Hoping for Best-Sellerdom? J-Day's Q and A With Two Veteran Agents

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This week’s installment of J-Day offers two New York City-based veteran agents, Kathleen Anderson and Joe Spieler, both of whom I know personally and have worked with on my own proposals. They’re very different people, but both bring a tough-minded, battle-scarred perspective to the brutal business of book publishing. No matter what form a new book arrives in, someone has to find it, prepare it, sell it, advocate for it and negotiate every possible profit for its author, from audio to foreign-language rights.

Being a terrific agent demands the diplomacy of an ambassador, the speed and agility of a prize-fighter, the protective instincts of a momma grizzly and the tenacity of a pit-bull.

I met Kathleen through one of her assistants, who found me. I met Joe Spieler when he, literally, pitched to me first — playing in the same co-ed softball group for the past eight years. Kathleen blends great sensitivity with a steel spine; Joe’s a gruff, tough guy with a deep love of excellence, the agent for Thomas’ Frank’s 2004 best-seller “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”

Kathleen Anderson is an award-winning editor and agent who has been working in the publishing business since 1977 — first as an editor at W.W. Norton where she published DEAR AMERICA: Letters Home From Vietnam, which became an Emmy award-winning documentary, then as a senior editor at Poseidon, formerly a division of Simon & Schuster, where she published and edited Mary Gaitskill and Ursula Hegi. She is a recipient of the Tony Godwin Award, given to an outstanding American editor under 35 who is then sent to England to learn about British publishing.  She was a founding partner of Anderson Grinberg Literary Management, Inc., then formed her own firm in 2006. She specializes in adult and young adult literary and commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, American and European history, literary journalism, nature and travel writing, memoir, and biography. She is a member of PEN and the AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives).

Where did you attend college and what did you study?
KA: I attended Hampshire College because it’s an experimental college with no grades or credits.  It allows you to progress through college by individual evaluations by professors. It was perfect for me because I needed a more creative education that allowed me to design my own education while providing me with the opportunity to take courses at any of the other colleges in the valley: Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke, U.Mass.
JS: I studied comparative literature (I don’t know why, except that I spoke a few languages, all of them miserably), taking a degree from City College in the Pleistocene.

When, how and why did you become an agent?

KA: I became an agent in 1995.  Previously I had been working as a senior editor for an imprint called Poseidon, a division of Simon & Schuster, where I published a lot of serious nonfiction and literary fiction writers such as Mary Gaitskill and Ursula Hegi.  The imprint was terminated so I found myself without a job, so took a few years off to travel and regroup.  In the process, I metamorphosed into an agent, which was a rarity in those days for editors to jump the fence and become an agent.  (It’s very common now.)  But it wasn’t a big leap for me because I was always an author advocate in-house as an editor, always trying to get the author more money, better book jackets, always fighting with the powers-that-be on behalf of my authors.  I somehow never realized that I was supposed to be representing the house and not the author.  So when I became an agent, it made perfect sense and gave me much more flexibility — now I can work with all the publishing houses and I’m no longer restricted to one house’s point of view on a manuscript or proposal  What my former employers reject, I can sell elsewhere.

JS: I became an agent in 1981, when a close friend, a Marine lieutenant who had seen and endured much in the Vietnam War, asked me to help him publish a series of linked short stories of his experience there. I did and the book was “Cooks and Bakers”, by Robert A. Anderson. I never looked back.

What are the top three skills an agent needs to succeed?
KA: Patience, perserverence, and literary acumen.

JS: Perhaps a weaving of cultural passion, deep reading in the agent’s areas of interest, and a concern for others. Of course, I know hugely successful agents who show no sign of these traits.

Who’s the ideal client, i.e. what skills or aptitudes do they bring?
KA: Patience, perserverence, and literary acumen.

JS: I have no ideal client. I want somebody who can write, who has something to say that hasn’t been said, and the mental/psychological conditioning of a saint, or who has come into a healthy financial inheritance.

Who’s the nightmare client? How can a writer who hopes to find an agent avoid being that nightmare?
KA: Authors who treat an agent like their employee.  Being an agent is a service profession, but it’s a profession nonetheless.  Mutual respect of each other’s expertise and a general feeling of trust is paramount in the relationship. Once that goes, the whole relationship is a nightmare.

JS: There are no qualifications for being a nightmare client: if the writer is a nightmare to others in his life, the odds are he’ll be a nightmare to his agent. Sane, wonderful writers can become nightmare clients overnight — who knows why. The process generally doesn’t go in reverse.

What’s the most useful preparation a non-fiction author can do before coming to you?
KA: Find out what other nonfiction authors I publish so you have a sense of the scope of what I have done. Write a proposal before coming to me — and the proposal needs to present a narrative overview of the book as a whole. It is expected that in order to promote your work, you have a website and hopefully participate in blogs, whether your own or someone else’s.

JS: Write it and rewrite it until you can’t go further. Put it aside from anywhere from a week to a year. Then rewrite it again. Then call me.

What is the most challenging aspect of selling non-fiction these days?
KA: PLATFORM.  This is what you most often hear from publishers — what is the author’s PLATFORM? I’ve never cared much about an author’s PLATFORM.  I’ve always cared more about the writing.

JS: The same challenge it’s always been: to get editors–and their higher-highers–to see past their nose. Some can, and are encouraged to by their houses (probably less than a dozen senior such editors now in trade publishing); most can’t.

How has publishing changed in recent years and what are you, and your clients doing to adapt?
KA: Publishers have become much more selective — they only want to publish books that can sell at least 25,000 copies. There are many successful authors who sell way less than that — and I’m sure Herta Muller, the woman who just won the Nobel Prize in Literature today, is one of them.  So clients have to do one of two things to adapt:  (1) they keep writing whatever they want, regardless of potential sales, and adjust their expectations accordingly — it would be more important to find a good home with the right editor in that case than strive for an unrealistic advance; (2) clients discuss with their agent different ideas for books and make a strategic decision about which book would have the best chance of furthering their careers or getting the highest advance (not necessarily the same thing). For my part, I edit the proposals and try to make them the best they can be before they are sent to an editor so they have the best chance of getting bought.

JS: Books have lost their cultural primacy, though they won’t disappear. Other forms have taken huge bites out of the printed word. What am I doing about it? I’m waiting for further developments. The horse did not give way to the car overnight.

What’s the greatest pleasure of being an agent?
KA: Relationships with authors and what I learn from them.

JS: Drinking and going to sleep.

The greatest challenge?
KA: Relationships with authors and what I don’t learn from them.

JS: The whole damn thing’s a challenge, like preparing yourself for root canal.

Anything you’d like to add?

KA: Remember that if your book is rejected fifteen times, it doesn’t mean anything.  The proposal could have been sent to the wrong people, or the editors are too conventional to understand what’s in front of them. If you and your agent believe in the book, then you have to keep trying.

JS: The exception to all this–and it’s a big one — is books for children. For some reason, the dumbing down is at a minimum, and for most houses there remains an ethical strand in their books for the young-uns. That will probably disappear after the next generation of tiny-tot readers. Then again, so might the whole mammalian endeavor.

Next week’s final installment, a Q and A with non-fiction authors Ulrich Boser, whose 2009 best-seller is “The Gardner Heist” and Kelsey Timmerman, author of “Where Am I Wearing?”, a look at how our clothing is cheaply made overseas.

3 thoughts on “Hoping for Best-Sellerdom? J-Day's Q and A With Two Veteran Agents

  1. P.J. Tobia


    I’m also a Hampshire grad and liked it for the same reasons you mention. Also, I read Dear America for the first time about six months ago, while on a far-flung military outpost here in Afghanistan. Seeing the soldiers around me going through many of the emotions and situations described so well in that book, made it that much more of an interesting read. Just as true now as it was then.

  2. Kathleen…I am writing on behalf of a retired gentleman by the name of Jim Carlin. He believes you are a freelance writer who he knew in the mid-nineties. Jim met you while you did research for a book in Butte Montana. Are you the same person who stayed at the Clark Mansion in up-town Butte? If so, can I give you a call. This gentleman is interested in hiring you to write a book..

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