If you consider thick white tablecloths and enormous floral arrangements and black-clad waiters who wouldn’t dream of introducing themselves to you by name stuffy and boring….this post isn’t for you.
But if, like me, you adore a fine, old restaurant that still does things right, here’s a lovely paean to them, from The New York Times Style magazine:
In an age of studied casualness, of competitive waiting in line and chef-stalking and meal-Instagramming, of pedigreed pigs and forced intimacy with your neighbors’ elbows, it is novel to be served by a dignified career waiter in a jacket who knows his business. It is relaxing to look at a menu and (with the exception of certain démodé concoctions) know exactly what you’re getting. And most magical of all, it is astounding to be transported to a time when people not only dressed up, but also when your chair was pulled out for you and your cigarette (yes, cigarette!) was lit before it had reached your lips.
The writer, Sadie Stein, names a few old-school spots I’ve been lucky enough to eat in as well:
— After a meeting at the offices of Simon & Schuster, on Sixth Avenue in midtown Manhattan, on a bitterly cold, wet winter’s day in 2002, I knew they were going to buy my first book. I was insanely excited but had no one, at 4:00 p.m., to share that moment with. My agent had rushed back to his office downtown. So I went into the “21” Club, at 21 West 52d, and ordered coffee and profiteroles and sat by the fire and cherished this wonderful moment I had longed for my whole life. It was the perfect place to seal the deal.
— I’ve been to Galatoire’s, a New Orleans institution, several times. The most recent, in late January 2012, was three days before I would lie on an operating room table to get a new left hip. I needed a good stiff drink and a delicious meal. What if they were among my last? I’d been in town to address a conference of liquor store owners, offering my suggestions how to hire, manage and motivate their workers, (the topic of my second book.) Galatoire’s was absolutely perfect, filled with elegance and celebration and fantastic food.
— I’ve only eaten (so far!) once at La Grenouille, one of Manhattan’s true legends. It opened Dec. 19, 1962 in a townhouse in midtown. We ate upstairs, at L’Ardoise, and it was amazing. Here’s my post about it, from October 2009, a celebration meal in honor of my second book sale, treated by my father visiting from Canada:
Upstairs is a narrow room, with white-painted brick walls, lit by three 20-foot-tall lead-paned windows. A huge rug in the lightest shades of yellow, cream and green. A highly polished dark wood table marks the entrance. There are only five white-tableclothed tables, with another at the top of the stairs beneath a skylight, shaded by palms. Each has a small, perfect floral arrangement. There are paintings and drawing everywhere. You feel as if you’ve stumbled into someone’s private home, and you have. For many years, this was the home and studio of French painter Bernard LaMamotte — and before that, in the 1800s, the stable housing the horses of the owners of the mansion across the street, now the Cartier boutique. Those tall windows were once used to bring in hay.
It is, wrote Vanity Fair last year, “a private dining room of such beauty that one could be talked into becoming bedridden as long as one’s bed were there.”
Have you had a memorable meal in a place like this?
Tell us a bit about you: where you live, how you got into writing/journalism and what sorts of things you typically cover.
I’ve been a journalist for 26 years, ever since graduating from college. I had hoped to get a Ph.D. in Brazilian history, but a friend who worked as the assistant to the late, great New York Times writer Johnny Apple invited me to a dinner party at Apple’s house. My friend was going to law school, and Apple needed a new assistant. I didn’t even know who he was — I’m from the West Coast and just happened to be in Washington for a brief stay. But we started talking, and he offered me the job. He told me my nice Oregon parents would be happier if I took a “real job” instead of worrying about me living on ramen for the next four years. (He definitely had a point!)
I loved the newsroom, the energy there, and just didn’t look back.
Since then I’ve covered a lot of things – crime in Baltimore in the late 1980s; the shift from communism to capitalism in Poland in the early 1990s; and basically since then, how health and health trends intersect with our particular culture. I’ve written two other books, including one that examines how our noses and scent affect our lives.
Where did you get the idea for this book and when?
I moved back to the East Coast from a six-year stay in Oregon in late 2008, just as the economy was tanking. Newspapers and magazines were laying people off, and it was really hard to find work. I had lunch with an acquaintance who is an editor at Simon & Schuster and all around us, women were drinking.
I drink, too, but drinking at lunch puts me out for the day. We started talking about women’s drinking habits, (and our own), and the cultural shift we’d seen around us. She suggested I look into it. The proposal hit her desk the same day as the news of a terrible accident in which a suburban mom killed herself and seven others when she had the equivalent of 10 shots of vodka in her system.
Was it a difficult book to sell to an agent or publisher?
No, because I was lucky to have already had her interest. I had written other books so already had an agent.
What were the most challenging aspects of reporting or researching the book?
At first I thought the book would be a straightforward trend book, about women drinking more than in previous generations, and why. But then I started researching how they got better if they got into trouble, and I found some really interesting new options. I hadn’t had exposure to harmful drinking in my life, and I assumed that the traditional 12-step methods we rely on in this country were effective. I was stunned to learn that they had a very low success rate and were designed by men, for men at a time when the knowledge of brain chemistry was at its infancy – and that it was used by the courts, employee assistance programs, and the medical establishment as a gold standard.
So digging into that was challenging – but fun. It’s always exciting to shift your thinking about something you’ve accepted, or taken for granted -– sort of like you did with “Malled.”
How did you research the book? Tell us where you went, who you spoke to, how you found sources.
At first I started looking into statistics, which as a reporter is the easiest starting place. Drunk driving among women was up; hospitalizations for alcohol overdosing were up among women; the number of older women who checked into rehab had spiked. The number of women who said they were regular drinkers was up.
Once I had those figures, I could sort of move backwards – contacting the researchers and interviewing them. Researchers typically know the others in their areas of expertise, and a lot of them are really generous. One man told me, “Oh, I’m nothing in this field – you should talk to so-and-so and so-and-so.” Those so-and-sos turned out to be amazing sources who were patient and funny and helpful, and pointed out where I had holes.
I also did a lot of searching online for women who would be willing to talk to me about their issues. It is a dicey thing to ask people to discuss a topic that is shameful or embarrassing to them, but I’m a good listener and sometimes that’s what people need. Talking helps a lot of us process our “stuff.”
How long did it take you, from signed contract to delivered manuscript?
Was this faster or slower than you anticipated?
Much slower. I thought it would take me a year! That’s crazy.
What did you enjoy most about working on the book?
I loved learning about our history with alcohol, and how our habits have shifted so dramatically over the years. I loved meeting people, and making new friends, but I also loved diving into the history of why we treat alcohol so oddly in this country. We went from Martha Washington, whose collection of 500 recipes included 50 for boozy drinks, (plus some hangover cures), to wild-eyed prohibitionists to Girls Gone Wild.
What was the least fun part?
Some chapters were torture. Reducing the history was particularly hard for me, because I found it so fascinating. At one point, I had about six pages on how the women who crossed the Oregon Trail drank whiskey and wrote about how it helped calm their nerves and sadness in their diaries. My editor, God love her, wrote, “I know this is fascinating, but I think we could carve this down to a sentence or two.” What? All those diaries I read to a sentence? Sometimes you need cold water on your face to knock you to your senses.
Who do you see as readers for this book?
I think any woman who has ever thought twice about their drinking would be interested in this book, and anyone who has ever thought twice about the drinking of a woman they love would be interested in this book. I tried to bust a lot of myths. I also think it would be a good read for anyone interested in women’s history and women’s studies. It traces the arc of female power through our relationship to alcohol in ways that are quite surprising.
If you have written other books, how is this one different – in tone, content, approach?
This was much better conceived and executed than my other books, because it had a tighter focus. I used history as a guide, and medical research as a foundation, whereas my nose book was a sort of kooky history – cool stuff you didn’t know about your sense of smell, the history of Kleenex, nose jobs. My first book was a starter book, on interfaith marriage. It was too long and not focused enough.
What advice would you offer a would-be non-fiction author?
Develop a good working relationship with your editor. That is absolutely key. If you don’t see eye-to-eye from the beginning, you aren’t going to see eye-to-eye at the end. I’ve had a great experience this time with a patient, wise, and incredibly generous editor who helped reel me back in when I needed to be. I haven’t always had that experience. Chemistry matters. My best working relationships have always been with editors I really admire and love. In other words, don’t try to force something that isn’t there. And also: don’t be afraid to lose your good material in order to save your great material. Nobody wants to read six pages about something only you find amazing.
Drug-addicted beauty writer Cat Marnell has landed a book deal with Simon & Schuster for her memoir, “How to Murder Your Life.” Marnell, who has been in and out of rehab for her addiction to prescription drugs, famously told us she’d rather “smoke angel dust with her friends” than hold down a full-time job after being fired from Jane Pratt’s Web site, xoJane.com. Now she has chronicled her sexual and narcotic adventures in a book, to include her life as a spoiled rich kid of a psychiatrist and a psychoanalyst and her drug-fueled rise through Condé Nast, xoJane.com and Vice magazine…The proposal details her numerous sexual conquests [and] four abortions.
Because, you know, get-up-wash-face-work-hard-sleep-repeat is so…..vanilla. Who cares?
And then there’s the inevitable email I got yesterday, giving me 25 days to buy back several thousand unsold hardcover copies of my second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published on April 14, 2011 in hardcover and July 2012 in paperback.
They’re being offered to me very cheaply, but I don’t have a spare few thousand dollars right now, nor the deep desire to fill every square inch of our garage with unsold books.
This is stuff you rarely hear about publicly because who dares admit envy of an advance orders of magnitude bigger than yours? For self-indulgent shite?
And no one will even publicly admit that their book didn’t sell out, because then…OMG….you’re a failure! Facebook is like sticking pins in your eyes every day if any of your friends — and this is common among established writers — have indeed become best-sellers. “Friends” being, you know, a word with some variance.
One of them keeps crowing and crowing and then another and then another and you start to think the only thing that seems obvious: “I’m such a loser!”
My publisher, (bless their enthusiasm!), printed too many. Partly because that’s just when e-books began taking off and we sold many more (cheaper) e-books out of the gate than hardcovers. We’re also still in a recession and my book is about low-wage labor so many of my would-be readers might have balked at shelling out the dough for the hardcover; there was a four-week wait list for it at the Toronto Public Library, a friend there told me.
The publishing industry is a moving target and every single book they choose to publish is a gamble, a guess and some tightly-crossed fingers.
Yes, some authors — Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, et. al. — are safe bets. They’ve become like major league baseball teams, winning franchises. But I know of one best-selling author (I’ve seen the numbers) whose two previous books barely sold more than 1,000 copies before she Hit It Big.
So you never know.
So, this week, feeling foolish and weary and yet, and yet, and yet…working on my book proposal. I will never get $500,000 for any book I propose. To even get $100,000 would be a lovely thing, but also nothing I can expect.
So, as my new agent said, “If you’re really burning to write this one”…
My second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, a business memoir to be published in April 2011 by Portfolio/Penguin, is now in production. The assembly line is moving toward publication.
There are few pleasures more satisfying than selling your proposal and writing a book, and few moments as exciting as holding the first fresh copy of your book in your hands. Selling a book catapults the first-time author into a world filled with surprises, some lovely, some less so.
The things I’ve learned along the way! Here, for those who hope to publish with a commercial publisher, are a few of them.
Yes, there are always exceptions to all of these, but much of this is fairly standard for a new and/or mid-list author:
Your advance will be much lower than you hope and takes forever to arrive
I did make more for my second book than for my first, but not nearly as much as we’d hoped. C’est la vie. Book advances, (from which your agent cuts his or her 15% share first), are now typically paid out in three or four installments. It can be six to 12 months, or more, between those payments. How will you meet all your regular expenses plus the research or travel costs of your book? I spent $5,000 for my first book traveling to report firsthand from Texas, Ohio, New Orleans and Massachusetts. For the second, I needed to pay two researchers to help me gather data and sources more quickly.
You have zero control over the pricing or discounting of your own book
As Pocket (the paperback arm of Simon & Schuster) has done with my first book, published in paperback at reasonable and democratic $13.00 in 2004, they might almost double the price of your book — with no additional income accruing to you.
Life crises can destroy your carefully planned writing, research, travel or revision schedule (and budget)
One friend is on deadline for her book but her husband is terminally ill and her book requires travel. While I was in Dayton, Ohio in August 2002 researching my first book, my mother was diagnosed with a huge (removable) brain tumor. I had to get from Dayton to Vancouver, Canada as fast as possible, alone. This year, with a book deadline of September 1, 2010, I lost four months to a (resolvable) medical emergency seeing five specialists, oral steroids, months of physical therapy, even having to use a cane or crutches for months. Good thing I was able to do other work on the book (reading, interviews) and get back to writing it when my head was clearer.
Plan for chaos.
You’ll pay to create and maintain your book website
Not your publisher. The second your book is sold, register its title as a domain name.
You’ll pay for your book tour
You’ll pay for your book trailer
You’ll pay for your video press kit
See the pattern? Start saving up a wad o’ cash now to promote the thing or it will disappear fast.
You’ll create most of your events and signings
Actually, I find this part a lot of fun as the book is now good to go and everyone’s excited about it. I’ve already reached out to universities, business schools, companies, stores and others across the country to help me set up signings, talks and events.
If you’d like help with this book tour — April through June or July 2011, I’d love to hear from you! Please email me.
Your publisher will forget to send galleys to key players
Galleys or ARCs (advance reader copies) create buzz for your book months before publication once they’re in the hands of people who will talk it up to their audiences. Make a huge press list of everyone you think might review or discuss your book. But stay on top of it as some publicists zone out and don’t follow through.
They’ll pulp your book and won’t tell you
It’s basic courtesy to offer authors the chance to buy back any unsold copies of their book before destroying them. I didn’t get that chance. Keep an eye on your copies.
They’ll make it POD and not tell you
That’s “print on demand” which means no one can find my first book in any bookstore. Amazon, yes.
Your editor may quit mid-stream
Or get sick or be fired. It happens. We all dread it.
So might their replacement, and theirs
Your book then becomes an orphan. It’s happened to some of the best-selling books out there and it’s rough. You need your editor to care a lot about your book and be its in-house advocate.
Editors are really busy
When you get an offer, ask how many books the publisher puts out each month and how many will come out the same day, week or month as yours. How many other books is s/he working on? Does s/he prefer to contacted via email or phone? How often is too often?
Agents are really busy
After your book is sold, you and your agent usually won’t have a lot to talk about until it’s accepted. That’s cool. They’re busy making money. Don’t ask them to hold your hand.
In-house publicists are really busy
As much as you crave their undivided attention, it’s unlikely they can give nearly as much of their time or energy as you’d like. Find out what they can do and then start working around it using your own time and resources.
Book doctors are expensive but possibly necessary
Your agent can’t work on it and your editor may not be giving you all the tools you need to whip your book into publishable shape. A book doctor can cost $5,000, but it might be an investment you need to make.
You have six weeks, max. to make your mark before books are returned to the store
Bookstores don’t buy your books in the standard way we buy something, i.e. you own it now. They buy them with a return policy and one they quickly use if the merch isn’t moving.
Having your book on bookstores’ coveted front tables is totally beyond your control
I’m always so jealous of authors whose books get laid out in those thick piles on bookstore tables, the ones people look through. Those books get there through the use of “co-op” funds. You can ask if this is a realistic use of their funds for your book, but don’t expect it.
Your student/intern/researcher or nemesis from grad school will publish before you (and get much better reviews)
Oh, yeah. Maybe even a front-page New York Times Book Review rave. Ouch!
As authors today now know, or quickly learn, whether you can produce a publishable manuscript is only one piece of the puzzle. How are you on YouTube?
From The New York Times:
“But people who spend their whole lives writing and people who are good on video turn out to be two very different sets of people,” said the best-selling author Mary Karr, who last year starred in her first book video for her memoir “Lit.”
When, at her publisher’s request, Ms. Karr created the trailer, “I looked like a person in a studio who had never been in a studio.” She scrapped the footage and asked her son to shoot her in their living room instead. The final version opens with Ms. Karr drawling, “I’m Mary Karr and I’m here to talk about my new book, ‘Lit.’ ” She goes on to say, in her trademark twang, that the book “took me seven years to write, and believe me, I would have made more money working at McDonald’s.” Featuring Ms. Karr’s languid wit and reluctant half-smiles, punctuated by family photos of the author, the trailer is actually pretty good.
But don’t tell that to the author. “It is, in a word, humiliating,” Ms. Karr said.
For many authors, it was bad enough when, once every book, you had to slick on makeup, hire a photographer and adopt a writerly pose — hand on chin, furrowed brow — for the book jacket portrait.
I saw this when I sold my first book, on a cold wintry day in 2002, summoned to the headquarters of Simon & Schuster to meet several executives face to face. I knew this was my audition: Could I handle public pressure? Tough questions asked face to face? Was I fat or spotty? Did I stutter? Wilt under pressure?
I wore navy blue wool, my power uniform — anything that airline pilots or cops wear makes me feel safe and strong.
When I sold my second book, in September 2009, I sat in a very small room with, once more, my agent and three executives who would decide if I was worth their investment. This time I wore black, to hide the sweat rings. I knew how I comported myself there could kill the deal. This is the author’s lot now, donning a cool, calm, engaging public face.
It demands a very different set of skills to be able to chat lucidly and wittily to a camera, whether on YouTube or on CNN, or to do live radio or public events than to write prose of any value. Writers, by their nature and/or training, look inward or observe others. Many find such preening abhorrent, simply not who they really are.
Getting plucked from the slush pile was always a long shot—in large part, editors and Hollywood development executives say, because most unsolicited material has gone unsolicited for good reason. But it did happen for some: Philip Roth, Anne Frank, Judith Guest. And so to legions of would-be novelists, journalists and screenwriters—not to mention “D-girls” and “manuscripts girls” from Hollywood to New York who held the hope that finding a gem might catapult them from entry level to expense account—the slush pile represented The Dream.
Now, slush is dead, or close to extinction. Film and television producers won’t read anything not certified by an agent because producers are afraid of being accused of stealing ideas and material. Most book publishers have stopped accepting book proposals that are not submitted by agents. Magazines say they can scarcely afford the manpower to cull through the piles looking for the Next Big Thing.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web was supposed to be a great democratizer of media. Anyone with a Flip and Final Cut Pro could be a filmmaker; anyone with a blog a memoirist. But rather than empowering unknown artists, the Web is often considered by talent-seeking executives to be an unnavigable morass.
It used to be that you could bang out a screenplay on your typewriter, then mail it in to a studio with a self-addressed stamped envelope and a prayer. Studios already were reluctant to read because of plagiarism concerns, but they became even more skittish in 1990 when humorist Art Buchwald sued Paramount, alleging that the studio stole an idea from him and turned it into the Eddie Murphy vehicle, “Coming to America.” (Mr. Buchwald received an undisclosed settlement from Paramount.)
The irony, she writes, is that the Web was supposed to make it easier. Not so. You must have an agent.
Her piece also offers a terrific sidebar on how to sell your material, but I saw some things she left out.
I’m now writing my second non-fiction book for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin; my first, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, was published in 2004 by Pocket Books, the paperback side of Simon & Schuster. In both instances, I easily found an agent eager to sell my work. How?
Be excellent. If that sounds elitist, too bad. The Web, and technology, has given millions of amateur writers the technical tools to produce a lot of material. It has also fostered the seductive illusion that, by banging out a lot of it — whatever it is — you”re now highly experienced as a writer and therefore must be really good and it’s your right to get published right away. Wrong.
Writers whom agents eagerly court are writers with a track record of excellence.We have, most typically, been writing for years, not weeks. We have been published by some of the toughest, most jaded and demanding of editors for outlets like The New York Times or The Atlantic or have passed through the gates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. We’ve been vetted.
Hone your skills. Every day. This is not a joke. The most skilled and ambitious professionals I know are deeply committed to their craft. We read, study, watch and listen to work we think inspiring and intelligent. We read/watch/listen to — and analyze — everything vaguely similar to what we hope to achieve, fully aware of how much competition is out there and how carefully they are sharpening their swords.
At every level of the game, even with decades of terrific experience and credentials, we take classes and workshops, some even pursuing MFAs or other advanced degrees. We apply for, and sometimes win, grants and fellowships to help us work on material that is perhaps less immediately commercial but helps us grow as artists and creators. We spend time, money and attention on our skills and our craft.
Get to know other excellent writers. Other terrific writers have already been published and found an agent. If they decide you, too, are ready for prime time, they might share that contact data with you. They also may not. It’s an awkward moment when someone, as they always do, asks for the name of your agent. It’s like asking for your partner’s phone number. That writer may not be a good fit for your agent, in terms of their talent, material or personality.
You best get to know other skilled writers by joining an industry association or group and, best of all, giving of your time and energy so others have a chance to get to know and possibly like you. I sit on the board of the 1,415-member American Society of Journalists and Authors; a fellow board member had a Times‘ best-seller.
Be generous. No one likes a grabby user, and the writing world is filled with them.Just because you reallyreallyreally want to become rich and famous thanks to your astonishing talents doesn’t mean anyone else will rush to get you there — nor should you ever expect this.When you, too, can share a contact or some advice, and you feel comfortable doing so, do it. I don’t help everyone who asks, but I have surprised a few people by doing so. If you are a much younger/less experienced writer asking for help, think through what you can offer in return — maybe a mass tweet or access to your Facebook contacts, all 567,890 of them, when your mentor’s latest production comes out.
Be strategic. Before you try to find an agent, think through carefully what it is you offer and why that agent, in particular, might be a good fit for you. Ask around. (See suggestion No. 1)
Be patient. Such an unfashionable idea! I wrote at least four unsold book proposals before I sold my first book, then wrote a few more before I sold my second. It may be hard to fathom, but not everything you write is worth an agent or editor’s or producer’s extremely limited time and attention. If you find an agent, trust their thinking. If you don’t, find another. The world is filled with agents, many of whom may be a very poor fit for you and your work.
Timing is everything. Both of my books wouldn’t have been of as much interest to an agent or publisher even six months before they sold; the mood of the marketplace and the zeitgeist were, at that particular point, especially receptive. No one wanted my book about guns or self-protection pre -9/11, but it sold shortly thereafter, when Americans suddenly felt scared in a whole new way. My current book is about working a low-wage, low-status job, something millions are now doing in this recession.
The agent is not your Mom/lover/BFF. They are a skilled professional whose credentials and other clients and projects you will check out thoroughly. Won’t you? You wouldn’t just hand over the keys to your home or vehicle to anyone unfamiliar — but that’s what you’re doing with your hard-earned career when you commit to an agent. Check them outand, if you decide to work with them, and vice versa, respect their time. Don’t burn them out or freak them out by calling and emailing all the time for their reassurance or guidance. That’s what your therapist or writing group is for.
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.