introducing readers to writers since 1995

May 12, 2005

Insert Your Own "15 Percent" Joke Here

by Ron Hogan

By Tuesday evening, I felt like I'd beaten my cold back far enough that I could venture out in public again, so I came into midtown for a panel organized by the New York WNBA chapter (that's Women's National Book Association; this is still a bookblog, after all). Broadway Books editors Beth Haymaker and Sarah Rainone took their first crack at moderating the organization's annual panel on agents, which promised we'd "meet the agents behind the hot deals." So there was Andrea Barzvi of ICM, who came into literary agenting after sports and film didn't work out and snagged He's Just Not That Into You when she was still an assistant (which you can bet she isn't now). Jay Mandel of William Morris boasted a pretty strong literary nonfiction client list, while Sterling Lord Literistic's Jim Rutman had the hottest fiction lineup (including Jon Fasman's recently published The Geographer's Library, about which I've heard some interesting buzz). And David Black was the hardened veteran, having run his own agency for the last sixteen years; he's the guy that brokers Mitch Albom's deals.

Authors who knew I'd been planning on going to this joked that I should take notes for them on what the "agents behind the hot deals" were looking for, but there wasn't really much divulged on that front...and the strong emphasis on nonfiction led to an emphasis on a strong book proposal for the agent to show editors. As Black put it, "a proposal that answers all the questions an editor would ask, before they think to ask them." Somebody wondered aloud if the publicity departments at major publishers were simply "scorched earth" at this point; my notes are sketchy, but I think that was Rutman, because I know he said that in the current situation, it was up to authors to take more responsibility for promoting themselves. Everybody agreed that if you want to be an agent, you should brace yourself for disappointment--not only is it your job to say no to most of the people who ask you to represent them, it'll be the editor's job to say no to most of what you show them. The Q&A period thankfully avoided the usual "how can I get my book sold?" queries--this is a pretty solid audience, most of whom are already industry pros, so they focused on things like whether anything can be done to squeeze more work out of the publicity department and whether you should take the first offer that comes your way. (Both of which, as you might imagine, can generally but not always be answered "no.")

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