Agents & Editors: Jennifer Joel

Michael Szczerban

Who were those people?
Jill Kargman and Carrie Karasyov, who were a team of writers who had written a book called The Right Address that Doubleday/Broadway had published. They wrote a young adult novel called Bittersweet Sixteen about the two most popular girls at a very tony all girls prep school who mistakenly planned their sweet sixteen parties for the same day, and the competition that ensues.

Most publishers are set up to divide the children’s division from the adult division. But is there really any difference in the work that you do?
Not at the creative level. I’ve always really enjoyed working with people who have practiced telling stories in different ways, whether they’ve written for TV or film or theater, even actors. People who know how to use the mechanics outside the words on a page. 

There are slightly different tools that you have to use when you're writing for kids. It’s a much more stratified business; you don’t just write for kids, you write intro books or early reader books or chapter books or middle grade or YA. The process of absorbing information is very different when you’re three, six, eight, or sixteen. But fundamentally, it’s all the same: Good stories, well told.

What are you most proud of so far in your career?
I hate questions like that. Number one, it’s an incredible privilege to live a creative life in any capacity and I’m proud that I can do that. I’m more proud that the people who I work with get to do what they get to do, and make a living doing it. I’m proud that I help make things and that they’re permanent objects. I’m certainly proud that when somebody tells me that they’ve appreciated or have been moved by or enjoyed something I had a hand in. I’m proud that my job description is that I come to work and I try and move any number of projects a little bit closer to the finish line.

I think that’s why you see so many piles on my desk. As things move from pile to pile, you know they’re getting closer to the finish line. Maybe I represent that visually on my desk to remind myself that this work is tangible.

How many projects do you have on submission at the same time?
I very rarely have more than two projects on submission and I would say most of the time I have one project on submission at a time. 

Is it fairly continuous throughout the year?
Sometimes it feels like I’ve sent nothing out for months and sometimes I feel slightly overwhelmed. The one thing you don’t have a lot of control of as an agent is the timing of delivery. Certainly right after around Christmas I feel inundated. Writers want to get stuff off their desks and it’s easy to set the end of the year as an arbitrary but firm deadline. Then, as your client list matures, the submission process for option books is fundamentally different than when you’re selling someone for the first time or changing publishers.

As an editor I’ve noticed that the mood of the business evolves as the year goes along—from hesitation to confidence, say, and you might argue that advance levels fluctuate as well. Is there an advantage to trying to capitalize on those mood swings?
I’m sure there is but I haven’t figured it out. The most important thing is the project. When I sell things for a lot of money and they go very quickly, it’s because it’s an awesome project, I know it’s awesome, I know the response is going to be awesome, and it is. If there is a secret formula for how you take advantage of an aggressive mood in the business to move product significantly above what its market value should be, I have not discovered it yet. 

Either the fish is going to be fresh or it’s going to stink, in other words?
If I have to spend my time either figuring out how to make my projects really good or guessing at the mood of the market, I’m going to spend my time on my projects.

Roughly how many new clients have you taken on in the last year?
Not a ton. Maybe three or four in the last twelve months.

What stood out about their projects?
There was something that made all of them stand out, but it’s so idiosyncratic. I took on a young writer who used to be at Outside magazine. He had written a piece about hot-shot firefighting; he had been a firefighter himself and somebody was going to write a book about that. He was clearly the right person to do it, and he is a great writer. So I took him on. 

Most often things come through a referral through someone I represent. Because ICM is a full-service agency, I’m constantly getting in-house referrals, too: Another department represents someone and they want to write a book. For example, I’ve been working with Shonda Rhimes for the past couple of years. We had been talking since the writers’ strike about a book project. She’s a relatively new client to me, but she’s been an ICM client for years.

Tell me about ICM’s partnership structure.
We didn't used to be a partnership. In 2012 we completed a management buyout of our company; it had been held previously by some private equity investors. A group of agents got together and decided to try to raise the money to buy the company back. Now, for the first time in the history of this company, there’s an ownership opportunity for all the people who work here. That has changed the way I think people see their careers here in a really positive way. 

And you were recently made a partner yourself. How does it feel different?
You really feel like you own something. I think about it in a couple of different ways. To wear my banker hat, the ownership model for an agency that makes most sense to me is operator owned. It doesn’t make sense for anybody else to really own the company because ownership implies some sort of control and nobody but the agents who work here can control what goes on here on a day to day basis. Logically, it’s the right model, and for that reason alone it's exciting. I also think that any individual who contributes time and labor to a place—especially to a business that is so long-term—wants to know they’re in it for the long haul. To have some control over the true trajectory of your career and your environment: That’s going to nurture the people who are trusting you to take care of their professional lives. I don't know anybody who wouldn't find that attractive. 

Do you do anything different day to day?
I do some different things. I've taken on some responsibilities outside the day to day of managing my clients. I run the training program here in New York. I'm a mentor—we've started a mentorship program—and I sit on a couple of different corporate committees. I feel very strongly that we should be growing, so having the opportunity to have a real say in that is exciting to me, and it’s easier for my clients.

When you introduce yourself to a client—say, someone who has written a great novel you have read and loved—what do you say?
The way that I talk about myself to potential clients tends to be specific to the questions they’ve asked or the desires they’ve indicated. I start with my passion for what they’re doing and the reason that I’m sitting at the table. I might make some sort of case for why I think I’m a good partner for them, which may include anything from other clients I represent to other projects I’ve worked on to where I’m from to what my previous work experience was.

I would probably introduce myself by talking about my response to your book—probably leading with the fact that I loved it. Some of my clients tell me that my Achilles’ heel as an agent is that I do the “I love it” part very quickly and get to the “let’s talk about some of the things we might want to look at” perhaps sooner than they would like.

What would you love for writers to know before their work reaches your desk?
I would love writers to do their homework by the time they come to me. There is so much information that is so readily available about who we are and how the business works. Some writers spend so much time working on their books, but so little time thinking about getting an agent and where they want to be published. It’s irresponsible to themselves.

When I speak at a conference, there’s generally somebody sitting in the front row who raises a hand and says, “I don’t need a big advance. I don’t need a publisher that’s going to send me on a national tour”—which is good because nobody is going to do that—“but I just want to be published.” That’s wrong. You want to be read.

Writers need to understand the distinction between wanting to be published and what they really want. Publication is a means to an end. And the end is being read. If you’re looking to get credit, there are easier ways to get credit. But if you feel genuinely that you could make a promise to a reader, and that what you have to say is worth somebody you’ve never met and may have nothing in common with spending ten hours of their time on, that’s the goal.

Does that inform your view on self-publishing?
I don’t know if I’ve developed a view on self-publishing. I’m not opposed to it. There are tons of opportunities. For the right writer and the right project, self-publishing is a huge boon. I certainly don’t think it’s right for every writer because it makes incredible demands outside the actual writing and messaging about the book. Some writers are eager for that, and others would rather stick a fork in their eye than to be not only the writer of the book but the publicist, promoter, marketer, and publisher. Take distribution. It’s a challenge and very time consuming. I obviously continue to believe that publishers add a tremendous amount of value to the process of bringing a story to market. But it’s not the right path for everybody.

You said that when you were at Goldman Sachs, the publishing business was pretty stable. The common view is that it’s now anything but stable.
There is a general mood of hysteria, and a presumption of hysteria, in our business. But if you take a long view, what’s happening now is not wholly different than things that have happened in every entertainment medium before. There is always a tremendous amount of tension between content and distribution, a tug of war about which is the most important and valuable piece of that equation as they fight to split the spoils of the business. These businesses have always consolidated, from the agency business to the television business to the film business. Small companies start, they grow organically, they get bought and absorbed into larger entities, and other small companies start and grow.

One major difference here is that Amazon has created a pretty efficient and effective medium through which to consume the written word. People do want things to be more convenient. They carry around these devices, and being able to put a couple hundred books on one means there are a couple hundred copies of books that are out there.

It used to be that if you wanted to perform a story you did it in a theater. And then all of a sudden you could do it on film, but you had to go to a movie theater and see it projected on a large screen, first with a live accompaniment and then without one. And then all of sudden you can take those stories and put them in a box and send it directly into somebody’s home. There have always been disruptive technologies in our business and there's always been a struggle to attract eyeballs amid all the ways people elect to spend their leisure time. Does the popularity of one medium undermine the viability of another? So far the answer has generally been no.

You’ve mentioned the essential qualities you can get from a book versus a film. Let’s talk about that.
There’s a quality you can only get through each of the storytelling mediums, which is why they’re all viable. What can you get from a book? Often you can go on a much more complete journey with the story with the characters in the world than you can in a film. It is incumbent upon you as a reader to imagine your own version of a lot of the details, which for a lot of us is part of the pleasure of reading a book. A book’s unique qualities lie in its depth and its participatory nature.

We’ve talked a lot about the business at a high level. I want to make sure we distill it down to something concrete an author can act on.
It comes back to all of the things we’ve been talking about. It’s quality. It’s telling a story in the most compelling way possible. It’s being mindful of the fact that you are telling this story for someone to consume—so are you telling a story that somebody wants to consume? It’s being willing to offer that promise: Give me your ten hours and I will deliver an experience that warrants your time and energy.

Going much beyond that is overthinking it. When you try to game the system, the product winds up feeling like a cynical attempt to game the system.

The rule is: Write the very best book you can?
Yes. You write the very best book you can at the time that you’re writing it. I can’t remember who said this—I think it was Michael Cunningham—but when you finish your book is an arbitrary moment. It’s finished at that moment, but if you went back to it in two months, you’ve changed and had new experiences and you may want to keep working on it. All writers would tell you they’d write a different book at thirty than they would at twenty or forty. We’re an accumulation of experiences, and they all inform the stories that we tell.

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


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