What energizes a writer to disappear for four whole years, trusting in what just one agent said?
I know! [Laughs.] I was just at a party for one of my authors, Joshua Max Feldman, whose book Amazon has featured as a debut for February. He had sent me material that I thought was very well written, but his story was too slight. His talents were so much greater than his content.
I told him, “I think you're a great writer, but I don't think I can sell this and I don't know how to make it salable. Go write something else and send it to me.” And he did! He kept sending me stuff until he wrote this novel, The Book of Jonah, and now it's getting a great response. I hope that it does really well.
My authors all take huge risks. It's amazing that they trust me the way they do. But I have been doing this long enough to sense of what a book needs and what makes something stand out in the marketplace, because not everything does.
Part of your work is to give authors faith in themselves—that they can do the work.
How much of your job is coaching your writers to achieve beyond what they thought they could?
It depends on the writer. Many of my writers do need an injection of confidence, and others are more secure in what they are doing. It’s a different relationship with each one. As an agent, you wear many different hats. There’s your maternal hat, and your editor’s hat, and your businessperson’s hat, and your lawyer’s hat, and your accountant’s hat.
What’s the most challenging part of managing an author’s career for you?
My math skills. I know how to calculate 15 percent! [Laughs.] But royalty statements still strike the fear of God in me. That part is challenging. But I have good bookkeepers to take care of that.
Was it 1990 when you started your agency?
I was just going through a garage full of papers and discovered that I started it in 1988. I sold a nonfiction book about the coming collapse of Japan.
Was this when Japan’s economy was slowing because of its aging population?
This was before then, at a time when it looked like the Japanese were dominating the world. Sony had bought Rockefeller Center and every business book was how to do it the Japanese way. But this man thought the whole thing was going to collapse. His reasons were social and cultural as well as economic, and he told me about a guy he met who also felt the same way, but was basing it all on demographics. Japan had an aging population, and because of the war, they had a big age gap and no young people to fuel an economy. That person was Harry Dent, who became one of my big bestselling authors. He has a book just out now called The Demographic Cliff.
What kinds of books do you seek to represent?
I always want a book to tell me something new. I love a paradigm-shifting nonfiction book. And in fiction I want to be shown a world, or an insight into human nature, that I haven’t seen before. With nonfiction I think of myself as a general reader. If something seems new and interesting to me I assume it will be to others. With a novel, it’s an intuitive sense and an instinct for something fresh, which is what publishers always say they want. That can be frustrating. I’ll think something’s fresh and then they’ll say, “It’s not fresh enough!” [Laughs.] I love it when publishers say they want something they’ve never seen before, but when you send it to them, they say, “I have no comps for this.”
Would you explain why nonfiction tends to sell on the basis of a proposal, and why fiction needs to be sold with a full manuscript?
The reason that nonfiction has been traditionally sold on proposal is that the author needs the money to write the book, because it involves research and travel and expenses. And for fiction, I’m sure you’ve read countless novels that start off wonderfully, but they bore and disappoint you by the end. Publishers have the same concerns. The first novel really has to show your command of the whole arc of your story. I often sell the second and third novel from an author on nothing more than a piece of paper, because the publisher knows that that author can deliver.
You have an intense editorial relationship with many of your clients. How does that relationship change when you sell, say, Rachel Kushner’s Telex From Cuba to Nan Graham at Scribner?
You know, that novel was called “The Americanos,” but we found out that another book was called that. I loved that first title, and we struggled to replace it.
The first novel definitely represents the biggest commitment of my time and energy, because it’s so hard to sell first novels. Publishers are so risk-averse that the book has to be nearly perfect. Of course, some editors still edit, and some don’t. Nan is a great editor, and she adds her contributions.
I’m often less involved in the second book. Rachel went off and wrote The Flamethrowers, and I was the first reader on that, and I was just stunned. Telex was amazing, but this was leaps and bounds beyond Telex. It was an extraordinary document, with its muscular writing and incredible dialogue and milieu. I gave her some fairly minor edits, and I think Nan’s were pretty minor as well.
Sometimes the author really learns how to write a book from that first experience, and is able to go off and do the second one on her own. But that second novel can be hard. It’s like musicians who put everything about their life through their early twenties in their first album. And then they have two years to write the next one and don’t have the same breadth of experience to call upon.
What distinguishes the authors who are able to write a good follow-up novel or nonfiction book?
I think it’s different for all of them. The muse is fickle. So sometimes the second novel requires working with the author to ask, “What’s new here? What can you say that hasn't been said before? How can we make this novel work in terms of its narrative and its complexity and its characterizations?”
Did you ever want to be a book editor?
In college, when I was interested in theater and television, I was also interested in editing. The opportunities were always at the literary agencies. But now, agents are doing more and more editing. I am editing. I am an editor.
If you discover that an editor doesn’t put in the time, do you cross that person off your list?
I’ll think twice about sending something else to that person. I can take an author only so far and then usually the author’s like, “Let’s get this book out there.” We often get to a point where I feel it’s ready to go, but sometimes I still think that it needs more work. I hope and pray the editor will do that work, because if not, a reviewer is going to take the writer to task.
Is the lack of editing an epidemic? I really want to know more about these publishers who allow their editors not to do their jobs.
[Laughs.] Well, we’re all so overworked, and there’s so much pressure on the editors to acquire. It’s true for agents, too. A lot of writers coming out of writing programs are querying several agents at a time. I’ll ask to see a manuscript and say I need six weeks to get back to you. Then I get an e-mail saying the writer has an offer for representation, and can I read the book in four days, and I have to drop everything to read this book when I have my own clients who are delivering their own manuscripts that I should be reading.
Agents are experiencing what editors have been dealing with. They have all these books they need to edit and they have to drop it and read these submissions from agents overnight so that they can get the next great thing. We all should have twenty pairs of eyes so that we can do everything at once.
So it’s not editors per se, but the challenge of being in the book business at this particular moment in time?
Yes. That’s how the business has evolved. I mean, we work so hard. It’s a little unsustainable. I’m sure you’re constantly reading and editing and then you have the meetings and the lunches….
In order to figure out what’s really going on inside a book, I think you need to hold the entire thing in your head all at once. That’s not something I can do at 10:30 at night, after I’ve been writing copy and talking with my business office all day.
Exactly. I don't like to read during the week. If my attention starts to fail, I don't know if it's the fault of the book or if I’m tired.
You represent some writers who make serious demands of their readers, because of the length of their books or the leaps they require a reader to make. Do you think about the payoff a reader gets for his or her investment in a book?
I’m sure you’ve heard of the sweet spot, a book that’s very accessible to read but pays dividends of depth of characterization and insight and emotional heft and payoff. Those books demand less of the reader than the more literary books on my list. I have a spectrum. Bill Vollmann is way out there on the very literary side, and is very demanding of the reader. His language is extraordinary and very dense. And then there are Jonathan and Rachel and other more commercial writers who are still literary and deal with sophisticated ideas and themes, but there’s more of a pure-entertainment aspect to their writing.
Some people distinguish between “literary” and “upmarket” and “commercial” books. “Literary” is about the language and “upmarket” is about the characters and “commercial” is about the plot—when “literary” should really be all three of those things. Every book should be.
There are certain points in a year that you might want to sell a really big new novel. Would you talk about the ebb and flow of submission season, and why you might send something to editors at one point in the year versus another?
There are certain dead times in publishing. The summer is never a great time to be sending out something big, mainly because people are on vacation and you want everybody in the house available to read the book and get behind it. And if you’re planning on holding an auction, you want as many players as possible.
I find the best times to sell are September and October, especially leading up to the Frankfurt Book Fair. A lot of people will wait till the week before Frankfurt to send a book out to create buzz, and ride that into the fair. The same thing happens in April for London. January is a good month too. People are back from vacation, they’re hungry, and it’s a new fiscal year.