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mad max perkins

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.

BEA:

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?

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Dan Conaway, Literary Agent (part 1)

by Susan Henderson on October 29, 2008

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 PaoliniM.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?

Yes.

Absolutely.

Categorically.

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….

{ 84 comments }

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