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

Jofie Ferrari-Adler

What do you think the students in them could do to avoid that sameness?
They have to get out and live.

What do writers who are starting out today need to look for in an editor?
First of all, I think writers today are thrilled if they've got an editor who wants to buy their first novel. They're already thrilled with that editor. But I think they want to be convinced that the editor is really enthusiastic and will help to get the whole house behind the book—beyond anything that was spent to buy the book.

Are you saying an author should be more concerned about having a great advocate than having a great editor?
Well, since a lot of the editing is being done before the manuscript is delivered, I think the most important thing is having an advocate. In fact, I think the best thing an editor can do for a book is to be the great in-house advocate. That counts far more than the editing process, especially if you're a writer who feels you've gotten enough editing from your agent. And I think more and more agents are editing books.

And that's a good thing?
Absolutely. I think you have to. The editors themselves know which agents edit their books. When an editor calls me and says, "I like this book and want to buy it, but I have some problems with the ending. How willing is the writer to do some more work?" I have to be in a position where I can say to the editor, "Listen, I've worked with this writer through three drafts of this book. I know he or she is willing to do the work and is capable of doing the work." I have to be able to tell that to the editor. I think, too often, the editor discovers that the writer didn't get edited by the agent and that the writer doesn't want editing. Strange as that may seem, it happens.

All agents have different philosophies about what kind of deal they want in terms of advance money. Some agents are just concerned with the money. Others look at other factors. What has your experience taught you about this issue?
My particular philosophy about this has to be influenced by the years I worked inside a publishing house. I have a tendency to see things from the publisher's side of it as well as the author's. While I want to get the best money I can for a writer, especially when we're talking about novelists who are going from Book A to Book B, I don't want to price the author out of the market. I have a pretty good idea, based on sales, what I think the publisher can afford, or should be able to afford, to pay for the author's next work. I've done my own mathematics; the number is not taken out of a hat. It's one that I know the editor can go back to his boss, or her boss, and get, as a not crazy amount of money. So having a little bit of knowledge about the mathematics has been very helpful in being able to determine a fair price for an author's next work. Sometimes I've had a difference of opinion with a writer who thinks he should be getting a lot more money for his next book. In that case, if I'm not on the same page with the writer, then the writer is perfectly able to go on their own, find another agent, and see if they can get the money. But I'd rather see an author brought along from book to book, with a track record that develops and enhances his or her value to the publisher, and at the same time gets them more money. But it's commensurate with how the previous work has sold. I don't believe in putting a gun to the publisher's head. In the long run, I think the best deal is where both sides feel they've gotten a good deal.

What do you love most about your job? Is it that phone call at eleven o'clock at night, or is it something else?
There are lots of things I like about the job. The discovery of new talent, of course. The success of a book that you've worked on and helped nurture. I mean, I spent a lot of time working with James Ellroy on The Black Dahlia, more than on his previous books, and I felt I'd made a real contribution to the success of that book. I like a lot of the people I deal with in publishing. I came into publishing about the same time as Sonny Mehta did, and Peter Mayer, both of whom I consider old friends. So I have a sense of community. I love hanging out with these guys. We have a history together. We've all seen publishing change, but we're still in the business. We love what we do. There is a kind of a family feeling to the business, among, let's say, forty or fifty agents and forty or fifty editors. So you feel a sense of community.

I love to see a first novel get on the best-seller list. I always want to read those books, especially if it's a first novel. I mean, look at how [Nancy Horan's] Loving Frank, for instance, succeeded as a best-seller last year. I wanted to read that book. I wanted to see what it was. But I do know there was great in-house enthusiasm for the book. And I know what a splendid job Algonquin did with [Sara Gruen's] Water for Elephants. And what a great job Morgan did with [Charles Frazier's] Cold Mountain. I mean, they don't happen very often. But every one of those successes keeps us all in the game.

What are the disappointing aspects of working as an agent?
The novel that you worked on for months, through two or three drafts, and then you can't sell. Terrible. You can't help but take it personally. The writer who leaves you after several books, either because the books didn't go anywhere or because he feels he's ready to move up to a big-time agent. But I think a lot of these things happen to people like Peter Mayer and Sonny Mehta, too. So it's part of the game.

What do editors do that drives you crazy?
When they don't answer my mail.

Why is that?
Well, we could get into a whole discussion about common courtesy, and how it seems to have disappeared.

But especially in this business, right?
More among younger editors, who aren't aware that if you've asked for a book, and there's a closing—and I never send a manuscript to an editor unless they've asked for it—then they have to call and let you know. Sometimes you wait all day to hear from them, or you have to chase them again. That pisses me off. I don't get too many form rejection letters anymore. I usually respond by sending my own form rejection letter to the editor. I tell the editor, "Our agency no longer accepts form rejection letters and we have decided to remove you from our submission list."

What makes you love an editor?
A quick response. An intelligent response that shows me they've read the book. Maybe they pinpoint a problem in the book. If I have a difference of opinion with a writer about some aspect of their novel, I may say, "Well, why don't we try three editors and see what their responses are." I'm hoping to hear from the editors that they have the same problem with the manuscript. If I get that kind of response, I can go back to the writer and make him make the change before I go elsewhere with the book. But I don't get that kind of response very often. The editors I like are the ones who instinctively know that there's a good book here but it needs this, that, or the other thing—and they are willing to tell me. A lot of editors aren't willing to tell you what the real problem is with a book. The stock phrase will be "I couldn't summon up enough enthusiasm" or "I didn't feel passionately," none of which tells you anything. But the editors who tell you specifically what it is that they didn't like about the book are valuable. And you don't get too much of that. You talk about editing in the publishing world? Getting intelligent responses to our manuscripts is almost as important for us as getting an offer is, these days. You don't get too much of that.

Tell me about some high points and low points in your career.
For low points, I told you about the writer whose work you really love, or you really like them a great deal, and for one reason or another they leave you. That's always a low point. Maybe they feel their careers aren't going anywhere. The publisher isn't offering as much money for their new book as they did for their last book, and they think that some of that is your responsibility. As one writer who I liked a great deal once wrote to me, "I can't fire me, Nat. You're the only one I can fire." And he fired me. That was the whole letter! His career didn't go anywhere, but that was one of the nicer rejection letters.

The real high points are the writer who you've worked with for several years, and their career's gone nowhere, and you've been working on their new book and it's really terrific—it's different from anything else they've written—and you've gone out with that book and sold it in the face of the fact that any check of BookScan will reveal that they sold hardly anything of their last book. But you found an enthusiastic editor who's willing to take the book on despite that and really run with it. That's a great moment, and that's happened to me a few times. I say that to writers who have had poor results with their first few books and feel that publishing doors have closed to them. Because the sales track is clearly one of the things an editor looks at. Sometimes they can't see how incredible a new book is—they can only look at the author's track record at another house. So when you can overcome that, as an agent, and convince an editor that they have something special, you've really made a breakthrough, especially in this market.

Do you worry about the future of books and reading?
I don't think you can be in this business without worrying about that subject. But, you know, when I got started in publishing, I can remember an old salesman telling me, "You should have been here in the forties and the fifties, Nat. That was the great period! Now it's all gone to hell." I think every generation probably feels like, Geez, you should've been here twenty years ago, kid. Where were you twenty years ago when it was really great? I think there's always going to be that element—that it's not as good as it used to be. But it is tougher today.

What do you still want to accomplish?
I just love doing what I'm doing, and I hope I'll be able to do it for many more years to come.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler is an editor at Grove/Atlantic.


[Editor’s Note: Following the publication of Jofie Ferrari-Adler’s extended interview with Nat Sobel, we received a letter from Stuart Applebaum, executive vice president of communications for Random House, who takes issue with Sobel’s views of the firing of the publisher’s sales reps. We reprint his letter below in its entirety.]

While Mr. Sobel is well entitled to express his opinions about book publishers, his observations about the Random House, Inc., sales force demand clarification, in particular, two points in his quote.

First, the Random House Sales reorganization he cites took place some eighteen months ago—not so “recently,” as he misleadingly pegs it.

Second, his suggestion that the Random House field reps who left were “replaced by new, young, and cheaper people” is simply untrue. In virtually every instance the accounts affected at the time of the change were and continue being sold by longstanding, highly knowledgeable Random House veteran sales representatives with great rapport and effectiveness with their customers.

As a point of reference, about one-quarter of our field reps have more than twenty years of service. All but nine of them have at least five years of field-sales service. And speaking of tenure, at our national Sales Conference in March 2008 we celebrated three RH Sales Group members with thirty-five years of service; six celebrating thirty years; three with twenty-five years; and five commemorating twenty years.

Stuart Applebaum
Executive Vice President, Communications
Random House, Inc.

The author responds:

In his essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell warns us about words that are "used in a consciously dishonest way." I was reminded of that warning when I read Stuart Applebaum's letter about the Random House sales force's "reorganization" (Orwell again: "Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them").

Mr. Applebaum's first complaint is almost too minor to be taken seriously, but, for the record, this interview was conducted on January 6, 2008, and the cuts to the Random House sales force were reported in Publishers Lunch on November 10, 2006, which places the actual time-span at less than fourteen months. Readers can decide for themselves if fourteen months can be reasonably considered "recent" for an agent with Sobel's decades of experience in the business.

Mr. Applebaum's second complaint is not minor at all. It could have been pulled straight out of "Politics and the English Language," and therefore it is troubling. Just after Mr. Applebaum assures us that Sobel's comment is "simply untrue," he qualifies that phrase and everything that follows it by inserting the word "virtually." Again, readers of this magazine know enough about language to look at the letter and decide for themselves what the word's presence tells them.

Obviously Mr. Applebaum is just doing his job, and I have a hard time faulting anyone for that. It should also be noted that it is impossible to prove or disprove Sobel's supposition without having access to information that is personal and proprietary, namely the salaries of the sales reps who were fired and the salaries of any reps who may have been hired to do the same work in the interim. But I am disheartened by Mr. Applebaum's attempt to distract readers from the larger truth of Sobel's observations—that reps are overburdened, and that publishing veterans are routinely replaced by cheaper help in order to save money, both of which hurts writers as well as readers—by issuing a statement that, when you really look at it, says virtually nothing.

Jofie Ferrari-Adler


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.