I like to ask editors and agents what they enjoyed reading when they were growing up because my own early reading experiences were so formative. My parents enforced strict time limits on watching television and banned The Simpsons from our den, but I could go to the library and read almost anything. After I exhausted the meager Juvenile Literature section I moved on to the spinning racks of mass-market paperbacks nearby. The summer after the fourth grade, I scored a dog-eared copy of John Grisham’s The Firm before a family vacation to the New Jersey shore. I was hooked on his writing before we even reached the motel. Little did my family know that in the backseat I had been racing through a tale of corporate malfeasance, murder, and money laundering in the Cayman Islands.
I can trace one reason why I am now an editor back to that car ride: Grisham taught me something new about the power of stories. Before The Firm, I knew that a book could make me laugh or cry, but I didn’t know that it could make me itch while I wasn’t reading it, or make my chest feel like it was going to burst if I didn’t get to the next page. I had never read a thriller—and certainly not one that made me feel so potent and alive after finishing it.
When I sought out the literary agent David Gernert for an interview, I admit I had an ulterior motive. In these tumultuous times I can think of no one better to offer an opinion on contemporary publishing than Gernert, a seasoned professional who has a depth of experience both as a high-powered editor and the head of a prestigious agency, but in truth I wanted to hear how he came to edit and publish The Firm twenty-three years ago, and what it has been like to work as Grisham’s agent for the past seventeen years.
Gernert made his start in the book business as an assistant to agent Nat Sobel, and was hired shortly thereafter by Doubleday for its training program. After joining Anchor Books, an imprint of Doubleday, as an editorial assistant, Gernert worked in the rights department and other areas before becoming Doubleday’s editor in chief. After years of successfully publishing Grisham and others, Gernert left Doubleday to start his own agency. Grisham was his first client.
Today the Gernert Company employs thirteen people and represents roughly two hundred and fifty authors. Among Gernert’s clients are Michael Harvey, Robert Kolker, Mike Lawson, Will Leitch, David Levien, David Lindsey, Charlie Lovett, Stewart O’Nan, Chris Pavone, Peter Straub, and Walter Walker.
I’d like to know a little about how you grew up. Were you always a reader?
I grew up in a little town in New Jersey, New Vernon, straight west of New York City as the crow flies. My father worked on Wall Street.
I was always a reader. But one of the things I think about now is that when I was fourteen, the possibilities for me on a Tuesday night were to watch TV, to read a book, or to pursue what might be called a hobby: chess, or playing the drums. That was pretty much it. For a fourteen-year-old today, playing computer games may consume more time than any of those things, or all of them combined. That’s a difference the book industry has not completely grappled with.
People in publishing often ask, “Will someone pay twenty-five bucks for this book?” But I think the question should really be, “Will someone pay ten hours of their time to read this book?”
I agree. I was a big reader—I read more than a book a week, almost exclusively fiction. But I loved television. I wonder if I would have read as much if there had been the kind of television there is today.
Many years ago I was talking to Joe Savago, the executive editor of the Book-of-the-Month Club when it was a big deal and they had all the great books. He told me that in the mid-1980s there had been a national convention of movie-theater owners, and at this time, VCRs were brand new. The theater owners were scared to death that people could sit at home and watch a movie on TV. The keynote speaker was a top executive in the movie business. He said, “Don’t worry about the VCR. Every piece of exit data we have as an industry says that the first decision people make when they go to a movie is to go out. You’re not in competition with a VCR.” Everyone thought that was wonderful. What they didn’t realize was the VCR was going to compete with reading, not with going to the movies.
If you look at binge watching season three of Breaking Bad, that’s a very similar experience to reading a novel. It’s a lot closer to it than most other ways to pass the time. When House of Cards came out on Netflix, each episode was called a “chapter.” They clearly wanted it to feel like reading a novel. What does this mean for reading? It’s a big issue.
But my point is that when I was younger, there wasn’t that much to do at night. So I read a lot.
Which writers most influenced you?
Probably American masters like Ernest Hemingway. I read all of Hemingway in one long burst, and I also read science fiction and popular fiction. I remember reading John Cheever and thinking he was amazing. I confess that I did not read a lot of classics—I did not read Tolstoy. Later, early in college at Brown, I discovered really contemporary American fiction. And that is what got me really jazzed about writing.
I went to a private school in New Jersey, one of those schools where everybody goes to college. I was trying to figure out which college to go to, so I went out and got a book called The Insider’s Guide to the Colleges. I read it cover to cover, and every time I found a college that sounded interesting, I folded over the page. I went back and reread all of the folded over pages, and the one I liked the most was Brown.
I told my college counselor that I was only interested in going there. He said, “Well, that’s a lovely idea, but you need a few other schools in the mix.” I said, “No, I’m just going to go to Brown.” He was really saying that I had no chance of getting in. [Laughs.] But I applied early and got in. Never applied anywhere else, never thought of going anywhere else.
Brown was quite progressive for the Ivy League at that point. It is less so now. I had an interview with a woman who had some very strong, fairly radical opinions about education. As luck would have it, I had been intrigued by alternative education and read A. S. Neill’s Summerhill when I was about thirteen years old. We got into a huge argument and were really going at it. When I walked out—the interview lasted an hour and a half—I thought, ‘Either I’m going to get in or not based on that.’ I loved it.
What did you at Brown?
In high school I had edited the yearbook and the literary magazine. When I got to Brown, I did some writing. Providence had a little weekly newspaper that wanted to be the Village Voice when it grew up. It was called Fresh Fruit. I wrote for them a little bit—some film reviews, one big investigative journalism article about dog racing—I was trying to demonstrate that it was fixed. And I did work a little on the literary magazine.
There were a few very good writers at Brown when I was there. I was in the writing program for a while, even though I was majoring in, dare I say it, semiotics. David Shields was writing short fiction that was terrific. Susan Minot was in my class. Nancy Lemann. Really good published writers.
What did you plan to do after you left school?
A friend of mine had started a little music business at Brown and asked if I wanted to go with him and another friend to make it big and successful elsewhere. We promoted bluegrass, blues, and Irish music in Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
I did that for a while. And when I got tired of having absolutely no money—I mean, we were really broke—I moved back to my parents’ house in New Vernon, New Jersey, to look for work. I went to an employment agency and they asked what I wanted to do. I said I wanted to work with books, music, or film. Those were the three areas I was really passionate about.
At first the agency tried to get me jobs as a paralegal. If you had gone to an Ivy League school, they figured paralegal was the job for you. But I had no interest in that. Then they got me my first job, which was as an assistant for the literary agent Nat Sobel.
What do you remember from your time with Sobel?
Nat explained to me that a very low percentage of novelists made a living from writing fiction. I hadn’t realized that. And he asked if I had any thoughts about finding emerging writers. I had a real fondness for small literary magazines, so I told Nat that there were some really good short story writers who probably didn’t have agents. So we started writing letters to them, and I’m pretty sure Nat found a few clients that way.
At some point I had lunch with a good friend from college, and I remember him asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be the editor in chief of a major publishing company. So I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to do at that point.
How long did you stay with Sobel?
Not very long, but through no fault of Nat. He was very good to me and I liked him. But when I had been there for only a couple of months, I was offered a position in Doubleday’s summer training program. At the time, if you completed the program, they guaranteed that they would find a job for you. They just didn’t guarantee that it would be in any particular part of the company. All of the trainees wanted to work in editorial, but you could have been offered a job in production, or the business department, or publicity.
One day I was in the cafeteria and an assistant to an editor came over to me and said, “Just between us, I’m leaving, and you should apply for my job.” I did and I got it.
Who did you work for?
Bill Strachan at Anchor Books. Back then Anchor was all smart, primarily narrative nonfiction—a lot of course adoption. They had started as a reprint company, and by the time I was there, they were doing hardcovers. It was a great imprint, and it had a lefty feel, which fit nicely with my Brown education.
I was just saying to one of the young people here at the agency that it’s almost impossible for them to understand how different it was. When I went to college there were no computers. It was a different world. At Anchor, I literally had to wear the headphones and use the foot pedal to play the dictation machine.
You got your foot in the door. Then what?
There was a long period that I don’t remember very clearly because it was a period of great tumult within the company. Doubleday and Anchor went through many changes, and I cruised along under the radar. No one noticed me. Years later, after I became the editor in chief, someone asked how I had done it. I said, “I stayed.” [Laughs.] I hung on while everyone else left.
How long did you have to hang on?
It was quite a long time, because there was an interlude in which I worked in the rights department. I had been an editorial assistant for longer than anyone had—for three and a half years or something, and I wasn’t getting anywhere. So a guy from the rights department came and said, “You should come work with us. It’s a great department, you’re a smart young guy, and you’re not getting anywhere in editorial.” [Laughs.] So I went to work in the rights department, and it was really fun.
In those days, the rights department was making all the money. I sold book club rights to the Book of the Month Club and the Literary Guild, and it became a tremendous resource for me. It was much the same as a job I had in college, restocking paperbacks in the fiction section of a bookstore. I memorized the fiction section by spine and got a cocktail party knowledge of these different novels without ever reading them.
Such a useful thing!
A very useful thing. People would mention writers later and I’d be like, “Oh yeah, I remember him.” I could tell you the name of the book he wrote—I just never read it. [Laughs.] I had a similar resource—but better—when I sold to the book clubs. I discovered that the people who worked at, say, the Mystery Guild had a voluminous knowledge of mystery writers, and I would ask them, “Who’s the best mystery writer that people have never heard of?” I used that time to get to know more about different kinds of fiction.