Standing the Test of Time
SECRETS OF MAINTAINING A LONG-TERM AGENT-AUTHOR RELATIONSHIP
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