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

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

You're talking about a fairly major shift from the responsibilities of the publisher, in terms of the editing and the promotion, to the agent and the author. Tell me why that happened.
I think that nature abhors a vacuum. It's as simple as that. The vacuum that has been created in the publishing houses by the reduction in their promotion and publicity budgets, by the reductions in the size of the sales force, by the dependence on a few key accounts buying most of the print order, has led to the reduction in staffs of the publicity and promotion departments, and reductions in staff throughout the publishing house. The result is that things aren't getting done the way they used to be. It's not because the people in those houses aren't willing to do it, they're just either overworked or underfunded. So perfectly wonderful books get printed and disappear. And if you don't do something, if something isn't done by somebody...I think the writer has his or her own future in her hands in terms of what she is willing to do in order to make the book succeed.

But when you look at the landscape of the publishing industry, why did that vacuum come to be?
I think it has to do with the bottom line. If they can save money by reducing their sales force, they're going to do that.

And that came about due to the decline of independent booksellers, right? You needed less salespeople.
Yes. You could hire people in an office warehouse someplace to get on the phone and call some of the smaller booksellers. You didn't have to have book reps. Recently, it didn't get a lot of attention, but Random House fired some of its most experienced sales reps. These were people who were better paid and had been with the company for a long time. The guy who they reported to finally had to quit himself because he couldn't face having to fire some of the best reps they had, who were going to be replaced by new, young, and cheaper people. But somebody forgot along the line that these reps had built up a rapport with booksellers. They could get a bookseller to take a chance on a book that they were enthusiastic about. [See Editor's Note.]

Another problem is how the level of enthusiasm has been watered down by the way the publishing houses are now structured. You used to have a situation where you'd have an enthusiastic agent selling a manuscript to an enthusiastic editor, and then that enthusiastic editor would go to the sales conference and communicate her enthusiasm to the sales reps, and then the sales reps would read the book and communicate their enthusiasm to the booksellers. But now the editors don't go to the sales conferences. The sales force doesn't have that direct contact with the person who bought the book. And the sales force itself keeps getting modified so that the enthusiasms don't percolate down to the booksellers who are going to take a chance on that first novel. The system is such that enthusiasm itself has been kind of cut off, at the most strategic place, which is the editor's ability to communicate her or his enthusiasm to the reps and to the rest of the people in the house. There are some editors who are very savvy and very enthusiastic about their books. I love dealing with those people. They don't let a book die. They are going to get out and get everybody's attention. But even they can't go to the sales conference, can't deal with the reps, can't communicate that enthusiasm to the people who have to go out and sell the books.

Tell me about some of those editors who are especially good at that.
I'm not going to name any names. I'll tell you why. Because I'll wake up tomorrow and think, "Why didn't I tell him about A, B, and C? Why did I only tell him about D, E, and F?" The editors who I really respect a great deal, they know I respect them.

What kinds of things are you encouraging your authors to do on their own behalf?
It depends on how much money they get for their books. When I sold Tim Dorsey's first novel—Tim is an offbeat crime writer who's written ten novels about a very amiable serial killer, very wacky novels—we wound up selling it at auction. He was the night editor for the Tampa Tribune. The money he got—it was a two-book deal—was more than several years of his salary at the paper. I said, "Tim, I don't want you to leave the Tampa Tribune until after your first novel is published." He said, "Does that mean you think I won't ever sell my third or fourth books?" I said, "No, it's because I have an idea. I want you to write to the book review editor of every newspaper in Florida, on Tampa Tribune letterhead, and ask them if they would review your book, as a colleague, so to speak." I said, "Don't expect the publisher to spend much money promoting your book. I want you to think about things you can do to help sell your book."

And he did that. He sent out letters on Tampa Tribune letterhead. It worked very well. He came to the [BookExpo America conference] on his own and brought cartons of T-shirts to give out with his first novel. Then he spent many months traveling to bookstores in Florida and Georgia and Louisiana and Alabama. And the fact that he's up to book ten should speak for itself. He has a very proactive Web site where he sells T-shirts and baseball caps and he has an interactive Web site for his serial killer, Serge. Tim is about to make his thousandth bookstore stop. He's made the books succeed and he's made his publisher a believer in him. He's a great student of what the proactive author should be. And the booksellers love Tim.

You also represent James Ellroy. How did you meet him?
Years ago, my lawyer was, and still is, the lawyer for Otto Penzler and the Mysterious Bookshop. He thought Otto and I should get together. I've been Otto's agent for many years. Anyway, I liked Otto a lot, and we couldn't figure out how a bookseller and an agent could do anything together. I got the idea, or maybe it was Otto, to form the Mysterious Literary Agency. This was really at the point when I was just beginning to represent authors, and the idea was that Otto had this wonderful bookshop where crime writers came in all the time, and he would send writers to me who asked how to get an agent. So we started the Mysterious Literary Agency. We did a whole thing where our letterhead had no address and no phone number. If you wanted to find us, you had to solve the mystery. New York magazine did a little thing about the Mysterious Literary Agency. James saw that. James had had two paperback originals published and his agent had given up on him. He walked into the Mysterious Bookshop and said, "I am the demon dog of American crime fiction." Otto said, "I've never heard of you." James said he had this manuscript, which Otto sent to me as the first manuscript of the Mysterious Literary Agency. It was Ellroy's third novel, which I edited, as did Otto. About that time, Otto got financing to start Mysterious Press. He told me he wanted to buy Ellroy's novel for his first list. So the Mysterious Literary Agency went out of business. Of course neither Otto nor I knew that James's previous agent had had seventeen rejections on this novel. But we had done a lot of work on the book.

Tell me about that. I remember seeing some documentary where you talked about the editing work you did with Ellroy.
There are a lot of Ellroy stories. I wrote Ellroy a rather lengthy editorial report about that first novel I represented. I got back what looked like a very lengthy kidnap letter. It was written in red pencil on yellow legal paper, and some of the words on it were like an inch high: I AM NOT GOING TO DO THIS. I thought, "Oh, I've got a loony here. Somebody who calls himself the demon dog? Maybe he is a demon." But it was a very smart letter. He was very smart about what he would do, why he wouldn't do certain things. And he did do a lot of work on the book. I've edited him ever since. Nearly all of the editing is done here. He's been wonderful to work with.

But isn't there a story about you removing a lot of words from one of his books?
That's another story about how Ellroy's style developed. It was for a book called L.A. Confidential. It was a bigger book, in length, than he had ever done before. Otto was still at Mysterious Press when Warner Books bought it, but the editor in chief of Warner had heard that L.A. Confidential was finished. I called her and told her I had the manuscript. She asked me how long it was. I said it was about 850 pages. She said, "No, we can't publish that." I said, "What do you mean you can't publish it?" She said, "We publish all of Ellroy's books in mass market, and a manuscript of that size"—maybe it was even longer—"you'll have to cut 25 percent of the book."

L.A. Confidential follows three cops, and you couldn't take out one of the cops. James came to my house to talk about what we could do about it. I had the manuscript on the desk in front of me, and as a joke I said to James, "Well, maybe we could cut out a few small words." I meant it entirely as a joke. But I started going through a manuscript page and cut out about a dozen words on the page. James said, "Give me that." I gave him the page. And he just kept cutting. He was cutting and cutting and cutting. When he was done with the page, it looked like a redacted piece from the CIA. I said, "James, how would they be able to read this?" He said, "Let me read you the page." It was terrific. He said, "I know what I have to do." He took the whole manuscript back and cut hundreds of pages from the book and developed the style. That editor never knew what we had to do, but she forced him into creating this special Ellroy style, which his reputation as a stylist is really based on. It came from her, sight unseen, saying "Cut 25 percent of the book." He wound up cutting enough without cutting a single scene from that book.

How do you explain Ellroy's success with The Black Dahlia after six novels that were basically commercial failures?
It was a much bigger book, a much more emotionally involving book for James, and it dealt with a crime he'd been thinking about for a long time. So the manuscript itself was a big leap forward for him. But that doesn't explain how it succeeded after six novels didn't. James made a huge bet on himself. At the time he wrote The Black Dahlia, James was working as a caddie in Westchester. He was writing at night. He had no family and no other interests except writing. Otto [Penzler] was continuing to publish him and had bought The Black Dahlia for more money than he'd spent on James's previous three novels because he thought it was a terrific book.

Word got out about this book, and we got an offer from Warner Brothers, who optioned the book for fifty thousand dollars. That was more money than James had gotten for all of his other books combined. When I called James to tell him, he said, "When the money comes in, call me." When I did call him, he said, "I don't want the money. I want you to call Otto Penzler and ask him what the advertising and promotion budget is for The Black Dahlia." Otto told me they were going to probably spend fifteen thousand dollars because none of the books had succeeded up till then. I told James. He said, "Ask him to double it. Tell him that if they'll double the budget to thirty thousand, you'll be giving him my check for forty-five thousand dollars and we'll have an entire budget of seventy-five thousand dollars to launch my book." And when I did that, Otto agreed to increase the budget to thirty thousand dollars. He was just floored by the fact that James was going to kick in forty-five thousand dollars of his own money—all of what he was getting, after my commission, from the movie sale. James wanted the money to be spent on the front cover of Publishers Weekly, a full-page ad in the Times Book Review, and the rest of it to be spent on sending him around the country for three months. Three months. And he went. Because James has nearly a photographic memory, he remembered every single person he met, and he single-handedly made his book successful. That was more than twenty years ago.

Where did he get the idea? That's so farsighted for somebody in his situation.
He didn't get the idea from me. He was smart enough to say, "This is my chance. This is my book to get out and do it." He made it happen. Whatever success James has is entirely of his own making. He's a very thoughtful guy. He never went to college. But he's intelligent, he loves people, and he loves to go out and promote. Not every writer can do that. Not every writer's as good at it as he is. Tim Dorsey's as good as that. Others I've represented are. When you've got a talented writer and they have that charisma, it's my job to advise them about how to use those tools to make their book successful. So in effect, I am still the sales manager that I was when I was at Grove Press.


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.