I haven’t really seen the phenomenon of the one “big Frankfurt book” in the past several years. What’s your take on that?
The international publishers are really suffering right now, and they have less money. Several publishers in Holland laid off whole swaths of employees and their book industry is really in trouble. The Dutch sale used to be a very reliable foreign sale. Now it’s gotten trickier.
Once upon a time, before I started going to the fairs, people would run to their hotel rooms to read things. There was pressure on them to buy right then and there. A lot of them took a bath because they were caught up in the frenzy of the competition. Now people have learned their lesson, so they’re more cautious. Fairs can create buzz about a book, and everyone will be aware of it. But they’ll read it when they get back home.
Has the weakness in foreign markets had a real impact on authors’ incomes?
Yes and no. There was serious money in the foreign markets. Five years ago you could get six-figure advances routinely. Now you’re getting five figures, sometimes four figures, so that really does affect authors. On the other hand, some U.S. sales are inflated, because publishers are all looking for that same book. They may say no to a lot of pretty good books, and then just decide, “This is the one.” They all throw down on it, and it goes for millions of dollars just because it was the one book everyone agreed on in a given week. It’s so arbitrary!
As an agent, can you engineer that kind of frenzy?
The best thing is to have the strongest book. It always comes down to the product. There are so many agents, and there’s no way to know what else is on submission or that editors are reading part of your book and putting it down because something else came in from Eric Simonoff. The most control comes from having the best product, getting it to the right editors, and getting their attention on it. That involves a lot of follow-up e-mails and calls and being a nudge without being too annoying.
The ideal circumstance is when you send something out on a Tuesday afternoon, and a handful of editors call you on Wednesday morning to say they love it.
Yes, and that’s what’s happening with one of my books right now. I sent it out late, around six o’clock on Monday, and people started calling Wednesday. Now somebody is asking if I’ll take a preemptive offer. I’m not sure what I’ll do. But the happiest scenario is when the house that you really feel the book would be best at makes a large preempt. [Laughs.]
How many editors did you send that book to?
I went to twenty editors with it.
Is that common for you?
I can’t speak for other agents, but I'll do up a list. Basically, when you're doing an auction you need editors from the different houses.
You need somebody from Simon & Schuster, and somebody from HarperCollins…
Right, and somebody from Macmillan and so on. In this instance, I thought there were four really good editors at Penguin who I could see the book with, so I submitted to them all and only one of them will be able to bid—they have to work it out among themselves.
Sometimes if I think there might be an issue with the book it, I'll tell the author, “Let’s go to ten people, and if we get a consensus in the rejections, then you have an opportunity to revise and we’ll go to ten different people.” It’s often hard to go back to the well.
Would you explain what a preemptive offer is?
It’s an offer that is big enough to take a book off the table. You take it if you think the money in the offer is equal to or greater than what you would get if you actually had an auction. It’s very hard to know what the right number is, because individual editors could love a book but they might not get support in-house. When an editor calls you with a preempt, and you have the book out with twenty other editors, you take a risk if you decline the offer because other people are loving it. But the more people who are loving the book, the more confident you’ll be that you’re going to get to a certain level.
Of course, seven-figure offers are taken very seriously. And sometimes, if you’re starting to get rejections and you know that you only have so many viable players left, it’s best to take the preempt. Auctions are much more straightforward and let the market decide.
Have you ever regretted not taking a preempt?
I don’t think so. I had a book by Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, called Let My People Go Surfing. I had a great deal of interest in it—something like twenty publishers all wanting this book. One of them made me a preemptive offer that I turned down because I thought I was going to get a much higher figure. And I went about this auction and at the end, the one who wanted to preempt won, for the figure that they wanted to preempt at. Nonfiction publishers will often look at comps: how the Ben & Jerry’s book did, how the Starbucks book did. They all had the same number in mind. It’s wilder with fiction.
When you bring an author to meet publishers before an auction, what do you look for?
It’s always appealing when the publisher has a real plan for the book and can present it in both a specific and a wide-ranging way.
In Jonathan Franzen’s speech accepting the National Book Award for The Corrections, he thanked you and said that you were the smartest and toughest agent in New York City. What are the toughest things you have to do as an agent?
There’s a fine line that you walk as an agent between your relationship to your author and your relationships to the editors. You want editors to like you because you want them to buy your books. But you work for your author.
I once had a situation in which an author was late with a book and the publisher wanted to renegotiate the advance. I was just not going to let that happen. I consider that kind of publisher very shortsighted, when something like The Corrections took ten years and its publisher waited—and look what he got. But when the business wasn’t doing well, publishers wanted to cut their losses and were looking for excuses to trickle down their advances. That was an instance where I really took a stand, and it took months of push-back and some personnel changes to result in us keeping that advance. Now, the book came out, and it’s nominated for an Edgar Award.
Myriad issues come up that you have to fight for. You have to pick your battles, and sometimes just let go because you can’t control the outcome.
What is the hardest thing you have to talk to your clients about?
Calling them to tell them that no one is going to buy their book. That it has gone to forty editors and has been rejected.
Does that happen to you, even now?
I used to think that there were certain agents who always sold their books. Then somebody told me, no, even the Binky Urbans of the world sometimes can’t sell their books. It happens. It’s a tough market.
Have you had to part ways with authors before?
I have with some. It’s usually consensual. An old boss once told me that the author-client relationship is like a marriage: If it’s not working for one person, then it’s not working for both people. You have to listen to that. Sometimes I feel that I can't help an author anymore. It’s painful when an author whom you have a good relationship with delivers a book that’s bad and you have to tell them you don’t want to submit it. At that point, it’s up to them to shelve that book and write something else, or to seek another agent. You become very close with your clients, and even if it’s a bad book, you want to do what they want you to do because they’re your friend. But sometimes you have to say no.
You mentioned that The Corrections took ten years to write and that FSG was supportive of Jonathan Franzen during that period. Meanwhile, you had started your agency and needed income. How did you support yourself while you waited for his big book?
It takes about five years to really start to get royalties, and that’s the best. It’s passive income—you don’t have to work for that. I was fortunate enough to have two six-figure deals when I started. But I kept my overhead really low. I remember when I first took a commercial lease in Manhattan, it was scary because commercial leases are five years and it was expensive rent. But I had two Oprah books at the time. That was wind beneath my sails.
When did you feel you were ready to commit to agenting as a lifelong career?
I think it was early on, with those books that I sold when I first started. I felt I knew what I was doing. But I also knew that there were going to be lots of fallow periods.
My father was a physician, and he was very inspiring to me. He showed me a chart of his income: how he had started and how it went up. That happened to me as well, though I grew very conservatively. I hired people slowly. The agency is still a very small ship. It’s just me, my assistant, and my rights director and bookkeeper. It’s very cozy and efficient.
Would you ever want to be a bigger shop?
I’m more into a list of quality than one of quantity. To be a big shop, you need a lot of books because they’re not all going to be big books. I like for my list to be manageable and not to feel that there’s runaway growth. You might feel as if you’re on the treadmill and you can’t catch up.
How many books did you go out with last year?
Very few. The feeling in the industry right now is that editors want big books, and that the midlist has been shrinking for so long that it is nonexistent. I was looking for big books and wasn’t finding them.
How do you seek out new writers?
I get a lot of referrals, and I have an amazing slush pile. Both Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics were slush. The book I’m going out with right now was slush.
My assistant or intern will look through the slush first. I get twenty to thirty queries a day. My assistant will cull those that are worth pursuing and I’ll ask to see some material, and then I have to make a decision on it.
In that first concentrated moment of introduction, how does a writer get to the next step?
With a really well-written query letter that is compelling, that shows me the writer knows the book and is a good enough writer to intrigue me.
Some aspiring writers focus on the formula of the query letter: what the first paragraph says, and the second, and so on. But it sounds like you respond to letters full of voice and interest—that, for whatever reason, make you want to read more.
Exactly, and I look also at the authors and whether they come out of a solid program or if they’ve been published in magazines.