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

TUESDAY 12:30 PM
Russ & Daughters Cafe
127 Orchard Street


Whitefish Croquettes: smoked whitefish, potato, tartar sauce
Pickled Herring Trio: canapés of pickled herring on pumpernickel
Lower Sunny Side: eggs, sunny-side up; Gaspé nova smoked salmon, potato latkes
Challah bread pudding: dried apricots, caramel sauce; Halvah ice cream: halvah, sesame, salted caramel
Cream soda: vanilla bean–infused demerara sugar; Concord grape soda: jasmine, timut pepper, lemon

Emily Forland

(Credit: Mark Abrams)

Making my way up Delancey Street, a few blocks from the sublet apartment where I laid my head during my first month in New York City—fresh out of an MFA program, little money, no prospects—I’m having difficulty matching the glass-encased condominium complex and the fancy Regal multiplex with my memory of the boarded-up storefronts and dirty brick facades of the Lower East Side in the late 1990s. But I don’t have a lot of time for nostalgia because I’m on my way to Russ & Daughters Cafe to meet Emily Forland, and she gave me explicit instructions to not be late. My punctuality has long been a point of pride, but I understand her urgency; the restaurant, which opened in 2014, on the hundredth anniversary of the original Russ & Daughters appetizing store, located two blocks away, on Houston Street, doesn’t take reservations. And it’s always busy. But Emily has called in a favor. She is the agent not of Joel Russ of Russ & Daughters (he died in 1961), nor his daughters (the last of them, Anne Russ Federman, died last year at the age of ninety-seven), but rather his grandson Mark Russ Federman, who wrote a memoir, Russ & Daughters: Reflections and Recipes From the House That Herring Built (Schocken, 2013), and whose daughter and nephew opened the restaurant to which I am headed posthaste.

I find Emily waiting a bit nervously in the small crowd outside (I’m not late), and we duck inside and are quickly ushered to our booth.

Originally from San Antonio, Texas, Emily moved to New York City to attend the MFA program in poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. Through a family friend (one of her father’s friends was married to Judith Rossner, author of Looking for Mr. Goodbar), she lucked out on an invitation to have dinner with Rossner’s literary agent, the much-beloved Wendy Weil. Nothing momentous happened at the dinner, but a couple of weeks later, she ran into Wendy on the subway. “She was coming from her weekly tennis game, and she looked like Annie Hall, and instead of being timid and hiding behind my New Yorker, which might have been what I normally did, I just went over and said hi. And we rode together.” In other words, it was one of those incredibly fortuitous moments when your life is forever altered by happenstance and a simple decision—like screwing up your courage and saying hi to a famous literary agent who you happened to see in the crowd.

Emily was offered a summer internship at the Wendy Weil Agency—the same summer, coincidently, that Wendy was interviewed for a profile that appeared in the September/October 1997 issue of this magazine—and continued on at the agency as an assistant and, eventually, as a full agent, up until when Wendy died suddenly, in September 2012. Emily then moved to Brandt & Hochman and represents authors such as Jane Alison, Flynn Berry, Katharine Dion, Carrie Fountain, Kirk Lynn, Elizabeth McKenzie, and Dominic Smith. 

As the waiter brings us our whitefish croquettes, however, the author we are talking about is Nathan Hill, whose debut novel, The Nix, was the talk of the town—and, more important, bookstores—in 2016, when it was published by Knopf and landed on all the big year-end lists (the New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, Slate). At last count the number of languages the novel has been published in was twenty-eight, but Emily tells me that this morning the agency’s foreign-rights director got a call from Beirut about an Arabic edition, so it might be twenty-nine by now.

The publication of The Nix is a lesson in perseverance and patience that pays off in a big way, the biggest way imaginable for most writers. It’s not just that the author took his time writing the book (ten years, from 2004 to 2014), and that he was patient through the publishing process (which took another two years), but also that he was patient in his professional relationship with Emily—after all, The Nix wasn’t even the first book of his that she had tried to sell. 

Nathan first queried Emily (it was a “very straightforward” letter, she recalls) when she was still at the Wendy Weil Agency, in December 2010. Nathan had read Susanna Daniel’s novel Stiltsville, which was set in Florida, where he lived at the time, and decided to send her agent, Emily, a collection of stories he had written partly while an MFA student at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst six years earlier. “I wrote to him after reading the first few pages of the first piece,” Emily says. “The writing was so strong, and I told him I had to keep reading, but I already knew.”

Ask any agent and you’ll likely hear the same thing: Stories are hard to sell. So it’s a testament to Nathan’s talent that Emily fell so deeply for his writing that she was willing to send the collection of stories (“very interconnected, about a couple inching toward each other,” she says) out on submission in 2011. “It came close, but it didn’t land,” Emily says about response to the collection. “There were people who really admired it but couldn’t get it through, or thought, ‘Ugh, stories.’ Also, stories come in waves of editors being receptive to them.”

Rather than let this derail him, Nathan told Emily about a novel he’d been working on for the past six years, about a mother and her son, partially set in 1968, and secrets about the mother’s past. Intrigued, Emily took him out to lunch the next time he was in New York. The two dined at the Morgan Library, across from the Wendy Weil Agency. (Fun fact: At the end of The Nix, there is a scene set in the dining room of the Morgan that was drawn from this visit.) For two years afterward, the two kept in touch.

It’s worth slowing down for this part and considering: two years. After getting encouragement from Emily, he didn’t rush through a draft of his novel; he wasn’t despondent after the rejection of his stories or panicking that his window of opportunity was closing. He took the time to write the best book he could write. In the meantime Emily had moved to Brandt & Hochman, but eventually Nathan wrote to her again: “Okay, remember my novel?” Emily recalls him writing. “It’s now also about cell-phone distraction and Occupy Wall Street and multiplayer online games and the housing crisis. Are you still in?” After Emily assured him she was, another update would arrive every six to eight months.

“Nathan was canny because he waited,” Emily says. “When he finally delivered The Nix, he waited quite a while for me to read it.” Why is this important? Because the manuscript he delivered, in the summer of 2014, was 275,000 words. (Some math: the typical double-spaced manuscript page contains 250 words, which means this draft was roughly 1,100 pages, or more than two packages of standard printer paper.)

About six months of revising and editing between agent and author followed. “Every draft he gave me, he had worked very hard to get to and had specific questions but was also very open to feedback…just open and creative in the way he addressed comments and revision,” Emily says. “I think he really enjoyed being in this book, so I don’t think he was hurrying.” 

Finally, after cutting 35,000 words and moving some sections around and pushing the manuscript as far as they could, Emily sent it out to editors, in advance of a blizzard, at the end of January 2015. She submitted it to twelve editors, and additional editors requested it after there was a “very noisy response from foreign publishers.” I ask Emily what this means. How could foreign publishers know about it? “I guess the scouts got it,” she says, meaning one of the editors she sent it to must have forwarded it to one of those “spies of the literary world,” as Anjali Singh had joked. This can be a good thing—it was a very good thing in this case; fire spreads—but it doesn’t always work out that way. “If you have a quiet literary novel that is going to find its way but might take a lot of submitting, it’s likely that it’s going to be old news by the time it’s gone out. You don’t want anything to be shopworn.” In other words the scouts can note a lack of enthusiasm, too.

But in this case the fire spread, and Emily was fielding requests to see the manuscript, including one from Tim O’Connell at Knopf, who was not one of the original editors to whom Emily submitted it but who nevertheless made a preemptive bid (or preempt, the purpose of which is to end a bidding war immediately by offering a significant advance). It worked. “Knopf was great,” Emily tells me. “They were really behind it, their offer was strong, and we got to keep foreign rights.” (Marianne Merola, the foreign-rights director at Brandt & Hochman quickly sold rights in fourteen countries, so that detail about the foreign rights turned out to be a very good business decision.)

Nathan and Tim did another round of edits, cutting an additional thirty thousand words or so. This work did not come as a surprise to Nathan; before accepting the offer from Knopf, he had spoken with Tim, who wanted to make sure he conveyed exactly what was expected of the process. Nathan was all in. “It was very much about making sure the novel was as compulsive as it could be,” Emily says about the final round of editing. Meanwhile the gears were starting to turn on the marketing and publicity side of the business as well. Early on, Nathan returned to New York and met with Emily and representatives from the publicity department at Knopf. Emily says she expected maybe four people at that meeting. The conference room was full.

The purpose of such a meeting is to brainstorm ideas and explore possible ways of getting the word out about the book in advance of publication, but it’s also an opportunity for the folks in publicity to meet the author and see for themselves what he’s like—his style, his personality, his communication skills—as arguably the most important spokesperson for the book. Despite not knowing the crowd of professionals in the room, he made an impression, especially with Knopf’s vice president and editorial director. “I just remember Robin Desser whispering in my ear as we were leaving, ‘He’s a rock star,’” Emily says.

Before it was published on August 30, 2016, The Nix landed a coveted spot on the Editors’ Buzz panel at BookExpo, held that year in Chicago. (BookExpo America, or BEA, is the country’s largest book trade fair, and it’s where editors, publishers, agents, and authors from around the world promote their forthcoming books to a captive audience of booksellers.) It was also reviewed in all the usual places, and Nathan was profiled in the New York Times four days before the book was published. A month later, Warner Bros. optioned the novel for a television series adaptation, with JJ Abrams set to direct. Meryl Streep was initially attached to the project but no longer; as of this writing it’s still being cast. 

Hope for the best; expect the worst. If Emily had a pregame speech—something she told her authors before she sends their work out on submission—that would be it. “In general I think that stance is helpful for going through the world and especially going through the world as a writer,” she says. And sometimes, as Nathan Hill’s story illustrates, you work hard then hope for the best, and that’s pretty close to what you get.

 

THURSDAY 12:30 PM
Gaonnuri
1250 Broadway, 39th floor, corner of West 32nd Street


Black Cod Gui: white kimchi, chive, doenjang, gochujang, served with white rice, banchan, and seaweed soup
Marinated Galbi: marinated prime beef short rib, served with white rice, banchan, and seaweed soup

Walking into Gaonnuri, the posh Korean restaurant on the thirty-ninth floor of a skyscraper just south of the Empire State Building, I’m reminded of the first time I had the very New York experience of riding an elevator to what I assumed would be a hallway leading to the apartment where a cocktail party was in full swing, but when the elevator doors opened, I was staring at the inside of the apartment, and all the guests turned their heads and stared. For an introvert this is the stuff of nightmares. But the panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline that greets me this afternoon when I step off the elevator is something else entirely, and as I’m shown to a table by the windows, I do not resist the urge to snap a photo with my phone. Fortunately, Julia Kardon, an agent at Hannigan Salky Getzler (HSG) Agency, hasn’t yet arrived to witness my touristy act.

When Julia does arrive she tells me why lunches with editors are so important for agents. “You just learn things about them that you can’t learn from their Publishers Marketplace write-up. You find out that Emily Graff at Simon & Schuster has a twin sister. So then you might think about how you would pitch a book about siblings to her. Molly Turpin [at Random House] is a beautiful artist, so in addition to the kind of history, nonfiction, that she focuses on, if you have a project that has to do with art history, you would definitely want to send that to her.”

Born and raised in New York City, Julia studied comparative literature as well as Slavic languages and literature at the University of Chicago, then moved to Prague to teach English for a year. Back in New York, after a brief internship at the Wylie Agency, she started her career at Sterling Lord Literistic, where she was an assistant to Philippa (Flip) Brophy, who showed Julia the ropes, including the art of the phone pitch. “She was on the phone constantly. Her handset smelled like her perfume,” Julia recalls. “I learned from her, and that made me want to pitch that way.” In addition to e-mailing a pitch letter to editors, she adds, “I, unlike some of my millennial peers, always call editors to pitch a project.”

Julia worked at Sterling Lord for just under three years before moving to Mary Evans, a boutique agency (a fancy term for a small, specialized agency), where she worked on foreign rights while building a list of clients for herself before moving to HSG. Among the first clients she signed was John Freeman Gill, whom Julia reached out to after reading an op-ed he had written in the New York Times titled “The Folly of Saving What You Kill,” about preserving the city’s old buildings. His bio stated that he was working on a novel about architectural salvage. Intrigued, she invited him to lunch. “He knew that I was young, but the way you position yourself when you’re young is that you’re very hungry but you’ve also worked on great things, like ‘I’m working with Michael Chabon to some degree. I worked on James McBride’s National Book Award–winning novel,’ things like that. Obviously I didn’t agent it, but I know what the publishing process looks like. I know how it’s done and how it should be done.” In other words, there was some salesmanship involved, but the two connected, and she ended up selling his novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, at auction to Knopf. 

I ask Julia how an auction works, specifically a round-robin-style auction like Gill’s, in which there were four bidders. “You send the auction rules to everyone, and basically you tell them what rights they’re bidding on. If you have a lot of attention, you’d want to make that North American rights only,” she says, and I remember Emily Forland’s smart decision to retain foreign rights for her big sale. Julia continues: “In the first round everyone makes their first bids, and then you call the lowest bidder and tell them what the highest bidder’s number was, and they have to become the new high bidder or they have to drop out. And then you call the next-lowest bidder and tell them what the new high bid is. And they have to beat that or they drop out. And it goes around like that. It can be pretty exasperating because sometimes the lowest bidder will improve the highest bid by $2,500 or $5,000. So you can go from $100,000 to $200,000 over the course of two days, and it’s like, ‘I’m going to lose my mind if I have to keep doing this.’” 

To avoid a prolonged auction, agents sometimes dictate a minimum increment by which a bid can be raised. “You can also at any point in the auction call for best bids,” she adds. “Theoretically that is just getting everyone’s best, final bid, and you don’t go back to negotiate.” But agents can and often do go back to negotiate certain aspects of the agreement, such as the payout of the advance—traditionally a third at signing, a third when the publisher accepts the final manuscript, and a third on publication, but that can be adjusted to quarters, with the final 25 percent due on paperback publication. The agent’s standard cut is 15 percent of the author’s gross domestic earnings, including the advance (and 20 percent for foreign rights deals).

Writers often think of agents sitting in well-appointed offices and waiting for a query or proposal to strike their fancy. But the path to a literary agent is not a one-way street. Agents are actively looking for potential clients too. This is how Julia found John Freeman Gill, and it’s also how she found Brit Bennett when she was in her final year of the MFA program at the University of Michigan. On December 17, 2014, Jezebel published an essay by Brit titled “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People” that went viral. “As soon as that essay published, I knew that it was going to be big,” Julia says. “I think it was already at several hundred thousand page views by the time I read it. And I looked in the white pages to see if I could find her phone number and—I don’t remember doing this, but—I apparently left a voice mail on her mother’s answering machine in California. Brit says she was in a class, and her mom called her cell phone…so she ran out of the class to make sure everything was okay. ‘An agent just left a voice mail for you; I think it’s really important!’ I don’t remember doing that, but it’s not unlike me…. I knew that I wouldn’t be the only agent to reach out to her. I think nine ultimately did. And I wanted to make an impression by getting in early and showing her that I was really passionate, because at that point I hadn’t even had one of my client’s books published yet. Brit’s book was my first book to publish. It was not the first book I sold, but it was my first one to publish. So I didn’t have a lot that I felt like I could trade off of other than the power of my conviction and the passion that I had for her.”

When the two of them eventually talked, Julia asked Brit if she was working on an essay collection. When she learned Brit was actually writing a novel, The Mothers, about a seventeen-year-old whose pregnancy leads to a decision that shapes her life and the lives of those around her forever, Julia asked for the first chapter. “I read that chapter and I was like, ‘Holy shit. This is amazing.’ I felt like that immediate electricity coming off the page, sizzling in my hands, and I’m like, ‘Okay, where’s the rest?’” Four weeks later, when Brit sent the full manuscript, as she had requested, Julia cleared her schedule and read it the same day it arrived. She was so blown away by it that she called Brit that evening to tell her she loved it and thought she could sell it. “She was so funny because Brit is very reserved and very cool and collected as a person,” Julia says. “She just was like, ‘Oh, thank you so much for reading so quickly. Can we schedule a call to talk about this tomorrow? Right now is not good for me.’”

Julia figured Brit was fielding offers from other agents. “I just had to assume that almost everybody who had two eyes and a beating heart and a brain would be able to recognize very fast that this was an incredible talent.” She scheduled a call with Brit for the following morning and, at the appointed hour, made the case for why she should be Brit’s agent. It didn’t go very well. “I just felt really unsatisfied with the conversation. I hadn’t asked her enough questions,” Julia admits. “And I remember talking to Mary Evans’s assistant about whether or not I should call her back, because [Brit] isn’t here in New York, so I can’t take her to lunch and show her how cool I am and find out more about her.” After much deliberation Julia did call her back that same morning, and the two ended up talking for two more hours. Even after that Julia wasn’t confident. “I do remember that it was this agonizing stretch of time. I felt completely convinced that she wouldn’t sign with me but that I had done everything I could. So I could at least take some small comfort in that I was going after the right people.”

But Brit did choose Julia, and when Julia sent The Mothers out to editors, right before the 2015 London Book Fair, Sarah McGrath, vice president and editor in chief of Riverhead Books, put in a significant preempt that was too good to pass up. The novel was published in October 2016, quickly became a New York Times best-seller, and was named a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize, and the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award.

Julia and Brit’s relationship is a great success story, but it’s also a good reminder of the effort that agents often put into finding their authors. It also shows that the balance of power is not always weighted so heavily in the agent’s favor. While it may seem like agents hold all the cards, it’s important to remember that agents hope writers will choose them, too.

(Kardon: Tony Gale)