Agents & Editors: Jennifer Joel

Michael Szczerban

Do other agents fail to be that transparent?
I think they do. I say this not because I have direct knowledge of anything but because sometimes when I’m interacting with editors who don’t know me very well, I can tell there’s some skepticism that I’m giving them all the information, or that I’m being truthful. I have to conclude that the reason they’re skeptical is because they’ve been burned by other people in the past, which is really unfortunate. That kind of bad behavior makes it harder for everybody.

Do you find it hard to be honest in your negotiations?
No. I’ve heard horror stories about isolated situations where writers push their agents to use subterfuge because they’re desperate—this is their income. “If you think you can get more by telling a lie, why don’t you just tell the lie?” But I wouldn’t work with somebody like that. 

What were some of the hardest things for you at ICM?
The bar is so high. It’s one thing to be the small fish, but I felt like a tadpole. When you look at the kind of business they do on a daily basis you fear that you’ll never be able to swim in the same waters. Getting a good project flow as a young agent is really hard.

How did you do it?
Persistence. I read everything that came in. Most of it wasn’t a match, but every once in a while I found something in the slush that worked. Even if that particular product didn’t work, I tried to be considerate to all of the writers who were appealing to me. Occasionally somebody came back around with something that was viable.

Was this all fiction?
No. In fact, I set a challenge for myself to learn how to do nonfiction. Nick Ellison did almost all fiction, but there were great nonfiction teachers here. Binky does some, Esther does some, Sloan Harris does a ton, Kris Dahl. I looked at the things they were doing and tried to figure it out.

What is the practical difference between the two?
The biggest difference, of course, is that most fiction is sold on completed manuscripts, and most nonfiction is sold on a proposal. As a young agent trying to build a list, not having to wait for a completed manuscript all the time seemed like a good way to spend some of my time and energy. You can evaluate the projects much more efficiently and potentially develop them to the point where you can sell them more efficiently.

What’s your split now between fiction and nonfiction?
It feels evenly split. I think some years feel not quite 50-50 but overall it probably balances out.

When did you first feel like you had created your own space at ICM?
I sold a couple of things here in my first couple of years that people noticed a bit for whatever reason. Not necessarily huge books. The Rule of Four came out and was a monster best-seller, and that helped a lot. I could not overstate the benefits accrued by that book to me personally and to my career.

It was my first really big deal and it was my first great success. It was a novel that I loved passionately. If somebody had to look at that book and say, “This is what Jennifer Joel did,” I’ll be fine with that for my whole career.

What were some of the other books?
The first big nonfiction success that I had was a memoir called The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks. Binky referred it to me; it needed a lot of work before it was ready to be seen by publishers. That book went on to be a New York Times best-seller. I was lucky enough to get to work with Billy Crystal on his book 700 Sundays. He was a client of the agency, and I knew that his play was in development on Broadway. I called his West Coast agent and asked, “Is it adaptable into a book? Would he ever want to write a book?” And he said, “Go see the play in previews and you tell me.”

That was an unbelievable opportunity. I was still pretty young, and he trusted me to tell him whether or not this play by his enormous client could potentially be turned into a book—and then trusted me to make it happen when I said it could.

Chris Cleave’s Little Bee was an amazing project. I learned so much about the business from working on that book. His first book, Incendiary, had not been a commercial success—it was a book about a terrorist attack on London that was published on July 7, 2005, the day of the terrorist attack there, and it was the last thing that anybody there or here wanted to be reading at the time.

Let’s talk about Chris. Do you represent him worldwide or in America only?
I started representing Chris on behalf of a London-based agent named Toby Eady, with whom I do a ton of work. Toby sent me Chris’s manuscript for Incendiary, his first book, as he was submitting it to publishers in London. We’d worked together on a couple of other things, and I called immediately. I thought it was amazing. About five minutes later Sonny Mehta called and agreed; it was an easy sale. He preempted the book immediately. Knopf loved that book and they set it up to be big. They brought Chris over for a prepublication tour. But then the novel was published in London on the same day as the bombings. The entire marketing campaign consisted of posters in the tube stations and on the bus stops, and the next day they went out and took it all down.

That’s horrifying.
The Knopf and Chatto & Windus teams were as supportive of him and of the book as they possibly could have been. And Chris—he didn’t know where his wife was that morning, and he experienced that bombing as everybody else did. Fortunately, she was fine.

We had done everything right up until that point and there was nothing to be done. There was a question of whether it would be in good taste to push the book at that time. The prevailing wisdom in the publishing business says you can’t recover from something like that. The sales were terrible and there was a weird taste in people’s mouths. It’s very hard to get a second chance.

But Chris wrote a phenomenal second book and found a publisher in Simon & Schuster that believed it could do all of the things we’d hoped for Incendiary. With a lot of hard work, Little Bee became a No. 1 best-seller.

Both of those books were published first in the UK. How does the editorial process work when you’re representing the rights to a book in America and someone else is doing it in the rest of the English language world?
In fact Chris had three different English language editors for Little Bee, because the book was sold separately in Canada. It's different in every case. In particular, given what we were up against with this publication, Chris was very open-minded and willing to be led by each of his editors. Everybody had thoughts on what the book might be or could be. There were three separate and simultaneous editorial processes going on. We ultimately decided that there would be slightly different versions of the book for each market, right down to the title. Little Bee is called The Other Hand in London. 

One thing publishers push for is a common English edition controlled by one publisher worldwide. What are the repercussions if you fracture that control?
I do think there are books that benefit tremendously from simultaneous publication in the English language in one edition across the world. And then there are books that are just inherently going to be read slightly differently in different places, and I think it’s responsible for each publisher, and each agent when there are different agents, to advocate for their version as long as it doesn’t differ significantly from what the author wants the book to be. If the author is on board, then it’s all about how you tell a story most effectively to the audience that you’re trying to tell it to.

Are there any lessons that you could draw from representing Chris through these ups and downs? In terms of sales, Incendiary was a disaster, Little Bee was a huge success, and his third novel, Gold, was somewhere in between.
One lesson is that you never know what is going to happen next. When success seems a foregone conclusion, or when failure seems likely, the opposite thing can happen.

Chris is the loveliest person. You know; you’ve met him. There aren’t many like him. He is grateful for every nice thing that has happened to him or that anybody has ever done for him. He takes all of the blame on himself when things don’t go right. He’s lucky that he has a wonderful family and three of the cutest kids you’ll ever see, and I think that gives him perspective. Even when things aren’t going well professionally, he knows what’s important in life. He loves to write. He loves to tell stories. Setbacks make him more determined to deliver the next thing. 

Are there clients who compel you to do more than you thought you could?
Of course. I’ll give you one more Chris Cleave example. I was determined to make Little Bee work. I was determined to get it on a morning show at a time when it was becoming increasingly difficult to get fiction writers on morning shows. I found a crack in a door and pushed and pushed and pushed until we got him on a morning show.

To answer your question much more generally, yes, people entrust you with their fiscal lives, but they are also entrusting you with their dreams. If you believe in their dreams, this is not just a job. You are inspired to go the extra mile.

How does an agent learn to sell a book?
I don’t know that the process can really be taught. I think we’re a self-selected group of people, and we all think we know it. Success and failure teach you lessons. Nobody is perfect; nobody sells every book. You accumulate different data points and an understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

I generally think that if I’m compelled by someone’s story, I can communicate what I find so appealing and intriguing to other people. As I think and talk about a project, I listen to my thoughts and words, and figure out what people respond to. Before I know it, the pitch has worked itself out.

You can learn certain things. You can learn what not to say, or that there’s not a great market for certain kinds of projects. Even if your project has those elements, maybe don’t describe it that way—it may have other elements that everybody wants. You do learn to speak the language of the business, but if you can articulate what compels you about a certain project, you can communicate that to the right buyers.

Is there a trait that is common to the authors and other people you most respect in the business?
I’m very attracted to self-confidence, people who believe that what they have to say is worthy of being heard. 

Do you have a definition of what makes a really good editor?
It’s no different than what I just described. Someone who is self-confident in their taste, who is ambitious in their vision. Ambition is often talked about in negative terms, but to have real ambition for what you can do with a story or a character or a piece of content is really important. You have to fight for everything you get. You have to be willing to do the work and you have to imagine that it’s worthy of other people’s time and attention.

People ask me what’s different about selling a book and a TV show or a film. I say that books are very expensive, in two ways. Certainly when you compare a $24 price point on a hardcover book to a magazine subscription that might be $12 for the whole year, or your HBO subscription, you can look at the price point and say it’s expensive. Obviously, I think it’s cheap relative to what you’re getting, but it may be expensive relative to what you could pay for other forms of entertainment.

But the real way in which a book is expensive is in the time you’re asking someone to invest—for eight to twelve hours of leisure time, you have to believe that you’re giving them a good trade. 

You have to make a promise attractive enough for the reader to make that investment.
And then you have to deliver on the promise because the only thing that really makes a book work is word of mouth. People have to love it and tell other people to read it. You have to deliver on the promise. 

Which is the hard part.
But that’s why we get up in the morning.

Let’s talk about children’s books.
I have gotten into the kid’s business more broadly, but I started there in the YA space. I think that it’s incredibly exciting for a mature business like publishing to have a growth area like that one.

Said like an analyst.
I suppose there are a few vestiges from my career as an investment banker. One is language. I can say things like that with a straight face and not feel like I’m wearing my father’s suit. A second thing is that I have no problem talking about large sums of money or with people with really big titles.

When I was a banker I went into it with the assumption that because a lot of math was involved, there would be a right answer at the end of the day. The most important lesson that I learned is that nothing really has intrinsic value. Things are only worth what people will pay for them—whether it’s News Corp, this building, or a piece of intellectual property. Because things are only worth what someone else will pay, the value of something is a conversation. Nobody really knows how to make that conversation go exactly the way they want it to every time. Everybody is making it up a little bit.

Tell me a little bit more about that—from the author’s perspective.
The often frustrating but potentially exhilarating thing that some writers don’t understand is what happens when they actually publish their book. For them, they’re at the end of a long road. This thing that they've been working on is finally coming to market. But when you send something out into the world you are beginning a new conversation.

Is there an attitude or strategy that can make an agent’s or publisher’s projects more likely to receive the response they’re looking for?
I love to say we should all be pickier. We can always work harder and be more precise. You really can make the book the best that you can make it, and I don’t know that we always do that. We are under time pressure or exhausted by the first eight rounds of editorial work and you can wind up knowing at the end of the day that it could have been a little better. I don’t know that there’s a way to actually avoid that, because we do get exhausted and it is a business.

Sometimes writers are so relieved by the idea that their book is actually going to get published that we don’t think of taking that extra step toward the readers. There might be a few hanging threads in the plot that you could have tied up with one more pass. The pace could be a little slow. Maybe you went through it six times already, but a seventh could make it tighter. Maybe we’ve been talking about a book one way for eighteen months as the book is acquired and edited and presented, but maybe there’s a better way.

One thing that we’re just not great at as a business is finding readers. We know they’re out there; we know that there are a million people out there who will read a complex literary novel if Oprah tells them to. But we publish complex literary novels every day and we don’t know how to find the people who are willing to read them. We assume they’re not out there—but we know they’re out there. We need to find them. I don’t mean to say that I have the right answer. That’s why I’m on the agent side. Marketing: That’s the publisher’s job. But it’s actually all of our jobs.

Compared to when you first started, is the book business substantively different today?
Well, e-books exist. At a very basic level there were no digital readers when I started. There were more big publishers than there are now. But the real work of selecting a project, developing it, polishing it, selling it, and figuring out how to bring it to market—those basic processes have not changed all that much.

OK, back to young adult books. Tell me about your experiences in that realm.
I got into YA because two clients of mine had gotten some publicity and an editor at a children's publisher called them. They were doing juicy New York City social life stuff, and the editor said it sounded like it would work well for a YA market.


Writing to be read...

Ms. Joel hit the nail on the head:  the point of writing is to be read.  Publishing,  in whatever form, and there are many, is a means to that end.  I would add that it is the writer's responsibility to find his/her readers.  I don't mean that writers must become publicists, but we are wise if we understand that supporting our publicists', publishers' and agents' promotional efforts helps us find our readers.  And we poets often must take matters into our own hands through readings, social media, self-publishing, writers collectives and teaching.  Nor do I mean that we must pander to popular tastes.  As Ms. Joel points out, even the most complex literary work can have a potential readership numbering in the tens of thousands if not millions.  She goes on to add that the publishing industry as a business is not great at finding readers.  I know that every contemporary literary writer I've read -- from Ben Lerner to Roberto Bolaño to Eleanor Lerman, etc. -- I've learned about from other writers and readers, not through the promotional efforts of their publishers.  Also, the independent bookstores play an increasingly important role in connecting writers and readers.  Through author reading events, staff recommendations, book tables and shelf positioning, they are providing a much needed service to both readers and authors.

indie bookstores

So true about the independent bookstores... I am fortunate to have one in my neighborhood and the owners do a lot of promotion of the sort mentioned. I'm not a good "out-loud" reader but the drawing together of writers and community is so encouraging and pleasurable. Every bookstore needs to have a loyal community as well. Rebound Bookstore in San Rafael, CA. Look 'em up! gpotter