Shelf esteem

Literary agents, editors and publicists weigh in on the unpredictable world of publishing.

Illustration: Zela Lobb

I had an uneasy feeling when the powers that be asked me to report on cultural gatekeepers in the literary world. This wasn’t because I found the topic boring or irrelevant—it seemed exciting to think about the mostly behind-the-scenes process of how books make their way out of a writer’s laptop and into the hands of readers. But there were problems with tracing an author’s path to cultural recognizability. First of all, there are no prime movers in the publishing world, but rather a nexus of agents, editors and publicists who collaborate in the attempt to push a book toward the tipping point. Second, almost every person I spoke with—a mere sliver of a massive industry, I’ll admit—contradicted someone else. The interesting thing about this latter fact was that no one seemed wrong, exactly. Instead, the contradictions emphasized that while there are identifiable forces that might drive a book to success (most notably the twin peaks of an author’s talent and a publisher’s marketing skills), the industry remains a constantly shifting game of chance.

But there are still well-established and trusted channels that most books move through before they reach publication, usually beginning with the literary agent. “A good agent has good taste and a grasp of the market,” says Lorin Stein, an editor at FSG who has worked on books by Denis Johnson and Roberto Bolaño. “For that reason, the best agents can be your most valuable teammates when you get around to actually publishing the book.” Ira Silverberg, an agent at Sterling Lord Literistic who represents Sam Lipsyte, Christopher Sorrentino and Rene Steinke, puts it another way: “We are the first line of defense—we keep it safe to read in America, because most of the stuff that people write is shit. That’s not to say that we don’t make mistakes, but at least we vet the writing first, and thus we are trusted by large houses and thus most large houses have a no-unsolicited-manuscripts policy.”

The conventional wisdom is that an author needs an agent, but one novelist I spoke to put a twist in this rule. James Hannaham, a staff writer at Salon.com and an occasional TONY contributor who is not represented by an agency, recently sold God Says No, his debut novel about a gay Southern Christian who undergoes “treatment” for his homosexuality, to McSweeney’s Books, which has published books by Lydia Davis and Jonathan Lethem, among others. “I don’t think I could have done it just cold-calling on my own,” he says. “The novelist Jennifer Egan helped me a great deal as I tried to find an agent.” But after a year, Hannaham still hadn’t convinced anyone to represent his book. “We couldn’t figure out what they wanted. Some people were like, ‘I love the first half, but the second half needs work.’ Others said, ‘I love the second half.’ Everybody had a different dealbreaker.” So Hannaham and Egan changed their strategy and sent the manuscript directly to three publishers, all of whom were interested. “I felt really vindicated, because it suggests that there’s a disconnect between what publishers want and what agents are interested in representing.”

It’s true that some editors see promise in books that most other people have passed up. “You can’t turn water into wine when it comes to shaping books, but if the talent is there, sometimes you can turn wine into champagne,” says Random House editor Julia Cheiffetz. “My author Karen Abbott’s proposal for Sin in the Second City was rejected all over town, but the book we ended up publishing was substantially different from what she initially proposed. I like fixing things up.” Still, other editors argued that the publishers of literary fiction and nonfiction are more or less in a consensus. “If one editor says a book is a work of genius and no one else agrees, how is he going to publish that book?” Stein says.

Once a book is printed, it reaches a new and complex series of gatekeepers—namely the media, blogs, bookstores and readers themselves. Most publicists confer that no one thing can make an author a household name. Almost everyone agrees that a long interview on NPR’s Fresh Air can be a huge boost (one industry insider said that “Terry Gross blows [New York Times reviewer] Michiko Kakutani out of the water”), but that selling books requires a tricky mix of review attention, bookseller enthusiasm and word-of-mouth praise. Others, such as the independent publicist Lauren Cerand, are trying to find new methods of boosting their authors, most notably on the Web. “In publishing, so much time is spent only talking to people who are perceived as already sold on the idea of the book, whereas I’m going to try to talk to everyone in the world who has $20,” she says.

Though some tomes are destined for Tree of Smoke notoriety, every book is a snowflake. According to the blogger-reviewer Maud Newton, “The truth is, it’s hard to say what motivates people to pick up a book.” Depending on where you sit, this could be the cause of extended periods of head-scratching, if not flat-out existential dread. But the madness can also be exciting. “If I knew the best way for an author to reach an audience, I’d be very rich,” says publicist and former bookseller Kimberly Burns. “It sounds flip, but that’s why I love publishing—you never, never know.”