How should an author choose which agent to go with?
First of all, I don't think an author should approach an agent before they have a manuscript. I had an author come to me who didn't think he'd be ready for seven to ten years. He'd had a huge first success and he was leaving his agent and wanted to sign on with somebody new. I asked him why he was leaving his agent. It was clear the agent had done a wonderful job selling the book, a wonderful job on foreign rights. And now the author wanted someone new to exchange letters with him—talk to him, be his friend, be his sponsor—for five years or seven years before his next book was ready? He said, "I've left that agent because I want someone more prestigious." I said, "I don't want you. I don't want to read what you've written. I don't want to read what you will write in seven years. I don't want you. I want you to go back to that first agent and show some loyalty, because you have a really shabby reason for leaving that agent. That agent has done everything possible to secure and establish your career. You've done something too—you've written a good book. You have every reason to write a second good book. But for you to leave because you want someone more prestigious? That sucks. Bye!" He wrote me a letter saying he admired my moxie.
But you know what's really sad? That author did go with someone else, a very well-known agent, and that very well-known agent sold the book for three hundred thousand dollars. So you know what? I'm sorry to say it, but this author was sort of right. Not right to leave his agent, but right to think that going with an agent who was very well known might have helped him. We'll never know what the poor, sad, sorry, hardworking first agent who would have gone to bat for life for this guy would have done. But would that editor have paid ten times what the first book was sold for? I don't know, but it really stinks.
So how is an author supposed to know whom to choose?
Okay, so the first rule is that an author should never approach an agent until they have something. If I met every person who wanted to just have a chat before they sent their book, I'd go out of business. If they have a book and they are sending it out, they should always say in the letter if they are doing multiple submissions. That is common courtesy. I would also say that I want to know the circumstances under which I am reading something. Have you sent this to ninety-five other people? Have you sent this to one other person? Do I have this exclusively? Because if I push aside my own reading, which is the tyranny of all our lives, in order to be fast, at least tell me what I need to do. The other thing is that the author should agree—if the author is playing consumer here and sending it to five agents who want to read it—that he's not going to make a decision until he has heard from all five people. You should respect an agent's time. Do we get paid for our time? No. Respect a busy agent's time. The thing I want to kill someone for is when I read something over the weekend and I'm about to pick up the phone to tell them it's the most wonderful book since War and Peace, and they say, "Oh, sorry, I've signed on with Joe Blow who called on Sunday morning." No. No, no, no, no, no. That is really wrong. Be fair. If you are going to put us on the spot, give us all a fair chance.
The first thing you are going to look for is: Who responds? The second thing to look for is: What do they say? And what do they think about the book? Now this is where it gets murky, because a lot of agents get the author by saying, "Oh, it's wonderful! Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!" Then they sign the author on and begin the hard work of getting the book into shape. That tends not to be my style. I tend to be very up-front about what I think the book needs from the very beginning. And I have lost authors because of it. Sometimes I wonder, "Should I become dishonest?" Should I say, "It's great!" to get the author and then deconstruct the manuscript over the course of twenty painful weeks? I don't know what the answer is. I know you always have to be true to yourself and your own style, and my style is to be utterly frank about what I think the manuscript requires, how I would position the book, and what I would do on its behalf.
Then the author may say, "Oh God, I can't decide! You're all so wonderful!" If that's the case I would say to get on a plane and come meet us. Figure it out. You should never be afraid to talk to your agent. Some authors are terrified of their agents. On the other hand, there are some agents who have very different styles and are overly friendly. They become "the girlfriend." They become so close with their authors that we arrive at what shrinks call "the boundary problem." This is also problematic, because then the agent loses the authority they are supposed to have in the author's life.
What kind of questions should an author ask potential
You are fully within your rights to ask an agent whom else he represents. You are also within your rights to ask an agent to tell you about a couple of authors whose books he's sold recently. You can't live on your laurels and sit around bragging about your top five best-known clients. "What have you sold recently, and how'd it go?" And maybe ask, "What did you love that you weren't able to sell?" Everyone thinks I sell everything I touch. Wrong, wrong, wrong. There's loads of stuff I take on and don't sell. It's extremely painful. So I think it's fair to talk about these things. I think you want to see what kind of a match you are. Can you talk with this agent frankly? Do you feel comfortable?
But it also goes the other way. It's a mutual interview process. There are many people I talk to and realize that I may love this person's work but I do not love this person. This person is going to be trouble. Big trouble. I had one author who I took on. It was a beauty contest, and I won her. She was a nonfiction writer, and I don't have much nonfiction, so I want nonfiction. She'd been published before and had a raft of fabulous journalistic credits to her name. I worked with her a little bit on the proposal—you know, shoring it up—but she was a true pro and didn't need much help. I got three offers and sold the book for six figures. It was great. But by the time the contract arrived, this woman had so exhausted me that I called her up and said, "I'm not going to tell the publisher this because I don't want the publisher to be nervous about it, but once the contract comes in and it's signed, I want you to know that I am leaving you. I'm giving you my full 15 percent. You can take it. I want you to thrive. But you have exhausted me. I'm sorry, but it just isn't a good match." Nonfiction books don't take six months to write. They take years to write! And the prospect of having this woman in my life for years filled me with such a chill that I thought, "I can't do this. Let's solve this."
Tell writers one
thing they don't know about editors, something that you know and they don't.
I would say that they must view the fawning, deeply complimentary praise that marks the honeymoon phase of their relationship with an editor for what it is. They must not buy into it. They must realize that editors will say almost anything to get a book when they have to have a book. The problem is that what you need from editors is to have them be there for the long haul. Not just the long haul of the publication process, but for the next book and the book after that as well. When the first review comes in and it's terrible, you need your editor to say, "That fucker! He didn't understand the book at all. Ignore it and go on." An editor needs to be deeply, lastingly loyal to an author and a book that he decides to buy, because bad things will happen and that loyalty will be tested.
Tell me what you're looking for when you're reading a
first novel or memoir.
That's so easy. I'm looking for the first page to be good. Then I'm looking for the second page to also be good. Really! The first page has to be good so that I will go to the second page and the third and the fourth. It's true that sometimes I get all the way to the end knowing that I'm going to turn a book down—I've come under the book's spell but the spell is not holding me—and then I may feel committed to reading it and showing off with a fabulous editorial letter. That does happen. But the main thing I look for is immediate great writing.
I think the world of memoir is divided into two camps. One camp is the memoir of an unbelievably fascinating life. Huge! Can you top this? Death, famine, child abuse, all kinds of terrible and extraordinary events...but the author can't write. In the other camp you get beautiful writing—magnificent writing—with a kind of pointillist attention to every marvelous detail in the course of a life in which nothing interesting has happened. It's usually one or the other. So when you can combine those two things in one book—an interesting life and good writing—then you have pay dirt. But it's hard. It's hard to sell memoir, especially if it's not big in an obvious way.
What about with fiction?
Fiction is being published less and less. The stakes are higher. All editors say the same thing to me. They say, "I've got money to spend. I'd really love to do business with you. I'd love to buy a book from you." That's code. What they mean is they'd love to buy a book, for which they can possibly overpay, that is big in obvious and immediate ways. And most books are not big in obvious and immediate ways. They simply aren't. Something has to change.
I have sold books for many millions of dollars and I have sold books for two thousand dollars and pretty much everything in between. I have experienced the fantastical joys of selling books for a whole lot of money. It is a joyous moment. But it isn't necessarily the best thing in the world. It isn't. Perhaps it's blasphemous for me to say that. But if you sell a first novel for a million dollars, you are putting so much pressure on that book to perform at a certain moment, in a certain season, at a certain level. And most books don't perform immediately. Something, I think, has to give.
If I'm going to say that maybe we shouldn't take a million dollars for a first novel, that we should take less money, then it seems to me that we all have to think more imaginatively—we agents and editors and publishers, all of us collectively. I think the place to do that is in the royalty rate. You're always taught, coming up as an agent, that the royalty is the thing in the boilerplate that essentially doesn't change. You know: 10 percent on the first five thousand copies, 12.5 percent on the next five thousand, 15 percent after that. We are told that these percentages are pretty inviolate, certainly for most fiction. But where is it written that you have to stop at 15 percent? If you don't want the burden to be up front, with the large advance that sunders all plans if it doesn't work out, then change the royalty structure. Give the writer 20 percent. Go on, do it! And if you're a small publisher, definitely do it. Hold on to your writers!