Agents & Editors: The Book Group

Michael Szczerban
From the July/August 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

The story of the Book Group sounds like the setup for a feel-good comedy directed by Nancy Meyers: Four young women with literary dreams meet in New York at the dawn of their careers. Passionate about books, they become fast friends and professional confidantes. As literary agents, success means long hours, a little self-doubt, and a lot of courage—but they find it, inking deals, launching authors, and building agencies that bear their own names. Finally, fifteen years later, they notice what’s been obvious to the people around them for years: They ought to be in business together.

For Julie Barer, Faye Bender, Brettne Bloom, and Elisabeth Weed, that’s more or less how it all unfolded. Starting their careers as agents just before the turn of the twenty-first century, their paths intertwined for a decade and a half before they formally joined forces as partners in the Book Group in June 2015.

Bloom joined the Kneerim & Williams agency in Boston in 2000, and when she moved to New York a couple of years later, Weed joined her from Curtis Brown. Meanwhile, Bender and Barer, a former bookseller, were first connecting as assistants at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. While Bloom remained at her firm and eventually became a name partner, Bender, Barer, and Weed all moved on from the positions where they initially met to open their own independent agencies.

By the time their partnership became official, all but Bender had come to share common office space, and the quartet often sought one another’s counsel. As Barer says, “Suddenly it became so obvious.” And now, a year in? According to Weed, “It’s a lovefest.”

The partners of the Book Group are joined by agent Rebecca Stead, a Newbery Medal–winning author who is also Bender’s client, and associate agent Dana Murphy. Together, their clients include Kristin Cashore, Stephanie Clifford, Elisabeth Egan, Joshua Ferris, Charles Finch, Charlotte Gordon, Sarah Jio, Lily King, Dan Marshall, Paula McLain, Liane Moriarty, Celeste Ng, Francisco Stork, and J. Courtney Sullivan, among others.

Barer, Bender, Bloom, Weed, and I spoke in the Book Group’s office on West Twentieth Street in Manhattan, a part of town that’s home to several boutique agencies, about how their partnership came to be.

How did each of you get your start in the business?

Bloom: I began my publishing career as an intern at the Atlantic in 1999 and became an assistant agent at Kneerim & Williams in Boston in 2000. I was with them for fifteen years: first as an assistant, then a junior agent, an agent, a partner, and then a name partner. I opened their New York office in 2002. I must say how deeply grateful I am to Ike Williams and Jill Kneerim. To watch them was like watching artists at the peak of their craft. That amazing experience has informed my working here, because I knew the benefits of being around other people who you think of as smarter than you are, and who you learn a lot from. I probably have the most eclectic list at The Book Group. I work on nonfiction, journalism, psychology, science, history, biography and memoir, cookbooks, design books, and also literary and commercial fiction.

Weed: I started my career in 1999 as well, as an assistant at Curtis Brown. Then I got a call from a very senior agent at Kneerim & Williams named Brettne Bloom. Reagan Arthur [now publisher of Little, Brown] said she should call me. Brettne had just moved from Boston to New York, and as I found out later, Ike and Jill basically felt she needed a friend—so she was allowed to hire me. I may have sold all of two books at the time, but Kneerim & Williams gave me my real start, and I have so much to thank them for. The agency was predominantly nonfiction and very smart. As my list developed, I became more interested in the commercial side of things and felt like I should go to a more commercial agency. I was at Trident for two years before starting Weed Literary on my own. I did that for six years before joining these guys—although talk of joining together as The Book Group was probably a three- or four-year endeavor. My list is predominantly commercial and literary fiction. I do some memoir, some investigative journalism, and some self-help.

Bender: I got started in 1996 working for the agent Nick Ellison, who was loosely affiliated with Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. This was back in the day when Nick would go into his office after sending a twenty-five-page partial manuscript to somebody and emerge from his office six minutes later having sold it for $750,000, with another deal for $500,000 in Germany. It was unbelievable. I remember coming home and telling my mom, “This is great!  It’s piece of cake.” It was the most misleading introduction to this career. I worked for Nick for two years and then went to work for Doris Michaels, whose small agency doesn’t exist anymore. She gave me a wonderful start. She had a terrific assistant and a small client list, but hired me as her office manager anyway. I didn’t have much to do except build my list, which was such a beautiful gesture on her part. I didn’t have that bottleneck that so many people have, where you’re assisting someone else while building your own business. I worked with Doris for a couple of years, and then moved to Anderson Grinberg, which is now two separate agencies run by Kathleen Anderson and Jill Grinberg. That was a short but amazingly informative time for me. Until then I had worked on only adult books. At one point, I had a gut feeling about a novel that I couldn’t let go of, but I also couldn’t sell it. I started to describe the story to Jill, and as far as I got was, “It’s about a sixteen-year-old boy,” before she said, “It’s probably YA—you should send it to young adult editors.” I did, and had an auction for it, and that author has gone on to win awards and is a very meaningful client. That opened the door to what’s now the bulk of my list. For me, it’s all fiction: about 75 percent YA, children’s, and middle grade, and 25 percent adult.

Barer: My first job in publishing was working at Shakespeare & Co., the bookstore that, RIP, no longer exists. I loved hand-selling books so much that I started to think about doing that earlier in the process. I had no interest or talent in writing, but I loved to edit. But a lot of friends were stuck in junior positions in big houses and were unhappy. Then a friend of my mother’s took me out to lunch and told me, “You don’t want to be an editor. You want to be an agent.” She gave me a list of places to send my resume to, and I got an offer as an assistant at Sanford Greenburger, where I met Faye. I started out with Heidi Lange and then moved over to work for Theresa Park. Theresa was an incredible mentor and boss, and gave me opportunities to pursue my own interests and to watch a master at work.

Bender: Theresa talked me through my first deal even though I had no affiliation with her whatsoever.

Barer: That’s how she was. So generous.

And now she represents huge novelists on her own.

Bender: Nick Sparks, Debbie Macomber, Emily Giffin, Janice Lee. She has an incredible list. The Notebook was the first book she ever sold.

Barer: Elyse Cheney was also there and a great mentor. I started in 1999, and by the end of 2004, Elyse and Theresa had both decided to leave and start their own companies. I was ready to graduate into a more senior position, but I didn’t have the list yet. They offered me an opportunity to leave when they did—to start my own company and do some stuff on the side for them to pay my bills as I found my way. I thought they were totally crazy, but I did it. That was the beginning of Barer Literary.

My list is 99 percent fiction. I do a little bit of narrative nonfiction and memoir when it feels irresistible. The fiction is mostly literary and upmarket women’s fiction. It’s whatever I fall in love with.

You each found role models in agents who had started their own firms.

Barer: One of the great gifts that Theresa and Elyse gave to me was their encouragement. Back in those days, nonfiction was easier to sell, and selling for more money, than fiction. But I didn’t have the eye for it, and they said to me, “You love fiction. Just do fiction. Don’t worry about trying to be good at everything. Do what you’re passionate about and go with what you’re good at.” Thank God.

Bloom: I thought that when I went into publishing I’d be working in fiction, because that’s what you think when you’re twenty-two and going into publishing. I was, and am still, a passionate reader of fiction. But Jill Kneerim opened my eyes to the possibilities of nonfiction. Really good narrative nonfiction can be just as compelling as a wonderful novel. I studied the proposals she developed with some of the leading minds in the world, and they were all written with great authority but drew you in with storytelling, with voice, with all the things we love in great fiction.

Bender: I didn’t have one particular mentor. I got meaningful bits and pieces from different people, like Theresa Park walking through my very first deal and Jill Grinberg opening my eyes to kid lit. But mostly it's been through the three of you—plus my dad. He is a small business owner, doesn’t work in publishing, and isn’t in New York, but he has been a huge influence on how to approach decisions that impact one's business and how to conduct oneself in business.

Weed: I found that experience in these women, too. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s true. Ever since I worked with Brettne at Kneerim & Williams, she was the person I bounced ideas off and talked to. When I was in an auction or negotiating a deal, I would be calling the women in this room. We would go over our submission lists together. I found mentors in my peers—and they’re now my partners.

You told me that during the photo shoot for this story, you were all coming up with title ideas for one of your clients’ books. Did you have those kinds of conversations before you became partners?

Bloom: We were already collaborating before we officially became the Book Group. Three of us [Bloom, Weed, and Barer] were already sharing office space, and those conversations were happening organically: about titles, about jackets, about book ideas. It happened in the hallways and our offices just as if we were colleagues.

Bender: It’s been happening, to a certain extent, for our whole careers. There have been few other people I’ve called regularly throughout my whole career.

Barer: We’ve known each other since we were assistants.

Bender: It has been the longest vetting process. [Laughter.]

Barer: We have a weekly meeting where we cover a wide range of topics, both personal and professional. It’s the highlight of my week.  The opportunity that we have for collaboration is one of the best things about coming together.

Bloom: I will move heaven and earth to be at that meeting.