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Books Are an Agent’s Game

31 July 2016

From Inverse:

This week, we spoke with Molly Friedrich, a top literary agent with over thirty years in the game, having represented the likes of Frank McCourt, Sue Grafton, Terry McMillan, and Jane Smiley.

Because you’re so established, do you still feel the need to keep up with industry trends?

I would never run my business according to any kind of trend. At writers conferences, people talk about what’s selling. You see people poised with pens, and you think, “By the time you write it down, it’s going to be over.”

Do you usually try reading the book of the moment?

If three people tell me to read a book, and they’re not in publishing, I make a point of reading it. Sometimes, like with Fifty Shades of Grey, it takes ten days. Other times it can take years.

. . . .

You mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey — when that was at the height of popularity, people outside the book industry were bemoaning it. As someone in the industry, did you share those concerns?

No, there were people who have not read a book since college reading it. But, often with a book like that, you’ll see moms reading it, and then the teenage girls will read it. The idea that your first sexual experience would be anything like an introduction to sex as illustrated by Fifty Shades is really sad. But, any book that rises above and beyond itself is, to me, a cause for celebration.

. . . .

I sold one book where the editor said, “This is the book I’ve been waiting for all of my career.” And everything that happened with that book went wrong. It didn’t get great reviews, the sales reps didn’t love it as much as he and I did. It just didn’t work. A lot of times when books seem to work, the author has secret help. There’s advertising money kicked in, or the author has an uncle who is famous and that rolodex is being pushed around. But I’m talking about the pure debut when the author has no MFA, no set of connections; just the book. That’s disappointing when that happens, because you don’t have anything to do except try your hardest. Some books are more successful than others. Sometimes there’s something that gets perceived as an unfortunate step, and you rebuild. That’s hard but incredibly important to be able to do. That’s the business of calling upon relationships and being profoundly collaborative with the publishing house to figure out how we can resuscitate this person’s book career. It can be done.

. . . .

As the industry is changing with the rise of ebooks, has that impacted you much?

Ebooks have been very healthy for publishers. They have not been healthy for authors. Publishers are making a load of money — very little of which is going to the author’s statement.

Link to the rest at Inverse and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Agents, Big Publishing

21 Comments to “Books Are an Agent’s Game”

  1. “Ebooks have been very healthy for publishers. They have not been healthy for authors. Publishers are making a load of money — very little of which is going to the author’s statement.”

    And that right there boys and girls is why you don’t seek trad-pub for ebooks …

    • Silly Allen – Ms. Friedrich is an top literary agent, and as all TLAs know, there’s no such thing as self-publishing, and if there were, it wouldn’t be making anyone any money. Anywhere. At any time. Got that?

      • “and if there were, it wouldn’t be making anyone any money.”

        and if there were, it wouldn’t be making TLAs any money.

        Fixed it for ya as the kids say. 😉

        Yeah, they have to be careful what they admit is out there, least they admit that they are no longer needed.

      • ROFLMAO +1

    • Now hold on a second…she just needs an introduction to Data Guy.

      That would certainly turn on a light bulb in her head.


      (There is a light bulb in there, right?)

      • Q: How many TLAs does it take to change a light bulb?

        A: None. They prefer to keep their clients (writers) in the dark about all things publishing.

    • That jumped out at me too. If none of the money is going to authors, whose fault is that I wonder? If agents have no power to influence what authors get paid, what use are they? None.

    • If all author guilds, all writer associations, all MFA programs, all writing instructors, etc, cooperated to pass the word, “Only sell print rights to trad publishers, keep your ebook rights and publish that yourself,” what would trads do? They’d be up crap’s creek or they’d have to give some righteous big chunk of ebook revenues to authors.

      Authors really need to band together in solidarity and say no to giving up ebook rights unless there is some crazy good remuneration– 50% on gross, minimum without the discount craziness.

      In the end, it’s authors allowing publishers to walk all over them. Those contracts! Geesh. It makes me kinda bummed, really. Change in publishing would happen faster with a concerted front saying, “Um, no, you ain’t gonna do that to us anymore. We have options now.”

      • The problem we’re fighting is that you’re not ‘really’ published unless you’ve sold your story to trad-pub.

        Those that know better or have learned the hard way are going indie/self-pub, but the number of starry-eyed clueless ones will always be thinking they have a chance to ‘make it big’.

        Halfway makes me wonder about those ‘million dollar’ contracts. Merely bait on the hook to keep those hopeful fools sending in their stories?

  2. How important are relationships in the industry?

    I once had an editor at a publishing house start crying at lunch. She said, “I just don’t know what I can do to have you submit to me.” I said, “This is appalling that you are this upset! You need to be right three times without depending on what comes with agencies and agents, so that I see you have an eye and show initiative — and then I’ll send something to you.”

    I honestly have no idea what this exchange is supposed to convey. It almost sounds like the agent is unwilling to send manuscripts to this editor, but that makes no sense.

    • The agent tells this story about herself to give the appearance of dominance and power. For an editor who has the power to say yes or no to a book to be, allegedly, in tears, because this agent, allegedly, won’t deign to submit to her because she hasn’t ‘proved’ herself yet? Sounds like BS, but then she doesn’t have to prove anything she’s said, and she names no names.

      The subtext is, ‘I’m the one in control, I have all the good sh**. You and all like you depend on me — the true gatekeeper. Other agents send their stuff to anyone they can, but me, I won’t let just anyone read the good sh** I have.’

      Interviews like these are for authors — people at the publishing houses wouldn’t care — so it’s her way of building/maintaining her legend as a super-agent.

      • Yeah, that was weird. I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it. First of all, who CRIES at a business lunch with someone they supposedly want to sell them something? Second, I get that the agent has been around for a loooong time and has good clients, but she’s going to lecture someone who could end up being in a position of power someday? (That sounded like a mom being strict, not friendly advice.) Why would she go to lunch with someone she apparently has NO intention of selling to at this time or in the nearish future?

        Bizarre and dubious story.

  3. I can hardly wait for Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s upcoming posts on agents.

    I understand that the slush pile is painful to read, but why don’t publishers hire their own starving English lit grads from Barnard to handle that? Why do they outsource the acquisition of IP to unlicensed, unregulated agents whose guesses are as good as anyone else’s? It doesn’t make any sense. Publishers would probably save money if they kept the slush pile in-house, because then they wouldn’t have suit-wearing gorillas driving up advances.

    I mean, who on earth do the publishers think the gatekeepers are? Themselves? Well, according to this interview, the agents are. And agents are just well-read individuals who go with their gut–y’know, just like readers who actually buy books.

    • Because in the end they have no earthly idea what will sell. How many best sellers do we hear about that had dozens (if not hundreds) of rejections before making it big? Then there’s the problem that without those agents they might be getting even more of a slush pile to wade through. Of course there’s also the ‘we found enough for this month — send rejection slips to the rest’ problem.

      Most of the qig5 have a few great sheep that grow a lot of high-class wool for them to shear, but they don’t bother feeding the lower grade mid-listers anywhere near as well.

      They are finding it harder to fleece those dang free-range indie and self publishing types, too many of those refused to be sheared without a contract ‘they’ like.

  4. As the industry is changing with the rise of ebooks, has that impacted you much?

    Ebooks have been very healthy for publishers. They have not been healthy for authors. Publishers are making a load of money — very little of which is going to the author’s statement.

    So doesn’t that mean that she’s not doing her job very well? I thought agents were supposed to be advocates for authors and have a good eye for contracts to ensure their authors get the very best terms.

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