Pub Rants

Thirty Years In the Biz

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STATUS: Downtown Denver is a zoo with the Democratic National Convention starting today. On the walk this morning to my office, I counted at least 10 people standing on the street with at least 5 cameras strapped to their persons.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? (DARLIN’) YOU KNOW I LOVE YOU by Tina Turner

I’m just a baby in this industry if you think about it. I worked for another agency before going out on my own in 2002 but even if I count up all the years, it’s certainly under 10. So just imagine what an agent who has been doing this biz for thirty years might know.

Well, you don’t have to imagine as editor Jofie Ferrari-Adler from Grove has been doing a series of interviews for Poets&Writers and this month he interviewed Molly Friedrich—who started agenting back in 1977 when I was all of 9 years old.

I took a lot of good things away from this interview but here are some points that stand out in my mind:

1. Credibility and respect are built over time. Honesty and integrity, for agents, may very well be our greatest asset.

2. That writing is often about original voice rather than labels. (Amen!)

3. That loyalty can mean a lot in this biz—loyalty to an agent, loyalty to a publishing house, loyalty to an author’s vision and career.

4. Selling a novel for a ton of money may not necessarily be the best thing that could happen to the book or to the author. And it’s a myth that all writers will be seduced by the big money. Some don’t necessarily want lots of dollar signs if it ends up being a detriment to a long term career.

5. As publishing gets reduced to fewer houses, there’s a sameness to the type of books that get published and become popular. Could an Annie Proulx be published today as a debut? (There’s a frightening thought!)

6. Some authors, no matter how much they are earning, aren’t worth keeping if they drain your energy as an agent.

7. Whining. There’s too much of it. From authors, from agents, from editors.

8. That we, as agents, know when we’ve done well by a book (and she’s not talking about large advance) and when we’ve messed up. (yep.)

And to me, these seem like good words for agents to live by: “If you’re just going along like a hamster in a wheel, then you’ve lost the pure white heat that makes this business so much fun. And it should be challenging. That’s what separates the great agents from the good agents.”

20 Responses

  1. Arovell said:

    I’ve been keeping up with your blog for about half a year now, but I found this post particularly thought-provoking. Absolutely, I believe most authors would not damage their careers for money. I know I wouldn’t. I don’t want to be an author for the money. (I mean, what money is there? lol) I want to be in this industry because, even with its whiny people, it is, as Molly Friedrich reminds those involved, a fun industry. I may just be on the sidelines of the “white heat” right now, but I know I’m already captivated and I want to be a part of it. I also know I’m probably speaking for hundreds of writers right now, but that’s the truth of the matter. The best of us poised to face whatever challenges arise with all the integrity, respect, loyalty, and original voice we can throw at them–and we’ll fight to earn the chance to meet them in the first place.

    ~Courtney Diles

  2. Jess said:

    Number 5 is a fascinating and slightly alarming concept. People always talk about how movie stars of the past, such as Marilyn Monroe, would be considered overweight by today’s standards, and you hear other such discussion about how if X or Y had attempted their novel idea today, they never would have succeeded–but I have never thought about that concept in terms of writers before. But you are totally right. On the one hand, it’s scary, but on the other hand there are a lot of writers now who would never have succeeded 50 or 100 years ago.

    Still, the issue of sameness and the shrinking publishing world may change the way popular writing styles evolve now and in the future.

  3. Ginger said:

    Hey, these are good things to keep in mind! Even for new-authors-just-hoping-praying-and-waiting to get an agent (please, God, pleeease…)

  4. Jon Bard said:

    I understand the concern about a consolidated publishing industry leading to more sameness, but I do think there’s hope. And that hope comes from the next generation of writers.

    Young writers:

    * have been raised on a diet of really creative entertainment (Spongebob Squarepants, for example, utterly blows away the stuff I watched when I was a kid in terms of originality and imagination)


    * have had far more outlets to express themselves (blogging, texting, chatrooms, etc.) that my generation did, so they’re comfortable with the idea of communicating in multiple ways.

    Combine those two things and I expect we’ll see some amazing voices emerge, and very soon. Will corporate publishers ignore them? Only at their peril. And I’d remind you that Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon are, at the ownership level, as corporate as it gets — yet they’ve fully embraced the cutting edge.

    Good things are gonna happen, I really do believe.

    Great post!


  5. Joanne said:

    There’s a lot of great insight here, looking at the business from an insider’s viewpoint. I like #2, it so often comes down to voice, rather than labels. The writing is always at the heart of it.

  6. Julie Weathers said:

    I have to admit five bothers me also. We are told to seek a unique voice, but it really is true people stick with what they are comfortable with. Then, someone like Rowling breaks free from the pack and it’s ok to go down the trail she just blazed.

    I suppose we just have to trust our gut at some point.

    “Some authors, no matter how much they are earning, aren’t worth keeping if they drain your energy as an agent.”

    Very true, life is too short to spend on divas.

    I especially like her thoughts about the pure white heat.

    It tickles me when an agent blogs about something they found that has them dancing for joy.

    Good post, Kristin.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Not to put a damper on a great post, but I’ve seen no loyalty in this business as of yet.

    God, how I would love someone to be loyal to. I had to leave one agent becuase he/she was an outright liar. Got kicked to the curb by another because he/she didn’t sell a novel in 5 seconds and lost interest.

    And as far as career guidance or building a career at a pub house? Oh, my.

    I managed to get one book published but as it turned out the editor that bought it wasn’t looking for a new writer to add to his stable, just a book to fill an empty slot on his list, and wasn’t interested in buying any more books from me or even giving me a clue as to why he was passing on them. His rejections were so impersonal it was hard to believe I’d just spent a year with him jumping through hoops to meet insane deadlines.

    So far I’m 0 for 3. That’s why I’m always a little suspect (not of this agent you’ve posted about, but just in general) when people say how “loyalty” goes a long way. It’s usually because some great author has left them. But they don’t stop and think about the other, smaller authors they’ve screwed over along the way and considered it to be “just business.”

    Just my opinion.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Anon, there are fartbags in every business, and you, sadly, have experienced a larger ratio than most. I’m in the industry and can tell you that if you do your research and vet agents and editors carefully, you’ll find there are many great people who populate this industry.

    Great post, Kristan.

  9. Anonymous said:

    One of my best friends has been an agent for over thirty years, and we’ve never mixed business and friendship. I have an agent, whom I love dearly, but we aren’t best friends; it’s strictly business. So I think one of the most important things is always being professional and treating your work like a business. Agent and writer.

  10. WitLiz Today said:

    Anonymous brings up a very thought provoking, and important point.

    I’ve often wondered how many debut authors are being set up to fail. I suspect it happens more often than not.

    Literary agent, Robert Brown wrote a really cogent post on the realities of being a successful writer today. It certainly opened my eyes, and brought me down a peg or two. I think it has a lot of merit, and newbie writers should pay close attention to what he wrote.

    “Yes, good writing will always sell but not necessarily where you initially think it will. Most writers want to go for the biggest deal right away, but that’s not going to happen for every book. I guess you could say every book has a home, but sometimes that home is an apartment, a shed, a mansion, a tent, a villa, a cave, a houseboat, the White House, etc. These all provide shelter in different ways, yet not everyone would be happy in each. By the same token, some writers would be happy to be published by a small or e-book publisher.

    One of the hardest things about being a writer is distinguishing between where you want your book to go and where it has its best fit. This is what most writers struggle with–being realistic about what he or she writes.

    So, my point is that you have to consider markets AND writing quality. Not every good book fits everywhere, and what some people consider really crappy books (translation: not yours) fit into a surprising number of markets. It’s the writer’s job to know his work well enough that he/she has a good sense of what it can do and where it can do it best. To do that, you really have to know who you are as a writer. Without an understanding of the markets, your book will flounder because you won’t really know which agents or houses to send it to.

    This is the reason why someone said 95% of books fail to find an agent, and, along with that, someone else said 50% of the 5% those that do find an agent fail to be sold (I’m not stating I agree with these numbers necessarily, just quoting here). It’s all about markets and knowing a project’s potential. I bet that a goodly sum of the now 97.5% total that failed to find and agent or to sell were well written books, so doesn’t that say there’s something else going on here?

    How can I say this nicely? Oh, I can’t, so let me spell it out for you. Professional writers don’t get caught up in trends; they respond to them. That’s different from jumping genres so you can get published. It’s a mindset. Knowing what you write and who you are and how it fits into the publishing world is key to being successful.

    You can parse words, like Redacted, finding a way around obvious truths, or you can do what professional writers do—adjust to meet current needs. There’s a difference between writing a tome and trying to get it published and having a professional career as a writer. If you don’t understand the difference, that, at the very least, is significant and you should think about your choice of trying to join the ranks of J. K. Rowling and company.

    Should you write what’s hot? Maybe or maybe not; that depends on your ability. If you’re floundering in your current genre, then trying to write what is hot is a bad idea. However, if you are a skilled writer and the circumstances allow it, you can capitalize on the current trends. It all comes down to how you work with markets, and your career will reflect your choices in writing to the market, being able to write to the market, or whether you are one of several million writers who wrote with no market in mind in the first place. This is the difference between a professional writer and someone who just decides to write something because it is convenient and a fun thing to do.

    Publishing is about meeting an entertainment need. If you aren’t comfortable with meeting a certain need, you wait. If you can, you engage publishers at that time. I can’t make it any simpler than that.

    I really have a hard time with writers who don’t understand there is a profound difference between commercial writing and writing for the art of it. Sometimes they cross; most times, they don’t. I know a lot of editors, agents, publishers, and writers, and while the standard response to why people get rejected is crappy writing, there’s more to it than that. Agenting is a lot harder than it looks, and there are several factors that go into deciding on whether to take a manuscript on or not.

    What I have found is that some writers like to believe they are in the higher echelons of the profession because they have an agent, but the truth is that they may or may not be. Markets, as I said to begin with, play an important role in the decisions we agents make. While it may make writers feel good to think they are in the top 20% of writers out there, the truth is that they may achieve that status for other reasons than their writing. Sometimes beautiful women are admired for their brains AND looks; other times it’s just their looks. Sorry, but it’s true.”

  11. brian_ohio said:

    Molly is amazing… let me tell you why.

    Back in the mid nineties, when I was looking for an agent, I sent queries to Molly. She’d been making the news quite a bit with some very successful clients.

    Molly ALWAYS sent me a personalized letter of rejection. Every time. Not just my name and some verbiage, an honest to God personal rejection with a REAL signature. And I know she was flooded with submissions.

    A very fine lady and agent.

  12. Mike said:

    I echo the others by saying your blog post was quite thought-provoking, especially point #2.

    Too often, I’m disappointed when deciding on a new book to buy because, as I read a page or two, what I’m reading sounds like something else I had put back two shelves previous. Then my quest continues.

    Voice counts for so much.

  13. ORION said:

    I have to say that the professionals I have met in publishing have cared very deeply about the books they work with. I feel that loyalty and I feel that reputation.

  14. Anonymous said:

    I’m sorry Orion, but you have a “lead” book, a bestseller, from a major houes. The people you meet in this business are absolutely going to put their best foot forward when talking to you.

    I know people care about books and their jobs in this industry. But, truly, there is a flip side to it. That darling person you just met in the book industry is going to gush about their lead titles and lead authors, they’re not going to tell you about the client who’s email they aren’t returning or who they just dropped from their client list because their book didn’t sell after one round of submissions.

    Lead titles get far, far different treatment in this industry than other, mid-list books. And I hate even writing the word “mid-list” because people assume “mid-list” means subpar, when it doesn’t. In my experience as a reader, the only thing that is different between a mid-list book and a “lead” title is one got a hell of a lot of in-house promotion. It certainly doesn’t mean the writing is better, but it doesn’t mean the writing is worse, either. (I’m not talking about bestsellers that became that way from word of mouth).

  15. Anonymous said:

    Witlitz —

    I’ve actually never met a writer, who considered writing novel a “convenient and fun thing to do.” Most writers understand the huge undertaking they are getting themselves into when they stare at that blank page every evening.

    I’m also unsure about your reasoning that you should be writing to “meet the current market needs” and otherwise, wait on the market.

    I strongly disagree. Agents and editors themselves can’t foresee the success of something like vampire or wizard trends, and specifically tell writers not to write to the trends (or to the market, as you stated) because the trend books were acquired a year and a half prior, and by the time you can write a book in that same vein, the “hot” trend will be over.

  16. Jane Smith said:

    A great blog post, and a fabulous link–thank you, Kristin. I’ve blogged about the interview with Ms Friedrich now, too, thanks to you.

    I’ve found this comment-string particularly interesting.

    The suggestion that editors and agents only care about their lead books is something I’ve heard many times, but from my perspective (which is, admittedly, a UK one and so perhaps skewed for this predominantly USA audience) it just isn’t true.

    I’ve worked on both sides, as a writer and an editor, although not as an agent: I’ve seen that loyalty stretch across all sorts of books, and projects-not-taken; my own agent has represented me for two novels, neither of which sold, and has not abandoned me even though by now I must have cost her a considerable amount of cash and time.

    It can be so difficult to get an agent to take you on; consequently it’s tempting to snap up the first offer that you get, without making absolutely sure that this is an agent you could work with. Because you’re going to have to work with your agent for years; publishing takes such a terribly long time to get anything done. While I can see that it would be hard to turn down an offer of representation when there are no others in sight and your pile of rejections is thicker than your manuscript, you might just have to do it: because, what starts off as a minor irritation which you’re prepared to overlook because, good grief, X is such a fabulous agent will become a giant, cannot-put-up-with-this-a-moment-longer pain in the backside after a few years of silent endurance.

    If you find the right agent, you’re blessed. Writing really will be that fun, exciting thing that we all hope it is. If you find the wrong agent, though, you’re going to get hurt and bitter, just as Anonymous clearly is up there at 7.29AM. Which is a crying shame.