Last year I was involved in expanding the editorial staff of a new book publisher, and as we looked for the right people to join our team, I reflected on the qualities common to the editors and agents I most admire. I realized that the best description of the job’s requirements is more than a hundred and fifty years old—found in these lines from poet (and publisher) Walt Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
Part of what makes the profession of publishing—and working with authors—so satisfying and challenging is that agents and editors are required to try on different personae, tell stories and amplify voices that have not yet been heard, and explore subjects across a spectrum of interests.
Jennifer Joel, a partner and literary agent at ICM Partners, doesn’t contradict herself—she’s too smart for that—but her experience illustrates the way in which the often conflicting forces of commerce and art intertwine in publishing.
After graduating from Harvard with a joint major in literature and history, Joel worked as an entertainment and media analyst at the investment bank Goldman Sachs in New York. After completing her contract, Joel reassessed her professional plans and began working as an assistant at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates, a literary agency in New York. Soon thereafter, she caught the notice of one of ICM’s top agents, Amanda “Binky” Urban, and joined her staff. In 2013 Joel was made a partner at the agency. Joel’s clients include Chris Cleave, Ian Caldwell, Kevin Fedarko, Joe McGinniss Jr., Evan Osnos, Shonda Rhimes, Dustin Thomason, and many other novelists and prominent nonfiction writers.
Where did you grow up?
New Jersey, about forty minutes outside New York City. I had an idyllic suburban childhood.
Were you a reader?
I was a reader from what I’m told was a very early age. There is family story about my having memorized a book called Grover and Everything in the Whole Wide World Museum by the time I was two and a half. My parents’ party trick was to invite their friends to have me read a book to them, and I would recite and turn the pages appropriately.
I was a little reading automaton. I had one trick. But I actually did start devouring books not long after that.
What sticks out among your memories of that time?
A lot of my early memories are of movies that I saw or books that I read. They’re experiences linked by storytelling. I'm convinced that the earliest memory I have is of the time my father and grandfather took me to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; it was being revived in the movie theaters. I was so terrified of the Wicked Witch that they had to take me kicking and screaming out of the theater. It took my mother weeks to convince me that Snow White didn't actually die and that everything turned out to be okay.
What were the first books you remember choosing to read?
Well, Grover, for sure. Dr. Seuss. The classic books that most people talk about with fondness. Corduroy and Little Rabbit's Loose Tooth. I still have well-worn copies of those picture books on my shelves now.
And later on? Were there formative books in sixth, seventh, eighth grade, high school?
Much younger than that, even. In my parents’ house there was a closet full of purple-spined Bobbsey Twin books; I read every Bobbsey Twin book that was written several times. And it was not that I was a mystery lover; I didn't have a closet full of Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew. I was really interested in the family dynamic: two sets of twins, a girl and a boy, a girl and a boy. If somebody sent me a book today featuring two sets of twins, I would be very interested to see what they made of it. The potential for drama is just inherent.
What was your family dynamic like? Not two sets of twins...
Not two sets of twins! I have a younger sister and a very small nuclear family.
My mother had been trained as an actress, but from the time that I was born she stayed home and took care of me and later, my sister and me. My father works in the shipping business, which he assures me is as uninteresting as publishing is interesting. But everything is interesting when you start to learn about it—so I disagree with him on that point. I looked at that business a little bit when I was a banker, and I did some consulting work for him.
A friend told me: “Everything becomes more interesting the more you learn about it.” I think that’s true. One of the great things about our business is that you spend your time learning about a lot of different things.
You went to Harvard, ultimately. What did you study there?
I was a history and literature joint major. I picked it for a couple reasons. I thought, “When will I ever have the opportunity to sit around and read books for four years again? Never!” I thought that would be a good way to spend my college years. But I opted against English because it was never interesting to me to think about writing as feminist interpretation of whatever.
Like critical theory?
I wasn't interested in critical theory. I was interested in why people choose to tell the stories they tell. Context was always really interesting to me. One thing I often say when I'm talking to clients or editors about my list—which is eclectic and broad—is that a lot of my books have a foreign element in common, whether it's time or place or some little subculture that you don't encounter on a daily basis. I ask, “Why is it interesting? Why is this person the right person to be the window into that world? What will I be able to know at the end of this book that I didn't know going in?”
Did you have formative teachers who opened up a path for you?
For sure! They weren’t all literature teachers, though. The most formative was probably the drama teacher in my high school.
How were you involved in the theater?
I was an actress, I suppose, although that is a generous way of describing it. I was interested in the theater in the same way I was interested in the combination of history and literature, because you're looking for context when you engage with the text through a character—the questions that you wind up asking yourself and the answers that you wind up coming up with or inventing. He taught me to trust myself and my instincts—and my storytelling instincts—and how to read texts critically and deeply. You make the portrayal of your character your own.
Did you ever desire to act professionally?
Maybe when I was very young. My mother had been trained as an actress. She went to a performing arts high school, so we were constantly in the city seeing some piece of theater. She and my dad love that world and took advantage of our proximity to it. There’s something very glamorous for most young people about being on the stage, but I didn’t think about it in a serious way. That bug had long since been squished when I really started thinking about what I wanted to do.
So college became about books—a time of intellectual exploration.
I was in it for the general education. I really was. I didn’t know what I wanted to do going into school. I had a vague sense that I’d wind up in the entertainment business; I always loved storytelling and good ideas well executed. There are so few really, really good ideas that when you have one, you have to exploit it in all the different ways you can.
Did you ever consider writing?
I never thought about being a writer. The blank page and I are not friends. I love the process of storytelling, but I don’t relish the notion of inventing something from whole cloth.
What else did you do in college?
I was back in the theater a lot. I did a little bit of acting my first couple of years, but by the time I was a little bit more senior, I was looking at the other side of theater and did a lot of work with Hasty Pudding Theatricals. The level of professionalism was a fascinating preview to what the real world would be like.
Tell me about Hasty Pudding.
Hasty Pudding Theatricals is an undergraduate organization at Harvard and one of the oldest running undergraduate institutions in the country. I used to know all these details cold because I was also a tour guide. They do an original student-written musical every year. The company is all men, so the show is done half in drag. It plays for about six weeks in Cambridge, comes to New York, and goes down south for spring break. It’s a massive undertaking with a six-figure budget. We hired out for the director, orchestration, costumes, and set, but the rest was entirely student-produced.
When you're on the team you do a little bit of everything. The year that I was on the business staff, I ran special events and put on a charity event that benefited the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation.
That experience gave you a taste of what it could be like to develop creative work?
Yes. A script comes in and you get to make the whole thing from there—from the first draft to the final product—and all kinds of things go into that, and all kinds of people and talent are involved. It was fascinating.
How did you come to work at Goldman Sachs, where you went right after Harvard?
I didn’t know how to go about getting a job in the entertainment business. I wanted to work in New York, not L.A. I had taken a bunch of informational meetings with New York film companies and had the sense that it was hard to work in New York at the highest level of that business. I always wanted to work at the highest level.
TV really hadn’t made its resurgence yet, and it didn’t occur to me to work in New York doing that. I’d done some internships with David Letterman, and I loved working at the Late Show, but I was more interested in scripted narrative and that was happening in L.A. I was frustrated by the fact that it didn’t seem that you could do film at the highest level in New York unless you worked at New Line or Miramax. I interned at New Line and knew there wasn’t going to be a job for me coming out of school there. The one other job offer that I had, when I graduated from college, was to be a receptionist at Miramax.
So I could be an investment banker at Goldman Sachs or a receptionist at Miramax. There were a lot of reasons to choose Goldman. One of them was that many of the peers who I thought were really impressive wound up going to places like Goldman. I don’t know that they necessarily saw themselves as career bankers or consultants, but it seemed the logical next way to continue your education outside of academia. I actually had applied to law school, gotten in, and deferred. I felt like I had to get out of school for a little while.
At Goldman, I worked in what was then called the communications and media group, and I was the entertainment specialist. I was trying to learn what drives business in the entertainment space: how people make their money, how they make their decisions, where everything falls in the value chain. I thought that if I could get that skill set, I would distinguish myself from the thousands of other college graduates who are going to be receptionists at Miramax and answer the phones.
At ICM we’ve got great kids who come here right out of college, and they work in the mail room or as floaters and interns, and then they hope to move up to a desk. Had I understood what an apprenticeship business this is, I might have been more receptive to the idea of doing that. But at the time, when my options were Goldman Sachs and answering the phone, answering the phone seemed to be the less productive option.
Did Goldman teach you what you thought you’d learn?
It did in some ways. I do think I have an understanding of the way people who run the big conglomerate entertainment companies think about their businesses that other people just have not seen. I've had access to a perspective that other people haven't had. But none of it is rocket science. In fact, a lot of it is very intuitive, but unless you start to be asked those questions, you don't necessarily think about it in the course of what you do every day.
What are some of the questions you’ve had to ask about the big media conglomerates that your authors might not be asking?
One example is that we looked at the question of synergy at a very high level. Is there synergy in the entertainment business? I'm sure when you were at Simon & Schuster you talked about this because Simon is part of a big entertainment conglomerate. At the time I was at Goldman, they had a film studio and a TV studio and an unbelievable outdoor advertising business. If at Simon & Schuster you buy a book that you love, is it more attractive to CBS or to Paramount? Should it be?
Where do you come down on that? Is that kind of broad synergy achievable?
I think it is. It’s hard, and you have to come from a place where each individual business feels equally passionate and optimistic about the project. But look at Frozen. Disney had this movie that was incredibly successful and now they have spun it off into books, merchandise, theme park attractions. They have nailed synergy, in that respect.
What do you think about publishing companies being able to survive in a world where attention for books is being challenged by a range of different media?
I’m an optimist about the publishing business. I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I’ll use myself as an example: I can be in the mood for a book or for a TV show or for a movie. Having an appetite for one doesn’t lessen my appetite for any of the others. You can accomplish certain things in each medium as a storyteller that you can’t accomplish in the other ones.
I relish the challenge both as somebody who helps make that stuff, but also as a consumer. Certainly our business is challenged in a lot of different ways, but I choose to look at the challenges as opportunities. Anybody still working in this business, or wanting to work in this business, has to have the same attitude. If not, go do something else.