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

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the May/June 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Tell me about how you find clients.
My great love, and where we've found most of our fiction writers, has been the literary journals. I don't know how many other agents read the journals. I know it's a lot more than it used to be, but I certainly read them more extensively than anybody else.

How many do you subscribe to?
I don't know the exact count, but it's somewhere over a hundred. My heroes in publishing are the selfless people who work at these journals, who either are not paid, or volunteer, and who spend their lives putting together these journals with relatively small circulations, but enjoy it. Over the years I've developed a number of friends among them. I admire them. I admire what they do. And they are responsible for many of the writers I represent, including Richard Russo, who I found in a literary journal out of Bowling Green, Ohio, which had a circulation of something like three hundred copies.

Walk me through what happened after you got in touch with Richard Russo.
He called me. He said he'd just finished a novel and asked if I could give him one good reason why he should send it to me. At that point in my career, I probably had a list of unknown writers, none of whom he would have recognized. This was the mid-eighties. I said, "If you send it to me Federal Express"—we didn't have electronic mail then—"I'll read it quickly and tell you what edits I think it needs." And Mr. Russo said to me, "How do you know it'll need any edits?" I said, "I've never read a first novel that I didn't think could be improved." So he sent it to me, and I gave him my edits.

Were they extensive?
No. I've actually given him many more notes as I've gone along with him from book to book than I gave him on the first novel. I think I was a little intimidated by the way he responded on the telephone, saying, "How do you know it needs any edits?" But he responded very well.

And what happened from there?
I sent out the novel and had it turned down by twelve major houses before I finally sent it to Gary Fisketjon, who was then doing Vintage Contemporaries, his list of original paperback fiction that was getting a lot of attention. While he couldn't give me very much money, he said he would make it the lead title on their fall list. He did a great job with the book. What I sometimes quote as a "high four-figure advance" turned out to be the beginning of a success story for Rick.

When you look back at the way he built a careerthe sort of slow build, book after book after bookdo you think that's still possible today?
In Rick's case, he's earned out every book he's published, and rather quickly, which has always led to him getting more money for the next book. But I think it's much harder today. I think Rick himself would say that he was lucky he got to the right editor at the right time in that editor's career. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I realize that with almost every successful book I've had, it's been the right editor at the right time at the right house. That's the key to all of the successful books I've ever had—the right editor.

And there's an element of luck?
Sometimes it's luck. I think that if I were to look back on my career, I would say I've been very lucky. I'm going to be the last guy to dismiss the idea of luck.

People in the business talk about how eight out of ten readers, or whatever the number actually is, are women. I think it's very difficult for young male writers to get published, especially today. I wonder what you think about that and how you've dealt with that in your career.
I certainly think it's very difficult for male writers who are not writing thrillers. They have a much tougher road. We've read a number of pretty good novels by male writers that we know just won't go. Male coming-of-age novels are impossible to sell. We've already talked about how it's getting more and more difficult to sell fiction. Let me give you a better picture of it by looking back on last year. Five of us in the agency read submissions—everyone downstairs and Judith and myself. Five of us. We have an editorial meeting on Thursdays. I never talk to Judith about what I've read except at this meeting so it's all fresh for all of us. We generally read partial manuscripts, or complete manuscripts. Everyone averages about two of those per week. So, in an average year, that's more than five hundred manuscripts. Last year, from those five hundred books, we took on three new writers. And we were only able to sell one of them. Remember that much of what we get is from writers I've written to after reading their stories in the literary journals—we get very little over the transom. So look at those odds.

They're very tough.
Damn right. We've spent a lot of time editing through second and third drafts and finally abandoning books because we don't think we can get the writer up to the level we want. We have to give up on them. Occasionally those books will get published too. But the odds are really difficult, and for the male writers it's even harder.

Is there anything they can do to make their odds better?
I'm always looking for the unusual. I think it may require writing something of a historical nature, with a historical setting. They have to be able to get an idea of what's on the best-seller list today and see that, outside the thriller genre, there aren't too many male fiction writers who are succeeding. And I don't think that's going to change for a while.

But isn't that troubling?
Sure it's troubling. I think it's troubling for all literary fiction writers today. But particularly for the male writers, who are only gradually becoming aware of how limiting that audience is. But I think you can find good male writers who can write from the woman's point of view, too. I remember a first novel I sold years ago. The writer himself was in his early thirties, but the novel was a first-person novel from the point of view of a sixty-two-year-old woman. It was entirely in first person, and it was a terrific story. It began his career. So if a male writer can write from the female point of view, or has a story that will interest a woman's audience, I think he has a better chance than somebody who's writing the kind of Hemingway-esque stuff we read in school.

You talked a little about the decline of independent booksellers. Tell me a little more about how you think that's affected the publishing industry.
It's particularly with first fiction. I think Book Sense has done a lot to try to pick up the slack there. But for first fiction, which is really the future generations of writers, it has become a real problem for publishers because they don't have the large list of independent booksellers that they can appeal to. I forget what the percentage of sales is today from the independents, but it goes down every year. I think that's affecting first fiction, particularly short story collections. I love the short story. I love the form. But who's going to take on a short story collection today? Damn few. I think that's influencing the market—the market is feeding on itself.

With all the short stories and novels you read, what is it about something that grabs your attention?
I can't say what it is that captures my attention. I just know it. I think since I've been reading all my life, I know on the first page, the first paragraph, if I'm in the hands of somebody really capable. I wrote an essay that I put on my Web site about reading the stories in the journals. I pointed out the first paragraphs of a number of writers whose novels I subsequently took on. And it was always right at the beginning that I was grabbed.

I remember reading a first novel and turning to Judith and giving her the first page and saying, "I'll bet you can't stop reading." She read it and asked, "Where's the rest of it?" I said, "Aha!" So can I describe what it is? It is entirely a visceral reaction, and it is also very personal and subjective and not easily categorized. It could be, for me, a western (I represent Elmer Kelton, who is recognized as the greatest living American writer of the western); it could be a crime novel; it could be a literary novel. It doesn't matter what the category is—but it gets me. I think that's what keeps us all going. It's the discovery. One of the best things about my job is that when I finish reading the manuscript of a first novel that I really like, whatever the time of day is, I can get on the phone and call the author, even if it's eleven o'clock at night, and know that they'll be very happy to get my call. And how often have you read a wonderful book where you'd love to call up the author and talk about it? That's what I do for a living.

How do you feel about the decline of independent publishing and independent publishers?
I like to hope that Morgan Entrekin is not alone in this field. There are some interesting small presses coming along. I'm really impressed by what they've been doing. It's interesting how many submissions they're getting from agents these days—agents who were not able to sell that really good novel to a major house because the author didn't have a platform but had a terrific book. I think we'll see more of that. Because, again, as nature abhors a vacuum, I think there's a need in this country for good writing. And while it may not be commercial, there will be an audience to read it.

Do you have any thoughts about the future of books. Have you played with this Kindle thing that Amazon has made, or the Sony Reader?
No. Listen, I was probably the last guy to get a computer at his desk. I am a Luddite. I'd rather read the finished book. I love the feel of a printed book, and I suspect many people of my age group in publishing feel the same. When you open a carton of new books that have just come from the printer, take a breath of that air and the new fresh print. It's intoxicating. The smell, when the box is opened, is intoxicating.

Do you think book reviews are as important as they used to be?
I don't think so. I don't think anybody will tell you they are. A front-page New York Times Book Review can either sell a book or not sell a book. Sometimes it's because you finish reading the review and you can't tell whether or not the reviewer liked the book. There was a time when book sales fell off dramatically when the New York Times was on strike and there was no Times Book Review. I don't think that happens anymore, unfortunately. You can see the newspapers are cutting back on their book sections. They're not making any money. The publishers aren't spending the money they used to on advertising in the book review section. Look at today's Times Book Review—the number of ads is very small. Once a book review section doesn't make money, and starts losing money, it's going to be cut back. So between the number of reviews now available, and the effectiveness of the reviews, and where they're placed in the paper, I think we're seeing the real value disappear.

Tell me what you think about MFA programs.
A number of the writers I represent are graduates of MFA programs. But in much of the material I've seen from MFA writers, they're writing about the standard stories of family trauma, divorce, the death of a parent. They're very capably written. But we've seen too much of that.

You wrote a piece in maybe the early '90s about the sameness of what you were reading.
Yes, and I think if you talk to the editors of a lot of the journals, they'll tell you that they're used to the same thing—that they see an awful lot of capable stuff that is not very engaging. I was asked this question once at a university. I was talking to seniors, and some of the writers were considering going into MFA programs. They asked me about the MFA programs. I said I thought it was great for discipline: You have to write. I mean, you should want to write, but if you find that difficult and need the discipline of going to class, then you should go do it. If you want to go ahead with a career in the university, if you want to teach creative writing, you're going to need an MFA. I think the programs do some good for people who either need the degree in order to continue in the university setting or need the discipline. But I think the originality factor is something that's suffering as a result. We're getting too much of the same old, same old. But I'm working right now with a writer who's going for his MFA, and he's writing a novel in first person that is very unusual, and I'm encouraging him to keep working on it. It's difficult to give you a blank statement about MFAs. There are good things and there are some quite negative things.


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.