Agents & Editors: A Conversation With Four Literary Agents

Michael Szczerban

How do you describe your agency in the context of others that authors might sign with?
: I try to think honestly about what other places offer. There are positives and negatives for everything. I don’t just try to point out the negatives. I try to point out how The Gernert Company specifically can address any of the things an author might bring up.

Flashman: As an agent, and as an editor, you have to figure out what’s important to each writer. 

Ballard: Ultimately, what you get is representation from me. That’s more important than the size of the agency—if anyone ever feels lost at a big agency, then they’re just not being represented by the right agent at that agency. You’re first and foremost represented by me as your agent, and I’m the leader of a deep well of resources that exist within my agency, including UK representation, foreign representation, first serial rights, marketing. 

What are some common mistakes that beginning writers can avoid?
Flashman: I’ve had this fantasy that someday I’m going to take a three-day vacation upstate, to a place like Woodstock or Phoenicia, and write a manifesto of my ten rules for writers. The biggest rule will be about finding the sweet spot of perfect communication with your agent and with editors. Some writers undercommunicate, and I call this a “high-school-girl” theory of being in the world—you want everyone to come to you and recognize how great you are. But you have to be out there with other writers and communicating with your agent. If you publish a piece in the New York Times, I really want to know about it so I can tweet about it and tell your editor and tell my foreign-rights people. For those people, I would say be less of a “high-school girl.” Be like a “high-school boy” who wants all these girls to know who you are. I don’t mean that in a sexist way. And then, on the other hand, there are writers who are trying to manage their anxiety and send seventeen e-mails a day to me, the publicist, the editor. We get so much e-mail, and we just want to make sure we’re answering everyone’s questions. When we get seventeen e-mails, we don’t know where to put our focus.

Fishman: A lot of authors don’t fully realize that we work for them. It’s a weird relationship because at the beginning, they’re trying to impress us. But the truth is that we work for them.

What about issues of craft?
Fishman: I think focusing effort on trying to grab someone at the beginning of your manuscript, instead of focusing on the actual story, is a problem. This is a personal thing, but I often see that issue in prologues that take something exciting from later in the book and move it to the front. I know there are exceptions. I admit to the exceptions. I have clients who have exceptions. But I always make my clients think about whether that prologue needs to be there, and where the beginning of the story really is.

Flashman: It is a subjective industry. Especially with literary fiction, we all have this sort of thing we gravitate toward. For me, it’s elegiac fiction. If your intro sounds like the beginning of The Great Gatsby or The Secret History, I’m a sucker for it. I call it “book voice.” I read the intro to Gatsby along with one of my author’s intros this weekend out loud just for fun. I’m not a poet—I don’t know much about poetry besides English 201—but I love that voice.

Ballard: I ran into Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House, recently, and he was telling me that he’s teaching a class at his MFA program this semester that’s all first paragraphs.

Habib: That is brilliant!

Ballard: All you can bring in is the first paragraph, and those paragraphs are all you workshop the whole semester. I think that is so brilliant. That is the thing that’s going to hook you, that you form that snap judgment on, whatever you’re reading—even if it’s a book that’s been published and widely acclaimed.

Habib: In some ways your experience as an agent should mimic the experience of a reader who picks up a book at a bookstore. I often read e-books, and, before I buy a book, I download the free sample. That’s how I decide. So, for me, I’d say, “Really think about your first twenty pages.”

Fishman: I read books that are not my own all the time because I want to find a query that makes me stop reading that other book. If I’m bored I will pick up my regular book, and enjoy it. If there’s something that keeps me from it, that’s a real sign.

What other advice do you have for authors?
Flashman: I’m always telling authors to storyboard their books with big Post-It notes. That’s valuable when I’m working on big-thinking narrative-nonfiction books—to look at a really great book and see the architecture underneath it.

Ballard: I think that story is undervalued, in literary fiction at least. The writing, obviously, is key. But you need to tell a really good story. It’s hard to do.

Habib: Story is undervalued in nonfiction, too.

Ballard: I actually think it can be simpler than you think it’s going to be—or, it can be more classic than you think it’s going to be. Your voice and your telling of it are going to make it more interesting. Some people are trying to whiz-bang their way through a novel. Others are just so quiet that it doesn’t matter how pristinely beautiful the writing is—it doesn’t have that thing that pulls you through.

Habib: The number one bad habit I see with nonfiction—the habit I have to break my writers of—is they all want to do a series of profiles instead of telling a story. Every submission comes in as, “I’m going to do a series of profiles that explains X problem.” But most readers are not going to finish a book unless there’s a narrative thread that brings them through to the end. It has to have a story.

What about bad habits in editors or publishers—the things we do that make you grimace?
Ballard: The good thing is that it’s not that easy to quantify. Any frustrations I have are specific to the occasion or relationship.

Fishman: Sometimes there is a feeling of defensiveness with agent involvement. I’m sure that is based on prior experience with other agents, but there have been a number of times that I would have loved to participate in the publication of the book in a more creative and collaborative way. I don’t want to just sell the book and step back. I like to be hands-on in publicity and marketing. In certain categories, I feel like I know a lot about those things. I get frustrated sometimes when there’s defensiveness in response to an honest attempt to make the book as good as possible.

Flashman: Writers may not realize that editors and agents tend to be specialists, but publicists are often just assigned to books. There are exceptions, but a publicist might be working on a novel, a cookbook, a diet book, a book on pets….

Habib: I worked on all four of those as a publicist. And, you know, publicists often don’t get the glory. It’s a pretty hard job. The publicist usually only gets a phone call from the agent when something has gone wrong. That’s not the way the model should be. A mistake that editors and publicists can make is trying to spin how a book is doing, or what’s happening with it, to the agent and author.

Fishman: Whatever it is, I’d much rather know. 

Habib: Just tell me!

Fishman: The writing is on the wall pretty quickly. From what I understand, a marketing and publicity base budget is established early on. A lot of the goal, in my estimation, is to tick that up every second of the day. It’s very hard to do, and it takes a lot to make that happen. I focus on trying to get the publisher to a place where they’re excited about the book beyond what happened when they bought it.

Habib: Publicity is not always about the budget. It’s about how the book is being perceived, how it’s being pitched, and what the response is. Sometimes the publicist, for whatever reason, doesn’t understand the book and isn’t pitching it well, or it’s not going well and the publicist is too terrified to say, “No one cares about this. What are we going to do?”

Ballard: Having gone through that now a few times, unfortunately, you can tell when the energy’s there and when it’s not. It’s not manufacturable. You go to a publicity meeting and people ask, “Do you have a Twitter account? Are you on Facebook?” And you're like, “Oh, my gosh. That’s a very basic question, but yes, thank you.” What are the things that we can actually do to make this more tenable out there in the world? It’s hard. 

I’ve asked agents to help push to increase a book’s promotional budget, but the best thing for a book sometimes has little to do with money and everything to do with creativity and effort. Money won’t improve a book that, God forbid, just doesn’t deliver, and it won’t create an awesome pitch or fix an uninspired marketing plan on its own. But it can make people pay closer attention and try harder.
: Not to turn the tables on you, Mike, but when do you feel frustrated? One of my frustrations is occasionally that the cover options presented to us are basically final. I’ve never really gotten into a situation where it’s been a problem. It’s just something that authors really have opinions about. And so, you are the representative for their artistic vision for this book, and the publisher has their own very strong opinions of how it should look.

Designing a book jacket can be like walking a tightrope. Editors stand right where the artistic ambitions of the author meet the commercial ambitions of the publisher, and we try to make everyone happy. But those ambitions are often signified in visually different ways, so it’s hard to have a compromise design that is crisp and strong. I’m sure you’ve seen covers that look like a hodgepodge of competing ideas and lose some power as a result.
: I wonder about designers at the publishing companies, and what happens before an author ever sees a jacket. Designers are probably the people I am furthest from and connect with the least. Yet they are arguably some of the most important contributors to a book’s success.

What has gotten easier since you got into the business?
Fishman: Submissions. When I was an assistant, we used to print out every manuscript and put them all in boxes and put labels on them. It would take all day to do a submission.

Ballard: For me, as someone who does a lot of literary fiction, there’s this incredible part of our industry that is so supportive of new voices, and so interested in publishing difficult literary fiction. The importance of those indie publishers has grown exponentially since I started. The ways in which they care about the creative atmosphere. The ways in which they’re perpetuating these incredible voice-driven authors who may not find a home in the mainstream. They have made my job easier, because I know that my author is going to find a home. You just have to sometimes dig a little deeper to find it. 

Michael Szczerban is an executive editor at Little, Brown and Company.


Interview with four literary agents

Thank you, Michael Szczerban, for that very informative interview. I have seen and experienced all that you have described based on the interviews you had with the four litereary agents, and am greatful for the opportunity to have had Poets and Writers send me their monthly E-newsletter. I always read them. I am a self-published author and am constantly working on improving my writings. It is not an easy thing, but I love it. I participate in the Poets and Writers yearly "Round Table" meetings at the Riverside, Ca. Library each year for the past four years. I have also been a member of the California Writers Club, Inland Empire Branch, for the past ten years. And although I am not, yet, a well known writer, I did, however, recently give a talk at Valley College San Bernardino, a community college in my area, on self-publishing and what to expect after having written that book. I am glad to say that I covered most of what the agents had to say about the writing world today. Things certainly have changed. I'm hoping that more writers have that knowlegde and share it with those wanting to know. Thank You Once Again.  Dave Gamboa.         

Amazing Interviiew

When I began the read, I thought, Ohhh, they are so young looking. By page 2 I said, Wow! They work so hard, care so much, know their craft, their trade! I'm not sure you can really know how great a peek into the working life of these dedicated people can be. Thank you so very much, Michael Szczerban, for this necessary information so few writers ever experience.

My anxiety re the writer/agent experience is greatly reduced, my fear of messing up a query better managed, less terrifying, and my confidence pushed higher to trust an agent to truly care about what matters so much to me.

Writing from my own experience with orphanage and post WWII, allows me to impart authentic story, and I thank you, Habib, for framing that value for me. The four of you did a fine job of articulating what is such deep mystery to so many writers, sort of lifting the veil and showing us that agents, editors, publishers are real people with real jobs and real interest in constituting really good stories well told.

Having just finished my memoir...Mama Was a Boom-Boom Girl in WWII...I am about to embark on all that you have talked about. The four of you are true assets to the literary world. Poets and Writers has done us all a great service.
Having just finished my memoir... Mama Was a Boom-Boom Girl In WWII...I am about to embark on all that you've talked about, necessary knowledge writers need. Timely, indeed. I can't thank you enough for your thoughtful responses. The four of you are true assets to the literary world. Poets and Writers have done us all a great service.

Where have the grown-ups gone?

Not sure I'd have a whole lot of confidence in agents who hold the correct spelling of their name (or gender assigment) among the major criteria for assessing an ms. If Fitzgerald or Hemingway (or Carver or Cheever) had been sloppy spellers where would the (American) literary world be today. Also don't get a sense of much wisdom or a lived-in life being present in the group. Where are the Mitchells & Maxwell of today. Has publishing become a social media-based lemonade stand?