On the job in NYCOctober 20, 2011 at 4:52 am | Posted in NYC, Starbucks, the book biz | 6 Comments
Tags: business trip, the publishing industry, what does an agent do?
The publishing industry is almost exclusively based in Manhattan. There are a few holdouts, such as Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and some smaller independent presses here in Boston, but the big players — Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins, Penguin, etc. — are in New York. As a literary agent, my job is to find great writers, help them develop their manuscripts and/or book proposals into scintillating, compelling pitches, and then to go sell those manuscripts or proposals to editors in New York.
Each major publishing house is divided into imprints. For example, Random House has three major imprints: the Random House Publishing Group, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and the Crown Trade Group. And within each of these three major imprints are lots of sub-imprints, each with their own personality and bureaucracy of editors and marketers. If you are a writer of literary fiction, publishing your novel with the sub-imprint Alfred A. Knopf, a division of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, would be a dream. If you’re writing a book about food and health, the Ballantine imprint under Crown might be your home. And this is just one publishing house. An agent must learn what kind of books the different editors at the different imprints are acquiring and, in doing so, find the right editor and right home for her author.
Are you confused? Yes, me too. It is a bit overwhelming at times, but you do learn by osmosis and immersion. Every time I travel to New York, then, I’m meeting with editors at the various publishing houses. I actually printed out a map of Manhattan and highlighted each of the major publishers, and I keep this homemade map over my desk so that when I plot out my trips I know that it would be impossible to meet with someone at Harmony Books (a Crown imprint at Random House) at 11 a.m. up at Columbus Circle, have lunch with someone at St. Martin’s near the Flatiron Building, and then make a 2 p.m. meeting at Viking (a Penguin imprint) down on Hudson & Houston. Instead, I try to plan a day visiting a number of editors at one house or at most two houses in close proximity, such as Simon & Schuster (Rockefeller Center) and Harper Collins (53rd & Fifth).
These meetings take place either in the editors’ offices or over coffee or lunch or drinks. Editors need to acquire books. They get these books from agents. I may have the next “The Help” in my list. So it is ostensibly worth their while to take me to a nice lunch. In turn, I find out about their preferences. For example, I met with an editor yesterday who used to be a magazine editor at Details and GQ. He acquires only nonfiction, and journalistic, narrative nonfiction at that. So I’d never pitch him a novel. I met with another editor who acquires mostly fiction, specifically what she (wonderfully) describes as “car crash fiction” — a book which, when you read it, is akin to driving past a car crash: you can’t look away and you think, “Wow, I’m glad that wasn’t me. And yet I can’t stop thinking about what happened.” I would never pitch her a Grisham-esque thriller or “chick lit” (but that’s fine, of course, because there are hundreds of other fiction editors who would love such titles).
Then there’s also general networking and client cultivation: I meet with current clients, potential clients (people I’m wooing!), other agents, and other contacts, such as staff and professors at Columbia Journalism School who may be able to refer clients to me.
This is a job for an extrovert. Fortunately, I am one. I’m energized by New York, and I’m energized by speaking with smart people and hearing their ideas and discussing that which I have always loved more than perhaps anything else (inanimate, of course): books. But it’s also a business, and a business at which I very, very much want to be very, very successful. So I’m “on” all day long. I’m lugging a heavy bag around New York in heels (must rethink the bag; definitely would never rethink the heels!), hopping on the subway, using Starbucks restrooms. Some trips are day trips, but if I have to stay overnight I’ll take the train out to New Jersey and stay at the most comfortable hotel around — Chez Mom. Then I’m on a 7 a.m. commuter train back into the city with all the bankers.
Is it glamorous? Certainly more so than tax law. But it’s also work, and when I’m in New York, I work hard.