Wisdom from Mentors
From www.storygrid.com, agents have mentors too. And the great ones listen to the ones who’ve been in the foxhole longer than they have…
It’s a Friday morning in the summer of 1996, around 10:15.
Tina Bennett’s bosses at the Janklow & Nesbit Literary Agency have had their coffee and have read through the Times, the Journal and the Post. There are about forty-five minutes to kill before their car services ring reception to let them know that their town cars are idling on Park between 56th and 57th. Beating traffic to the country house in Sagaponack (beach) or Stockbridge (mountains) during summer publishing hours (Publishers shut down at noon on Fridays from Memorial Day through Labor Day) is critical for the apex players in the business.
Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit learned this fundamental truth of summers in the city decades’ prior. One must be over the bridge or through the tunnel by noon. Or you may as well stay in Manhattan. It takes just one bumper to bumper six hour car trip for the usual two hour ride to embed that fact into the cerebral cortex forevermore.
The only potential thing worse is a six hour drive…on the way back.
But all things considered, making weekend small talk handicapping the Sunday evening state of the Sunrise Highway or Taconic Parkway isn’t so bad. Especially when cocktailing with the very same people one lunched with during the week. How much can one really talk about the dire nature of book publishing? Fewer people reading, fewer buying books, fewer, fewer, fewer…the song remains the same.
In that transitional lull between working leisurely to leisurely working, Janklow and Nesbit meet with the almost ridiculously well educated junior agent (Stanford undergrad, Oxford Marshall Scholarship, Yale post grad) Tina Bennett. She’s poked her head into the doorway and asked for help polishing a pitch for a new project.
She’s been at the agency for two years and while a wonderful presence in the office, she hasn’t really hit anything out of the park yet. Perhaps her decision to abandon the ivory tower tenure track in philosophy or English literature wasn’t exceptionally prudent?
Bennett sees Nesbit first.
An elegant presence with impeccable taste, Lynn Nesbit is book publishing royalty. Her bona fides include her founding of the book department for legend Marvin Josephson in what would become International Creative Management (ICM) as well as baby agenting at Sterling Lord Literistic. Her client list is the equivalent of the roster for 1927 New York Yankees—
- Ann Beattie
- A. Scott Berg
- Thomas Cahill
- Robert A. Caro
- Jimmy Carter
- Joan Didion
- Jeffrey Eugenides
- Robert Goolrick
- Andrew Sean Greer
- Shirley Hazzard
- Robert Hughes
- Michael Korda
- Jonathan Kozol
- Jayne Anne Phillips
- Richard Price
- Felix Rohatyn
- Anne Rice
- Amartya Sen
- Gay Talese
- Tom Wolfe
Nesbit listens to Bennett’s description of her new project, Malcolm Gladwell’s expansion of his Tipping Point piece in The New Yorker into book form.
The Tipping Point is about how ideas and products and behaviors spread. While citing extensive academic research, the book length treatment will build the case that compelling messages are adopted when numerous influential connections occur at just the right time and place. When these small events reach critical mass, an idea or a product or a behavior “tips” into ubiquity, just as one gets the flu. It’s about how little things make a big difference.
Bennett tells Nesbit about Gladwell’s credentials and that he has a very strong on-the-page proposal to counter any arguments that the magazine article exhausted The Tipping Point Story.
What does she think?
It’s a terrific project and Nesbit encourages Bennett. She asks about the five publishers and editors that Bennett has targeted for her first round of submissions. She suggests a few changes to the roster based on her past experiences and leaves Bennett with one takeaway piece of advice.
It’s this: Listen.
When making the calls to pitch the editors, don’t be so concerned with getting the pitch out perfectly and quickly. Don’t think about your next call when you’re in the middle of the present one.
Instead have a conversation. Listen to what the editor says and hit the conversational ball back to them without hard-pushing your agenda. Editors want nothing more than to fall in love with a book project. If you come off as one of those late night sales pitchers on cable television, they’ll be disinclined to fall in love.
Instead, talk about the work. Talk about how you and Gladwell have picked at this idea. How the two of you approached the best way to expand it into book form. Talk about the process.
An editor will love that. Because it’s why she chose book publishing in the first place…to explore interesting ideas and to help writers do their best work. To be a part of a book that lasts longer than a fortnight on a bestseller list is what drives the best in the business.
It may sound corny, but Nesbit advises Bennett to try and enjoy her pitch calls.
The goal isn’t to get the editor to “buy” the book on a pitch. That just isn’t going to happen. This isn’t Hollywood. The goal is to get them to feel like you feel about this project, passionate to help cultivate it into a book.
Bennett’s next stop is Mort Janklow’s corner office.
The sting to Nesbit’s honey, Mort Janklow is the archetype of the attorney turned literary agent. Back in the 1970s, Janklow disrupted the profession, made it newsworthy, aggressive, a place where one could unabashedly and publicly follow the money. Before Janklow, agents were genteel and anonymous and under the thumb of publishers. After Janklow came headline makers like Andrew “the Jackal” Wylie.
Janklow famously won arbitration for his first client William Safire, a win that seized crucial ground for author’s rights. Safire’s first book, a behind the scenes look at the Nixon administration…before Watergate…was originally under contract to William Morrow. After Watergate, Morrow chose to cancel the book (who’d want to read about a corrupt administration?) and demanded Safire return his advance. Janklow sued Morrow of Safire’s behalf, and not only won the case, which gave Safire the right to keep the advance, but he then resold the book to Doubleday for an even larger advance. The book went on to become the bestseller Before the Fall.
Going through Mort Janklow’s client list is like charting the evolution of modern book publishing, the rise of the sizzle that compliments commercial steak. Go to Google and search for the February 2, 1987 New York Magazine profile (two years before Janklow convinced Lynn Nesbit to leave ICM and partner with him) by Patricia Morrisroe called MEGA-MORT. Ahh…the 1980s when success equated with how many dinner parties and fundraisers you attended and where you spent Thanksgiving holidays…the scoreboard was so precise then.
Bennett gives Janklow the same pitch she gave Nesbit.
“Kid, sounds great. But don’t forget to feed the editors sales hooks.”
Janklow goes on to explain.
“When you pitch an editor or publisher these days…it’s not like the old days when I could call up Joni Evans and lock in a deal before she rolled over in bed to clear it with Dick Snyder…remember that they have to sell it in-house before they can be authorized to make you an offer.
Agents don’t get to talk and convince the head of marketing or the cranky sales rep from Santa Monica let alone the CEO of the corporation to back the acquisition.
Editors and publishers do that.
And guess what, those marketing, sales and bean counters aren’t going to read your client’s excellent proposal. They’re just going to hear the editor and publisher talk. So give them something to say that their colleagues are going to understand.
For example, your Tipping Point thing sounds like one of those books that business people will buy. That’s a huge market. And it’s also something that smarty-pants New Yorker readers will like too. So burn a quickie cheat sheet into the editor’s brain in your pitch call. Something they can spit back at anyone standing in their way.
Something like “if Napoleon Hill, David Ogilvy and Richard Feynman were locked in a bunker together for a month, they’d come out with the The Tipping Point.”
Bennett looks confused.
“Look, between those three names, you’ve got three major markets right? 1. business strivers 2. marketers and advertisers, and 3. popular science readers… And you also have easy to identify comparable titles.”
More confused looks.
“Here is how a book gets acquired. Say you nail the call and the editor wants to do the book. The editor pitches the book in an edit meeting or to the publisher. If the editor’s pitch is good, the suits in accounting ask for comparable titles that they can use to gauge how popular the thing could be. Then they come up with an estimated profit/loss report based on the success of those comparable titles. That P and L will tell them how much they can afford to spend on acquiring the book…the guaranteed advance.
So you want to put huge bestsellers into the mind of the editor so that when they’re asked what books are comparable, they spit out the big titles that you’ve already planted in their heads.
What you’re saying by using Hill, Ogilvy and Feynman without having to actually say it is that your project is going to be huge and that they better be prepared to write a big check to get the privilege to publish it.
All they have to do is look at the sales figures of Think and Grow Rich, Confessions of an Advertising Man and Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman and they’ll understand how big your book could be. What’s great about using these names is that you’ll be able to position the book as a bestseller without having to actually say something stupid like “this is going to be a huge bestseller!”
Don’t be a huckster. No need. Just be prepared to feed them what they’ll need to do your job for you.
If challenged by the powers that be in-house, your editors will be able to throw out that one pithy “three geniuses locked in a bunker” sentence and get their bosses to understand your project’s potential.
Just as she’s about to leave Janklow’s office, though, she brings up that one last thing that Gladwell told her about at the end of the previous evening’s Tipping Point strategy phone call.
“Bill Phillips at Little Brown called Malcolm Gladwell after he read The Tipping Point in The New Yorker and said he loved it. I’m going to add him to the submission list, but I’m curious about how to handle it.”
“Simple. An agent grooms editors who register unsolicited interest in her clients as stalking horses. Bill Phillips is editor-in-chief of Little Brown, with scores of bestsellers in his career. It would be a good idea to make him your first call…”
Bennett is confused again.
“Sit back down Kid.”