Agents & Editors: PJ Mark

Michael Szczerban

Would you give me an example of a book that spoke to you?
Ismet Prcic is a beautiful example of a writer with a punk rock ethos, cultural ambition, and a pure heart. I read a piece of his in McSweeney’s and contacted him. He sent me a 420-page manuscript—it may even have been longer. It was a rant. It was parts of a novel. It was a story of war and coming of age and immigration and fear and damage and fracture. I flipped out over it. It was so ambitious and so smart, and it was making me happy and sad and I had a pure emotional response to the book.

I sent that submission everywhere, and that book freaked people out. They didn’t know what to do with it. We got so close with so many people and it just kept getting killed at the top. Then Lauren Wein and Morgan Entrekin at Grove recognized that there was real brilliance in that voice and that the book ought to be published. They took a risk. In the end, Shards won or was shortlisted for a long list of prizes, and we made money on the book and established this tremendous voice.

There are incredible, smart young editors who have their ears to the culture and can recognize the future in the writing they see. It is devastating to me when a young editor loves something, but hears “no” from the boss. My career has been because people have taken risks with me and allowed me the room to make mistakes and to have successes. It is very aggravating to see how afraid of taking a risk the corporate machine can be.

You’re talking about building a literary list, not just turning a profit.
A literary list needs to get critical attention and awards and have a conversation with a community of readers. It should also sell, and we hope that it sells very well. But a literary list also attracts other writers to it. It is magnetic. A more commercial writer is attracted to the literary merit represented on that list, and that will make a publishing house more money. And of course there are those literary authors who break out in a very big way, whether on their first or second books or even three or four or five books later. The returns on taking those risks are evident. 

Who are the publishers who recognize the value you see in cultivating that kind of list?
They’re literary houses that you would assume that they are. Farrar, Strauss; Grove; Knopf; Houghton. They’re publishers who are saying that the market for a book might be modest, but they understand the importance of that book within the market. 

Of course, all publishers take risks. If we knew the secret to making a book successful we would be printing money. The fact is that the cultural landscape and the interests of readers are always shifting. Trying to forecast that is a risk. It’s arbitrary. But there is some skill to it. The skill is in recognizing individual and collective successes and failures. You know, realizing that you do not publish this book this kind of book very well, and therefore this kind of submission isn’t right for you, or that you have had luck breaking out this kind of writer so you’re willing to take a risk on someone similar. The worst kind of publishing, and the worst kind of agenting, occurs when you throw something against the wall just to see what happens.

How did you learn to negotiate?
My relationships with editors in submission and in negotiation are always pretty transparent. I think it’s just through experience that you learn how to negotiate. You learn to trust your instincts about whether you’re working toward closing a deal with the right components: the finances, the editor, the author. All of those pieces have to fit. You know when it doesn’t, and when it’s going to be a problem.  Sometimes there is no other option, but it just requires more work. 

From your vantage point as an agent, what makes a great editor?
When I’m selling a book to an editor, I want that editor to have an intuitive response to it. I want that editor to love the book as much as I do. I want editors to call me and tell me they stayed up all night, or they freaked out, or they have been hand-selling the book in-house. Then I know they are not going to give up later on when things get hard. Because things are going to get hard! The book is going to be up against another book in-house that is possibly going to be getting more attention. Or the book didn’t get the review we hoped for, or the marketing money we want. Or the booksellers aren’t responding, or we’re having trouble getting blurbs.

My most valuable relationships with editors are ones in which I’m working very intimately with them through every step of the process through publication and beyond, to figure out ways for the material to move forward and get the attention it deserves. I remind them that they have a responsibility to the writer. I remind them when things aren’t going appropriately. I remind them that they need to be investing more money and remind them that they need to be doing more for publicity and remind them that their edits are overdue.

My job is to run interference between the editor and the author on difficult conversations that the author can’t have. One of my best skills is that I am able to back into difficult conversations very easily, and have those conversations end in a result that is beneficial to my writer. My hope is always that I’m working with an editor who understands that we need to be collaborative and that we need to figure out together how to make this work.

What are some essential components to breaking a book out?
It’s essential to understand how to talk about the book so that everyone is on the same page when they’re pitching it. How I pitch the book to the editor comes from my discussions about the book with the author. I have tried to articulate their intent as clearly as possible. Then that editor needs to take that information and have a response to the material and articulate that same intent to their colleagues. Once the book is acquired, it’s essential to make sure that we’re on the same page regarding what’s said to the sales force, what the sales force says to the booksellers, what the booksellers say to the customers, what the publicity department says to reviewers, and what the marketing department puts up for public consumption. You must figure out how to position the book apart from other titles.

There are many things that we do, and they’re all part of the repertoire, but everyone has to be doing them. Not every book is going to have the same response, and attention for a book isn’t going to manifest in the same way. Sometimes it’s just somebody hustling and getting a book out there. 

What can writers do to make sure they get the best shot at success?
It is important for a writer to be a part of a literary community. A writer needs to read and buy books and attend readings and support fellow writers. It’s very difficult to engage others in supporting that writer’s work if that’s not happening. Sometimes it is the responsibility of the agent and editor to bring that writer into a community.

I don’t believe that Twitter sells books. But readers need and want to feel connected to a writer, so it is the writer’s responsibility to learn how to do that—whether it’s having a Facebook page or packing books in the back of a car and setting up readings if a publisher can’t pay for a book tour. Going to festivals, writing for online magazines, publishing work in journals.

Have you ever worked with somebody who was originally self-published?
I have not. I don’t know if I have a good viewpoint on self-publishing. I know there are success stories, but it just seems like a very hard road. It’s already very difficult for readers to discover new writers. I haven’t seen a road map for self-publishing success for the kind of writers that I work with.

I wanted to ask you about genre fiction. You represent some novels with dystopian, sci-fi, and fantasy elements.
Just as I was attracted to reading marginalized texts in my formative years, I was interested in books that experimented with form. A lot of time that meant science fiction or fantasy or comic books. I love the literary interpretation of those genres. Then, having Sam Hunt as one of my first writers—somebody who plays with form and time and reality—really laid the groundwork for attracting writers like Lucy Corin and Ramona Ausubel and Grace Krilanovitch. Now Josh Weil is playing with dystopian concepts in his new novel.

I love people pushing outside of what is typical. On the other end of the spectrum, I also love things really rooted in reality that are very clearly sincere and honest and generous, which was why Josh Weil’s novellas first blew me away. His characters were isolated men longing for connection, and the emotional components of those individual novellas were so strong that it was undeniable.

I’m not a genre reader, so I’m not one going for strictly sci-fi. I respond to the books that can cross over. Writers who play with form broaden their audience in a way, because they can hit a literary audience and also a genre audience. A lot of times genre allows you to get at the root of something through a narrative engine that couldn’t exist in a typical literary novel.

It can be a different way to show what’s actually happening in our world.
Exactly. It’s another prism, a spiky piece of mirror that’s reflecting the narrative in a different way. I love that.

What are the other things in the culture that your passionate about?
I love documentaries because I get immersed in a world very quickly and can digest it and feel like I’ve had an experience. As I get older, I get more interested in other cultural touchstones, whether that’s opera or experimental music or art or dance. I devour magazines all the time. I like media and stimulation and creativity. Television, too, but I don’t have shows I religiously watch. I would prefer to see a movie. I think the last real series I committed to was Battlestar Galactica. I find the commitment of time difficult.

That’s interesting. In another interview, the agent David Gernert noted that the Netflix series House of Cards called its episodes “chapters.” That made me wonder if soon people will feel the same sense of accomplishment after watching ten hours of television that I feel after reading a literary novel.
There is a sense of accomplishment. The requirement of sitting down and reading a novel is that the story is propelling you forward, and the same is true of sitting down to binge-watch a series. Both are narratively driven impulses, and there is probably an overlap. But I don’t sit down and read a novel from start to finish, in the same way I don’t sit down and binge-watch Orphan Black. I do most of my pleasure reading on the subway to and from work. A half hour a day, five days a week—it takes a long time to get through books. 

It must be every writer’s aspiration to find out that the New Yorker wants to publish her work. Can you take me through what it’s like to submit a story to a magazine like that?
I submit to the top-tier journals for my clients: the New Yorker, the Paris Review, Tin House, One Story, Zoetrope, Harper’s, the obvious places. I do this almost exclusively for fiction. I have relationships with those editors. I know what they are looking for, and I know that when I submit something, it’s going to be read and that I’m going to get a response. But if each client has a finite amount of time with me, it’s not a great use of our time together for me to submit to smaller magazines and journals. I depend on my writers to handle that on their own.


RJ Mark

It felt a little surreal when PJ Mark began to recount the people at ICM: Mark McCormark, David McCormick, Nina Collins, and Collins McCormick. 

A new home for defunct journals

Mike Joyce, it's not an "old cliche" (...maybe only a hundred people heard the album, but all of those people went out and formed a band). It's a quote about the first Velvet Underground album, with Lou Reed, Nico, et al. And it's "Maybe only a hundred people bought the album...etc).

Thank you.

Anderson Clingempeel