Harold Ober, Alexander Pollock Watt or Don Congdon sound familiar? Probably not, but these people helped bring us timeless classics like The Great Gatsby, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Fahrenheit 451. These books adorn our home libraries and enrich our English classes in school, but the literary agents behind these works remain unknown to the general public, and even to some in the literary world.
The literary agent is the unsung hero. He envisions the big picture while simultaneously navigating publishers, deadlines, edits and the market. The agent is the middleman that perceives potential and helps the right writer connect with the right house at the right time. Still, many find themselves in a fog when it comes to understanding the role of the literary agent in the publishing world.
In an attempt to demystify this often complex career field, I spoke to four literary agents who have become Mayborn Conference regulars: Jim Donovan, Jim Hornfischer, David R. Patterson and BJ Robbins.
Describe the role of the literary agent to someone outside of the literary world.
Donovan: The literary agent wears a lot of hats, but the main thing that a literary agent offers to a writer is getting their work seen by quality editors. In other words, getting the right editor, at the right house, for that specific writing project.
Hornfischer: An agent is a publishing matchmaker, editorial advisor and partner, and a dealmaker.
Patterson: First and foremost, we are here to help them [writers] define what idea they want to jump into and then to help them prepare their work to sell it as effectively as possible to the most appropriate and finest publisher we can arrange. We also play a lot of other roles, like potentially helping a writer sell their works to film or TV or documentary. A goal that I often feel is to arrange for a relationship between the writer and the editor that is so good that it goes on for, ideally, maybe years and multiple books. Because we stay put, and our relationship hopefully remains intact, we can be there with them over the long arc of their career.
Robbins: Our primary role is to sell a book to a publisher and secure a writer a publishing contract. But, we are also considered by the publishers to be a filter for good material. So what we are doing is sort of curating the material for them. Most publishers these days don’t look at unsolicited manuscripts. So, if you have a book that you want to sell to a standard, traditional publishing company, you need a literary agent to do that for you. Once we do secure a publishing contract, we handle a lot of the subsidiary rights for the author. We handle any problems within the publishing house during the publication process. Without an agent, authors have to negotiate and navigate on their own, which can many times be problematic.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Hornfischer: I would say get started quick, because this business is going to be getting harder.
Patterson: I was an editor for a decade. I do not consider it some necessary prescription that every would-be agent work as an editor for a decade. But for me that was good. I enjoyed a great deal of my time in house. I feel like it exposed me over the course of many days, many years, and many books to see how decisions get made inside publishing houses. I probably make use of that experience every single day in my life as an agent.
Robbins: I think the main thing is to have patience to find really good material. The thing about agents is we have to deal with the same publishers over and over again. I want to send them high quality material that they’re going to want to publish. I think at the beginning when I was first an agent, I would just take things on, because I was eager to get my business going. The longer I did it, I started to become a lot more discerning about what I would represent and the kinds of the books I wanted to have my name behind.
What is the weirdest thing that has happened to you in your career?
Donovan: About ten years ago I was contacted by an anonymous man — through his attorney, so I didn’t know where he lived — who claimed that he had killed JFK. He had written a manuscript about it entitled THE MAN ON THE GRASSY KNOLL and wanted it published under a pseudonym. The manuscript was suspiciously well written and when I grilled him on the phone with specific questions he should have known the answers to, he was vague. It was all an elaborate hoax … I think.
Hornfischer: A few years ago, a New York City-based death-metal band [Neptune’s Inferno] decided to name itself after one of my books.
Patterson: Every day is a surprise. There are also happy surprises. A client won a Pulitzer yesterday; Jake Bernstein was part of the Panama Papers investigation and they won a group Pulitzer for that investigation. We knew the Pulitzers were coming up, but one never wants to make predictions as to how they’re going to be distributed.
Robbins: A number of years ago, my front door bell rang and I went to the door and there was an elderly man holding a really big book with his ancient mother standing next to him. Like ancient, looked like she was a 110. It was a very hot day and he said, “Mother has written a book,” and tried to hand me this gigantic thing. It was a book of astronomy. They had driven from Palm Springs, which is about two hours away to deliver this book to me. All I could do was offer them some water and send them on their merry way. I explained this is not how one goes about this, but I felt bad.
What genres are your personal favorites to work on with writers?
Donovan: I like American History. I like working with fiction, because I love editing fiction. But, it’s a tougher thing to sell in my humble opinion. It’s really tough to find, because the writing in a novel – it’s a different kind of writing than nonfiction.
Hornfischer: Narrative nonfiction, history, current affairs are my strengths. I do a lot of military history, biographies, world history different types, economics, strategy, so those are kind of the sweet spots for me.
Patterson: Most of my clients are writing nonfiction and most of those writers are writing a kind of investigative narrative nonfiction. Usually those writers are writing about a story that they broke or they somehow defined or claimed; maybe it’s an idea they articulated very well that they’ve been able to put a name on if it’s a kind of idea driven book. That is what I also read in my spare time.
Robbins: My list is about 50 percent fiction, 50 percent nonfiction. I’m always looking for more really solid nonfiction. Memoirs are tough to sell unless the author is really well known, or they have something that has a really, really strong marketing hook or platform. But, I’m still sort of a sucker for a really good memoir.
How do you think the market has changed or will change in the next few years?
Donovan: I think books [physical books] are going to stick around for a lot of reasons. Last year, eBook sales took a dive. I think there’s been a digital fatigue.
Hornfischer: It depends on your view of reading habits. I’ve got three kids in high school and college age, and they’re all vigorous readers and that gives me hope that there’ll always be a market for immersive, long-form reading experiences. I’m ultimately an optimist.
Patterson: What has happened for years now, there’s been a feeling that the midlist is in danger, and those are generally categorized, as in the past as sort of bread and butter of every house. The books that aren’t visibly supposed to be colossal hits from the very beginning but provide a stable existence for the house over time. I think the editors and the houses are looking for big hits. That creates some challenges for writers, particularly mid-career writers. It also creates an environment where the publishers will move even more aggressively to acquire a book if it looks to them like a hit. So, there’s a kind of feeling of scarcity and that sometimes leads to aggressive moves from a publisher to acquire an exciting writer or to keep that writer.
Robbins: I think one of the biggest changes in publishing in the last ten years, was the closing of Borders bookstore chain. I’m not sure the industry has ever completely, fully recovered from that. Publishing and books keep going and going because people love to read. And as long as publishers keep publishing things people want to read, the industry will stay alive. It doesn’t get easier, I have to say. It was never easy to sell books. It’s never been easy to be a literary agent; it’s not an easy job. Things don’t just fall into your lap and you sell them for buckets of money. There’s a lot of work that’s involved. And there’s a lot of cultivating. Our job is to cultivate relationships with editors at various publishing houses. It’s a relationship-based business I would say more than anything else. If you have a really good book, chances are you’re going to find a literary agent and you’re going to find a publisher. It’s difficult for authors; they’re always moaning that these things get published that aren’t good, etc. But, the truth is that most of the books that are published have a merit in some way or another and there’s a reason why they’ve been published.
How has your agency’s strategy to securing talent changed in the last couple of years (or has it stayed the same)?
Donovan: No, it hasn’t really changed that much. I get a lot of referrals from other writers. I read a wide range of things in magazines, online, and if I see something in short form that I think is well written, I might contact that writer. So many people want to write a book, but they haven’t done the work to become good enough writers. They have a great idea for a book, but they can’t write a good enough sentence. It all boils down to being able to write a good sentence and putting those sentences together in a good effective paragraph and so on. People don’t pay enough attention to the craft of writing.
Hornfischer: I wouldn’t say I have a conscious strategy. I respond to material that I feel has something to say. I suppose increasingly things come to me by referral from existing clients. Certainly, physical submissions have trailed off. Everything is by email. My eyes are always open to what’s working in the marketplace. It’s a very dynamic and alive process.
Robbins: It’s all about the writing. The personality of the author is a factor at some point, but for me, it really has to be on the page. That’s why I think conferences are a really good way for writers to get a sense of what we do and who we are, and what’s going to work. But, in the real world it’s really better to do it through a letter. Because I figure if a writer can’t write a decent query letter, how are they going to write a whole manuscript?
Founder and President, Jim Donovan Literary
Specialities: Fiction – thrillers and mysteries; Nonfiction – biographies, pop culture, American history, general narrative, nonfiction and military
President, Hornfischer Literary Management, L.P.
Specialties: commercial and serious nonfiction, memoirs, science and history
David R. Patterson
New York City
Stuart Krichevsky Literary Agency, Inc.
Literary fiction with a focus on journalists, scholars, public figures, and performers, as well as narrative and idea-driven nonfiction
Founder, BJ Robbins Literary Agency
Specialities: fiction and nonfiction, history, memoir, biography, sports, medicine, health, pop culture and travel/adventure