We’re deconstructing the invisible work behind media headlines like UNKNOWN WRITER GETS A MILLION DOLLARS.
Specifically the work that Tina Bennett, as just a new pup in the book world trying to earn her keep as an agent at the Janklow & Nesbit Literary Agency in 1996, did before she negotiated a seven-figure guaranteed advance for Malcolm Gladwell’s first book, The Tipping Point.
This was a book Gladwell hadn’t yet written. Nor had he completely figured out how it would be structured or even what it was really all about. And he’d never even written a book before. Left to his own devices, he could still be pondering what to do. Think about how many books you have stuck in your head that you just can’t seem to “crack.”
Someone had to purposefully direct Gladwell.
Someone had to tell him what book publisher’s would expect of him.
Someone had to tell him how to convince extremely skeptical and experienced people that he’d deliver a bestseller.
We’ve already explored Gladwell’s decade plus professional journey incubating the idea and of how he masterfully first presented his findings in his June 3, 1996 four thousand word piece in The New Yorker.
What we’re looking at now is the business behind how an agent can help a writer discover and tap fresh reserves underneath a seemingly tapped out idea. By focusing on the realities of book publishing—how to best present potential work to the banks that fund creativity (the Big Five publishing conglomerates in New York)—a creative literary agent sharpens the writer’s bits so that he can drill even deeper to find the magma beneath the crust of his Big Idea. Through such collaboration does a writer discover the mother lode underneath his seemingly dry well.
I am not surprised in the least that Tina Bennett also represents Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit and Unbroken) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Atul Gawande (Being Mortal) a slew of other talents. And that when she left Janklow & Nesbit to join William Morris Endeavor, it was front page industry news.
The fact that she is a star agent is not a coincidence. It’s the end result of hard work.
Her clients will be the first ones to tell you—not that anyone asks—that they owe Tina far more than what they pay her.
A friend of mine who is a big bestselling writer said this about his agent—“if it weren’t for her, I’d be living under an overpass on I-95.”
An exaggeration? Of course it is.
But would he not have to worry about making his mortgage payment without his agent? Or worry that he’d not sucked the life out of every idea he decided to explore in his work?
Without his agent he would not be who he is today—a guy purely focused on beating Resistance…and winning more battles than losing. What more can the artist ask for?
Together a hard working writer with a unique vision plus an editorially driven agent with a comprehensive understanding of the marketplace equals magic. The end result of that magic can end up as a seven-figure guarantee from Mongo Publishing Worldwide or a self-published underground cult classic must-read for an itty bitty niche audience. Both are goosebump inducing.
So how does Art + Commerce = Even Better Art?
This is the question we’re wrestling with now and the best place to begin answering it is to understand the commercial arena. God knows we have somewhat of a handle on the vagaries of the artistic arena—all that Story Grid stuff plus the metaphysical battle detailed in The War of Art, Turning Pro, and Do The Work. First and foremost, Literary Agents (the sellers) need to know how editors at the big publishing houses (the buyers) think.
When you want a group of people to buy something from you, you want to solve a specific problem for them, right?
So you need to know what your potential buyers’ problems are and how they think about/solve them.
So a good literary agent will want to know what problems editors have and how they deal with them before she starts pitching.
The very first problem big book editors must deal with is the dilemma of submissions.
First off, how do editors think about submissions? How do they “sort” them in terms of priority?
Wait a minute. Why exactly is it necessary to sort submissions? Just read them in the order they are received. Doesn’t everyone deserve a “fair” read?
No. They don’t.
Most of the material that comes to an editor is absolute crap…written by amateurs with no understanding of the most fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story.
Sorry but that’s just true.
And here’s the worst part…these lousy projects are agented.
That’s right, most agents are amateurs too who have no understanding of the most fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story.
You wanna know something even worse than the fact that most agents don’t know the most fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story?
There are a substantial number of editors…the choosers/gatekeepers whatever you want to call them…who don’t know the fundamental principles of writing or the craft of telling a good story.
Guess what too?
This stew of literary amateurs and literary pros is the way the book publishing bouillabaisse has always simmered…and the way it always will be.
[I’d bet that the same can be said for any industry…banking, real estate, construction, design, academia, fishing, plumbing, you name it. Ever see Broadcast News? Some people rely on craft (the Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter characters), some rely on vacuous but “sincere” Bullshit (the William Hurt character).]
Within the Big Five publishing operations, there are Story craftsmen and there are, let’s say, charismatic and verbally facile enthusiasts of Story. The thing is, though, that an enthusiast is just as likely to sponsor a hit book as a craftsman… Some would argue more likely.
So what can a poor agent do knowing this reality?
Forget about it.
Like any other thing in life, book publishing is a mulligatawny of absurdity. You will never be able to control it and things are going to knock you down you don’t even see coming. But other things will push you back up too. The longer you are in the game, the more you understand that principle. So you just stop fretting and get on with it.
You do the work…the real work…the Story work. And hold on tight to it. It’s hard sledding, but so is anything else worthwhile. And when the climate shifts and you can’t see a foot in front of you, the work will ground you. It will give you the GPS coordinates and the courage to keep pressing forward.
When you find yourself confounded…Huh…wonder why I couldn’t sell that? You head to the work to puzzle it out for the next time…the Story is where you’ll find the answer, not anywhere inside “because I suck.”
And to compliment the dedication to craft, learn why the Big Five editorial Story grinders and Story poseurs behave the way they do. Have empathy for the poor bastards. It’s a tough job. It can be mean too.
The thing is that both kinds of editor—the craftsman and the enthusiast—behave in exactly the same way during the acquisition process.
We’ll get into that next.