Dan Conaway, Literary Agent (part 2)

by Susan Henderson on November 5, 2008

Welcome to Part 2 of my interview with the incomparable Dan Conaway, a literary agent with Writers House, and more importantly, my confidence-building, book-saving, wicked genius agent. Today we’re going to focus on his background as an editor; his period of anonymous blogging; and his understanding of what writers go through when they write, edit, and try to sell their books. I hope you’ll leave comments because it’s good for agents and writers to hear from each other! (And if you missed Part 1 of my interview, just click here.)

Don’t forget: Dan is not seeking new clients at this time, so please don’t send him your manuscripts. Simply use the information he’s so generously sharing, and chat with him in the comments section, if you like.

You’ve been both an agent and an editor (working for Putnam, HarperCollins, Polygram, HBO, etc). I imagine that gives you a unique perspective on the business.

Hmmm…I’m not sure. I’m not great with grand theories and such, to be honest—in fact, in some ways I think I consciously try not to think too much about “The Business” in broad prognosticating strokes, because if I did I might be discouraged. Since I don’t, I’m not discouraged—I keep my head down and work with writers I love and hope that, over time, the cream will rise. But cream never rises untended, and that’s I guess what I’ve always felt was my real strength, as an editor and as agent—that I’ll stump hard for mine. I’m a good advocate; I try like hell to do the little things, on the theory that, sometimes, they really do add up. Do they really? Is that BookSense nomination, for instance, really worth the energy it took to write personal letters to 35 booksellers, and to get those booksellers to read the book, and to remind them of the nomination deadline, and so on? (Especially when, in my experience—which has included more BookSense nominations than I can begin to count—it probably sells an extra 12 copies?) I honestly can’t say whether, in the aggregate, that sort of thing pays off—but what’s the alternative? If you really love your books and your writers, it makes doing the necessary spadework palatable. (If you don’t, that work will never get done.) So we do it, and with distinction—and sometimes lightning strikes.

But did lightning strike because of the extra effort? Yeah—maybe—who the hell knows? Cuz far more typically you put in the same crazy effort, you do everything right, you get great blurbs and a great package and you have a congenial and photogenic author and a fantastic book and a real marketing push, there’s no detail that goes unattended, but in the end lightning doesn’t strike. So I guess that’s the one thing I can say for sure about this business: who the hell knows?

I want to talk to you about the anonymous blogging you did while you were an executive editor. Busy as you must have been, what made you start that blog?

What’s interesting about BookAngst 101 is that I didn’t start it to have a conversation with writers—it was a conversation with people like me, in publishing, that I was looking for. I was working at HarperCollins, where I had a fantastic list of authors—Kevin Baker, Peter Nichols, Kim Ponders, Richard Bausch, Michael Gruber—and had some quite terrific successes there; yet I never felt like any publication had ever gone as well as it could have. I was always disappointed, always felt like more could and should have been done. Was it that I didn’t personally have enough institutional muscle to leverage the full array of marketing resources on behalf of my authors? Was it that I had higher expectations for my books than my employer did? Was it that I fundamentally misunderstood the way the publishing engine works? Could it be that I was just stupid, or insufficiently experienced—that there might be other tricks that I hadn’t learned yet?

So BookAngst started out as a way to have that conversation with other editors, other publishing types. And some of those editors and agents and other insiders participated, to a degree, but it was naïve of me to imagine that there’d be any sharing of tradecraft. I did try to offer up some “research” of sorts, but everybody (myself included) knew that being too forthcoming about specific practices and outcomes could put them in professional jeopardy. What emerged instead was a more general dialogue about the book trade.

What did you discover from the people who left comments on your blog?

The biggest surprise for me personally was how Mad Max Perkins emerged as a kind of emissary to the world of writers on behalf of the world of editors, cuz that absolutely wasn’t my intention. But I’d be lying to suggest that I didn’t cotton to the role. I was just a hardworking editor, and the way people responded to me as Mad Max, the way they seemed to appreciate how I worked, what I cared about, what my frustrations were—well, I got a lot of love, and it was deeply reassuring. Profoundly so. Reminded me that what I was doing mattered.

More broadly, my sense is that the writers (published and not) who read BookAngst 101 realized that publishing is populated (at least partly) by people who give a shit, who love good writing, who want to champion authors. Obviously some people focused on the negative, on the gloomy and dispiriting details that emerged on the blog, because there’s plenty about the business that’s hard, and we talked about those things a lot. But I’d guess that an equal number came away encouraged by it, came away with a sense that, despite the lamented corporatization of the business, there’s still heart and passion at the core. That the people who work in it still believe in—and are motivated by—discovery.

One problem with being an anonymous blogger, I suppose, is that you might be invited to speak on a panel at a prestigious conference. Tell me a story about going in costume to BEA. (And I’m talking a good story, like where you got dressed, and what the reception was like, and any close calls.)

Shortly after I launched, I was approached by a reporter at Crain’s New York who said he was working on a piece about BookAngst 101 and would I be willing to speak with him. He said he’d respect my anonymity but that he wanted to know why I was doing it. I started imagining all kinds of ways a reporter might have to identify a caller, that I’d be outed, or say something monumentally stupid, and I’d get fired—the usual paranoid crap. I finally ran across the street from my office and called him from a payphone—it’s silly in retrospect, what I was doing was no big deal, but at the time it didn’t seem that way. Or maybe I just wanted to imagine myself as a character in All the President’s Men. He was very nice, and of course I was so careful not to say anything controversial that I failed to say anything interesting either.


M.J. Rose asked me to be on the BEA panel, along with Michael Cader and Robert Gray. I agreed, then forgot about it, then left HarperCollins for a new job at Putnam. Ironically the BEA appearance was on the second or third day after starting my new job; by then enough people knew who I was that I decided I’d better come clean with my new boss, Ivan Held. He was amused… Anyway, I showed up at the Javitz Center, then went into the bathroom and changed into an elaborate costume I’d rented. But I’d miscalculated where the panel was held, so I emerge from the bathroom wearing this ridiculous old-man-Merlin outfit, a full mask, robe, pointy dunce-cap, a cane for effect… and then had to walk the entire length of the Javitz Center, feeling as silly as can be. People were laughing and pointing—they probably figured it was some sort of Harry Potter promotion. I got into character, hobbling along on my cane, greeting people in a high, nasally witch’s cackle—”Hello, my Pretty! Enjoying the fair?” It was fun.

My experience of the panel itself was probably a lot the way newly-published writers feel when they arrive at their very first reading. I don’t know what I expected, but it turns out that the world wasn’t remotely excited about witnessing the one public appearance of Max the Mighty Mouse. There were about seven people there, a couple of whom were simply waiting around from the previous session while the batteries in their motorized wheelchairs finished recharging.

Why, by the way, did you feel you had to blog anonymously? And why did you stop blogging?

The official reason I blogged anonymously was because I was afraid I’d get fired if I didn’t… and ultimately my anonymity allowed me (and some of the people who contributed “data” to the site) to be more honest without fear of repercussions. But also, I had no idea what I was doing, I decided to do it, named it, launched it all in the span of a couple of hours, totally impulsively, and there was a pretty good chance that I was going to sound like a complete idiot. Either outcome—getting fired, or revealing the emptiness of my head publicly—seemed a bad career move. So it made sense to have a little cover. And anonymity allowed me to invent Mad Max Perkins. And—let’s be honest—could there be a cooler moniker for a publishing guy?

So why did you make the move from editor to agent?

I made the switch principally because I have four kids, and I needed to be certain that I wasn’t vulnerable to the corporate axe as I skulked into my 50s. The calculus was simply this: for a long time I’d had this paranoia that I’d get sacked when I turned 52, 53—no way of knowing whether it would have happened, and at Putnam I had a good run of success, some bestsellers and so on—so who knows? But I never saw myself as publisher material, as an editor-in-chief—I’m a really slow reader, for one thing—and since I have triplet daughters who might all be heading off to college when I’m 52 (an age that had been long highlighted on my career calendar), I realized that would be a shitty year to get fired. I had a close relationship with Simon Lipskar and the folks at Writers House—Simon and I always joked that I’d come work for him when I eventually got fired… Then I started thinking differently about the joke itself, and realized, why wait? My fundamental affinities have always been with my authors anyway, and watching how Simon worked with his made me confident that my skill set would translate nicely. And it has. I loved being an editor, but the truth is I’m still an editor, fundamentally. I just don’t write the flap copy anymore.

Seems like, with the various hats you’ve worn (agent, editor, blogger), you have a real appreciation for the difficulties writers go through in searching for an agent, editing a manuscript, and finding a publisher.

I do. Some writers I’ve encountered along the way may disagree, of course—but if you were to ask me why I do what I do, I’d say it’s principally because of the writers themselves. To sit in a room by yourself and make shit up out of nothing, I can’t think of anything harder, especially when you consider how many hours, days, months a writer must sit in that room, alone, without any way of knowing for certain that the work is coming together in the way it must. To work, day after day, in the face of so much uncertainty—I’m talking now just about the creative process; add to that the nightmarish vulnerability that most writers experience on the business front, the difficulties of building a sustainable career as a writer—it’s miraculous that anybody can ever finish anything. I really can’t think of a harder job, because you can go months, even years without the sort of ordinary affirmations that a working joe like me encounters as a matter of course. As an editor, as an agent, hell, even when I was the King of Junk Mail for W.W. Norton, creating direct mail advertising for college textbooks, if you’re any good at your work, generally there are lots of ways in which you’ll be reminded, on a daily basis, that you are, indeed, good at your work. And that makes it quite a bit easier to keep putting one foot in front of another, you know?

Anything you’d you like writers to understand about agents’ struggles?

The thing I struggle the most with is not being able to give my clients the feedback they want as quickly as they want it. It’s not that their wanting it is unreasonable—but I have a lot of clients, and work does seem to land in big clumps, and sometimes there’s no way around the fact that it’s going to take time for me to get to it. For the most part I manage it by being as clear as I possibly can about the amount of work on my plate at a particular time, and how long it’s likely to be before I’m going to be able to begin the work. If I can’t even start reading your manuscript for two weeks, and you know that, then (theoretically, anyway) your anxiety level for those first two weeks of silence might be lower, since the only thing (in that case) that silence means is that I haven’t started reading yet.

And tell me why you’re in this line of work.

Writers tend to be pretty interesting people. Thoughtful, generous (except when they’re not), and fucked up in all the best ways. And not stingy in expressing their appreciation, either—when I do good work, my authors tell me so, and with great conviction. And the things they make, these books—well, I’ve been blessed, because I get to participate in making them, participate sometimes in really substantial ways. And so at the end of the day, at the end of the year, at the end of my life, there will be shelves and shelves of books I had a hand in bringing into this world. What could be better than that?