. I read the newsletter and thought, "This woman really needs to know about the specialness of this book." So I wrote her one of my two-page letters introducing myself and telling her what the book was about and why she had to know about it and get behind it. "All the proceeds are going to Reading Is Fundamental.... Eliot Wigginton is wonderfulness himself...." I never heard a word from her. So I was going on this two-week vacation, and before I left I told my assistant that I was going to call at the end of the first week to check in. This was in the days before cell phones, obviously. So I called my assistant from a payphone in a bathing suit and said, "Anything going on?" She said, "Molly, you won't believe it. You've got three bouquets of flowers!" I said, "What?" She said, "It's so exciting—your entire letter is the subject of the ‘B. Dalton Newsletter.'" Kay had written something like, "In all my years of doing this newsletter, I've never heard from anybody at Doubleday until I finally received this extraordinary letter from one Molly Friedrich, who urged me to take a serious look at I Wish I Could Give My Son a Wild Raccoon. Her letter is so powerful that I print it here in full. Please adjust your orders accordingly." The reason I was getting flowers is that you could see a direct difference from before the newsletter came out and after. Usually, the marketing people, who pay the advertising people, are always taking credit. You never know whether you have actually, tangibly made a difference. Except this one time. So that was my terrific moment in the sun.
Why did you leave Doubleday to become an agent?
I did the publicity job for a year and then I got a phone call from an agent at the time, Phyllis Seidel. She worked out of her Upper East Side brownstone and she'd never had anyone work for her. She said that she was interested in turning her cottage industry into something a bit more fast-moving and professional, and she said she'd heard wonderful things about me from two people who were so different that she was intrigued. She asked if I would come up for an interview. By this point I had learned that it is incredibly important to never say, "No," and I'd been in the business long enough to see that agents were really essential to the industry. I had also been in the business long enough to see that, on the publishing side, there were a lot of meetings. There was a lot of time spent gathering your insecurities together and having them reflected in a group meeting where you got to shore yourselves up. You know: "Well, nineteen of us like the jacket, what do you think of it?" That kind of thing. There was a lot of inefficiency.
Plus, I was married by then and knew I wanted children. I didn't know if corporate America was that hospitable to having children, at least for somebody who really wanted to be around them and actively help them grow up. There weren't a whole lot of senior people at Doubleday at the time who had young children. I decided that I wanted to find an angle of this business that would allow me to continue working but to work around my life and my children. It was a really conscious decision. I also had been exposed to a lot of agents—some of them wonderful, some of them appallingly bad—a whole raft of agents from the sublime to the really questionably professional. But I had been around that angle of the business long enough to see that if you really worked hard to build up a stable of great writers, it might be a good way to earn a living.
So with that sort of young, unformed knowledge in mind, I took the subway up and interviewed with Phyllis. She offered me two things. First, she was willing to allow me take on writers of my own if it didn't intrude with the business. That was really important to me because, after all, I had been a boss already and this was already taking a step back and becoming an assistant again, apprenticing myself to her in order to learn the business. And second, she said she would give me 4 percent of anything I brought in, which was kind of the carrot before the donkey's nose. It wasn't going to cost her anything to give me 4 percent, and I don't think she even thought I would bring in anything interesting. So she did it. But it sure was useful later on, and it set a precedent that I used as part of my negotiation when I left a year later to join Aaron Priest. I took that 4 percent commission with me as part of my negotiation.
Tell me about some of your early clients.
The very first client I sold was Phyllis Theroux, who has a book right now that I'm trying to sell and will die trying. I began working with Aaron Priest in 1978, and six months into working for him—it was just Aaron and me, impossibly small—Aaron decided that he wanted to move to California to open an office in L.A. This was a huge job change. He had made it very clear when I started that he did not want me to take on clients. He wanted me to be his assistant. I said, "Fine. But can I work on finding clients as long as it's not at your inconvenience?" He said, "I don't care what you do, just don't inconvenience me." So I would work at night because my husband was busy with law school I was writing letters to short story writers at Redbook, all that stuff. When Aaron got in his car and was driving across the country with his wife and kids, he would call once a day. He'd say, "Hi. I'm in Iowa. Anything doing?" I'd say, "Nah." But by the time he got to California, five days later, I had sold three books. I had literally been waiting to be released. And the first book was Phyllis Theroux's, which I auctioned to Julie Houston at Morrow for twenty-five thousand dollars. It was called California and Other States of Grace. It was absolutely wonderful, and she went on to write others. But that was my first book, which makes me sentimental about selling all of her books.
Eventually it became clear to Aaron that I might be more valuable as a baby agent than as only his assistant. I said, "Come on, let me hire an assistant part-time. It's not going to cost that much." Then, when Aaron came back from California six months later, there was no question. I wasn't going to go backward. I got very lucky that way. I could have been his assistant for four or five years without ever having the opportunity to really step out. It was his decision to go to California that really gave me the breathing room I needed to show off. To show what I wanted to do. To show what I could do.
How did you build a list in those early years? Were you getting referrals, was it the letters you were writing, were you reading the slush?
Certainly I was reading slush, and nothing was coming out of the slush. Some of it was the letters I was writing. And I never said, "No." Let me give you an example of what I mean. There's a movie agent named Geoff Sanford. One day he came blowing through the Aaron Priest offices. When he walked in, Aaron wasn't around. Don't forget that I had this scary voice, the gift of gab, the ability to make someone feel at home, whatever you want to call it. I said, "Geoff! Come on in! How are you?" We talked for a while and he said, "Oh, you're going to be great." We didn't do any business, but about a year later he called me up and said there was this writer named Sue Grafton. He said he really liked her, she was a really good egg, and she had written a book called A Is for Alibi. Then he told me she was leaving her agent and asked if I might want to take a look. I said, "Are you kidding? I'm starving to death. Of course I'm interested." But I also said, "Why does she want to leave her agent?" And Sue had told him and I can tell you because Sue has always been very straightforward about it. Kathy Robbins was her agent at the time, and Kathy was in the process of taking her authors from a 10 percent commission to a 15 percent commission. Sue liked Kathy enormously, but she felt, like death and taxes, that no one should ever charge more than 10 percent. She just felt very strongly about it.