One Ques­tion

What ex­actly makes a good book?

Business Spotlight - - CONTENTS -

Dar­ling, what you need is a plot!

Like most peo­ple, I first met the fig­ure of the lit­er­ary agent via Hol­ly­wood. He or she was al­ways dra­mat­i­cally dressed — a sharp suit or a tweed jacket, plus glasses. The agent sat be­hind her desk, ges­tur­ing to some upset writer, say­ing: “Dar­ling, what you need is a plot!” or “Have you con­sid­ered adding a love story?”

Ideally, the writer gets a call from their agent. The news is life-chang­ing: “Big-name Pub­lisher would like to of­fer Un­heard-of Amount of Money to pub­lish your book!”

But what ex­actly makes a book good? Agents tend to spe­cial­ize, and what is “good” will vary ac­cord­ing to the genre. Fic­tion in­tended to reach a wide au­di­ence needs an em­pa­thetic pro­tag­o­nist and a dy­namic plot. Add some­thing that’s in the head­lines and cul­tural con­ver­sa­tions, and you’re cook­ing with grease, as my mother likes to say.

For lit­er­ary fic­tion, more at­ten­tion is paid to style and prose. Most agents would kill for an au­thor who can do both, like Kazuo Ishig­uro or Donna Tartt. For non­fic­tion, the mes­sage is im­por­tant. Books that of­fer a new frame­work for un­der­stand­ing a topic are some­thing I es­pe­cially love, whether they are about the brain, busi­ness, par­ent­ing, tech­nol­ogy or the last 30,000 years of civ­i­liza­tion.

Pre­dict­ing which books will sell well in 2019 is a tricky busi­ness, par­tic­u­larly in coun­tries with a lot of po­lit­i­cal un­rest like the U.S. Books that ex­plain or try to help make sense of the present mo­ment are much sought af­ter, but like so much in busi­ness and in life, pub­lish­ing is an art as much as it is a science. And it’s al­ways a gam­ble.


is a lit­er­ary agent at Jan­klow & Nes­bit As­so­ci­ates in Man­hat­tan (www.jan­klowandnes­ Their authors in­clude Joan Did­ion, James Pat­ter­son, Whoopi Gold­berg, Xiaolu Guo and Amartya Sen. She lives in Brook­lyn; fol­low her on Twit­ter @melflash­manIn­ter­view: Ea­monn Fitzger­ald

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