What about the upcoming merger of Random House and Penguin? What do you think the fallout’s going to be?
It’s impossible to know until it’s here, which is why we here spend very little time even thinking about it. Those of us who have been doing this for a while remember when Si Newhouse owned Random House, and when there was a separate company called Bantam Doubleday Dell. We woke up one day to discover that Si Newhouse was essentially selling Random House to “the Germans.” It was as if the sky was falling. Now, it’s inconceivable to think of Random House as anything other than Bertelsmann. In a very short period of time people will forget that Random House and Penguin were not always Random Penguin or Penguin Random or whatever they’re going to call it.
We’re entering an era where being in a very stable, big boat with a very powerful engine, and with an extremely well-trained crew all pulling in the same direction, is a very nice place to be.
There will be a lot of difficult decisions and a lot of growing pains in the meantime. There will probably be other mergers. And there will probably be just enough competition for the really, really big books and the really, really good books to enable writers and agents to continue doing what they do.
Do you think that there’s a similar pattern in the agenting world? For instance, the merger of William Morris and Endeavor, but also the combination of boutique agencies. You moved from a smaller agency to a much larger one.
It probably is a trend, and it’s a trend across a lot of different industries. Many people credit the real motivation of the Random House–Penguin merger being less about market share and more about pushback against Amazon, who have such an enormous position of strength in the retail end of things.
We’re entering an era where being in a very stable, big boat with a very powerful engine, and with an extremely well-trained crew all pulling in the same direction, is a very nice place to be. When a multinational publishing company comes out of the blue and dictates unreasonable terms to its authors, it’s very nice to be able to say, “That’s nice, but you can’t do that to us, because we have too many of your authors. We’ll simply take the better part of your content and go elsewhere.” That position is a very attractive one, both for the agents and for the clients of that agency.
Let’s get back to relationships. An agent’s relationship to a book doesn’t end when you sell it.
Well, some not very good agents’ relationship to the book ends when they sell it.
What are the ways in which you end up being involved?
If you’re a good agent, it doesn’t end. You should be a part of the process every step of the way. And not an intrusive part of the process. A good agent is additive to the process.
I’ve heard editors say that working with an agent who is constructive, who actually contributes positively to the experience rather than merely as an irritant, is value added. They will pay more money for that agent’s books than they would otherwise—or at least more than they would for an agent who they know will be a distraction from the process of bringing the book to market.
A good agent is involved in all the major decisions, from the titling to the jacket to the marketing to the publicity. And in many cases, it’s merely the function of reminding the publisher that someone’s watching.
It’s very easy, especially if the author does not live in New York City—and most authors don’t—to forget that the author is even a human being. If you’re the editor, you have a direct relationship. If you’re the art department, or the marketing people, or any number of other people who are working in support of the book, there’s a chance you’ve never spoken to the author, let alone met the author, and it’s easy to depersonalize the process. Part of what the agent is responsible for doing is making sure that book and that author are not forgotten.
The best, most clarifying thing, to do is to ask for a marketing meeting several months before publication—to bring the author into the publishing house, sit down with the editor, the publisher, the head of marketing, the head of publicity, and say, “What’s your plan?” for the simple reason that it forms a connection between the author and the various people in the room, and it requires preparation before the meeting. The people in that room have to think, “Oh, Simonoff’s coming in with his author, I guess we’d better come up with a marketing plan.”
There have to be things that make you roll your eyes when you hear publishers say them.
I despair that the old line some publishers still trot out—“We don’t publish individual books, we publish authors”—is less and less true. Take Cormac McCarthy. He had an enormously supportive editor in Albert Erskine, who would publish almost anything McCarthy wrote. And McCarthy did not sell particularly well. For his first few books, I’d be surprised if he sold more than in the four digits. But the feeling was, “He’s our guy, and we will keep at it.” It really wasn’t until All the Pretty Horses that he blew up. The question is: Can you have a Cormac McCarthy today? Can you have someone who publishes even three, or four, or five brilliant works that don’t sell particularly well, and have a publisher hang in and say, “We can’t pay him very much, but he’s got a slot on our list regardless of what he writes”?
I’m sympathetic to what publishers are up against, but it’s harder for a publisher to make that statement than it was even ten or fifteen years ago.
Do you think that has anything to do with advances?
I would argue that publishers would rather spend $200,000 than $15,000. If they’re spending $15,000, they have to say, “Why are we bothering publishing this book if we think we’re only going to sell three thousand copies of it?” If they get up enough energy to offer $200,000, it means they are confident it’ll hit the list somewhere.
The problem with the Cormac McCarthy paradigm is that it takes years and years of faith in an individual writer over a long period of time without a great expenditure of money. It’s not a question of advance, in my opinion; it’s a question of slots. There are a limited number of slots on a publisher’s list. And the question is, “Are we ‘wasting a slot’ if we plug in one of our house authors?”
What changes in the business have made you grit your teeth?
Many of the tools that publishers used to get the word out are gone. In the olden days, and I’m talking about five years ago, you had print ads, print reviews, and co-op advertising—that is, stacks of books in stores. Since then, the newspapers are in free fall, which eliminates the efficacy of print ads. There’s been a collapse of something like eighty percent of column inches devoted to book reviews, and there’s only one freestanding book review associated with a newspaper left, at The New York Times. And there are no stores. Borders disappeared, and Barnes & Noble is closing them.
So the three main ways of letting people know about books have essentially been taken away from publishers, and they haven’t been replaced with anything yet. Some books are made by social media, but you still have books like Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra that are made essentially by traditional acclaim: the cover of the Times Book Review, named to the top ten books of the year by the Times, fantastic reviews in all the other places that still exist. When they coalesce around an individual title, they can still move the needle. And then, radio and touring. It was a notably beautiful book, with amazing full-color endpapers and enormous care given to the look of the thing. People still wanted to pick it up and own it.
This was two years ago. Can you make that book only with social media today? I doubt it. We’re still working on figuring out how to do what Little, Brown did for Cleopatra on a larger scale, more frequently.
Do you think that there’s anything to the argument that publishers should be extinct?
Saying yes would have been like pressing the nuclear self-destruct button.
Publishers still add value. Unquestionably, the most important thing they do is provide capital to writers. I would caution against moving away from an advance-based system only because it is the one absolutely irreplaceable thing that they do. You could argue that you could outsource the other things. It would be probably harder than it looks in the short term. I’m not saying it wouldn’t be possible to reinvent the publishing paradigm from the ground up.
The popular word for it in all media is disintermediation. Do we need the studios, do we need the networks, do we need the publishers? The answer in 2013 is, most of the time yes, all of the time, no. There are films that can be financed outside the studio system, there is television programming that can be created and disseminated absent cable networks and networks, and there are books that can be disseminated by self-publishing.
Is that where publishing is now for WME and other agents? Not really. We are still making the existing paradigm work, and I don’t see that changing radically in the near future.
I sometimes describe a book advance as an investment in a startup—the startup of the writer’s career. Do you think that’s a useful way to think about it?
I often tell first-time nonfiction writers who are trying to write a proposal that they are essentially writing a prospectus used to convince an investor to invest in their business, and their business is the book that they intend to write.
It’s a little bit different with fiction, which tends to be sold on a finished manuscript. So much of the initial outlay of capital has already been made by the author: nights, weekends, early in the morning, et cetera, while working a day job. That’s different.
Nonfiction tends to be sold on proposal, so it really is about trying to get someone to invest in your project. That said, publishers obviously need to do more than simply be venture capitalists. They need to be part of the creative process.
What makes you send a book to an editor you’ve never sent a book to before? Are you a closed shop?
No, I’m definitely not a closed shop. There are certainly people to whom I submit more than others, usually as a function of simply knowing them longer, and knowing them better. But there’s still something thrilling about meeting an editor you haven’t met before and talking about books.
You can have a publishing lunch in which you do nothing but talk about movies. You can have a lunch in which you do nothing but talk about your respective children. Or you can have a lunch in which you sit and just talk about books. The former two are not without their own satisfactions, but there’s something about engaging someone you’ve just met in what books really, really excite them. That’s how you determine who it is you have to send a book to.
The other thing we do here at WME is crowdsource it. Someone will send down an email saying, “I have an amazing novel that’s set in the world of opera. Who loves opera?” We collectively take the seventeen lunches we had that day, and among us, someone is bound to have had lunch with someone who loves opera. The same can be said for any number of different categories. Who loves dance, who loves dogs, who’s a birdwatcher? Part of it is relying on your colleagues to help curate a submission list.
Among the editors who are working today, do you want to single anyone out for exuberant praise?
That’d be terrible. No, I’d get in all kinds of trouble if I did that. One thing I will say is that, contrary to the old saw that no one edits anymore, it’s simply not true in my experience. There are a lot of really excellent editors.
I want you to try to reverse-engineer your list. Is there a line that connects, say, Jhumpa Lahiri to Bill O’Reilly to Edward P. Jones to Preston and Child? Is it voice?
I honestly don’t know, in part because the list of almost any agent accrues organically over many years. The ones you just mentioned all happen to be huge commercial successes in addition to whatever else they have in common.
The three things we tend to look at here are: Is this book potentially prize-worthy? Is it going to garner enormous critical attention and praise?
If not, is it enormously commercial? Is there a chance that this book will sell huge numbers of copies and be the book that you see everyone reading at the beach?
Lastly, is this book neither prizeworthy nor the book everyone’s going to read on the beach, but the first effort of someone who’s likely to become one of those two things?
If it’s none of those three things, we probably shouldn’t be representing it.
To pretend that there was some master plan in the creation of my list would essentially be a lie. If you think about Edward P. Jones, for instance, his first short story collection Lost in the City, is a masterpiece. It was a first book that garnered enormous attention but didn’t sell particularly well, although it won the PEN/Hemingway, and it was a finalist for the National Book Award, and it garnered him a Lannan Foundation grant. But it was out of print for years afterwards, which is not that unusual for a very literary collection of short stories.
It was a decade later that he sent me The Known World. A year after that, it won the Pulitzer Prize and sold a million copies. I’d like to say that was my plan all along.
Did you feel the frisson you described earlier when you were reading The Known World?
Absolutely. Yes. One of the great privileges of the job is the occasion of being one of the first readers of a work of true greatness, and knowing it while you’re experiencing it. It was unambiguously a masterpiece in manuscript. And you typically still have the nagging suspicion that maybe no one else will recognize its genius other than you, but in that case that was an impossibility. It was too powerful a book not to become a classic.
What are some of the other high points in your career?
It’s hard to pick them—I wouldn’t want to leave anybody out. I have to say that seeing Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth debut at number one on the New York Times bestseller list was absolutely thrilling. To me, not to Jhumpa.
Why was that?
Jhumpa is absolutely remarkable and is so completely focused on the work rather than what comes after. For her, the great satisfaction is in the process. She would tell you the same thing.
She was traveling at the time that we were waiting for the first week’s bestseller list. I called her and said, “Look, the list is going to come out probably around five o’clock. When I get it, do you want me to call you?” And she said, “No, it’s okay, you can just let me know tomorrow.”
Did you have some sense of how it would perform.
In advance of a big publication, and then the week of the publication, the publisher sifts through tea leaves and tries to get a sense of where it’s going to land. Is it going to be number five? Number two? The New York Times has their own impenetrable, opaque system.
It was reaffirming not only because Jhumpa is a friend and a client, but because she’s a truly great writer of short fiction. To have a short story collection debut at number one in this country was good news for everybody.