How Agents Operate: From Hoodoo Voodoo to Herding Cats

Betsy Lerner
From the July/August 2011 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

How do you make a writer happy? I’ve asked myself that question for twenty-six years—a total of sixteen as an editor and the past ten as an agent. There are no guarantees, but I’ve found that if I’m able to use words such as offer, auction, six-figure, best bid, or preempt in a sentence, I’ve got a pretty decent chance. What I’m talking about, of course, is the Deal. The moment we’ve all been waiting for. The referendum—or what feels like a referendum—on you, on your work, on everything you’ve ever dreamed of as a writer. And for an agent, making the deal, delivering that good news to an author, is the peak moment in any client-agent relationship. Only, the word to focus on here is moment.

Just as easily as you could breeze into a Paris Review cocktail party one day with a fat six-figure contract under your arm, it’s as likely that a year later, after your novel has tanked, no publisher will touch your next book. Conversely, you can sell your book to a small press for an extremely modest advance and find yourself with a runaway best-seller or a National Book Award winner—with major trade publishers in a bidding war for your next book. You could find yourself in any number of scenarios: modest advances and sales for a half dozen books followed by a breakout, a series of critically acclaimed books followed by silence, a title that languishes out of print for years and is then made into a major Hollywood blockbuster that catapults your book onto the best-seller lists, and so on.

My obvious point is this: One book deal does not a career make. For every offer, there are usually twenty or more rejections, and many more books don’t get placed at all. I’ve always noted how the news of a big deal fails to inspire joy in writers and agents. Agents get competitive and writers get jealous, often feeling disenfranchised by the Cinderella stories. The thing is: You can’t forget about all the sweeping that preceded the slipper.

When I was in graduate school (twenty-five years ago), I worked part-time for a literary agent. Back then, novels were submitted to one publisher at a time, and when they came back we made fresh copies, packed them up in new boxes, typed up new letters, and sent them out again. Today, nearly all agents send out their projects as multiple submissions via e-mail. How any individual agent approaches a sale is somewhat mysterious. (Like lovemaking or psychotherapy, what goes on behind closed doors is anybody’s guess.) I interviewed five literary agents, all of whom asked to remain anonymous, and asked them how they sold books, how they strategize. All agreed that the process begins with the writing.

“It depends on the book,” said one agent. “Something I think might be big I tend to go out wider, but I try to keep the submission list to around fifteen. With more challenging literary fiction I like to test the water a bit, keeping it under ten.” Another agent said he uses a “trial-balloon submission,” meaning that he selects a small group of editors (usually three) to gauge interest and get feedback before deciding which larger group of editors to contact. Another agent I interviewed submits projects to as few as five or as many as twenty editors if she imagines the project has commercial appeal. Sometimes an agent will use a rolling submission, meaning that he will send to a few editors at a time, sending to more as rejections come in. Another agent said, “Can I admit that I actually do not have a formula for any of this? Would that I did!” But the best response I received was this: “I can’t say there’s a too-many or a too-few policy I employ. Rather it’s all a hoodoo-
voodoo, gut-feeling kind of thing.”

Most decisions, it turns out, are based purely on instinct—more art than science. As soon as I think I’ve identified the perfect editor for a project, she rejects it in record time. I once received a same-day rejection from an editor. I’m sure she thought she was being efficient and responsive, but it was like having my wrists slapped. Thank goodness we eventually sold the book in a handsome deal—but talk about buzz kill. “Interestingly, every time an editor has come to me with a project in mind for an author I represent, or has come to me with an idea, those projects always fall through,” said one agent I interviewed. “It’s confusing for the writer because the assumption is that editors have absolute power. Most acquisitions are an absolute consensus among a bunch of people in-house, not just an editor, and that one person’s interest, even [if it’s] orgasmic love, is never enough.”

For this very reason, most agents will eventually send projects to as many appropriate bidders as possible in order to increase the bidding pool. (For the purposes of this article, I am referring to major trade publishers here.) Bidding wars, in which interest is fielded from multiple publishers, became famous in the eighties and nineties, when publishing houses were being transformed into conglomerates, when Barnes & Noble was wildly expanding with superstores, when trade paperbacks were exploding and the era of the blockbuster was born. These days, thanks to a depressed economy, the shrinking retail market, acquisition by committee, and the wild card known as e-books, most agents, if they are honest, are grateful to have two or three bidders—or even just one. “Sometimes it’s pure serendipity,” said one agent. “Once I met a new editor over lunch who turned out to be the perfect person for a languishing manuscript that I’d already sent to thirty people. Instead of pitching it to her, I told her it was something I’d given up on. How’s that for pitching prowess? She acquired it and it went on to become one of the house’s all-time best-sellers.”

I once met a British editor infamous for acquiring nearly every project sent to her by a particular agent who was also a good friend. People in the industry seemed to resent the close relationship and gossiped about it in somewhat derogatory terms. When I met her, she was frank about the connection: “When you agree on books,” she said, “you agree on life.” These kinds of personal connections do exist but are increasingly rare, as editors no longer stay with one publishing firm for very long, publishers no longer stick by an author with a disappointing track record, and eager agents move authors in the hope of bigger advances. Still, publishing is a business built on relationships; your agent is only as good as his Rolodex.

I asked my panel of agents how they select individual editors and publishing houses for their submissions. All agreed that they factor in as much as they know about an editor’s taste, buying power, and recent purchases, as well as information about the publisher, in order to optimize the sale. “Ideally one looks for the best fit, but every now and again you have to include seemingly inappropriate editors for political reasons and/or because they might be able to drive up the price of a deal,” one agent said, referring to the trigger-happy editor who has just started a new job or recently lost a big project. Some editors or houses are known for having deep pockets, others for being cautious. “I try to keep up with who has spent too much lately or who is clearly in need of a big book, when I think it might be big,” one agent told me. “I also try to go to a trusted editor who isn’t going to be moving out before the book is published.” This is always a concern: that you will find the perfect editor and she will win the book at auction, only to call a month later to say that she’s taken a new job at a competing publisher or is going back to grad school or joining the Peace Corps, leaving the book in limbo.

I was recently at a writers conference where I was asked, “How do you know which editor to send to at any given house?” My answer—and this was not meant to be glib—was “lunch.” I’ve spent twenty-five years lunching with editors, agents, writers, publishers, publicists, and other industry professionals. Lunch to agents is like pollen to bees. We go from editor to editor collecting information. We know which editors were raised on farms and went to public schools, or grew up on Park Avenue and attended fancy prep schools; who is a twin, who has twins; which ones love animals (specifically dogs); which ones love to travel; which ones gave up dance or some other dream; which ones smoke, bite their nails, or have a sense of humor. We know who is gay, Jewish, African American, Asian, Indian, and so on. Who is under thirty or over sixty; who drinks at lunch, who is rude to waiters; who has a house in the Hamptons or shares a cabin upstate with other editors. We know who likes literary fiction, faux literary fiction, or upmarket women’s fiction; who has a sweet tooth for weepers; and who is jonesing for history. “I try to know as much about editors’ backgrounds, current personal life, even their astrological signs,” admitted one agent. “Goofy, I know, but it helps.”

Some editors have to take their projects to an editorial board and some have to canvass opinions from their sales, marketing, and publicity departments, while others have to submit production estimates to the bean counter and run profit and loss (P&L) reports. At just a few houses, an editor can still race into her boss’s office with a proposal and an accelerated pulse and get quick authorization to make an offer. At a recent breakfast, an editor told me the story of how she signed a novelist for a high-six-figure advance. No one else had even read the pages, but her boss trusted her and authorized the acquisition—he said he could see that look in her eyes. But most publishers need to look at a P&L report in addition to the wild eyes of an editor convinced she has a best-seller.