Four Lunches and a Breakfast: What I Learned About the Book Business While Breaking Bread With Five Hungry Agents

by
Kevin Larimer
6.12.19

If you want to learn about the business of books, it helps to be hungry. Not only hungry to learn, as the expression goes, but also just plain hungry, literally—it helps to have an appetite. Or an expense account. Ideally both. Because no matter how much the world of publishing has changed over the past hundred years—and, boy, has it changed since the days of Blanche Knopf, Horace Liveright, and Bennett Cerf—some things remain the same. It is still a business of relationships; it still relies on the professional connections among authors and agents and editors and the mighty web of alliances that help bring a work of literature out of the mind of the writer and onto readers’ screens and shelves. And those relationships are often sparked, deepened, and sustained during that still-sacred rite: the publishing lunch.

In the two decades I’ve worked at this magazine, I’ve had the pleasure of eating lunch with a small crowd of publishing professionals—mostly book editors and publicists, the majority of whom want to tell me more about a new book they have coming out, or an exciting debut author I may not have heard about and who would be perfect for a little extra coverage. I’ve always considered it one of the perks of my job to receive such invitations, because without exception they have come from kind, passionate, smart people—in short, ideal lunch companions. But until recently relatively few have been agents. There was a lovely meal in Chicago with agents Jeff Kleinman and Renée Zuckerbrot. And last fall, quite out of the blue, the legendary agent Al Zuckerman, founder of Writers House and agent to Ken Follett, Michael Lewis, Olivia Goldsmith, Nora Roberts, and Stephen Hawking, invited me to lunch at the Belgian Beer Café, which is now closed but had clearly offered Zuckerman, whose office is a short stroll away, in Manhattan’s Flatiron District, years of sustenance. Those lunches notwithstanding, I have not had as many opportunities as I’d like to sit down with agents and talk about the important work they do. 

“According to the hallowed tradition of book publishing, it was necessary to have lunch with all these people, and many more, as often as possible,” wrote Michael Korda, the former editor in chief of Simon & Schuster, in his book Another Life: A Memoir of Other People (Random House, 1999), a treasury of anecdotes about the publishing industry in the mid-twentieth century. He goes on to paint a picture of publishing that has changed little, except perhaps the size of editors’ expense accounts:

For editors, in fact, having lunch is regarded as a positive, income-generating, aggressive act, and a certain suspicion is extended toward those few who can be found eating a sandwich at their desk more than once or twice a week. Publishers have been known to roam through the editorial department at lunchtime to catch editors who are ‘not doing their job’ in the act of unwrapping a tuna sandwich from the nearest deli. A large expense account is very often perceived as proof of ambition and hard work…. Nobody has ever done a poll to see whether the agents—the putative beneficiaries of this largesse—really want to be taken out to lunch every day of the workweek. It is simply one of the basic assumptions of book publishing that he or she who lunches with the most agents gets the most books. 

To be honest, most afternoons I can be found in my office, staring over a sad desk lunch and trying to clear a heavy plate of work, not food. Meanwhile I suspect New York publishing’s best and brightest are rushing off to lunch reservations at fancy restaurants all over Manhattan, laying the groundwork for book deals and discussing plans for book launches and, yes, gossiping about titles the average reader won’t discover for many months or, more likely, years. To writers this world can seem opaque, removed from the solitary task of writing. So I figured it was time to get out of the office. It was time to learn more about how agents find writers and turn them into authors, to collect some honest advice for those who are looking for, or working with, an agent. And what better place to do that than in the agent’s native habitat: loud Manhattan restaurants.

The plan was simple: In five days invite five agents to lunch. (What did Robert Burns write about the best-laid plans of mice and men?) I asked each of them to pick a restaurant, ideally one they frequented with book editors and/or clients, and in exchange for a few hours of their valuable time, I’d pick up the check. Not surprising, all five chose restaurants in Manhattan—still the undisputed center of commercial book publishing—but thankfully not all were located in Midtown, that area between 34th and 59th Streets, where the concrete canyons can start to feel stifling to even the most urbane of urbanites. 

I had previously met only two of the five agents I chose for this project. I was introduced to Anjali Singh of Pande Literary at a writers conference a couple years ago, and Emily Forland of Brandt & Hochman appeared in a cover feature, “The Game Changers,” in the July/August 2011 issue of this magazine. But for the most part, I didn’t know these agents, at least not well. I’d never met Julia Kardon of HSG Agency, Kent Wolf of the Friedrich Agency, or Marya Spence of Janklow & Nesbit Associates. I’d simply heard their names in casual conversation with editors and other agents, in the way one hears names when one talks about who is publishing what, when, and with whom.

All five of the agents represent authors whose recent publishing stories I suspected would illuminate certain aspects of the business—some positive, others maybe less so. I had no specific agenda for the conversations beyond eating some decent food and learning as much as I could about agents as people, their incentives for doing what they do, and how they see their role in the grand, flawed, beautiful experiment that is twenty-first-century book publishing. 

 

MONDAY 8:45 AM
Kirsh Bakery & Kitchen
551 Amsterdam Avenue, near West 87th Street


Two eggs, scrambled; potatoes; toast; side of lox
French toast with marscapone cream and mixed berry jam
Three caffe lattes

Best-laid plans indeed. The first interview I am able to set up takes place not over lunch, as I had planned, but rather over breakfast because Anjali Singh’s schedule proves more crowded than a Times Square subway platform, which I thankfully avoid on my way to Kirsh Bakery & Kitchen on the Upper West Side. A few days earlier Anjali returned from the Belize Writers’ Conference, where she spent a week meeting with about a dozen writers from all over the United States who had traveled to the tropical locale to talk with agents about their writing projects. She came home to a full house: She has two children, ages ten and seven; her husband is a professor of Chinese history at Lehman College in the Bronx. Tomorrow she’ll travel to Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania, where she is scheduled to give a Q&A and talk with students in the undergraduate writing program at Susquehanna University. Such is the busy schedule of a literary agent. So, yes, breakfast it is.

Anjali spends the first ten minutes of our time together recounting in remarkable detail the writers she met in Belize, all of them women—a retired fire chief from California; a police detective from Omaha; a speech pathologist from Reno, Nevada—and the way she speaks about these writers, with excitement and genuine interest in not only their writing, but also their personal and professional lives, provides a caffeine-fueled preview of what’s to come in our conversation. While most people would rhapsodize about the Caribbean shoreline or the daily yoga sessions that I will later learn were part of the conference schedule, Anjali’s takeaways are the lives of writers whose paths she feels fortunate to have crossed. “It was a beautiful beach and everything, but the best part was the writers I met,” she says. “It was amazing. It was so good for my soul.”

Anjali’s career in publishing started in 1996 when she took a job as a literary scout with Mary Anne Thompson Associates, having graduated from Brown University with a degree in English and American literature. I’ve always been curious about literary scouts, or book scouts as they are sometimes called, and wanted to know more about what these “spies of the literary world,” as Anjali jokingly calls them, actually do. “So you’re basically a consultant,” she offers helpfully. “You get paid a monthly retainer by your clients, and your clients are foreign publishers. But you only work for one per country because otherwise it would be a conflict of interest. When I first started, of course, there was no Publishers Marketplace or Deal of the Day or any of that. It was all on the ground. Mary Anne would talk to her editor friends…and then, officially, I would talk to agents. I covered certain agencies, and I would call them and find out what was going on and what books had sold to whom for how much. We would do a report every Friday, like a deal memo, and it would say, ‘XXXXX publisher, you should pay attention to this.’ So the idea is to help them get ahead of their competitors, or to be on par with their competitors, to get books early. It’s to be their eyes and ears in the New York publishing world.”

Anjali tells me that Mary Anne Thompson had exclusive contracts with foreign publishers such as Macmillan in the U.K., Droemer Knaur in Germany, and Kadokawa Shoten in Japan. Nowadays, with so much information available online, the scout’s job is to filter that information and tell the clients what to pay attention to and what to disregard, “because you can’t possibly pay attention to everything,” she says. 

In some ways it was the ideal first job in publishing, working for five years in a small office, learning about the business alongside colleagues who would also go on to successful agenting careers, including PJ Mark, now an agent at Janklow & Nesbit; Cecile Barendsma, who has her own agency in Brooklyn; and Susan Hobson, director of international rights at McCormick Literary. “What it allowed me was an incredible database of information about publishing,” Anjali says. 

But this information couldn’t have prepared her for the vagaries of the next dozen or so years, during which she moved from one house to the next—not uncommon for editors coming up in the business. First she was an editor at Vintage, the paperback imprint of Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and she very quickly made a name for herself by discovering Persepolis, the best-selling graphic memoir by Marjane Satrapi, on a shelf at a friend’s apartment in France, where the book was originally published. Anjali brought it to the United States, and it was published to great acclaim by Pantheon, another Knopf Doubleday imprint known for publishing graphic classics such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth

Anjali worked at Vintage for four years, buying paperback rights to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s debut novel, Purple Hibiscus, and working on her second, Half of a Yellow Sun, before leaving to go to Houghton Mifflin (later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), hired as senior editor by vice president and publisher Janet Silver. Silver was later let go, about a year before Anjali herself was laid off, during the financial crisis of 2008, just after Anjali’s first child was born. Two years later, Jonathan Karp hired Anjali as senior editor at Simon & Schuster, but she remained there for only two years before she was laid off during a restructuring in which Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, was folded into the company’s flagship imprint.

Her next stop was Other Press, an independent publisher of literary fiction and nonfiction founded by Judith Gurewich and Michael Moskowitz, where Anjali was editorial director. Although her stay at Other Press was relatively short—only sixteen months—it was a refreshing change after her years in the corporate environments of Vintage, Houghton Mifflin, and Simon & Schuster. At Other Press, she says, “I just got to feel a sense of stability again, and a sense of self-worth, I guess. I got to be much more connected to what made me care about books and publishing.” 

Shortly thereafter her husband got tenure—and the time and financial stability, not to mention health insurance, that comes with it—so she made the switch to agenting. She’s been at Pande Literary for three and a half years. 

Which is where Arif Anwar and his debut novel, The Storm, enter the conversation. Before Anjali became an agent, Arif had queried Ayesha Pande, head of the eponymous agency, with the manuscript of a novel that told a half century of Bangladeshi history through the braided stories of characters who live through a storm similar to the 1970 Bhola cyclone, in which a half million people in East Pakistan and India’s West Bengal died overnight. Ayesha had offered representation, but Arif went with another agent who had offered her services first. 

Two years later, Anjali was now an agent and Arif was looking for a little more hands-on attention, so he asked again whether Ayesha was interested in representing him. Ayesha and Anjali both read his manuscript, compared notes, and decided that they would take him on, with Anjali assigned to do the editorial work necessary to prepare the novel for submission. 

“One of the things that I found really moving was that he depicts a fishing community in Bangladesh,” Anjali says about Arif, who was born in Chittagong, a port city on the southeastern coast of Bangladesh, and now lives in Toronto. “There have been other books, but not that much South Asian literature focuses on the underclass—those people who aren’t visible. He just immediately brought me into this world in a very visceral way. It’s really ambitious, and I admire that ambition. He’s also writing outside of his experiences, writing from the perspective of a British nurse in the 1940s, and a Japanese fighter pilot. I admire the scope of that vision.”

Anjali worked with Arif for roughly six months, cutting two whole narrative threads from the manuscript and weaving together the remaining five. Finally it was ready to be submitted to editors. Because Arif lives in Toronto, Anjali says, it made sense to have a separate Canadian publisher. After an auction involving three excited editors—notable, given the relatively small Canadian market—the book went to Iris Tupholme at HarperCollins Canada. 

Reactions to submissions in the United States were less encouraging. “We got a lot of passes, which was devastating,” Anjali says. “A lot of passes, including from someone who really liked the book but after talking about it with her publisher was like, ‘We can’t do this because we have another book with a Bangladeshi character.’ The author wasn’t Bangladeshi, but it was about a Bangladeshi woman.”

Anecdotes like this one, that throw into relief the cold reality of publishing as a subjective business that is not always all about the writing, have clearly made Anjali more determined than ever to use her role as an agent to fight for greater access on behalf of her authors. “A hunger to see more stories, to tell different stories in different places in the world,” she says about her own agenda. “A hunger for representation across class, which I think literary fiction doesn’t always do that well. All of that I’m bringing to the table.”

Eventually Rakesh Satyal of Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, offered a deal in the United States, and Arif was off to the races. About four months ahead of publication—HarperCollins Canada scheduled it for March 2018, Atria set a May 2018 publication date—Anjali joined Arif on a conference call with the publicity team at Atria to brainstorm ideas for articles and essays Arif might write and try to place in newspapers, magazines, or websites to boost awareness of the book. Arif was also asked to supply Atria with names for a “big-mouth list” that might include organizations working with or interested in Bangladesh, as well as writers he admires. 

“Big mouths” is an industry term for anyone—writers, editors, bloggers, and people with a large following on social media—in a position to spread the word about a book. These people are often on a list that the publicity department uses for a targeted mailing of finished copies of a book, sometimes accompanied by a personal note from the author or editor. 

When I ask Anjali whether Arif was doing enough in the lead-up to publication, I don’t even have to finish my question. “Oh my God—the whole time Arif was like, ‘This is what I want to be doing. Tell me what I can do. I’ll do anything you want me to do.’” The book received starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist as well as a rave from Publishers Weekly calling it an excellent debut: “This first novel will touch and astound readers.” 

Still, momentum can be difficult to sustain, and while the novel received some terrific blurbs from authors such as best-selling author Shilpi Somaya Gowda and novelist Rumaan Alam, and a positive review in the New York Times Book Review, albeit two months after the publication date, it just didn’t quite reach the heights that Anjali and, certainly, Arif were hoping for. Everyone, of course, is hoping for a best-seller. “Some really nice things happened, like the reviews, which made us hope it was poised for more, but for whatever reason…we just never got a sense of momentum,” Anjali writes to me after our breakfast. “I think it was both a success in the fact that we found editors who championed this book and published it beautifully; Arif is now an ‘author’ with some lovely reviews under his belt, one who has begun to make meaningful connections with readers at book clubs and the various festivals he was invited to; and he now has a paperback to sell the hell out of. I think as the agent, along with Ayesha, and as someone who loved this book and who thinks if more people knew it existed it would have a stronger readership, it’s hard not to feel some small sense of disappointment that the book wasn’t a best-seller, even though I do know how hard that is to achieve. Our hope is that Arif’s career will continue to grow, and as it does, more readers will discover and fall in love with this book.”

I ask Anjali if she has any advice for writers looking for an agent, and she doesn’t hesitate. “The best thing you can do is be really intentional about who you approach,” she says. “It’s doing all that work to write a really good query letter. It’s also doing all that work to think about what books your book sits alongside. And who you aspire to be as a writer.” This will be a recurring theme as I talk to the agents—this idea of intentionality, of doing the work of figuring out who you are as a person, as a writer, and how you want to direct that out into the world before you approach agents. “There’s a reason why you spent all of these years writing this book. If you can explain to me why you cared so much, it’s going to help me understand why I should care. And I think that is a kind of self-knowledge. I feel like by the time you write that query letter, you have to excavate that and articulate it.”

(Singh: Chuck Wooldridge)