Do you remember any of the books that you evaluated?
I wish I did. When you’re reading that kind of volume and you’re that tired, it all becomes a blur. I can’t claim to have recommended anything that was bought. I was probably getting the not terribly important books to decide whether they should be published. But it was a good exercise.
Would you talk a little more about how people inside the business determined whether those books were “terribly important” or not? Those decisions can seem pretty opaque to a writer.
At that time, when you were looking at a book for paperback publication, it was to see if you could grow the audience that had been established in the hardcover, blow out the amazing groundwork that had been laid, or find a book that had been overlooked and create a second life. That was when you could have a second life in paperback. Reinventing a book in paperback in the traditional way is not really possible anymore.
I don’t know why books were given to me, but I would assume there was a tier of projects that were considered very seriously because there was potential to make a lot of money off of them, and a lesser group of projects that were considered to see if any money could be made if they were published properly or differently. I’m assuming those were the books I was reading.
Clare Ferraro would never remember this, but I recall having a conversation or two with her and her assistant about why a book should be pulled from the stack for consideration.
What did you learn from those conversations?
That you have to trust your heart—that even if someone disagrees with you, it doesn’t mean you are wrong. That was something I carried forth into scouting. That when I recommended a book to my clients, it didn’t matter if they disagreed. My opinion was true to me and the value of what I saw in the book was real. It might not be for them at that moment, or might not be for them for that list, but it didn’t negate my response.
That was very valuable to bring as an agent as well: to believe passionately in something, to be able to sell it to an editor, but also to recognize that it is not a failure if something doesn’t sell or doesn’t meet with the response that you hoped for. It just might not be the right time for that book, or there might be other factors that we can’t even see that are interrupting the process of acquisition.
A lot of people start out in this business in a tentative, indecisive way. But deciding that something is good is the first step to making others agree that it is good. I wonder where your conviction came from.
I have always felt that I want an emotional response to a work, whether it is a work of fiction or nonfiction or music. If I’m receiving an emotional response to whatever that work is, then I know it’s true. It’s operating with the capacity for honesty and generosity. That’s trusting the feeling you get when you’re reading something.
When you’re a book scout, you are reading a huge volume of books—eight to ten a week—and reporting on them. You have to be very clear, very quickly, about what you spend your time reading, and what your client should pay attention to. Your client is receiving not only submissions in their own country, but also international submissions from the United States and the U.K. You have to give them clarity about what they should spend their time on.
I was a junior person when I started with Mary Anne, and I was tasked with scouting the small presses. I was trying to find gems to break out, so my job involved seeing SoHo Press publish Edwidge Danticat, and saying, “Everyone should buy this”—and then seeing that happen, even before Edwidge had representation.
This was all pre Internet, pre e-mail. We heard about books that were on submission in hard copy and then called around to editors and their assistants to convince them to make a copy of a book and to leave it in a messenger bag for us to pick up. There was a series of steps that had to happen for us to even get the book in hand. And then we had to evaluate the stack and write a report, and then copy those books for our clients, copy the reports, copy all the scouting magazine reviews, and copy all the other reviews that were happening. We would send these huge packages internationally that would take two days to put together. That was every week.
You have to hone that skill very quickly: to say this is something engaging and fresh, this is not; this is going to sell for a lot of money and you should pay attention to it, and this is going to sell more modestly but has potential to break out.
The scout is probably one of the most invisible roles in publishing to an outsider.
Scouting has transformed tremendously since I was involved in it. I suspect there are different ways of doing business now, but basically scouts are hired by an international publisher in the U.K. or in another country to be aware of all of the material that’s being submitted at that moment. They have an ear to the ground to find out what people’s reactions are, what’s selling, and how much it’s selling for, and they try to secure that material and read and report on it as quickly as possible. They’re in competition with other scouts working for other companies, and they want their international publisher to get there first.
Scouting gave me a great bird’s eye view of publishing. I dealt not only with a range of publishers, but with agents of every scale, from independent shops to the bigger agencies and the more tony lists. It was a tremendous amount of exposure, and I formed relationships that have remained for the last twenty years. Stephen Morrison was a book scout with Maria Campbell at the same time I was scouting. Reagan Arthur was an editor at Picador with George Witte.
I also had the opportunity to travel to the book fairs, mostly Frankfurt and London, and got to see the world publishing community in action. It geared me towards recognizing what has potential internationally and what might be a harder sell.
How much do you interact with scouts now that you’re an agent?
I have some friends who are scouts, so I talk to them. But having been a book scout and then having also sold foreign rights at McCormick & Williams when I was there, I am okay with relinquishing the responsibility of the international market to my colleagues and working with them. They are on top of the movement of those markets and they are really the experts at this point.
I am eager to be involved in the selling of my books internationally to those foreign markets, but I don’t regularly meet with scouts and talk about my books. It’s hard when you’re friends with somebody to have them give a reaction to one of your projects that you don’t want to hear. To hear a scout not respond in the way that I hope is harder than to hear editors tell me that they’re turning something down.
So much of an agent’s job is hearing the word no and an editor’s justifications for it. Has the way you handle that kind of response evolved?
Oh, yes. As a new agent one can be devastated by hearing no. You’re putting yourself on the line with your taste, and you feel the responsibility of taking a writer on and that writer’s expectation for what you can deliver. It’s incredibly disappointing, but it can be devastating when you’re younger if you don’t understand that there are other factors at play. An editor can really love a book but not be able to push it through, and that is not a failure of you or of the project. It’s a moment in that publishing house.
We like to hear yes more than we like to hear no. But the other evolution as an agent is that the longer you do it, the more you understand what you can successfully sell. You gear yourself toward those projects that are going to make you money.
That’s interesting to hear from somebody who grew up in the punk scene.
The work I am attracted to is relevant and authentic and meaningful. It’s unexpected and creates a response. That can be something commercially minded, or it can be something strictly literary. But we are in a business and I have to earn my own keep, so I have to find projects that are going to get attention, find an audience, and sell.
I can’t sustain, and don’t want, a list of writers who are read by a very small group of people. It’s just not what I am interested in. I am interested in those voices exploring issues of identity and duality that can reach a broader audience, and sometimes they are more successful than others. My goal is to have books both in fiction and nonfiction that create dialogue and engagement as part of a larger cultural conversation. I don’t care about books that have no impact. Sometimes, though, I know that the impact is undetectable to me and to the writer, but the work is still reverberating because of its content or style.
I suppose it’s true, too, that even many popular books do not become a big part of mainstream culture.
That’s the problem of there not being as many readers as you would want. We have conversations within the publishing world about a book, and the larger cultural conversation happens externally. It’s always the hope that the book that we in publishing are all excited resonates externally in the buying world.
How long did you remain a scout with Mary Anne Thompson?
From 1993 until the very end of 1999. I had a good run, but I wanted to do other things, even though I didn’t know what those other things were. I had read a piece in the New York Times about Kurt Andersen founding an online company that would report on different media, like music and television and film and book- and magazine publishing, and politics.
I was familiar with Kurt because I was a Spy magazine reader, and because he had written a novel that I had read as a scout. But I was naive enough not to understand who Kurt Andersen was. I wrote him and said, “Hey, you’re starting this new online venture and I’m interested in exploring what that might be.” I told him what I did as a book scout and suggested that I could do that for him digitally. He really responded to that—the idea that I could report on Inside.com what submissions people were reading and what people were buying in real time blew his mind. I was hired. So was Sara Nelson, and we had a blast.
We worked together for a year and a half: Michael Hirschorn, Kurt Andersen, Sara Nelson, Lorne Manly, David Carr, Craig Marks, Joe Hagan, Todd Pruzan, Jared Hohlt, Greg Lindsay, Kyle Pope, Steve Battaglio. These key people within their industries all came together for this one venture, and we were for a year the white-hot center of media coverage. But it was the Internet version 1.0, and we couldn’t figure out how to monetize it properly. We launched as Publisher’s Lunch was about to launch. We had a lot of ambition about what we could do, and we disrupted things for a period of time, and then it ended after September 11.
That was my transition step. My reporting on projects about writers and auctions caught the eye of Mark Reiter, who was an agent at IMG. When David McCormick left IMG to start Collins McCormick, IMG needed a literary agent and Mark offered an amazingly generous opportunity to cut my teeth.
IMG’s literary department was unwinding, but it was an opportunity. It was just Mark Reiter, Lisa Queen, and me. I had not thought about being an agent until Mark asked me.