Rock, Paper, Scissors: Agent, Writer, Editor (Reflections From Someone Who’s Been All Three)

Betsy Lerner

Rock. As an agent, I developed a rash on my arm the first time I sent a project out to editors. Until then, on the editorial side, I had been in the position of rejecting. Not right for our list, not our cup of tea, falls between stools, should be a magazine article, we have something like it on the list, didn’t fall in love. I was now on the receiving end of these clichéd yet painful e-mails. If a book didn’t sell, I felt as if my kid didn’t get into college. “Wasn’t there anyone who would take him? He’s a good kid and he’ll try hard.”

I learned that for every project you sold, you still received about ten rejections, sometimes more. I learned that some editors never responded at all. My agent group nicknamed one the Bermuda Triangle; everything you sent to her disappeared forever. Some editors had their assistants read the manuscripts and/or write the rejections, which had the whiff of college term papers. It was bad getting rejected; it was worse getting rejected by some Williamsburg hipsters who vape.

Of course, these rejections are far worse for the writer. Still, you are on the front lines and you have to filter the information to a pile of jelly known as your client. I hear the agents in my office (and myself) spinning the bad news, holding out hope for some good news. We tell our clients to take a long view; we tell publishing horror stories to make their predicament seem less heinous; we take them for lunch, or talk every couple of days as if coaxing someone off a ledge. On the flip side, there is no greater call to make than to convey an offer to a client. It is the call they have been waiting to hear for their entire writing life. You feel like Santa Claus and a fairy godmother all at once. And, of course, in that moment the client’s and the agent’s success is intertwined. You haven’t exactly had a child together, but something has been born.

Paper. I have a strip of paper from an e-mail someone sent to me taped to my computer. It says, “Why are you an agent instead of a writer?” It was meant as a compliment and I took it as one. But I also took it as a reproach. I have never, not after three books, taken myself seriously as a writer. Bellow is a writer. Plath is a writer. Capote is a writer. That’s part of it.

Another is temperament. I need people to need me. I need a place to go. I need a reason to get dressed. I need something to keep me out of the refrigerator. And I need health insurance. I’ve struggled with manic depression since I was a teen; it’s not a good idea for me to be left to my own devices. I need, in short, structure. I need my colleagues. I need my writers. And I love many of them.

When I’ve worked on my books I was happy in my sandbox. Hours and hours flew by without my looking up. I was completely absorbed. I didn’t suffer the way you’re supposed to. I’m one of those obnoxious people who think writing is fun. My favorite part is coming up with similes, which are like little puzzles. I love to wrestle with a simile, see which of us prevails. I will fight for a simile for hours if I have to. When I read, a great simile will knock me out and pull me into a book more than any other element.

I look at that piece of paper every day and I think about the road I sidestepped. I think about all the authors I’ve worked with and how I never could have dreamed this literary life for myself. I know that most of what I know about writing comes from editing and having a ringside seat to authors and the craft of writing. One travel writer once told me that I was better off behind my desk. She was more than right. I’ve been happy cutting and pasting. I prefer to read about faraway places than go to them, and I feel that reading is just about the best way to experience anything.

When I graduated college my artsy friends eschewed traditional jobs in favor of pursuing their art or studies. I couldn’t do it, wasn’t willing to make the sacrifice. I wanted my own apartment. I needed security and benefits. I had to have savings. Writers and artists make these sacrifices to pursue their work. I’ve had a day job since the Monday following graduation. Why are you an agent instead of a writer? When asked why they write, most writers will tell you they had no choice. I did.

Betsy Lerner is the author of The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers (Riverhead, 2000), as well as the memoirs The Bridge Ladies (Harper Wave, 2016) and Food and Loathing: A Life Measured Out in Calories (Simon & Schuster, 2003). She worked as an editor for sixteen years at a number of publishing companies, including Doubleday and Houghton Mifflin. Lerner is a partner with the literary agency Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.