The summer after the fourth grade, I scored a dog-eared copy of John Grisham’s The Firm before a family vacation to the New Jersey shore. I was hooked on his writing before we even reached the motel. Little did my family know that in the backseat I had been racing through a tale of corporate malfeasance, murder, and money laundering in the Cayman Islands.
I can trace one reason why I am now an editor back to that car ride: Grisham taught me something new about the power of stories. Before The Firm, I knew that a book could make me laugh or cry, but I didn’t know that it could make me itch while I wasn’t reading it, or make my chest feel like it was going to burst if I didn’t get to the next page. I had never read a thriller—and certainly not one that made me feel so potent and alive after finishing it.
When I sought out the literary agent David Gernert for an interview, I admit I had an ulterior motive. In these tumultuous times I can think of no one better to offer an opinion on contemporary publishing than Gernert, a seasoned professional who has a depth of experience both as a high-powered editor and the head of a prestigious agency, but in truth I wanted to hear how he came to edit and publish The Firm twenty-three years ago, and what it has been like to work as Grisham’s agent for the past seventeen years.
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Today the Gernert Company employs thirteen people and represents roughly two hundred and fifty authors. Among Gernert’s clients are Michael Harvey, Robert Kolker, Mike Lawson, Will Leitch, David Levien, David Lindsey, Charlie Lovett, Stewart O’Nan, Chris Pavone, Peter Straub, and Walter Walker.
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I got me my first job, which was as an assistant for the literary agent Nat Sobel.
What do you remember from your time with Sobel?
Nat explained to me that a very low percentage of novelists made a living from writing fiction. I hadn’t realized that. And he asked if I had any thoughts about finding emerging writers. I had a real fondness for small literary magazines, so I told Nat that there were some really good short story writers who probably didn’t have agents. So we started writing letters to them, and I’m pretty sure Nat found a few clients that way.
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Some people say that the way to move up in publishing is to move around a lot, but you stuck around.
I really, really liked Doubleday. “Liked” is not strong enough a word. I was pretty devoted to the place.
Still, you must have demonstrated some aptitude for the job.
It probably had something to do with the fact that I had brought in John Grisham.
Tell me how that happened.
I got a call from a friend who was a scout for film producers and she told me there was a manuscript being shown to producers that had not been submitted to publishers. The agent thought if he could make a movie deal first, he would have better luck selling the book to publishers. That’s an interesting idea—it’s not done very often, but occasionally.
She said she had just read it and that it was fantastic, that it was going to be a great movie, and that I would love it. She told me the name of the agent, Jay Garon, and I called him up and asked if I could read it. And he said yes, I’m sending it to any editor who calls and asks. I read it and loved it, and I acquired it. That was The Firm, which did of course get made into a movie.
What was publishing The Firm like?
It was great fun. It was not one of those books where the publisher announces a 250,000-copy first printing and a huge marketing budget. The first printing was fairly modest—30,000 copies—but we did really nice advance reading copies, and the reading responses were terrific, particularly from Waldenbooks. They were a huge player at that time, and the buyer for paperbacks loved it, the buyer for hardcover fiction loved it, the merchandise manager loved it. They said, “We think this book could be a best-seller.”
The day it went on sale, there had been no publicity other than a couple of advance reviews and some buzz because people had heard it was bought by the movies. I went out to lunch, and when I came back there was a message from the sales rep for Walden. The book was flying out of their stores.
Then John came to New York and we went out for a walk. Doubleday was at 666 Fifth Avenue then, and there were three major bookstores within a few blocks. In each store, we saw The Firm on the front table, and while we were there, a couple of people picked it up and took it to the cash register. John said to me, “People are buying my book. Is this normal?” And I said, “No! This is freaky!”
The Firm had an interesting sales history. It never was number one on the best-seller list, but it stayed on the list for something like a year.
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How did John decide to write a book a year?
I believe he was at a lunch or a dinner early in his career with some wholesale sales reps, and one of them said, “All of the really successful bestselling novelists publish a book a year. That’s important.” John thought that was really good advice, and he took it.
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How does a publisher grow a novelist’s audience today?
That’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question. How do you grow a novelist? Boy, I wish I knew. [Laughs.] Fiction publishing today is as difficult as it’s ever been. Publishers are working hard to identify new ways to promote and sell fiction. A lot of those new ways are in the realm of what might be called digital marketing. But it’s really hard.
I have a theory that a lot of fiction over the years has been bought by people going to a bookstore because maybe they read a review in the New York Times, and it’s a new thriller by Lee Child, and the Times says it’s great. So you run to the bookstore to buy Lee Child, and while you’re there, you happen to see a book that looks really cool on the front table next to it, and you see another one, and you end up buying several books. A lot of fiction was helped by that kind of buying. All those really good-looking trade paperback novels on the front table—you’d go in, look at them, and pick a few.
People don’t buy books that way online, and it’s hurt fiction. Novelists don’t have the same kind of visibility. And there aren’t nearly as many places to be reviewed, which is crucial to novelists who are not well known.
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How did you become an agent?
Sadly, Jay Garon, John Grisham’s agent, died—he suffered a pulmonary embolism. I told John that he needed to choose a new agent and that I would walk him through a detailed snapshot of several agents that I thought he’d like. And he said, “That’s a good idea, but I’d like to have that conversation in person.” I went down to visit him, and he picked me up at the airport and then we stopped at a coffee shop. After we sat down, we started talking and I said, “Okay, John, so there are a half-dozen agents who I think would be good for you.” And he said, “Wait a minute. I want to change the conversation. I don’t want to work with anybody new. Would you leave Doubleday and be my agent?” And I said yes.
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What do you think about self-publishing?
There are some very gifted writers who start out self-publishing and grow from there. Hugh Howey is a really good example; Wool is a terrific novel. But those writers are few and far between.
I am not a fan of self-publishing in general. It removes the gatekeepers from the process, and if we come to a point where every person in America who is writing a book can “publish” it, it becomes much more difficult for readers to find the good ones. A lot of what is self-published is awful.
I would cite Malcolm Gladwell as a particularly eloquent speaker on this, but many people have made this point: At a time when we are bombarded with information from all sides, we need more gatekeepers, not fewer. What you need as a reader is someone to find and tell you about the best books, whether it’s a diet book or a crime novel or a book about Thomas Jefferson.
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Does that experience make you want to offer any grand predictions for the future of our business?
Just pray that Barnes & Noble stays healthy.
Otherwise it’s all over?
No, it will never be all over. But if B&N doesn’t stay healthy, the publishing industry will change phenomenally. Bookstores are incredibly important—not just as retail outlets, but as places where people go and commune with other like-minded individuals, many of them strangers, and talk about big ideas and compare notes on what they’ve been reading and what’s going on in the world. That is a tremendously important and valuable part of our culture. It’s much bigger than just selling books. I find it appalling that our society is turning a blind eye—maybe through just a lack of awareness—to the fact that the number of bookstores in this country is declining all the time. It’s really serious.
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Are you concerned about the viability of writing as a legitimate source of income?
There are a couple of different ways of looking at that. An e-book often takes sales away from a hardcover edition when a book is first published, and the author makes less money from the e-book than from the hardcover. In that regard, authors’ incomes have gone down, and their agents’ incomes go down too. On the backlist side, sometimes an author makes more money from an e-book than from the paperback edition. But in general authors’ incomes are declining a little bit.
Agents can sit around and bitch and moan that a book that they used to sell for two hundred thousand dollars is now selling for a hundred thousand dollars, and that’s legitimate bitching and moaning—but that’s all it is at the end of the day.