Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Agent Nat Sobel

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

When you get down to it, what made him such a special publisher?
He was a rebel. He was attracted to that which turned off other people. He loved a good battle. He had wonderful taste, and he also had a wonderful outlook on publishing that doesn't exist at all anymore.

Tell me what you mean by that.
I'll tell you about a moment in my life with Barney that had a major influence on the things that attract me as an agent, especially these last few years. At some point I noticed that on the upcoming list was a book of poetry, a fairly substantially sized book of poetry by a Mexican poet I had never heard of, and it was going to be in a bilingual edition, Spanish and English. I went to Barney and said, "You know, Barney, I don't think I can sell this book. I've never heard of this guy." Barney said to me, "I didn't buy it because I thought you could sell it. I bought it because I liked it and because I thought it was important." And the book was the first publication in English of the poetry of Octavio Paz. It's sold hundreds of thousands of copies, it's still in the Grove Press backlist, and it was a book he wanted to publish because he loved it. You couldn't help loving a guy who had that philosophy.

When you left, why did you decide to become an agent rather than an editor?
I knew how to sell books. And because Grove Press had a hardcover list, a trade paperback list, its own mass market paperback list, and a magazine, I thought I would make my services available as a consultant. Which is what I did in my first year or two. Grove was a distributor for a couple of smaller publishers—Peter Workman's first list was being distributed by Grove, for example—so I thought I would approach small publishers and offer my services as a marketing consultant. Because of the variety on the Grove Press list, and because I had traveled the country, I think I was able to help some small publishers. One of those publishers had a book that they wanted to get published instantly. I knew some of the editors at Dell from my own days there, and I knew Dell did a number of instant books, and I sold this book to Dell and got my first commission. About six months later, this small publisher had another book. It was by an NFL football player who had quit the game and talked about how he had been supported financially while he was playing football in college by the university, and some of the illegal things that were going on in football. I sold the paperback rights for fifty thousand dollars and took a 10 percent commission. I thought, "Wait a second. Maybe I should be doing this for small presses instead of offering my consulting thing."

So I started to move from consulting work to handling the subsidiary rights—paperback rights and foreign rights—for small presses. Nobody had ever done that. I kind of backed into agenting by working for small presses. Eventually, some of those presses went out of business and the writers found me because I was the one who had generated the most money for them. At about that point, Judith [Weber] joined me. She came out of an editorial background and wanted to work more with authors. Eventually we phased out of the subrights business, partially because the mass-market publishers started to develop their own hardcover lists, so they weren't so anxious to buy reprint rights from other presses. But I was still doing a little consulting work. I wanted to do other things. As an example, I started the bookstore in East Hampton.

Right. I started it with two guys. One of them was the editor in chief of a company called Stein & Day, which is no longer around. His partner lived in East Hampton. He asked me about the idea of starting a bookstore, and I had bookstore experience, so I found the location and we got BookHampton off the ground, partially because I didn't know whether I was going to make it as an agent. After two years, the store started to take off.

Were you working full time at BookHampton?
No. I worked four days a week at the agency. In the first months of BookHampton, I would go to the jobbers and pick the books to take out to the bookstore. I would work Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the bookstore. So I was working seven days a week. I was getting pressure on both sides. I couldn't put in any more time at the store, and my two partners were pretty much beginning to know how to run the business without me. We had a financial settlement and I was able to work full time at my agency.

What were some of the first books and authors you represented?
I still represent one of the first authors I represented, a guy by the name of Dr. Raymond Moody, and in fact I'm working on a new book of his. So he must be one of the oldest clients I have. He wrote a book called Life After Life, the first book dealing with the near-death experience. The publisher of that book was a small library press in Georgia. The publisher came to me in New York because he was trying to sell the paperback rights to this little book that was very odd for him. He gave me the galleys and I read it and thought it was an amazing book. The author was a thirty-two-year-old doctor who had just discovered these cases in several hospitals in Atlanta. The book was a huge success. We sold it in something like twenty-five countries, and it was the first big financial success the agency had. When Raymond wrote his second book, he went to the same small publisher. The publisher called me up and said, "Nat, this is not the kind of book I publish. I published that first book because nobody else wanted to do it. But I think you ought to be his agent." So he turned the manuscript and Raymond over to me. There are a lot of other stories like that, people I came to know, like best-selling Catholic priest Father Andrew Greeley. He'd been published by a small press that I was doing the rights for, and I wound up becoming his agent. But I had no idea that trying to build a list of authors, to make it as an authors' agent, was going to be such a long and difficult path.

When you were starting out as an agent, were there any established agents that you looked up to or went to for advice?
None. I didn't join the agents' organization either.

You just sort of figured it out?
I made a lot of mistakes. I took on a lot of things I shouldn't have taken on, but when you're getting started, if anybody comes to you, you think, "I'm going to do it. I can sell it." It's only been in the last twenty years, or maybe the last ten years, that I became aware, as did Judith, that we wanted the agency to reflect our tastes, rather than just take on things that were saleable. Our list is our taste. Which means that there are a lot of areas of publishing that we will not go into because we aren't interested in them. So we've never done any romances, for instance.

How is being a writer different today than it was when you started out as an agent?
I think it's easier for the writer. Today writers are a lot more aware that they need an agent than they were then. The so-called slush pile at publishing houses is almost nonexistent today—a lot of writers languished in those slush piles for years. I think writers were often tempted by ads run in the writers magazines by agents who charged exorbitant fees to have their manuscripts "evaluated," and much of that has disappeared. By and large, writers get responses from agents much quicker today because of e-mail. I think the process has fewer mines in the ground for writers to avoid. But on the other hand, it's much more difficult to get published if you're a fiction writer. It's a bit of a tradeoff.

Why do you think it's more difficult to get published as a fiction writer?
I think you have to really look at the market today. If you look at the Deals page of Publishers Weekly, nine out of the ten deals described are nonfiction books. There certainly is a very strong feeling in the publishing world that fiction is chancier—absolutely chancier—than nonfiction. Today, you have to have all sorts of other reasons to publish a first novel—other than that it happens to be very good.

What do you mean by that?
We keep hearing this phrase, "What's the platform?" What's the fucking platform? The first time I heard the word platform was at a writers conference. I was on the dais with another agent and she was talking about "the platform." I thought, "What the fuck is a platform? What is she talking about?" Well, what it is is this: What does the author bring to the table? Talent is not enough. The number of slots open to fiction on a publisher's list is being reduced all the time.

But that wasn't always the case. What do you see as the reason for that shift?
I think there are a lot of reasons. It's not just the conglomeratization of publishing and the slow disappearance of the independent booksellers. But maybe it's easier for the sales rep to go and sell a nonfiction book that he hasn't read, or she hasn't read, than it is for the rep to go in and sell a first novel that he or she hasn't read. As the sales forces of the major publishing houses have become decimated, there really is very little time for any of these reps to read the first fiction on their list. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Almost more to the point, I think, is how agenting has changed in the last ten years.

I read something where you were talking about how many agents there are now, as opposed to the old days when there weren't as many, and the importance to a writer of picking a good one.
Yes. And how do you know if you've got a good one?

I try to impress my client list on new writers. There may be a writer on that client list whose work you've read, whose work you really like. It should give you some sort of comfort to think, "Well, if he was so-and-so's agent then he can't be all that shabby." The client list is a wonderful tool for the would-be writer to explore. Now that so many agents are putting their client lists on their Web sites, I think that's a great way for writers to use that tool. Of course you don't really know how good an agent is until you work with them. It's like trying to determine if somebody is going to be a good sex partner without getting into bed with them. At some point, you've got to get into bed. But I think you would know fairly early on what sort of agent you have. It has to do with the level of chemistry between you—how they respond to your work, what they want you to do with it, and how they perform.

Do you think editors do less editing than they used to?
I think so. But I also think publishers do a lot less selling than they used to. They do a lot less promotion than they used to. And this really gets to the core of what I think about where agenting is going. There are a lot of editors who are basically acquirers, and there are some who are really hands-on editors. The editors in that second category are a much smaller number, and those are the people who I generally go to first with my manuscripts. But I think the whole question of editing also has to do with how much time the editor can really give to a novel. That's another reason why I think fiction is not as sought after by publishers as it used to be. You need a lot more editing for a novel than you do for a work of nonfiction—although a lot of nonfiction should be edited as well. But from the standpoint of how much time an editor has to devote to the books on his or her list, fiction is on the time-consuming end of it. So we see less time spent.

I think what is evolving today for agents is that they need to be the first line editors for their authors. Judith and I really love the editing process. We have spent years editing nearly every novel we've ever agented. We did that long before we began to discover how little editing was going on in the publishing houses. But today agents need to be far more proactive in almost every other area of the publishing process. We have to be the marketing directors for many of our books. We have to involve ourselves in looking at the jacket design, the jacket copy, the catalogue copy. We have to be very proactive in how we help direct the writer to help sell his or her book. Those are things you never thought about in agenting when I first came into it. You made the deal, you negotiated the contract, and that was it—the publisher took over.

Today the writer very much needs to be proactive. When I have writers who have the kind of personality that they enjoy going out and selling their books, and I've gotten them a big enough advance, they are smart enough, with my guidance, to put some of that advance aside and spend their own money to get the book off the ground. I think that being able to suggest things to writers, things they can do themselves to help sell the book, is getting to be as important a factor as helping them to edit the work. It's been amazing to me how much money a publisher will spend to acquire a book, and how little they will spend to make the book a success. The role of the agent today is a totally involving one—you have to be involved in the whole process. Which starts with helping the writer, as we do, through two or three drafts of the work to bring it up to the level where it is as good as we think it can be. That's not to preclude the possibility of some additional insights from a really savvy editor.


Nat Sobel interview

This is one of the most discouraging, truthful, and useful articles Poets & Writers Magazine has ever published. I think I'll sit quietly in a corner and weep for a while before charging forward again despite the odds against male writers.