Agents & Editors: A Q&A With Four Young Literary Agents

Jofie Ferrari-Adler
From the January/February 2009 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In the third hour of the conversation, glutted with food and alcohol, the panel agreed to speak anonymously on a range of subjects that would be awkward to discuss for attribution. The participants swore a blood oath never to reveal who said what, and a number of verbal tics have been altered in order to throw any sleuths off the scent.

Tell writers something they should know about editors but may not.
Editors are worried about their jobs. It's a fact of life. It's a business, and they can get fired, and they have to keep their jobs.

You're probably going to have your agent for a lot longer than you're going to have your editor.

The smaller the editor's list, and the smaller the imprint, the more freedom they have to be selective about what they take on and the more time they have to be really responsive and really detail-oriented. It's a lot harder for an editor who's under pressure to buy a lot of books to be able to really be with you every minute.

Tell me about some editors who you think are really good for fiction.
I really like working with Stacy Creamer. I think she's really smart and has a great commercial eye.

Reagan Arthur. She's really selective, so when she loves something, you know that she's insanely in love with it. She will go to the mat and do anything for the book. And I never feel like she is lying to me or giving me company bullshit.

The best editors are the ones who can get people in-house to pay attention. And they have the track record to show for it. You said Reagan, who has an amazing track record, and I would say Sally Kim.

I would sell a kidney to have a book with Courtney Hodell. She's one of the smartest, most interesting people I know. When she buys a book, she is so passionate and articulate about it.

When writers are trying to pick an agent, what are some warning signs that they should watch out for?
They try to charge you money.

They promise you the sun, the moon, and the stars. They say, "I can get you six figures. I can get you national media."

Agents who say, "This needs an edit, and let me recommend you to someone" who will charge you ten thousand dollars. A real agent should be able to help you shape something.

Somebody who says, "I'm really excited about your book and I'd like to sign you up," and then three months later you still haven't heard back from them.

Tell me how you feel about lunch.
Lunch is part of the job. Some days it's really fun and you come back totally energized and inspired, and some days you come back and think, "In six months, that person is leaving publishing and I will never send them anything, they will never buy anything, and that was an enormous waste of my time."

Sometimes you come back from lunch and you feel small and insulted and insecure.

It's like having five blind dates a week.

Sometimes you score big time, and sometimes you're like, "Could I have the waiter call me on my cell phone and pretend that I have an emergency?"

My most terrifying lunch, which turned out to be absolutely terrific, was when I had worked up the guts to start submitting to Julie Grau. After a while she invited me out to lunch. She called me the day before and said, "I'm going to bring Cindy [Spiegel] with me, too. Is that okay?" It turned out to be lovely, but I was so scared.

I had that same lunch with Sonny Mehta. I was like, "I...I...I...I'm not even sure I'm going to be able to get through this lunch and speak coherently."

What are the dumbest mistakes that writers can make in terms of dealing with their editor or agent?
Saying bad things about them. Ever.

Sending seventeen e-mails about seventeen different things in one day. I mean, put it all together in one e-mail and think about whether you really need to be asking these questions. Think about how busy your editor is.

Going over your editor's head unnecessarily.

When they don't tell you about their next project. For example, they've written a great thriller that you sell, and then they write a horror novel. They say, "Guess what? I just wrote a horror novel." You're standing there with this horror novel and thinking, "What am I going to do with this?" They have to communicate about what they're thinking about doing next.

Be very careful about what you blog. Not just talking about the publisher once you're being published, but even before that. If I am submitting your book to publishers and an editor wants to buy it, they're probably going to Google you before they even call me. And if they find things out there that are curious or disturbing? Just know that whatever you're putting online is going to influence their perception of you.

If you take my rejection letter and post it on your Web site, there are few other agents who are going to be willing to put anything in writing to you. We look upon those writers in a bad way.

What are the biggest things that editors do that drive you crazy?
Besides not getting back to us?

I hate when an editor calls me and says, "I'm really, really excited about this project," and then a week or two later they call back and say, "On second thought...." That usually means the publisher shot them down. A lot of young editors do this. They think that if they call back and say, "My publisher shot me down," I won't send them anything else. In reality, it's the exact opposite. I'd much rather hear them say, "I love this book. I fought for this book. But the publisher said no." What better excuse is there?

At least I'll submit to you again. But if I think of you as a flip-flopper?

I hate it when editors toe the corporate line. They give you, "We don't do that. At our house, we don't do that." Or they say, "We're doing a great job. We are doing everything we can. I don't know what you would expect from another house. We are doing everything that any other publisher would do." You know what? It's not true. You people only know what you're doing, and I know what everyone else is doing.

I'd rather hear them say, "I have fought tooth and nail for more money for marketing, and they will not give it to me. I don't know what to tell you." At least they're being honest. In those situations I blame the marketing department, I don't blame them. Some of the most powerful editors in the world aren't necessarily going to be able to convince the publicity or marketing departments to give their books more money.

Then they can come to me and say, "Here's the thing. I fought tooth and nail for x, y, z. I couldn't get it. You might consider—off the record—calling so-and-so or emailing so-and-so. Or going to your author and asking if they can contribute some funds to this."

The editor who is honest with you about the real situation is giving you an opportunity to fix that situation.

But just to play devil's advocate, I will call editors up and say, "Look, it's just you and me here. We're working together. We both want this book to succeed, despite the fact that your marketing and publicity people suck." And the editor will say, "We're doing everything we can," as opposed to saying, "Okay, here's the problem." But if the agent is a certain type of very loud and powerful person who will go over the editor's head and cause problems, then I can see why they don't want to level with you.

But if you have a good relationship with the editor and they say, "Listen, here's the deal. We have these five books all publishing this month. The other ones have really obvious hooks. Ours doesn't. Sales is not responding to it. I don't know how we're going to get it attention," then at least try to do something about it. But if you hide behind the corporate façade, then there's no chance the book will ever work. And I will always feel like you are that team's player and not our team's player.

Are writers conferences useful for writers?
Yes, but not for the reason they think. The problem with writers conferences is that most of them are aimed toward getting the book published, and they should be aimed toward forming a community of writers who can communicate and help one another get endorsements and things like that.

When you're on the fence about taking something on, what are the things that will push you one way or another?
Am I still thinking about it when I wake up the next morning?

I think, "I shouldn't be on the fence."

For me, "maybe" equals "no."

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


That opening scene

On page two of this article, one of the agents describes quite clearly, and in very negative terms, the opening scene of an unpublished and unrepresented novel that he's heard about on some web forum. How is that ethical, either for the agent or for Poets & Writers?


This conversation may have taken place over Mexican takeout and wine. But listen to the passion here. The words. Fight. Love. Make me see things I'd never seen. Show me new worlds. These agents may indeed just sit at desks, checking emails, making phone calls. But they are devout members of a religious order. The Order of Books. Like wandering monks, like samurai, like holy fools passing through some Russian forest, these are men and women pledged entirely to a cause. Writing. And because of them, and those like them, the light of Literature has never gone out. And never will.

I always enjoy these Q&As

I always enjoy these Q&As with editors and agents, but I especially appreciated hearing from a younger crowd this time, the kinds of people I (hopefully) would be working with soon. Naturally I found myself nodding in agreement to much of what they said, and cringing on occasion. I suppose it's comforting in a way to realize that they get us frustrated as we writers do -- although it can be disheartening at times as well... Ultimately, though, I agree with petetarslaw's comment about their passion. It's enough to make me a little less scared about sending my work to people like them, enough to give me a little more faith and hope.

I find a lot of matters in

I find a lot of matters in this article useful and interesting in the sense that it really shows the way the world of literature is now a days. I don't generally write comments about articles because I feel they have no repercussion on the greater purpose, but I am just baffled at how blatant the market is. Literature is an ART and agents freely discuss how a writer should be willing to sell. Writing is not enough? Unawareness in the XXI century really lets me down. There is such a lack of understanding of the very essence of art from agents, who are supposed to understand it. Art lives though and it is not about selling or making millions, in fact the greatest stories are never published. Life itself is the greatest art and agents should realize that the greatest writers are not crazy about publishing, chances are they don’t even care much because they have a day job.


This was fun to read. I laughed out loud enough times that my three-year-old left the Island of Sodor to come drool on my Mac. Anyway, a few references were made to the music industry, and I don't think they should be left unturned. I am a lowly singer/songwriter, and the similarities I noticed are eerily familiar. It's not about the "next literary iPod," although I have run into a few passionate electronic book owners. Nor is the issue simple: writers need to not suck, and readers won't buy crap. But I think that these large publishing companies are doing the same kind of preliminary homogenizing that the big record companies did not too long ago. "Indie" houses, the smaller joints, are going to eventually eat the big fellas' lunches. The ingredients are all there - frustrated and underpaid writers, passionate agents who are tired of running between the talent and "the man," as well as editors who want to be part of something significant. All of whom would love to get paid. Sooner. Just some thoughts...

I just happen to be working

I just happen to be working on a screenplay about radio DJ's back when they actually got to choose the music they played and could champion new bands or new songs, and this article reminds me of that same symbiotic relationship. I suppose in all of the Arts there are the creators and the champions. Visual Artists have galleries. Play/screen writes have producers. Musicians have managers. Dancers have... whatever dancers have. And writers have agents. I'm sure one could find drafts of query letters from artists in the 16th century to potential patrons. Very little changes, even as it all goes digital. Speaking of the digital revolution - there is a great story of a screenwriter who got fed up with hearing about "The (Frank) Capra Touch" when he felt the director was taking too much credit for what his writers had created. This disgruntaled scribe is said to have put brads into 100 blank pages, tossed it on Carpa's desk and said, "Put your touch on that!" The same could be done for those touting digital. Toss them an empty ream of paper and say, "Turn that into ones and zeros." And has no one noticed that the main interface between computers and people is the written word? Maybe I have because I'm dyslexic.

Agent-Talk from the Other Side

As I read the musings of The New Guard agents, an image formed in my brain where it remains today. It is no doubt unfair, and for that I apologize, but I relay it to you anyway on the theory that among your readers I am not alone. A small party of prepsters is sent, for reasons of minor miscreance, to the starving population of a remote and unfamiliar tribe. Their task? To distribute a steady albeit inadequate and dwindling supply of food. As they pinot-up each evening after five, they talk of how they select the lucky recipients, the few who depart that day with a cup of rice and a pint of powdered milk. Eventually the party formulates a list for the benefit of their charges, those for whom they are the agents of the new guard: "The ten things in the begging process that make an agent want to reject an entreaty immediately." John Mullen -- Gloucester, Massachusetts

Agents & Editors

Just read Jan/Feb issue and enjoyed the interview with the four young agent-turks, Barer, Kleinman, Lazar and Zuckerbrot. I found their comments candid and informative. How about a follow-up article with four aspiring writers, not anyone with an agent or who has been published, but four writers who have been struggling to land an agent? Maybe these four agents might learn something that would make them a little more understanding of those query letter writers, and in the end, better agents. I would love to be one of the four struggling writers.

Very disappointing piece.

Very disappointing piece. Looks like every agent on this panel is white. Not one agent who happens to be a person of color in the bunch. Where are the HIspanic agents? Or Asian-American agents? It just gives one a good idea of why the industry is so bland these days, because the gatekeepers, like these four being interviewed, spend most of their time navel-gazing, picking out prospects who reflect their own demographic. PW, surely you can do a lot better than this.

@journalissimo I think that

@journalissimo I think that political correctness stuff is crap...didn't Kleinman say that he tried to buy 'The Kite Runner'...just because there's not an agent of color in this interview doesn't mean that writers of color are being shortchanged--on ande of the other agents in this interview said that they got sent a book dealing with Sri Lanka and she loved it. This doesn't sound like a group of people who look to reflect their own demographic.

Men DO Buy Fiction!

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this conversation with the four agents. I learned a lot, especially as one who is currently looking for an agent for my first novel. However, I must strongly disagree with Barer's statement that men do not buy fiction. As a man, I can tell you I both buy and read fiction, and I know of other men who do the same. I also liked the discussion about technology, which I think is a great tool to use for marketing a book. I do not think that the printing of books will go away because of Kindle or Nook. I just think those mediums are another way to attract people to books. Both will continue into the future. Anyway, thanks again P&W for making this dialogue possible. It's nice to get a glimpse into the thoughts of agents, and it has helped me find at least two more agents I'll be sending my query letter to. Best!

i have read

Thank you, i have read all of it takes 30 minutes completely and i liked this part very good. "I have a trick that works every time. I use it a lot, so I should probably retire it at this point. But I write in the subject line, "People who owe me a phone call." Then they open the jokes e-mail and number one is "The Pope." Number two is "Britney Spears." Number three is "You." Then I'll say, "If you can explain numbers one and two, that would be great, but I'll settle for number three. I'd love to hear from you." They always get back to me. [Laughter. Compliments.] It's good because it's a little passive-aggressive, but it's also polite.
BARER: I know an agent who once sent an editor who wouldn't call the client a fake phone and phone card and a whole little package of messages. Like, "Hello? Pick up the phone!" It's just astonishing and insulting.

Late to the Party

An incredible article. I'm certain the wine helped to open up these agents/owners/literary business people. I learned a great deal about literary agents from this article. They came across as open and honest in their responses. Some of those responses had me laughing out loud--not because I have any experience with being a literary agent, but rather because they were such human reactions; they reacted to questions the way my friends in business would react. It is a business after all. Cudos to the author of this article. His approach to this project was magnificent.