What Good Agents Know

So a longform piece like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point in the June 3, 1996 edition of The New Yorker is a slam dunk easy sell as a book project, right? It went from four thousand words in a magazine to seven figures worth of guaranteed book advance just based on its level of professionalism and readability.

Gladwell’s literary agent Tina Bennett probably just called up Random House and Doubleday and Little Brown and HarperCollins and St. Martin’s Press and Houghton Mifflin and Viking etc. and asked their big nonfiction book editors to read Gladwell’s article and then call back with offers, right?

The hard part for her was over at that point.

Signing Gladwell was the big win for her. There were probably a score or more of book agents pounding on his door to get him on their client list since his first piece, Blowup, appeared in The New Yorker, right?

Once Bennett beat out the hoards of other hungry young agents wining and dining Gladwell the rest of her work was autopilot city.

I mean there’s a hard and fast process in place for agents to convert great Story ideas into guaranteed book advances, right?

Once you have the sponsorship of a big literary agency, like Bennett did working at Janklow & Nesbit, then all you have to do is plug into the system—that old boys and girls network. If the stuff you represent is fantastic (and who wouldn’t immediately recognize that The Tipping Point was masterful work) you’re set. You just field offers, funnel off 15% of the proceeds and pound the streets for more clients. In time, that Hamptons or Berkshire country home is yours.

Right? That’s the way it works, right?

No. That’s not how it works at all.

Here is what I know for sure.

  1. Selling a magazine article as a book is extremely difficult. Most in the business would tell you it’s more difficult than selling original material.
  2. If you have nothing “on the page” explaining specifically how a magazine article could become a book, you have no business calling an editor and asking them to make an offer.  Even asking them to read the thing in the first place takes Chutzpah.
  3. I’d wager that Gladwell had very few agents pursuing him. I’d even make a confident guess that Tina Bennett was the only one. I’d even guess that she didn’t “pursue” him. She met him through a friend and over time the two of them thought maybe working together could be fun.
  4. There is no ironclad 100% reliable process for converting an idea for a book into a commissioning contract from a publishing house. Working for a big agency can get your phone call returned, but it will not get an editor to take you seriously.  If you blow the pitch, your Ivy League suit or your close ties to Hollywood or the fact that your mother plays bridge with the publisher mean absolutely nothing—actually worse than nothing. Subconsciously, the editor will enjoy rejecting your project because he hates the Ivy League, thinks Hollywood is filled with idiots, and can’t really stand his publisher or bridge.

Here’s how I know.

I’ve made a living on both sides of the buy/sell transaction.

And if you as an agent do not know how editors think you will not get them to raise the remarkable amount of courage it takes them to walk into their publisher’s office—interrupting his or her afternoon cocktail or cup of tea—and ask that the company back their hunch that a bunch of words they’ve read will contribute to the company’s corporately mandated 10% net return on dollars invested.

Okay that’s a sufficiently dramatic and longwinded answer.

Good agents know how editors think.

So how do editors think?

[Don’t worry.  I promise this is leading to the Story Grid for The Tipping Point in all it’s wonky glory.  But I thought it would be fun too to examine not just how Gladwell structured the book creatively, but the extraordinary tale of how Big Books come to be in the first place. From the wonderfully strange book business viewpoint as well as the creator’s. There are a lot of people behind a bestseller who make invisible contributions. Their work is indispensable and unheralded. And I just love the inside baseball of it all too. If you don’t, hang in there.  I’ll deliver the graphic goods soon. Thank you for your indulgence.  I’m having a blast with it!]

10 comments on “What Good Agents Know

  1. Mary Doyle says:

    Having a blast on this side too Shawn – can’t wait for the next post!

    1. Jay Cadmus says:

      Have read every word! One could tell you were enjoying the minutia as well a the grand overview. It has within it the seeds of how a writer should look upon his work – with enjoyment in telling the story. (I get it!) Between you and Mr. Pressfield I have had an education that could not be gained elsewhere. Thank you.

  2. The inside baseball is a big part of why I’m here. Your knowledge of what goes on behind the curtain is something I’ll never get anywhere else.

    1. Sara says:

      You said everything 🙂

  3. Alec Graf says:

    Hmmm, you wouldn’t be heading out into the Big Idea ballpark yourself, would you, Shawn? How *do* ideas make it into — and in — the marketplace…. Something meme-ish this way comes….?

  4. Tina Goodman says:

    Good agents know how editors think.
    How do editors think?
    We can find out what good editors KNOW by reading the archives of this blog. But, how do they THINK? I don’t know. Aren’t they all different, or do they all think the same things in the same way? I’ll stay tuned to find out.

  5. Patrick Maher says:

    If I was your editor I would insist that you pick up the phone and verify all of this with Gladwell himself. It’s brilliant, it’s entirely speculative, it reads beautifully, but if you don’t verify your assertions it will sit forever in the history of literature like a bulldog fart.

  6. Kim says:

    Shawn, Don’t verify the Gladwell story tales yet, not until you leave your hunch/research tracks all over the blog sphere. Enjoy the ride, it’s fun reading about your thoughts. You found your stride yet again. Kim

  7. Fran Civile says:

    I agree with Kim et all! I’m loving the way you’re picking into your “inside baseball” familiarity with the workings of literary matters and relishing the chance to share some of it’s juicy details with this appreciative audience … It’s a privilege to be here!

  8. A. R. Arias says:

    Great cliffhanger, Shawn.

    Okay, I’ll take a stab at this because I’ve thought about this for some time and my best guess is that it goes beyond the story on the page.

    I think Gladwell’s personal backstory had a lot to do with the book deal.
    You’ve got us on the edge of our seats, and I look forward to the next post.

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