This is a story about literary agents. It’s a story about good literary agents and bad literary agents and, more specifically, it’s a story about the tireless, often intangible work that good literary agents perform for their clients during the period after the contract is signed but before the book is published. Before the story can begin, however, I need to explain something about book editors: We have almost no power.
Let me hasten to add that if your editor’s title is publisher, editorial director, or editor in chief, this truth doesn’t apply. But if she doesn’t have any of those titles—and most editors do not—I’m here to tell you that your editor is one of the least powerful people she knows. You probably already know that she needed the go-ahead from several of her colleagues who work in the sales, marketing, and publicity departments, not to mention the aforementioned publisher, editorial director, and editor in chief, to buy your book in the first place. What you may not realize is that in the twelve months before your book is published, that same team of people will make a series of decisions about the promotional money and energy it will receive relative to the other books on the same list; decisions that could ultimately have far more impact on your book’s success or failure than anything your editor will ever be able to do. In fact, your editor probably won’t even be invited to the meetings at which those decisions are made. This is not because she is disliked by her colleagues. It’s not because she is bad at her job. On the contrary, it’s because if she is any good at her job she is a fiercely loyal advocate for each and every one of her books. She nurtures them, protects them, and is as deeply invested in their well-being as any mother. She doesn’t want to see any of them held back by vulgar fiscal considerations. She wants them all to be lavished with attention and praise—and promotional dollars. Which is precisely why she can’t be trusted to make objective business decisions about their potential.
This is where a good literary agent comes in. An agent who understands that at a time when there is an industry-wide blockbuster mentality that makes it harder than it’s ever been for editors to find the institutional support it takes to publish serious work well, it is more important than ever for agents to be fearless, savvy, and relentless advocates for their clients after their books are under contract. An agent who understands that the long and winding road to publication is fraught with trouble, and that her role has evolved into a symbiotic partnership with your editor. An agent who understands that in today’s publishing industry, your editor needs her constant presence and support—needling, brainstorming, cajoling, and sometimes even harassing. An agent who understands, in short, that your editor needs her help.
"There are a lot of really sticky, messy, unwholesome situations that require the beady eye of an agent—not so much working with authors but working on the inside of the publishing track.”
It’s a sleepy afternoon in the spring and Molly Friedrich and I are talking on the phone. The first thing you need to know about Molly Friedrich is that she has the greatest voice of any literary agent who has ever lived. As you might imagine, Molly is very, very good at talking on the phone. To be honest, part of the reason I wanted to write this article was to have an excuse to talk to Molly on the phone. I work at an independent publishing house and don’t hear from Molly as much as I’d like to.
Molly is telling me stories about the many different kinds of advocacy she has to perform on the road to publication—she loves it, let’s not kid ourselves—when a sticky, messy, or unwholesome situation arises with one of her clients. Molly has made deals for fifteen million dollars and three thousand dollars and everything in between. She says that if you get more than a million for your book (“let’s say eight hundred thousand if you want to adjust for deflation”) you can usually count on having the full attention of your publisher. So Molly is telling me stories that apply to the other 99 percent of authors. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you most of them because if they’re any good they’re off the record. You get a lot of that in this business; it’s a small world. At the end of one of her stories she goes back on the record, so I can give you the kicker: “I told the editor, ‘I see what’s happening. This book is really, really wonderful, and it’s absolutely, presold, dead, and the only person who doesn’t know it is the author. And that is the saddest thing in the world.’”
The story in question was about a major editor at a major house who is also majorly ambitious. This means that he can be majorly ruthless when he needs to be. Writers don’t know this before they go into business with him. Molly knows it, but she sold him two of this author’s books anyway. Sometimes you don’t have much choice. Anyway, after the first book tanked, the second one never had a prayer, even if the writer never knew it. Molly knew it. She knew it when she tried to get a meeting before publication to talk about marketing and promotion and they wouldn’t give her one. This meant there wasn’t going to be any marketing or promotion.
I wasn’t aware that this kind of thing happened to Molly. Molly represents a lot of famous writers, and a lot of commercial writers, and I would think that gives her leverage. When I ask Molly if she considered flexing her muscles—reminding this major editor that she doesn’t have to keep submitting her major manuscripts to him—she is aghast. “Stop submitting to ❚❚❚❚❚❚❚❚? I couldn’t stop submitting to a major house like ❚❚❚❚❚❚❚❚.” When I express my surprise, Molly adds, “It takes years and years and years to build really reliable relationships, where you feel, 95 percent of the time, that you have the ear of that publishing house. That’s really what you’re doing when you fight on behalf of an author. It’s building relationships over time.” But even Molly is not immune to shoddy treatment on occasion. No agent is.
The other thing that Molly wants to talk about, while we’re on the subject of the sticky, messy, and unwholesome things that happen on the road to publication, is how routinely authors are being orphaned by their editors these days. Sometimes this is because the editor who acquired the book leaves for a better job, and sometimes it’s because the editor is fired or laid off. Molly says that half of her authors have editors whom they inherited. Molly says that this is really, really saying something, and Molly is right. “It takes a lot of finessing to make sure the new editor has half the emotional investment of the editor who bought the book,” she says. For starters, the new editor is overwhelmed with all the other books she’s inherited from the editor who left. “It requires the finessing of an eighteenth-century Viennese diplomat. You can’t start yelling. You have to keep the process moving along without alienating the new editor.” Instead of raising hell, Molly tells the new editor, “‘I know you’ve just inherited fourteen new books. I know you have your own list. I also know you have no assistant and that you’re overworked and underpaid in the extreme. But I want you to long to do business with me. Please take my author’s book and put it on the top of the pile.’”
I’m sorry to tell you that this isn’t how every agent handles these situations. One editor told me a story about a prominent agent who reaches for the stick instead of the carrot. “By the time I inherited the book,” she said, “the agent was already mad. I’ve never gotten a phone call from her that hasn’t been hostile. Which really doesn’t help or make me want to do more for the book. It makes me not want to deal with it at all.”
Molly doesn’t understand that strategy. She doesn’t think it works and she doesn’t think it’s good business. She thinks it’s important to be known as a friend to the entire publishing community—the assistants, the publicists, the rights people, the royalty people—that is going to be taking care of her books. She thinks the agents who get on the phone and scream at people have dropped the ball themselves. “They haven’t really done much. They haven’t really paid attention. They haven’t really been working all along on behalf of their clients.” As usual, Molly is right.