Getting back to your early years in television and theater, do you represent those rights on your own?
I use co-agents for that. There are a variety of them, and I match the books with the temperaments and tastes of the agents. I’ve had so many books optioned, and so many books have even had the rights exercised, where the big money is paid. But not one of them has seen the light of day. The closest was when HBO optioned The Corrections and there was a pilot, but then they didn’t do it. Tom Rachman’s book was optioned by Plan B and they let the option lapse, and now both the BBC and HBO are newly interested in it. Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold continues to be optioned by Warner Brothers, so there’s hope for that book.
I think a lot of my books get optioned because of my attraction to theater and film and television—there’s something in my brain that is drawn to manuscripts that have something filmic about them. That’s what appeals to me. Also, I have such nice clients. [Laughs.] Even if they’re writing about really awful people. I am very blessed to have terrific authors who are real mensches. Many of them become good friends.
I’m curious about those relationships. There’s an awful lot of snark directed at Jonathan Franzen. How much of that do you feel?
Oh, I feel it terribly. It’s very painful. The whole Oprah thing was particularly painful because he is such a great guy and he was so misunderstood. What Jonathan said was taken out of context, late at night. 9/11 had just happened, and his book had just been published. Everybody canceled their author tours but Jonathan. His book had so many great reviews when it came out of the gate that it was just gigantic, and then Oprah picked it. He didn’t have to go on tour—that book was going to make a lot of money anyway—but he cares about readers and bookstores and he decided to get on a million planes when everyone was terrified of flying.
By the end of the tour, people were coming up to him and saying, “I don’t feel like your book is an Oprah book. How do you feel about that?” He was receiving feedback that caused him to question what he had done. Late at night, he expressed some ambivalence about it and, of course, it got picked up by every paper and it ballooned into a real sideshow.
If you read The Corrections, it’s all about ambivalence. That he was ambivalent is no surprise. And that’s why the night of the National Book Awards was very special.
Does it feel sometimes that these authors are a part of your family?
Yes. Some of them are real confidants whom I’m very close to.
Do you have an eye for picking up the people that you’re going to develop a real relationship with?
Well, the book comes first. I make a decision based on the book. I haven’t met or spoken to the author when I decide I want to take it on. It’s usually a happy coincidence that the author’s a nice person. I have some clients who are more professional—more cut and dry and it’s primarily a business relationship. But there are others who I would count as some of my best friends.
Are there books that you come back to time and again, to recenter yourself or to remind yourself what you’re looking for?
I know there are some editors who do that. I don’t. I tend to be neurotic and feel guilty that I’m not getting to my clients’ work.
When I first get a manuscript, I always have a pencil in hand because even though I might not take it on, I don’t want to have to mark it up again if I do. I print manuscripts and read that way. But to read non-critically, which is the great pleasure of reading books that are not your own, is a much different experience. I have read some books and thought, “This should be edited. Why did they let this author get away with this?” It’s hard to turn off that faculty.
Are there editors you haven’t worked with but would love to find a book with?
I’d love to have a book with Kate Medina. I think I’d love to have a book with lots of editors. I’ll stop there. I don’t want to leave anyone out. [Laughs.]
What defines a great editor?
I had The Imperfectionists with Susan Kamil. I think she is a wonderful line editor, and such a passionate and devoted advocate for her books. She is super smart and really understands publishing. I always feel in good hands with her.
Who are the younger editors who represent the best of the next generation?
I don’t have many books with the youngest editors. I think Millicent Bennett is very good; I have a book with her, Brando Skyhorse’s Take This Man, that she inherited. He did The Madonnas of Echo Park with the editor who acquired him, Amber Qureshi, and then Millicent inherited his memoir and she did a lot of work on it. It was already a very good book, but she was really, really meticulous. Lindsey Sagnette at Crown—I’d like to do a book with her. She’s very sharp. I just met Liese Mayer at Scribner, who I was charmed by. There are a lot of smart young people out there.
So how does a smart, young person catch your attention? What prevents you from sending a book only to the most established editors and publishers?
I do have my usual suspects. It really takes young editors asking me to lunch so that I can get to know them, because otherwise I won't think of them. There’s always the tradeoff that the more high-powered the editor is, the greater influence they’re going to have within their organization, so my tendency is to go to them. But there’s also the little engine that could, with the younger editors who throw themselves into the editing process and bring enthusiasm that somebody more seasoned might not.
Who are the agents you most admire now?
Early on, Henry Dunow was very nice to me, and Deborah Schneider referred some authors to me. Theresa Park is someone I really admire, even though her list is very different from mine, and I've called her when I've had questions. Julie Barer has great taste; I've often traded information with her. Sometimes I feel like Eric Simonoff and I are friendly rivals in a way, but I admire and respect him. Tina Bennett. Binky Urban, Sloan Harris, Esther Newberg. I respect Nicole Aragi a lot.
Is there a specific issue in the business that bothers you?
If writers do not have enough money to subsist on, they’re not going to be writing great books. The whole mess of relying on track record really gets to me.
If a first novel doesn’t sell well, those numbers are public. They are part of Nielsen BookScan and any editor can look them up. It used to be that editors wouldn’t have a clue and they would buy books based on the quality of the manuscript. Now, they’ll look at the track record and if it’s poor, no matter how good a book is, they won’t buy it. That’s because the bookstores will order half that many copies and it won’t make sense from a production standpoint.
Some writers can overcome a bad track record by writing in a different genre or they can write something so spectacular that it just cries out to be bought. But usually you won’t get much of an advance. It’s a real concern. A lot of times when books don’t do well, mistakes have been made, mistakes that publishers have made—and it’s not the fault of the book at all. And there are books that the publisher has done amazing things for that just don’t take hold. The track record just seems not to be a reflection of the quality of the writer’s work.
At some writers conferences the people on staff are really experienced writers who can’t sell their books, or are getting very small advances. And then there are these bright young things that come to the conference and pick up an agent and their books sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. That’s a weird imbalance.
How do you prepare your agency for how the business might change?
We’re all daunted by that question. You just don’t know. For me, it will always go back to the quality of the book. It’s hard to know whether there will be gatekeepers or curators in the future. It’s unfortunate that writers have to do so much social media. So many of them are just not equipped to do it. And social media still doesn’t really work unless a book has been anointed by one of the traditional platforms. And then of course it can build. But for some small book just published, an author tweeting about it is not going to sell copies.
Are there publishers you see today that are enabling writers to find audiences better than others?
There are some publishers who have more hits than others, but it’s a chicken-and-egg question. Take Knopf. They have the money and the reputation to get the best authors, but they publish very well, also. They do spectacular covers and when they really get behind a book, they have really smart campaigns. FSG has a very distinct personality, and because it’s a house that doesn’t publish in all areas their imprimatur can be valuable. But everybody is up against the same questions and the same struggle.
Tell me about some good news in the business.
Book Court [an independent bookstore in Brooklyn] recently said that they had had their best year ever, and that they sold more hardcovers than they had ever sold before. This may sound Pollyannaish, but while the Barnes & Noble chain getting smaller is not necessarily good for publishing, it could move book buyers to the independents and the independents could grow. We could go back to a time where books are hand sold and it is about the passion of the bookseller and the community between the neighborhood and their bookstore.
What do you love about your job?
I love the discovery of new writers. I love changing people’s lives. There’s nothing better than giving life-changing money to a poor, struggling person who’s never made more than twenty-five thousand dollars a year working at some minimum-wage job. It’s wonderful. I love reading whatever Jonathan Franzen sends me; I know that I will have an incredible experience. I love going out to lunch with smart people. It’s a lot of fun to go out with the nonfiction editors in election years because they always have political insights. It’s really good to be an agent. It’s tough, it’s stressful, and it requires a lot of work, but it’s very gratifying.
Do you have any advice for agents who are just starting out in the business?
When I started out, I didn’t have a mentor and I was a babe in the wilderness. I didn’t know a lot of the editors. I decided that the way to make it was to handle only good stuff and always send it to the appropriate editor. If that editor sees they are getting something that is right for them, even if they don’t ultimately buy it, they'll know the agent is reliable.
For young agents, it goes back to the book. It just keeps going back to the book. You have to find those good books, somehow. Make those books, if you have to, and do the editing work.
Michael Szczerban is a senior editor at Regan Arts.