Dan Conaway has been Executive Editor at Putnam, Executive Editor at HarperCollins, Director of Literary Acquisitions at PolyGram Films, Story Editor at Citadel/HBO, Creative Executive at Tribeca Films, and Associate Editor at W.W. Norton. While at HarperCollins, he gained a big following as the anonymous blogger, known as Mad Max Perkins, of BookAngst 101. Now he’s an agent at Writers House, an agency that represents such authors as Stephenie Meyer, Neil Gaiman, Ken Follett, Nora Roberts, Stephen Hawking, Barry Eisler, Ridley Pearson, Christopher Paolini, M.J. Rose, Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants!), and Jim Sheeler (2008 National Book Award nominee).
Dan is not seeking new clients at this time. So chat with him here, send him oatmeal raisin cookies if you like, but please don’t send manuscripts. Got it?
Does a writer really need an agent?
On second thought—no. If the writer doesn’t care particularly about publishing her book? Or only cares that it gets published, as opposed to caring how it’s published? And isn’t especially concerned about publishing more than one book? That writer doesn’t need an agent.
Want a potentially sustainable career as a writer, though? Absolutely, categorically yes.
What about those who’ve sold their manuscripts on their own? Do they need an agent?
Let’s imagine you’re a terrifically fortunate individual licensed to operate a motor vehicle in the State of New Jersey. And one day, as result of your good fortune, nasty Aunt Trudi—who you were nice to, for reasons unbeknownst to me—chokes, and croaks, on account of a chicken bone. And, lo and behold, that turquoise 1957 Cadillac convertible she’s had up on blocks all these years is yours!
OK, I have no idea whether the ’57 Caddy came in turquoise, nor whether it sported the elegant tailfins I see so clearly on nasty Aunt Trudi’s. But let’s agree that it’s a lovely car, and valuable too, and something you’re probably not going to leave unlocked overnight on a side-street of Newark or Jersey City. Above all, let’s assume that, now that you own it, you’re going to want to drive it.
So let me ask you this, O Fortunate One: Is it your hope that this car will be your car, still, in a year? Two years? That, five years from now, you’ll still be able to turn the key and have that massive V-8 engine come roaring to life? Or is it your view that, since you got the car for free, you are free, also, of the obligation of having it serviced? Is it your intention simply to drive it hard, until it dies—and your expectation that, when it does, you’ll happily collect your thermos and snow-scraper from under the passenger seat, say one last goodbye to nasty Aunt Trudi, and shed nary a tear for the future sunset drives along the Hudson that might have been?
Okay, nut. And that means…?
What I’m saying is that negotiating an advance is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the value an agent can bring to a writer’s career; and the writer who manages to sell her book without an agent almost certainly loses more in the long run than the 15% she saves in commissions on that initial contract. (But even in terms of finances: most unagented authors sign away all sorts of rights—translation rights, film rights, and so forth—that an agent would reserve and sell separately, rights that can, and often do, generate as much or more income for a writer as whatever that initial offer would have been worth.)
People do, sometimes, have sustained careers without agents, but it’s more and more rare, and if (as happens sometimes) the editor who championed an unagented novel gets a new job at Little, Brown before that novel is published, the unagented author is most often shit-out-of-luck. An agent has leverage (simplistically, because he has multiple clients, clients the publisher may covet) within a house that an unagented author can’t match. Thus, for instance, the orphaned author with an agent is almost always going to be better cared for than she who is without.
So what should you do if, as in the fantasy, an editor finds your story in a small quarterly somewhere, gets in touch with you, reads your novel, loves your novel, and offers (say) $2,500 or $25,000 for that novel? You should say, Thanks—but before I accept, I need an agent—who do you recommend?
In as few words as you can, what’s the difference between an agent, an editor, a publisher, and a publicist? Can you, for example, skip the agent and replace him or her with a publicist?
Let me start with the easiest first: choosing a publicist instead of an agent is like hiring your kid’s ballet teacher to drive a back-hoe. What publicists know (and do) is focused entirely on the last quadrant of the book’s life, whereas what an agent does is spread out across the entire process, weighing in on many decisions along the way that can, sometimes, help ensure that a book doesn’t wind up shipping, say, 2500 copies. There’s no guarantee that staying on top of those small details will result in a great publication, but—well, no amount of publicity in the world is going to rescue a book that’s shipped 2500 copies.
I’m sure there are a thousand how-to books that can give this sort of information more concisely, but basically ALL of these people function, at different times and in different ways, as the traveling salesmen and –women who bring your book to market.
Agent sells to editor. Editor sells to editor’s boss, known typically as the publisher or the editor-in-chief. Publisher and editor jointly sell to various in-house departments—sales, marketing, subsidiary rights, publicity. Those departments then turn the selling back out-of-house, to their respective areas of responsibility (bookstores, reviewers, book clubs, foreign publishers), all toward the end (in principle) of generating increasing levels of enthusiasm for your book. The publicist is the last link in this chain, the person whose job it is (in principle) to convey to the outside world an image of a raging mass of in-house enthusiasm so great that any clueless member of the reviewing / reporting / interviewing / taste-making caste who isn’t on board NOW, in advance of the riot about to erupt in Cell-block E (E for Excitement!) is going to be a laughingstock in two weeks’ time.
See how simple?
And what about the “author sells to agent” phase—can you talk about that?
The writer’s gotta write the best and most perfect and most convincingly true iteration of the story s/he wants to tell, tell it so well that, sooner or later, after five tries or fifty, and despite enormous odds, it sneaks past the various subjective and institutional armors and defenses—circumstance & exhaustion & taste & (etc)—and plants a big fat arrow in the center of the bulls-eye with at least one single reader—and that’s how an agent becomes your agent: through alchemy.
Very rarely do first-time writers working in (let’s call it) literary fiction and nonfiction have any real marketable assets beyond what’s on the page. So usually it doesn’t comes down to whether somebody is or isn’t prepared to purchase 50,000 copies of your story collection to distribute via infomercial, does or doesn’t spend summers with Katie Couric’s nanny’s boyfriend. Usually it comes down to the chemical reaction that takes place when a particular set of eyes becomes eradiated by a particular manuscript that sets the synapses firing in a different way.
With a straight face, I’m going to ask: Do you edit your clients’ manuscripts? And do most agents mark them up with so much (truly illegible) ink?
Every agent’s different in this regard, and I probably spill more ink than most, but, yeah: generally authors should expect to get substantial editorial feedback from their agents. The more work a writer’s willing to do pre-submission, the better the chances are of the book selling, so I tend to push pretty hard if the author’s amenable. Once a book’s been sold, though, the agent needs to take a backseat to the acquiring editor.
One big difference between the editing I do now compared to when I was an editor is the work I do helping authors develop their nonfiction proposals, which is some of the most demanding and satisfying work I’ve ever done. It’s fascinating, actually, to be so intimately involved with figuring out what a book is really going to be about, how the story’s going to be told, addressing all sorts of questions that hadn’t ever really occurred to me before. You’d think that there’s a cookie-cutter formula for a good nonfiction proposal, but there’s not, and each arrives at its shape in completely different ways. I love it.
How does a writer begin the search for an agent?
The obvious stuff: have a reasonable sense of what your work might reasonably be compared to, then familiarize yourself with those works, then extract from the acknowledgments pages of those books (or from Michael Cader’s Publishers Marketplace) the identity of the agents for those books. And then figure out how to get to them. A blind query letter addressed to “Dear Michael Chabon’s Agent” is perhaps not the best way to go—but it’s a small world, even more so thanks to the literary blogosphere, so with a little dogged ingenuity there’s almost always some friend-of-a-friend access to be had that might improve you chances.
And what are some signs along the way that the search is going well?
I have no way to gauge that, honestly. If you send out a hundred query letters and 10 people say, Sure, send it along, I’d guess that’s a pretty good start. If the rejections when they come contain some specificity, that’s better than none, suggests that you’re connecting at some level. But there’s no way around it, this is a hard process. If there were a technique for distancing yourself from the responses you get, a Zen pill that allows you not to take it personally—but there’s not, of course.
The thing to remember is how profoundly subjective the experience of reading is; and for the most part it’s no less subjective for agents and editors than for anybody else. My personal experience, both as an editor and now as an agent, is that every single time I’ve tried to ignore my gut instincts about the writing itself (that is, every time I’ve decided pursue something I didn’t really love), or to convince myself that a topic was interesting to me even if I didn’t have a visceral (positive) reaction to the words as they lay on the page, it was a mistake. Consequently I pass on lots and lots of competent, professional, publishable stuff. And that’s how it should be. If that’s how I see your work, you don’t want me to offer to represent you. You want the guy who’s blown away by it. “I think this is publishable” is too low a bar.
If agents are so hard to come by, should a writer dare to be picky?
Absolutely. The only thing worse than no agent is an agent you don’t trust or who you suspect doesn’t love your work. The relationship between agent and writer is like marriage except without the sex. It’s often intense, and personal on all kinds of levels, and it requires enormous amounts of trust.
One thing I’d recommend: before you sign with an agent, ask around, find out who else he represents, what they think of him. Don’t be afraid to ask the agent for names and numbers of clients whose work is in the same writerly universe as yours. If he’s offended by the request then you don’t want him as your agent. It’s that simple.
Anything particularly concern you about the relationships writers have with their agents?
Here’s a thing I see too much of: writers who are afraid of their agents. Hey, folks, the agent works for you! Without you, without your “product” to sell, there’s no business, no commissions, nothing. It breaks my fucking heart, the number of times I hear actual adults in this business worrying about imposing on their agents. If you’re afraid of your agent, you need a new agent. You need to get back in therapy, too—but that’s another conversation.
If you think about the collection of query letters and manuscripts you’ve rejected, what would you say they had in common?
Here’s the thing: there are no reliable tricks. I did a presentation on query letters at a writers conference in Austin 15 months ago, and one old fucker stormed out when I told my classroom of retirees that the only part of a query letter that ever makes a difference is damn good writing. He got further incensed when I told him that a long letter’s a waste of both our time, since I know most of what I need to know about a writer’s chops in about a line and half. In the end it’s all about the writing.
If you look at the work you’ve accepted, what would you say it had in common?
I loved it. Loved something about it absolutely. I don’t mean it was perfect, it doesn’t have to be perfect, nothing’s ever perfect—if you think people are turning down your work because it’s not quite perfect, you’re deluding yourself, because an editor or an agent likes nothing better than finding something that’s wonderful but not quite “there” yet, something that they can make a bit of a contribution to.
I’m relatively new to agenting (I joined Writers House about 18 months ago) so perhaps this’ll change—but at present I’m still green enough to imagine that if I love something, somebody else is going to love it too. Which is another way of saying that if I love it then it doesn’t occur to me that I can’t sell it, regardless of the limitations, say, of the genre to which it belongs. And that’s why, sooner or later, I will sell it.
If you look at the work you accepted but couldn’t sell, what would you say it had in common? What happens to the wonderful people with promising manuscripts you find unsellable?
So far, the stuff I’ve been unable to sell—with one exception—has been stuff that was outside my wheelhouse, projects aimed at markets I have no personal experience in, or stuff I chose with my brain rather than with my heart. Failing to sell a book is an exhausting and demoralizing process for any agent, and infinitely more so, of course, for the author. And it’s for those worst-case scenarios, especially, that it’s so important that you trust your agent, that you’re confident that your agent really believes in your work; conversely, it’s because of these circumstances that I know more and more clearly that it’s a mistake for me to agree to take on somebody’s work unless I’m completely crazy about it.
If I am completely crazy for it? Then we’ll succeed, sooner or later—if later, then perhaps we’ll have put to good use some of the feedback from editors who’ve rejected it, nuggets that help us determine a course of revision that might help address a flaw we’d missed the first time around. Back in January ’08 I began submitting a novel that straddles genres and is hard to categorize—a book I’d have loved to publish as an editor, and something I expected I’d sell for a lot of money. Six, seven months later, after 61 rejections and one substantial revision, I finally put it in the right editor’s hands, and she fell in love with the book in the same way I had.
Okay, guys, jump in with your comments. And then check out Part 2 of this interview….