Agent for Change
How has the agent’s job changed since you began in the business?
When I started working as an agent we still used carbon paper to produce copies of everything from manuscripts to contracts and correspondence, and of course the bottom copy was always fainter and harder to read. The whole revolution since then, starting with copying and fax machines, and then word-processing and printing and the internet, is all part of the experience I’ve been through.
There are a lot more agents now, and the agent’s role in the publishing business is certainly much more important. Over the last year or so at the agency we’ve been negotiating new standard or boilerplate contracts with all the major publishing houses. The HarperCollins contract took us more than a year: the different kinds of rights, what the publisher wants, the definition of what an electronic book is and more. Publishers are doing this with everyone. They are trying very hard to enlarge their rights as a standard; for instance, one aspect Harper pushed for was not having to pay an author anything before a book’s publication (as opposed to the typical payment on completion, which of course happens before publication) until the author has agreed to a publicity campaign. So if the author were sick, or dead, they wouldn’t pay until some accommodation had been made. It is a completely impossible condition. It wouldn’t have even been thought of 10 or 20 years ago.
A publicity campaign is not a book tour (though a book tour can be part of a publicity campaign); it’s when writers make themselves available for satellite radio conferences, book signings, interviews. Not all authors want to do this: I represent a number who resist it, although most will do some of those things. If Mary Gordon is asked to give a lecture at a university she’s happy to do that—that’s her thing—but going to a bookstore in Cincinnati and being nice to a bunch of people she has nothing in common with is not her thing.
The contract under which Random House published Mary Gordon’s first novel was five pages. The contract we are now trying to negotiate with the Macmillan group is 35 pages long. Someone has to pay attention to those things, and that’s why the agent’s role is so much more important than it used to be. The lawyers have gotten their hooks into publishing very nicely. We have had a lawyer on retainer in the past, but that doesn’t work so well—we’re better off doing it ourselves. Once we have the basic agreement, we know which conditions in a certain agreement we have to negotiate with each deal, but we don’t have to negotiate the whole damn contract all over again every time. We know that every time we have to deal with Random House, there are six or seven points with the contract that we have to negotiate; as I mentioned before, things such as if the author is going to participate in a publicity campaign, or the definition of e-book rights.
The irritating changes in our job are to do with the irritating changes in publishing. Authors too need to be more attentive to the business side of their career. I think that’s changing the kind of writer we are producing; but you need time to pass in order to see that. You look at the bestseller lists and you see the authors who are making real money; none of them are authors who I feel are going to be read in two or three years from now. What does an author need? A room of one’s own. Space. Having time. Having the ability to listen to your own voices; I think that’s harder now, and that’s a great shame. The culture makes it harder. The electronic revolution makes it harder. It shouldn’t, but I’m afraid it does.
How have publishing houses changed?
The real, major change is the way publishing is conceived: which is that all the major houses—Norton is the only exception—are seen as the profit centers for corporations. A quarter-century or so ago, when things started to change for the worse—let’s say in the 1970s, when I got into publishing—the people who ran publishing were the people who owned the publishing houses. It was their thing. They weren’t responsible to absent shareholders, they were interested in doing what they did because they wanted to publish good books. Of course, they wanted to make money, but their first responsibility was to publish good books. The first responsibility of the people who are now running publishing is to make money. They don’t care whether the books are good or bad, effectively, and that’s bad for the culture. The people who did care are mostly dead or retired. There are plenty of people working in publishing who like to read and like good books; they have a taste for it, they can recognize the good and identify the bad, but they don’t run publishing and they won’t be running it in the current culture. There are some exceptions, small publishers: Judith Gurewich, who runs the Other Press ,is a publisher of the old school (she’s also a psychoanalyst); she makes her own decisions and publishes books she really likes. But the big publishers, those we think of that have books on the bestseller list, are very different from what they used to be. I don’t think this is as true of Europe as it is in the States, but pretty much the same thing has happened to British publishing.
How do you decide which house to approach for a book?
The contract we’ve negotiated with the Penguin Group—which includes Viking, Dutton and many others—is much better than our contract with HarperCollins, so if there’s a similar offer from two houses for the same work, we would want to go with Penguin. It seems daft to me: take St Martin’s, which is a very interesting house that publishes an awful lot of books and some good ones. The editor-in-chief, Sally Richardson, is smart and good, though I’d say she’s hampered because they’re part of the Macmillan Group and Sally has to adhere to their standards. But it is not a literary house. It aspires to be, or at least I assume so. If I were running it I would take pains to have a contract that is more attractive than those of my competitors; but they don’t think that way.
Take areas such as approval of certain subsidiary rights, to do with whether the author really can retain moral ownership of his or her work. There are questions of what the author’s responsibilities are: if the publisher has the manuscript read for legal problems and wants changes; what happens if there is a challenge to the copyright of a work; is the author allowed to hire counsel of his or her choosing; does the publisher have a right to see a whole manuscript or a proposal; when should a publisher have to respond to a proposal, and so on. Standard contracts often say that an author cannot submit the next work for which the publisher has a exclusive option (i.e., the right of first refusal) until the current book under contract is published. Which can mean that the author is stuck until the publisher publishes the book; and the publisher can delay that under the existing contract for sometimes as much as a year. Meantime the writer’s out of work. That can be serious stuff.
I’ve been known to rant about the state of publishing somewhat, but I’m best to keeping it to myself. There are people I can rant to, old friends in the publishing business who feel the same way. Not many of them are still working, they’re mostly people like Ash Green, who was at Knopf for many years and is now retired—we can get together and have lunch and do nothing but complain, but it doesn’t really do you any good.
Do you sell a lot of books as proposals rather than complete manuscripts?
As agents, at the beginning of a project we’re very involved in trying to shape book proposals, trying to make the sizzle on the steak as attractive as it can possibly be; you don’t really have to worry about if the steak is actually edible. You want it to be, of course! At Sterling Lord we have 16 representatives, which makes us a big firm. Virtually all nonfiction is sold by proposal, so yes, we do a lot of work on proposals; we keep a file of good proposals, successful proposals, and we can give pointers on that. I represent Alan Brinkley (watch him talking on the New Deal here), who is probably one of the best American historians of the 20th century working in the United States; so when Alan writes a few paragraphs on a book he wants to do you don’t fuss with it very much, nor does the publisher need to know much more than what his intentions are. But then along comes a guy with three or four or half a dozen books on his record, none of which have done very well—but he has a new idea for a book, so that proposal has got to be really spiffing. We have to do a pretty heavy job, which to some degree includes obliterating his past, if possible.
Do you read e-books?
I have a Kindle. I don’t think it’s a good substitute for reading a page, at least not yet. But I would have to have a satchel weighing 30 pounds to accommodate what’s in that Kindle, and that’s a great saving just in logistics. The difficulty with reading on a screen is that you don’t have the same visual memory of what you’ve read—you might think, “Didn’t he say something different in the last chapter that contradicts this? There was that paragraph at the bottom of the left page.” Then you flip back to find the paragraph at the bottom of the page, because you have a visual memory of it, but you can’t do that with a Kindle. The makeup of the pages changes as you move around it. Another thing, which seems small, but isn’t, is that when you’re reading a manuscript and you have a pile of paper, you know where you are, geographically, in the process of reading that piece of work. The size of the pile lets you know what weight should be given to this part of the book, and how much that part has to accomplish or resolve something. That just doesn’t happen with the Kindle. But make no mistake: the electronic revolution is probably as important in our cultural lives as the Gutenberg revolution was and it is certainly changing everything.
A year ago publishers were still trying to figure out how they were going to make any money from electronic books and digital publishing, and they were all going a bit crazy. Along with the downturn of 2008 they were really kind of grim and notionally going broke; but now they’ve decided they can money out of it, so they’re all a bit happier. At least it’s opened up the marketplace, and that is a good thing.
Who are some of your writers? Should every writer have an agent?
I have represented Mary Gordon since her first novel, Final Payments, published in 1978. Some of the people I represent are now no longer walking the planet, but I still represent their work, such as Dee Brown, author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; Frank Kermode, who died last year. I’ve represented William Trevor since the 1970s.
Some established writers don’t have agents, they just have a lawyer working for them. I don’t think John Updike had an agent, but then he only had one publisher (Alfred A. Knopf). I got a letter this week from an established historian who was published by Bob Loomis when he was at Random House; he said he hadn’t have an agent as he didn’t think he needed one, but he needed one now. So while there are exceptions, certainly if you’re a young writer your first objective is to get a decent agent, because you’re going to get nowhere without one. To some extent that’s new—not new in the last decade, but new in the 1970s or later, when publishers realized they could do without looking at their slush pile if they just made the agents the first filter. It’s not so much that they want to deal with the agents as that they want the agents to deal with the rubbish!
I gave a little talk to the young interns currently in our office—six very bright young women who are working for us for a month this Summer for nothing in order to get a little tick on the résumé. They’re keen, they’re smart, they work hard, but why they want to be in the publishing business is beyond me, really. I’m not sure I would be in their place. Yet we have no trouble finding people who want to do it, and they’re first-rate. That probably says more about the economy in general that it does about the state of publishing. In my day we didn’t have to be that assiduous; it didn’t cost so much to do business. Health insurance, for instance, is now our most difficult expense.
When I started in the business, I joined a company—Harold Matson—that already contained my name in it. But because my uncle was Scandinavian and didn’t believe in nepotism I had to work a lot harder than anyone else would have had to. I worked for Hal for 15 years and it was really good, a long and good apprenticeship. I was lucky finding clients during than time and being given some. I joined the agency by chance. I was working for a paperback publisher, Popular Library, a sort of bottom feeder that doesn’t exist any more; Hal called me up one day and said a young agent in his firm had not come back from lunch and he needed some help.
Do you think having written yourself has helped you in your work as an agent?
When I was a young man I wrote short stories, and later I wrote A Place in the Country, which is a book about building a house in Massachusetts. I’m not particularly proud of it, but it sold a few copies. I might not have accepted the book had I been a publisher, but I certainly would have accepted the proposal, which was damned good. I think everybody who aspires to be an agent ought to be in the position of the writer; it gives you a lot of insight. Your investment in what you have done is hard to imagine unless you’ve gone through it; and then there’s the difficulty of finishing something, not necessarily because you don’t have the time, but because you have to set the baby on its own course. I was scared to death of the exposure and being judged. You want it to be the best thing you can possibly do, but it’s impossible to know when you’ve finished. I think that’s true of a lot of authors who have a hard time delivering. It’s not because they’re not working, it’s because they simply say “this is the best sentence I can possibly write.” Right after this interview, I’m going to the office to try to get my author Bill Broad to say, “It’s done. I’ve been fiddling with this long enough.” If I don’t say it his publisher will cancel the contract. E.B. White said that books aren’t finished, they’re abandoned. Very often working over things too much takes the spirit out of them. Painters have the same problem. Some spend years working on a single canvas.
What do you think of publishing’s financial model?
The telling of stories is so important in our culture that to make that the subject of profit-taking is a great cultural mistake. Storytelling is in our blood, it is essential, it is the way we define ourselves; and here we are making storytelling simply a profit center for conglomerates. That isn’t how it should work. Publishing ought to be able to pay its own bills, but it shouldn’t necessarily have to pay a 15 percent return on an investor’s money.