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

Talk to an agent long enough, over a good meal, and inevitably subjects will come up that are, shall we say, sensitive. As many of these agents reminded me, this is a business of relationships—one even said it’s a business of feelings—so there are stories, or bits and pieces of hard-earned wisdom, that they may not be comfortable having attributed to them. Rather than restrict our conversations, I offered to save such morsels for “dessert,” served cold, names removed. Here then is a collection of unattributed quotes gleaned from our conversations. Some verbal tics and tones have been edited to preserve anonymity and to avoid giving any agent indigestion.

I never predict what someone’s advance is going to be. I tell people that I work on commission, and therefore I don’t take on projects that I think are not going to sell well. But I will never say, “Oh I think this should be around $150,000.” I would just never guess that, because it’s a losing game. You either give them this false hope that you can’t deliver on or you look like you undervalued them, which is also not a good look. 

I’ve never been on the phone and said to a client, “No way in hell are you taking this.” We talk it through. I try to give them as much agency in the process as I can, and complete transparency. I’ve never not conveyed an offer to an author. But there are some agents who will keep information from their clients.

The kind of agent who makes a decision that they’re going to represent the most moneymaking clients regardless of what their ideology is—I’m not there. Maybe I will lose money in the long run because of it, but I don’t think that I could be a passionate advocate for a writer whose political opinions I abhor or felt were actively damaging the fabric of society. I mean, it’s not like Steve Bannon approached me and asked me to represent him, but I can at least say that I’m not interested in those kinds of books.

If I share a rejection note from an editor with you, and then you write the editor directly about it, that’s not a good idea. I don’t work with that author anymore.

The numbers are always so made up. The profit-and-loss statements that editors use for debuts are truly nonsense numbers; they’re actually insane.

I like to say I work in the margins of a very commercial space so I take on those things that I feel need to be seen but that I also think I can get into a big trade place and make an advance, which is hard—I’m an agent and I get to choose what I give my time to, but unfortunately it’s also about the money on some level because I have to also make a living. And some of these decisions are also economic.

If your agent gives you honest feedback on the first draft of your novel, that should be considered private correspondence. It is bad form—as well as being really unconstructive—to post it on social media or vent about it on your blog.

There’s a funny story about FSG. I don’t know if it’s apocryphal, but the story goes that an agent and author asked for a marketing plan for a book, and it was just a photo of the spine with the colophon.

Make sure you’re writing for the right reasons. If you’re writing a novel because you’re trying to work through your own personal issues, that’s not why you should be writing a novel. 

I’ve definitely talked to people where we disagree about a book, and I very, very rarely say, “I can see your side of things here.” No, my side is right. I knew that book was going to be a big deal, and if it hadn’t been I would have left the industry, because I would not have been able to work with people too stupid to understand what they had in front of them. 

 

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinLarimer.