Stand­ing the Test of Time

SECRETS OF MAIN­TAIN­ING A LONG-TERM AGENT-AU­THOR RE­LA­TION­SHIP

Poets and Writers - - Contents - By michael bourne

Secrets of main­tain­ing a long-term agent-au­thor re­la­tion­ship.

IN 1992 Ge­orge Saun­ders was still work­ing full-time at an en­gi­neer­ing firm when, af­ter some suc­cesses with smaller pub­li­ca­tions, he had his first story accepted by the New Yorker. What Saun­ders didn’t know was that just be­fore “Of­fload­ing for Mrs. Schwartz,” an un­set­tling lit­tle tale set in a fail­ing vir­tual-re­al­ity holo­gram shop, was pub­lished, long­time New Yorker edi­tor Daniel Me­naker tipped off lit­er­ary agent Es­ther New­berg that she might want to read the work of a promis­ing new au­thor de­but­ing in the mag­a­zine that week.

Twenty-six years later, Saun­ders, now a Booker Prize–win­ning novelist, and New­berg, co-head of the pub­lish­ing di­vi­sion at ICM Pat­ners, are on the phone ar­gu­ing about how she first con­tacted him: by phone or by mail.

“I re­mem­ber it be­ing a hard-copy let­ter,” Saun­ders says. “It was one of the rea­sons I fell in love with her. It was a re­ally charm­ing let­ter.”

“I think you’re mak­ing that up, Ge­orge,” New­berg chimes in.

“No, I still have it,” Saun­ders says. “Be­cause it has in there the line, which I hope you won’t quote: ‘You had me at “vi­o­lated prom queen.” In the story there’s a holo­graphic mod­ule about vi­o­lated prom queens. So I thought we were on the same wave­length.”

The long-for­got­ten line, which Saun­ders later ap­proves for print, sends New­berg into gales of laugh­ter.

If Saun­ders and New­berg sound like an old mar­ried cou­ple still laugh­ing at each other’s jokes af­ter a quar­ter cen­tury, that’s be­cause, in a pro­fes­sional sense, they are one. Un­like so many other au­thor-agent re­la­tion­ships torn apart by dis­putes over money and artis­tic vi­sion, theirs has stood the test of time.

In to­day’s pub­lish­ing world, where agents com­pete ever more fiercely for clients and grow­ing cor­po­ratism has un­der­mined the in­dus­try’s long­stand­ing cul­ture of loy­alty, writ­ers and agents can no longer count on “grow­ing up in the busi­ness to­gether.” So how did Saun­ders and New­berg make it work?

In Saun­ders’s view New­berg earned

his trust the old-fash­ioned way, by of­fer­ing him good ad­vice and the free­dom to grow as a writer at his own pace. Now the au­thor of a best-sell­ing novel, Lin­coln in the Bardo (Ran­dom House, 2017), Saun­ders spent the first twenty-five years of his as­so­ci­a­tion with New­berg pub­lish­ing short sto­ries and novel­las. New­berg, he says, never pushed him to write nov­els, which are typ­i­cally more lu­cra­tive than story col­lec­tions. “I don’t know how she knew it,” he says, “but she some­how must have had a sense that that would mess me up, be­cause if in 1993 she had said, ‘Do you have a novel?’ I would have tried to write one, and I wasn’t ready. There was some kind of sim­patico, an un­der­stand­ing that in my de­vel­op­men­tal arc, I needed a lit­tle bit of quiet on that front.”

These themes—trust­ing the writer to pro­duce high-qual­ity work and giv­ing him or her the pro­fes­sional space to pro­duce it—come up of­ten in con­ver­sa­tions with agents and writ­ers who have worked to­gether for decades. Other com­mon in­gre­di­ents of longterm pro­fes­sional mar­riages are open lines of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a deep un­der­stand­ing of each other’s roles, and a sense of mu­tual re­spect. It also helps if the agent and the writer gen­uinely like each other.

These traits, it must be said, are hardly uni­ver­sal in the au­thor-agent re­la­tion­ship. Plenty of writ­ers work with agents they would never choose as friends, and vice versa. Even when the two mesh at a per­sonal level, the in­her­ent power im­bal­ance be­tween agent and writer can skew the re­la­tion­ship. A well-con­nected agent can dom­i­nate a fledg­ling writer, who may feel be­wil­dered by the un­fa­mil­iar folk­ways of New York City pub­lish­ing and be too ea­ger to please a pow­er­ful player. Then, too, in to­day’s tough lit­er­ary mar­ket, agents can sub­tly, or not so sub­tly, push their clients to fol­low pub­lish­ing trends or avoid less lu­cra­tive gen­res like short sto­ries.

This sort of be­hav­ior, while hardly un­com­mon, is deadly to the po­ten­tial for healthy, last­ing re­la­tion­ships in pub­lish­ing, agents and writ­ers say.

Glo­ria Loomis, pres­i­dent of the Watkins/Loomis Agency, whose clients in­clude Bill McKibben, Wal­ter Mosley, Ta-Ne­hisi Coates, and Vic­tor LaValle, prides her­self on find­ing tal­ented young writ­ers and helping them build their ca­reers wher­ever they may lead. “I count on peo­ple hav­ing a long ca­reer and hav­ing many books in them,” Loomis says, “not just one that hits it big and then we move on.”

LaValle is a good example of how this sort of bet on young tal­ent can play out over time. When he first came onto Loomis’s radar screen, in 1998, LaValle was a stu­dent in the Columbia Univer­sity MFA pro­gram, where he was writ­ing a col­lec­tion of linked sto­ries that later be­came his first book, Slap­box­ing With Je­sus (Vin­tage, 1999).

“I came in with, like, ‘Here’s a book of short sto­ries that are in­ter­con­nected, and then to add to it, also they’re black and Latino kids grow­ing up in Queens, New York, in the eight­ies—where’s my mil­lion dol­lars?’” LaValle re­calls. “In so many ways I could see how a dif­fer­ent agent could have looked at all this and been like, ‘I just don’t know what to do with this.’ But she was very pas­sion­ate about it. She liked the sto­ries. She liked the place I was com­ing from. She liked the kinds of kids I was writ­ing about. That was much more

vi­tal to her than any spe­cific com­mer­cial con­cern.”

Over time, how­ever, LaValle’s work has shifted from the stark re­al­ism of his early sto­ries to the more spec­u­la­tive-tinged fic­tion of his most re­cent novel, The Changeling (Spiegel & Grau, 2017). “Some­times Glo­ria and I do laugh about the bait-and-switch that I pulled on her,” LaValle says. “You’re sign­ing up this lit­er­ary re­al­ist writ­ing about New York City, and then five or six books in, I’m now a guy who writes mon­ster books. And to the eter­nal credit of Glo­ria, she never said, ‘Look, I signed you up be­cause you wrote these re­al­ist sto­ries about hard parts of New York.’ We never had that con­ver­sa­tion.”

The X fac­tor that makes it all work? LaValle and Loomis re­ally seem to like each other. LaValle says he doesn’t dis­cuss his work with Loomis be­tween sub­mis­sions and never asks her to read drafts. “It’s more like af­ter a cou­ple of years I’ll say, ‘I’ve got an­other book and here it is,’ and that will be­gin our busi­ness con­ver­sa­tion,” he says. “The hu­man con­ver­sa­tions are go­ing on all the time be­fore that. That re­ally nour­ishes me, and her as well.”

Per­sonal chem­istry can be a cru­cial bond­ing agent in last­ing pro­fes­sional part­ner­ships, but it is also the hard­est piece of the agent-au­thor re­la­tion­ship to pre­dict. Most writ­ers at­tract­ing in­ter­est from lit­er­ary agents know to scan the data­base at pw.org and click through to agents’ web­sites to see who they rep­re­sent and to check in­dus­try sites like Pub­lish­ers Mar­ket­place to get the skinny on re­cent deals. But how to gauge whether a par­tic­u­lar agent is some­one you’ll still want to talk to in ten years?

LaValle says he ad­vises his stu­dents at Columbia, where he now teaches, that find­ing a lit­er­ary agent isn’t like ap­ply­ing for a job. An agent is a busi­ness part­ner, and a writer should be ask­ing, first, whether the agent is a good match for the writer’s work, and sec­ond, whether the agent is some­one whose com­pany the writer en­joys enough to work with through the many years it can take to build a lit­er­ary ca­reer.

“I tell them to treat it like you’re go­ing on a cof­fee date, not for a re­la­tion­ship, but for a buddy,” he says about ini­tial meet­ings with agents. “If you get the feel­ing this per­son didn’t re­ally lis­ten to you, they were hur­ried, they didn’t give you much time—you wouldn’t make friends with a per­son like that, so why would you go into busi­ness with some­one like that?”

Lis­ten­ing closely to how an agent re­lates to you and to your work is key to find­ing the right agent, says Rox­ana Robin­son, au­thor of five nov­els in­clud­ing Cost (FSG, 2008) and Sparta (FSG, 2013). “Some­body who says, ‘I think your work is fab­u­lous, I love it, it’s amaz­ing, it’s awe­some’—lis­ten harder, and ask them, or you may not dare ask them, but lis­ten hard for some­one who re­ally un­der­stands what it is you’re do­ing,” Robin­son says.

This may be dif­fi­cult for an as­pir­ing writer for whom any praise from a rep­utable agent, no mat­ter how vague or off base, can feel like a gift from a benev­o­lent de­ity. Still, ex­pe­ri­enced writ­ers say, a de­but au­thor should ex­pect an agent to be able to ar­tic­u­late not just why she liked the writer’s work, but also where it fits in the lit­er­ary mar­ket­place and which ed­i­tors would be most likely to take it on. Writ­ers should also ex­pect an agent to of­fer use­ful in­sights into how a man­u­script can be im­proved be­fore sub­mis­sion.

This is a rapidly chang­ing el­e­ment of the agent-writer re­la­tion­ship. Al­though there are cer­tainly ex­cep­tions, agents who en­tered pub­lish­ing in the 1960s and ’70s tend to be more hands-off with client manuscripts, of­fer­ing broad sug­ges­tions on cuts

and plot de­vel­op­ment while leav­ing the more fine-grained edit­ing to the pub­lish­ing houses. Agents who came of age in the era of pub­lish­ing-in­dus­try con­sol­i­da­tion, es­pe­cially af­ter the wave of lay­offs that fol­lowed the 2008 fi­nan­cial cri­sis, are more likely to of­fer spe­cific ad­vice about edit­ing prior to sub­mis­sion, on the as­sump­tion that time-strapped ed­i­tors may be will­ing to pay a pre­mium for a man­u­script that needs less ed­i­to­rial at­ten­tion.

Whichever ap­proach an agent favors—and there are dis­tinct ad­van­tages and dis­ad­van­tages to both—a writer should lis­ten closely for signs that the agent un­der­stands what the writer is try­ing to achieve and is will­ing to be hon­est if the writer fails to achieve it.

Saun­ders’s agent, Es­ther New­berg, for in­stance, who has been a lit­er­ary agent since 1977, does not see it as her job to close-edit her au­thors’ work. Still, Saun­ders says he de­pends on her lit­er­ary judg­ment.

With Lin­coln in the Bardo, as with all his work, Saun­ders showed the open­ing pages first to his wife, Paula Saun­ders, whose own de­but novel, The Dis­tance Home, will be pub­lished by Ran­dom House in Au­gust. Once she liked it, he sent it on to New­berg and to Andy Ward, his edi­tor at Ran­dom House. “This Lin­coln book was so weird,” Saun­ders says. “But Paula got it, and then I sent it to Es­ther, and she got it. If that sec­ond perime­ter isn’t hon­est, then you’re in trou­ble. To have some­one who is on your side, but not blindly so, is re­ally, re­ally im­por­tant, some­one who can say ‘This is good’ or ‘This is not good’ and tell you why— that’s gold.”

Writ­ers should also look for an agent who loves the job and doesn’t view it as a step­ping stone to a ca­reer as a writer or edi­tor, says Robin­son. “You want some­body who wants to be an agent for the rest of her life and who finds a lot of ful­fill­ment in this, and whose per­son­al­ity seems right for it,” says Robin­son. “In my experience, agents are not in­tro­verts. They’re peo­ple who like mak­ing con­nec­tions, who thrive on in­ter­ac­tions and who have very strongly held opin­ions.”

As it hap­pens this thumb­nail sketch neatly cap­tures Robin­son’s own agent, Lynn Nes­bit, co­founder of Jan­klow &

Nes­bit As­so­ci­ates, whose client ros­ter ranges from Jef­frey Eu­genides and An­drew Sean Greer to Joan Did­ion and Robert Caro, many of whom have been her clients for decades.

As Nes­bit talks through how she works with her clients, each one re­quir­ing a sub­tly dif­fer­ent ap­proach, it quickly be­comes clear why writ­ers stay with her for so long. Caro, who writes the early drafts of his Pulitzer­win­ning mul­ti­vol­ume bi­og­ra­phy of Lyn­don John­son in long­hand, “does not want to be asked about the progress of his books. That’s a no-no.” Tom Wolfe, the white-suited New Jour­nal­ist turned best-sell­ing novelist who Nes­bit worked with for more than fifty years be­fore his death in May, “was very slow, but he knew he was, and he liked to be en­cour­aged. He liked dead­lines.”

And Robin­son? “Rox­ana likes to talk with me more than some of my clients,” Nes­bit says. “She needs the in­ter­ac­tion, so I’m re­spon­sive to that. And I like her very much. I mean, I like all of them, to be hon­est with you, but I en­joy talk­ing with her. She en­joys hear­ing about what’s go­ing on in the pub­lish­ing world in gen­eral. Some of my clients would not like that at all, but she likes that. It’s kind of re­as­sur­ing to her.

“That’s why my job is never bor­ing, be­cause ev­ery­one is dif­fer­ent,” she adds with a laugh. “I’m never, ever bored.”

Of course, this in­di­vid­u­al­ized at­ten­tion would mean lit­tle if an agent weren’t also able to de­liver deals for the client, and top agents like New­berg, Loomis, and Nes­bit have proved their abil­ity to do that time and again over their ca­reers. But their clients in­sist that, more than money, it is the ex­pert guid­ance on mat­ters of busi­ness and lit­er­a­ture that keeps them loyal.

For Saun­ders, as for many other writ­ers, it comes down to trust­ing his agent’s experience and her will­ing­ness to give him a straight an­swer. “Her can­dor is like an in­cred­i­ble su­per­power,” he says about New­berg, “be­cause if you’re at a de­ci­sion point, whether it’s to choose one pub­lisher over an­other or take this as­sign­ment or what­ever, Es­ther is go­ing to tell you in a com­pletely frank way what she thinks, and what she thinks is in­formed by so much experience at such a high level that it re­ally sim­pli­fies things.”

Then Saun­ders, as wry and plain­spo­ken in per­son as he is on the page, puts it in more fa­mil­iar terms: “If you had a re­ally good friend, and you’re on a date and the friend is there, and you say, ‘Hey, could you go in that bar and see if we could get a seat?’ He goes in and ten min­utes later comes out and says, ‘We can’t.’ If you trust him, you say, ‘Okay, let’s go to the next bar.’ If you don’t trust him, you have to go into the bar your­self.

“A good agent is a per­son you send ahead and when they come back and give you the sig­nal, you go, ‘I got it, I to­tally be­lieve you, let’s move on.’”

Ge­orge Saun­dersEs­ther New­berg

Vic­tor LaValleGlo­ria Loomis

Rox­ana Robin­sonLynn Nes­bit

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