But don't you think most writers want the big advance?
Not necessarily. You need to be able to read your author. Some authors don't want the big advance. Don't misunderstand me. I'm not talking about going from an advance of a million dollars to an advance of ten thousand. It's really unfortunate, but to some extent an advance is How much do you love me? I decided about ten years ago that the differential of love in an auction is about seventy-five hundred dollars, which is really unfortunate. So sometimes when I'm in an auction, and I know that the author really wants to be with a certain publisher but the underbidder is determined to have the book and will offer more to win the author, basically I go to the underbidder and say, "Don't offer any more. Don't do it." Because the author has made up her mind and I don't want the editor to be humiliated. I don't want them to be embarrassed. I don't want to financially mug a publisher, get the top amount, and then say, "Hey, guess what? Thanks for letting me use you, but actually we never wanted you in the first place!" That's terrible. I have to stay in business with these people. My job is to do the best job I can for my author without ever being in collusion with the publisher. That's a very tricky business.
Tell me something that you often see beginning writers doing wrong.
I think they can over-hype themselves. If they have a writing teacher, a letter will arrive from the writing teacher. It's so transparent. It's not genuine. It feels like a form of logrolling. And it doesn't really work with me. Or they will make false comparisons between their book and other books.
This is the magazine's Independent Press Issue. As you've watched the industry become more and more corporate over the years, do you think it's been a good thing or a bad thing for writers?
It's been a terrible thing for writers.
First of all, there are fewer publishers. When I started out, there were publishers all over the place, all kinds of publishers that were legitimate companies, in business legitimately, in New York. I mean, what's happening at Harcourt and Houghton is just another nail in the coffin. I remember having a drink with Dick Snyder maybe twenty-five years ago. He said something that I found appalling at the time. He said that in twenty years—remember that this was twenty-five years ago—there would be four publishers left. And we're not that far away from that. We're really not. It's bad for writers in the same way that it's bad for publishers to pick one or two big books and dump all your efforts and resources into those books. It's great if you're the agent of one of those books. It's terrific. Enjoy the ride. But you too will be on the other end of it if you stay in this business long enough.
But I think the main thing that has been lost is a sense of diversity. I mean, everybody complains about this. There just seems to be a terrible sameness, and maybe it's because of the book groups and book clubs in this country, but it feels like readers in America are only having one of three or four conversations a month. Look, I love Khaled Hosseini. I love Elaine Koster. I love Susan Petersen Kennedy. I love everyone connected with The Kite Runner. But I read that book in bound galleys four or five years ago, and really, if one more person comes up to me on the beach this summer and says, "Oh! I love books too! Have you read The Kite Runner?" I really will kill myself. The opposite of that are the people who come up to me all the time saying that there is nothing to read. There is so much to read.
But what are the implications for writers? Why is it bad?
It's bad for writers because there is a sameness to conversations in the larger public. And also because they have fewer choices. If you look at Publishers Lunch, you'll see nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction, romance novel, paperback original, nonfiction, nonfiction, and then there will be one novel that was sold. Everybody wants it to be obvious and easy, but most books aren't. It would really be interesting to see whether a book like The Beans of Egypt, Maine would be published today. It's a great book. Or take Annie Proulx. How about that? Try describing that to your editorial department and see how far you get. She's an extraordinary writer, but you wouldn't get far at all.
So where do we go from here?
I guess you have to just keep putting your face to the wind, and never stop trying, and you have to give publishers a chance to build an audience and a sense of family. I mean, were doing that with Leif Enger's second book [So Brave, Young, and Handsome]. Paul Cirone, in this office, is the agent. Honestly, we could've had an aggressive auction for that book. The trade paperback sales of his first book [Peace Like a River] is one of the great sales stories of all time. Do you know what the returns on that book are? They're zero! It's sold eight hundred thousand copies! But we didn't shop him around. We wanted to do what was right for the author, and the author was very comfortable with the deal we came up with. The deal we came up with was unorthodox, but why not do that if you can? And Grove was very happy. Their first printing is very hopeful, and it's on the extended New York Times list, and he's doing this huge tour. It might be a slightly old-fashioned business model, but it's one that works for that particular author and that particular house. So why not stick with it? I think that loyalty is very important. Just like reader loyalty is important, loyalty to a publisher is important.
How has technology changed the business from your perspective?
I'll tell you, what is hard about being an agent now is the Internet. The Internet is both the joy and the bane of everybody's existence. The bane part of it for me, for an agent, is that it used to be that authors were in isolation. Which was partly bad, obviously, but it was also a good thing because they really got to focus on their work and confront what was on the page. They weren't distracted and hyped up by too much information. Today, if you are a writer of a certain genre, you feel that you've got to get blurbs, you've got to cultivate all these people, you've got to go to this or that event, and on and on. So you have writers who aren't really being given enough time to write the best book they can write. And meanwhile they have become a kind of awful consumer. There are a lot of conversations about who has what. Like, "Well, Joe Blow has shelf talkers. Why don't I have shelf talkers?" No! I don't want to hear about Joe Blow's shelf talkers. You don't have shelf talkers because your career is set within an entirely different context than the person you just mentioned. They all compare notes. They compare advances. Part of it is that they have been told it's no longer enough to just write a good book. They are told that they have to get out there, press the flesh, have blogs, have Web pages, and get advance quotes from everybody and their dogs. Then they're told, "By the way, don't you think it would be a good idea to do two books this year?" This is insane! It is altogether too fast. Everything in this business is too fast.
But how can you build a career anymore if you don't do that stuff as an author?
You can. You have to have some luck. I mean, look at Paul Cirone's author, Megan Abbott. She's building a career. She's on her third or fourth book. She just won an Edgar. She's under contract. She's with the same publisher. She hasn't had outrageously great sales, but she's building an audience. She is a great, edgy, funny, noir mystery writer.
What about for a literary writer? Maybe a writer who has published a couple of books that haven't sold too well?
They are in trouble. I'm not going to soft-pedal that. It's very, very, very painful.
So what do they do?
Well, thirty or forty or eighty years ago when people said, "Don't give up your day job," there was probably some wisdom to that. Certainly, if you get a large enough advance and decide to recklessly give up your day job, at least don't give up your insurance. Hang on to one writing class, which gives you insurance and protects you and gives you the potential for tenure. Don't give it up. The first thing I tell my authors when they sell their first book is to try to live as though they don't have the money yet. Don't start building additions on your house. Don't start taking expensive trips to Sicily. Try to remember that this might not happen again. It's very important to me that people live within their income, whether your income is thirty thousand dollars a year or thirty times that.
Tell me how you spend most days.
I would say being on the phone. Of course I do a lot of e-mail now, and I see the advantages of hiding behind e-mail. A lot of the day is spent getting information. Learning. I really read every catalogue that is sent to me. I genuinely want to know what people are doing. From the moment I take a project on, there is not a book I'm reading—if it's remotely relevant to building an argument or a case for positioning that book—that won't in some way inform or aid me in selling that book, or in understanding that project or the marketplace. A lot of time is spent doing that, and getting information. Who's selling what? The stuff in Publishers Lunch, I'm sorry to say, is rarely the big deals. Those can be the people who want the publicity, they want to be out there. It's great for them. Good. Fine. But it's not the big deals. Sometimes the big deals aren't even in the rights guides.
What is the hardest thing for you about your job?
The whining. I won't have it. I don't whine. I don't want whining from editors. I don't want whining from my authors. I don't want to read about authors I don't represent who whine. I want every single person who gets published to be grateful that they get to be published, because many of their colleagues don't get to be published. I don't want whining about money or any aspect of the business. Of course that doesn't mean I don't want to know when you have a problem. It is my job to help you figure out whether a problem is legitimate or whether it is just nervousness, paranoia, insecurity, fear, dread, the sense that the world is passing you by and you haven't heard from anybody. You've got to get a writers group, a mother, a spouse. You have to seek your support system elsewhere. Because that's not the job of an agent. When I see a problem, believe me, I'm already going at it. The question is: Do I get on the phone with the editor or do I get on the phone with the author and tell him I'm going to get on the phone with the editor, and then not have time to get on the phone with the editor? In other words, you have to trust that your agent is doing her job. When your agent says, "I will take care of this," chances are really good that the agent will take care of it. But at the same time, you can't assume that agents are always effective. I can howl, scream, beg, sob, and implore, but it doesn't always mean that my howling will make a difference. Sometimes the answer is just, "No. We've decided not to publish this book in paperback. The sales of this book in hardcover were three thousand copies, and we won't publish it in paperback."
What do you love most about your job?
Here is the thing about me as an agent: I am not only looking for literature that may be a contender. If I cry at three different points in a manuscript—even if it is lumpy, and overlong, and deeply flawed—then I am going to go to bat for it. I love finding something and getting the whole world to read it. Changing somebody's life. Changing a writer's life. I love the thrill of loving something and really believing in it, and then selling it really well. All agents know when they've done a good job. They know when they've done a crappy job too. They know when they've let their author down and when they've let themselves down by extension. It doesn't matter if you've sold the book for a song or really aggressively. You know when you've done well by a book and the book's author. And then having it all work out? Having it be published well? Being part of that ride? I mean, it's great to be right. It's wonderfully validating. It's thrilling to share in an author's success. Frank McCourt is an obvious example. What gets better than that? And to have an author who remains unspoiled, like Frank has? It is just a joy to represent an author like that. He always has been. He's so appreciative and never complains. And when he does complain it's because he's making a joke out of it. He called me up one time, maybe a year after Angela's Ashes had come out, and he said, "Oh Lord, Molly, the taxes." And I said, "No, no, no, no, no. If you're making enough money to complain about taxes, you don't get to complain about taxes." He laughed and said, "All right, fine!" He's just a joy to work with.
Is there anything you haven't accomplished that you still want to?
No. I just want to always be in the game. I want to work for at least another ten years. I don't want to retire when I'm in a walker. The reason why this is such a great job, first of all, is that I've been able to work around my children and my life. I have been able to call my hours my own to an unusual extent, in a way that would not have been possible if I stayed at Doubleday. But I have a very highly developed work ethic. I work really hard. What is extraordinary about this business is that we get to be more interesting than we would otherwise be. Because of our work. That's really important. In other words, we do go to dinner parties, and we do meet interesting people, and reading remains and will always remain a great common currency. It's fantastic to work in the world of ideas, and great plots, and the great insights that are given to us by writers. I don't ever want to be far away from that. And I won't be. I refuse. I feel deeply privileged to be in this business. So what if it's changing? I'm not going to change as quickly as it changes—there's room for troglodytes like me. And I'm never going to rest on my laurels. Because if you aren't always excited to get something in that is fresh and new, then you shouldn't be in this business. If you're just going along like a hamster in a wheel, then you've lost the pure white heat that makes this business so much fun. And it should be challenging. That's what separates the great agents from the good agents.
Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.