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Confessions of a Literary Wildcatter

Written by mayborn

By Jim Hornfischer

Literary Agents have long had to excuse themselves for their existence. “I suppose you know the parasitic way an agent works,” Diarmuid Russell wrote Eudora Welty in May 1940. The Irishman who would represent Welty for 33 years soft-pedaled his defensive reflex and craftily turned it into an offer the great novelist couldn’t refuse. “He is a rather benevolent parasite because authors as a rule make more when they have an agent than they do without one.”

That’s true in my experience. And benevolent? I’ll buy that. Though some publishers lament the rise of agents, saying they’ve “monetized” the gentle book trade (and I’d always thought it was a publisher who first put a price on a front flap), agents are like others — lawyers, bankers, publishers — who make a living in service to the creative class. They resemble oil wildcatters, too. Paid on commission, they drill plenty of dry holes and pump too much salt water in search of the big strike. They can work for months on a book proposal with an author, give it all the editorial polishing their elbows can stand, and still see it rejected by all nine of the publishing corporations  — Bertelsmann, Viacom, Hachette, News Corp, ABC, Pearson, Von Holtzbrinck, W. W. Norton, Education Media & Publishing — with the resources to help an author do it the right way.

Sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes you can wake up after a Sunday afternoon nap, watch a TV news magazine, get inspired by an opportunity, pick up the phone, enlist the newly famous subject of the segment, go to sleep, wake up on Monday, make three more phone calls, and close an auction for the blockbuster to be the very next day. It can happen that way, too.

That one’s Spindletop, the gusher near Beaumont. When it blew, charging the market with 100,000 barrels of fresh crude a day, the sudden abundance of oil drove prices through the floor. Something similar can happen with books. The more copies they sell of the blockbusters, and the higher a publisher’s gross revenues grow, the less relative value an individual book has and the less value publishers place on authors who sell modestly.

Modesty befits the typical first-time nonfiction author, who without an established following or a major media platform, writing on a worthy but less-than-instantly-shirtsleeve-grabbing topic, can expect to see 5,000 copies of his book shipped to bookstores, or, as we say in industry parlance, “advanced into the trade.” According to publishing math, that’ll stretch to justify an advance of about $25,000, and good luck with that.

Somewhere along the way, I figured out that, to be successful, a literary agent has to get right with the ancient Athenian gadfly who famously told a student that he was wise because he knew he was not wise. Given the unpredictability of the book market — those pesky readers, always hard to please — a measure of humility is useful in a literary agent, though the fact that he turns away 99 percent of the writers who seek him out tends to inflate self-regard. Just when he starts to think he’s too smart or special, the Oracle of the Hardcover Case, which never lies, pulls him back to earth. Do it too often and he’ll be bound for the book career equivalent of the bargain table, like the former publisher Judith Regan, or even Socrates, who learned that a hemlock gin fizz was a weak defense to charges of corrupting the culture.

I’ve been in the book trade for 23 years, working as an editor at HarperCollins in New York before starting my own literary agency in Austin in 1993. I’ve also authored two military histories and am working on my third.  Does that make me an expert on writing and publishing? Hardly. If I’ve learned one thing in 23 years, it’s to trust that inner voice that was with me the day I went to work for Erma Bombeck’s publisher in 1987. That voice has taught me:

“If I'm not drawn in after three paragraphs, reading three more is an act of charity that I’ll probably regret.”

If I’m not drawn in after three paragraphs, reading three more is an act of charity that I’ll probably regret.

If a writer can’t envision who he’s writing for, he’s likely writing for no one. Doing something over and over to please one’s self —there are clinical terms for that.

In a piece of prose writing, block quotes usually make me stop reading, because the author has ceded the stage to a voice I do not yet trust.

If, in a book proposal, an author boasts about membership in Mensa, I’m done. Give me a dullard who can tell a story any day.

If I read a book proposal or manuscript by a new writer and take that writer on and proceed to market in spite of a little voice in my head saying “No,” I’m likely to hear that same voice in rejection letters from a dozen editors.

as I go about my days dispensing rejection, or, of increasing necessity, practicing an opaque silence against the steadily pulsing ping of my e-mail inbox, I try to humbly remember that I don’t really know anything, that what I think I know is probably suspect, and that I only know what I want when it grabs hold of me by the shirtsleeves.

Writers’ conferences are good places to find motivated shirtsleeve grabbers, though a nonfiction specialist like me doesn’t fit well at the typical event emphasizing fiction. The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, however, is different. With its exclusive focus on nonfiction — serious, quality narrative, whose virtues are well practiced and passionately espoused by the professional storytellers who speak and attend — it’s another realm entirely. In 17 years of going to fiction-centered writers' conferences, I can remember three authors I’ve taken on and sold. Just five years of involvement with the Mayborn have produced the same number. 

When I met Susannah Charleson at the Mayborn Conference in 2007, I was struck by her self-possession, ease, energy and kindness. And I remember vividly the thin sheaf of pages she handed me over the desk during our pitch session. One paragraph into her speed-date presentation package for Scent of the Missing, a personal account of her work as a canine search and rescue handler, I knew I wanted to work with her.

Beside the door, I see a flyer for the missing girl. Her face hovers beneath the smoke. She appears uneasy even in this photograph taken years ago, her smile tentative and her blonde feathered bangs sprayed close as a helmet, her dark eyes tight at the edges, like this picture is something to be survived.

That’s the stuff. Fifty-five words and my shirtsleeves were duly tugged. It’s been a long path to publication this past April. As she gained command of her story, she showed herself to be unsentimental about the need to revise. What was Chapter 5 in her original proposal is now part of Chapter 1 in the finished book. That and many other recastings have brought the book to its current form, earning enthusiastic reviews and a presence on The New York Times bestseller list. I had an instinct Susannah would be that kind of writer when she sat down with me at the conference.

The next year, I came away from the conference with another project aborning. Bill Marvel told me about his idea in the bar after the plenary session. I knew of Bill’s work at The Dallas Morning News, but now he was telling someone’s story, in that other person’s voice. Literary collaboration was a new trick for this old hand.

If you were watching HBO this past spring, you’ve met R. V. Burgin, a humble Texan who served with the First Marine Division in the Pacific from 1943 to 1945. Bill found my shirtsleeves by telling me that not only did Mr. Burgin have a poignant story of service and sacrifice, but that he would be portrayed in HBO’s 10-part miniseries, “The Pacific,” produced by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. There was time, happily, for the book to be written and published in conjunction with the premiere. Marvel’s collaboration with Mr. Burgin, Islands of the Damned, published by New American Library this past March, was characterized by exceptionally fine and faithful storytelling. Accordingly (and tapping the power of television, admittedly), it shared a distinction that Susannah’s debut enjoyed: Because of preorders, it was back to press before the first copy was shipped to a store. (See Bill's story about collaborating with Burgin on page 20.)

With few exceptions, such as the governorship of Alaska, little can guarantee that a busy and distractible public will come to your book; that three competing books won’t appear between your contract and your pub date; that moguls in other media who are being counted on for exposure won’t send you to the cutting room floor, or jump your pub date, grandly oblivious to your existence as the tail on their canine rump. You can hope audaciously, but you can’t control these things.

What’s the price of a word? Words are becoming cheap, like oil prices in a production boom. The culture that believes that information “wants to be free” is after the book now too. Every computer today is a Spindletop of prose and information. Words spill across the landscape like uncapped gusher oil. They’re replicated, cut and pasted, mirror-sited, and sometimes just old-fashioned borrowed and “redeployed” (which is blessedly easy to locate in this Time of Google). A current-affairs blogger recently confessed to publishing, via his blog, 750,000 words a year, posting seven to eight times a day, at 2,500 words per post, for six years.

Another kind of oil rush is under way in publishing now — digitally delivered prose, conveyed by personal computer, Kindle, Nook, iPad and other devices to come. The object of much handwringing in book publishing circles, e-books will allow publishers to make more money than ever before. Authors, we shall see. What’s indisputable is that people are reading in new ways, poring over blogs, spending their days and nights gazing into the laser-activated phosphor firmament, reading more than ever, little of it bought.

By 2014, an oracle who charges big bucks to know these things tells us, there will be two billion personal computers on the planet. Add to that the number of mobile electronic reading devices — growing furiously, according to the Gartner Group, from the 2010 baseline of 363 million units worldwide — and you have a lot of things other than book pages to lure the world’s hungry eyeballs.

Reading is a pleasure, and I parcel it carefully. Anyone who taps a broadband connection daily is becoming a more selective reader. We’re all, I think, less tolerant of writing that wastes our time, or of writers who do not see that a world awash with words may not need to be filled with theirs, not now, maybe not ever.

Publishers seem to see things this way, from the supply side. The recession has placed their business model — print and pray, and distribution on consignment — under strain. With the predominance of managerial thinking in a business that’s taste and instinct driven, hunches become numbers, and remember, no one knows anything. Publishers are parceling their resources more cautiously by the season.

The head of a major publishing house recently told me only half jokingly, regarding royalty advances paid to very successful authors, that “$250,000 is the new $400,000.” That’s no rule, and of course publishers are often fuzzy about numbers.

In a thoughtful essay published in Barnes & Noble Review last year, Daniel Menaker, the former editor-in-chief of Random House, revealed that his estimation of the American reading public was based on a “completely unfounded theory that there are a million very good  — engaged, smart, enthusiastic — generalist readers in America. There are 500,000 extremely good such readers. There are 250,000 excellent readers. There are 125,000 alert, active, demanding, well-educated (sometimes self-well-educated), and thoughtful  — that is, literarily superb  — readers in America.”

Menaker was aware of the shifting sand beneath his theory and its murky taxonomy. Another well-regarded publisher, Elisabeth Sifton, fell into the “I know something” trap when she professed to know that “the unprofitable chaos of the book business today indicates, among other things, that slow, almost invisible transformations as well as rapid helter-skelter ones have wrecked old reading habits (bad and good) and created new ones (ditto).” She added that, whatever those bad and good things might be, and whatever they might foretell, they’re mostly Ronald Reagan’s fault.

All I know is that you can’t count on Spindletop. Success is rare and special, and nothing lasts forever. When that big well near Beaumont was finished gushing, they mined it for sulphur. You can judge things by what remains.

Fine writing is important, but when that talent exists in an author who has the passion, professionalism, and motivation to reach readers, she’s not going to be beaten, and will likely succeed on a level beyond the reach of royalty statements. The beauty of this business is that no one knows anything except the inclination of their taste and the urgings of their hearts.


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