Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Editor Chuck Adams

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the November/December 2008 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Did the author do any key things in terms of promotion?
Well, Sara's got a great personality, but I don't think she'd mind me saying that she's not a natural in front of crowds. She actually can have a little stage fright. But once she's there, her charm and her warmth come through, and she did an amazing job on the road selling the book. That was a huge thing. But ultimately, I think, it's about the book. People love it. We just went back to press, this week, and printed our two-millionth paperback copy. It's been an amazing ride.

What was the most exciting moment for you?
The first time it got on the New York Times list. And the millionth paperback copy. That was fun—the entire office went out to dinner. We had champagne here and then went out to dinner.

Tell me about trying to keep her.
We tried very hard.

I imagine that you put together some kind of creative offer.
Yes. I don't want to talk about the amounts, but we put together a very creative offer. It was a reasonable amount of money up front and guarantees of more if certain things happened. It was a shared risk situation. Financially, we just can't afford to pay millions of dollars and have a failure. Other companies can. We can't. We just can't take the risk. So it was a shared risk—more money if this happens, more money if this happens. I would have loved to have kept her.

You're on record as saying you understand her decision.
I do. I do, completely.

But it must also be frustrating.
It is. It's particularly frustrating for the others here who worked so hard to create the book's success. I mean, it hurt. I can't say that our feelings weren't hurt a little bit. But I put myself in her shoes and I think, "x dollars here versus x-x-x-x-x dollars there?"

Tell me about the major changes you've seen in the industry over the course of your career.
Things have changed a lot. I started at Holt in 1969, but because I was in production I can't say I had a great feel for the industry because the industry, let's face it, revolves around editorial and publicity and so forth. By the time I got to Dell, which is where my career really began, I did understand what I was getting into. Dell was a big mass market house, and the mass market kind of ruled. I remember when Nancy Friday's My Mother / My Self reached one hundred thousand hardcover copies and everyone went, "Oh, God! That's amazing!" Now one hundred thousand is nothing—you may not get on the best-seller list with that. There's been a shift away from the mass market side.

Now things have just become big business. Advances have gotten kind of out of control. I'm not saying I liked it better the old way, it's just that I've never been one who liked to pay big advances. I'm not tight with money—God knows I waste a lot of it—I just hate risking things. I want to see the company make money. I've seen too may authors' careers go down the toilet because of big advances. I had an author at Simon & Schuster who I just loved. He was a great writer and he was great to work with. I had done a nonfiction book with him, and I encouraged him to do novels. So I bought two novels from him for something like fifty thousand dollars. The first one was great and got terrific reviews—a daily New York Times review, the cover of the Los Angeles Times Book Review—and sold moderately well, fifteen or twenty thousand copies. That was good for a first novel. It launched his career. The second book was just okay—it wasn't great—and it did okay but not great. When it came time to negotiate for the next novel, his agent wanted three hundred thousand dollars. We tried to get to a reasonable amount, but the truth was there was another editor who wanted him and I think had already put the money down. So he left for the money, and the third book sold like the second book and the first book. And the fourth book sold like that. And now he's not writing anymore, to the best of my knowledge. He could have built a career if he'd just been patient and hadn't become greedy and gone for the money.

But it's hard to resist that kind of money.
I know it is. I just get frustrated when agents and authors go for the money like that and don't think about building careers. I think sometimes we all just get carried away with this need to buy these things without any thought of what we're really going to do with them. But here, fortunately, we only do twenty books a year and we can't do that. We have to think carefully about everything we buy. But in a culture like at Simon & Schuster, and before that at Delacorte, to some extent, you would just buy things because you needed to fill up a list. You know, every month you had to have your three or four big books, but you also needed to have another fifteen or twenty down at the bottom. You would just buy stuff and fill them in. Too often, books that are acquired for hundreds of thousands of dollars get put in the midlist because they decide they aren't going to sell. "We can't make it into a big book, so we'll just put it there." I've had books like that. I've been guilty of this. I guess there's no way we cannot pay big advances because that's the culture we're in, but I think it's bad for so many careers.

I just took on a book this week where I was one of the bidders when it was sold a year or more ago. The author interviewed all the editors and went with another house that offered a lot more money than I offered—almost three times what I offered. But he called me out of the blue a few weeks ago and said, "I made a mistake. I really wanted to come with you but the money was just irresistible." So he's buying himself out of the contract and coming here. He just felt like he wasn't getting the guidance he wanted. I don't know if we'll have a great success or not. I think he's really talented. But the money is almost impossible to resist, I think.

It seems to me that publishers are responsible for a lot of these problems, especially the problem of the midlist writer whose career has stalled. What should publishers be doing better?
I think they should be publishing fewer books, or publishing more carefully. At Algonquin, because of the kind of house we are, doing twenty books a year, every book has to work for us. We can't afford to just throw something out there. We have to work like crazy. We'll say, "Okay, we think there may be fifty thousand people out there who will buy this book. So let's go find those fifty thousand people." That's what marketing and publicity do here. They dig for those readers. They don't always succeed, but they always try.

How are they doing that?
A lot of it is on the Internet. A lot of it is contact with booksellers. Take this book by Roland Merullo, American Savior. It's a satirical novel about Jesus coming back and running for president. We're taking a big position on this book in the way we're positioning it with bookstores. But we've also been in touch with all sorts of religious organizations, especially liberal religious organizations, trying to get them interested and supportive. We just go after all these different things that the larger companies don't have time to do because they're publishing so many books, and they're going to put their effort behind the ones they paid the millions of dollars for. So, here, because we only do ten books a season, we work those ten books to death. We're not afraid to take somebody who has languished in the midlist. If we feel like they're capable of rising above that.

Do you think the industry is healthier now than it was when you first started?
Well, it's much bigger, so I suspect it's less healthy. Originally it was small operations that weren't publicly owned. You didn't have corporations demanding that you meet certain budgets. I saw this at Simon & Schuster. We had one year when Judith Regan, who I like a lot, had Howard Stern and I believe Rush Limbaugh in one year, and another editor had The Book of Virtues, and there were a lot of other books that worked. So let's say the year before we had made ten million dollars and our budget for that year was eleven million. But it was such a great year that instead of making 11 million, we made more like 111 million. So next year, does Paramount or Viacom say, "Your budget this year is twelve million"? No. They say we're supposed to make 112 million. So all of a sudden the bar has been raised that much higher. If you make the budget, keep in mind, you get not only a pat on the back—you get a bonus. So everybody wants to make the budget. When May or June comes around and you start looking at the numbers, you think, "We're not going to make our budget. What can we do?" What you do is start taking books that were supposed to be published later on and moving them up, throwing them into November and December just to get the numbers out. A lot of books and authors get sacrificed that way.

What does all of that mean for the future? Are the large corporations ever going to realize that the industry doesn't have the kind of growth they want and give up?
I don't know. Going back to the beginning of my career, when I was at Holt and we were owned by CBS, I remember the people at Holt laughing at the people at CBS. The powers that be at CBS had called the people at Holt and said, "You're doing something wrong here. If we put a dollar into our broadcast operations, we usually get back $1.75. You're only giving us back a $1.02. You're doing something wrong." They just didn't have any idea. They hadn't even researched what they were doing. In our business, $1.02 on the dollar is not bad. Any profit is good. But these corporations expect big growth. It's creating mega hits, and that's fine. Simon & Schuster is one of the best at that—they're amazing at event publishing. But so many little books, so many promising little books and talented authors, get sacrificed.

But what do you see on the horizondo you think it's going to keep going the way it's going?
I have no idea. Seeing Warner get out of the business is probably a good thing. Viacom will probably ultimately get out of the business—it's actually CBS now, I don't know how they'll figure that out. Bertelsmann is probably pretty solid. They seem to know what they're doing. I don't know what kind of pressures are on people in-house on a bunch of things. I don't know what it's like. I bet it's not too dissimilar, but at least it's not publicly owned, so you don't have the Wall Street pressure. I think that's probably one of the biggest problems: the pressures from the stockholders and so forth. It's not a business that's ever going to function like a normal manufacturing operation or a normal big business. It's just not. So much depends on the personalities and quirks. There are so many ways to go wrong in this business, and it's so difficult to get it right.

Did you read Jon Karp's recent essay in the Washington Post?
No, I didn't see it, but somebody was telling me about it.

He was basically arguing that the future of books is quality stuff and not the sort of quickie schlock that a lot of publishers make a lot of money from.
I haven't read the article, but I don't necessarily agree. Look at Judith Regan. She's a good example. I think she's brilliant. I think she showed us something we all kind of know but don't like to admit, and it's that we're in fucking show business. She showed us that if you give people what they want, they will buy it. You can call it schlock if you want to. Books on wrestling, and books by porno stars, are not things that I necessarily want to read. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't be published. There are people who want to read them, and she gave that market what they wanted. And, okay, it's schlock, but it got people into bookstores, and they bought books. I've always thought, "Give me more Harlequin romances." Get people reading! You just want people to read. I don't put down any form of publishing if there's a market for it. For too long, in New York, we've been in this culture of publishing what we like and not what readers want. Hopefully, we'll come around to trying to understand what people really want to read so we can interest them in reading in the first place.

When I was at Simon & Schuster, they started this thing on diversity in publishing, and we were all supposed to go through diversity training. To my knowledge, I'm the only person who was not summoned to go through diversity training. I think it was because I wrote them such a scathing reply to their initial query of "How do you feel about diversity in publishing?" I said, "There is no diversity in publishing and we're not likely to get it as long as you just pay lip service to it." There are virtually no African Americans in this business, there are virtually no Hispanics, virtually no Asian Americans. It's because we don't pay competitive salaries, we don't make an effort to recruit them, and, frankly, if they came in and really had a sense of their area of publishing, the bosses wouldn't know what to do with them and probably wouldn't give them a chance to do anything anyway. They expect you to be white like all the rest of us. There's too much of the elitist school culture in New York. The only people who can afford to take jobs in publishing are those who come from enough money and whose parents will help support them. We don't encourage a diversity of people in the business. We don't. We just want more of the same because they're the ones who can afford to work in it. And I don't see that changing. I know that profits are a problem and you can't afford to pay huge salaries. I know the argument. But it's a problem. And when somebody like Judith comes along and really tries something different and gets pilloried for it? Okay, she overstepped the bounds. I'll give you that. But she showed us that there is a readership out there if you're not too proud to go there.

Let's talk about agents. There are a lot of them, and I'm curious about the factors that you would look at if you were a writer, knowing what you know, and had your pick of a few.
I would want them to ask certain questions. "Who do you think the audience for my book will be?" "How do you think my career should progress?" I think writers should be asking about career, not just about selling this particular book. "What do you think I should be working on now to follow-up this book?" I would want a very careful reading of the book in order to make sure that they did read it and really understood it and weren't just hyping me up. I would do as much research as I could. I'd want to know who their other clients are and how their careers are advancing. I'd want to talk to some of their authors, if possible. I'd look at how well the books that this agent has sold are being published.

You want an agent who is both incredibly easy to get along with and incredibly determined to get the best they can for their authors. The best agents are the ones who keep after me and don't leave me alone. You know, "What are you doing? What's going to happen next?" They want to keep on top of things. The ones I'm leery of are the ones I hear from only once or twice a year. Marly Rusoff, for example, is a great agent. She works so hard for her writers. Well, she was an editor, too. I think some of the best agents used to be editors—because they know the business. And so many editors are now agents, of course, because you can make more money.


Capturing The Voice

Great interview and questions, I especially liked the mention of capturing the voice and reeling in the reader. Often times you get the impression that just because one knows where to place a noun, subject, and adjective that somehow its equivalent to building the eighth wonder of the world. ... Yet if an editor or two suggest the slightest change to a word or a sentence it’s as if the author’s soul has been sliced. ... I’m all for letting editors cast the first stone because often times they see the heart, and when that happens those books become our friends. Well done. –Floe

James River Writers Conference

I have gone to all of the James River Writers Conferences in Richmond, Virginia but one, and this year Chuck Adams was on the panel. Here is a guy with wonderful advice, good humor, and a lot of great, down-to-Earth qualities. Thanks for the interview. I hope he returns to a panel in the future.

Chuck Adams interview

This is one of the most helpful, informative and encouraging interviews I've ever read. Thanks so much.

Chuck Adams Interview

I really enjoyed reading this interview, as well as the interview with Molly Friedrich--this kind of information and insight is so very helpful and encouraging to us struggling writers. As a writer who regularly submits his work to editors and agents, I inevitably find myself asking each time the work comes back, "Why has this story I felt so passionately about failed to engage?" The workshops and MFA programs teach craft, but apparently, an understanding of the market is sorely needed as well. These interviews, at least, give us some insight into these matters. - John Martin


What an amazing interview. Great questions and answers, giving me a ton to think about as an author. I'll turn back to this one again and again.