Literary Agent Roundtable: 'Even the Bad Movies Sell Editions'

New York's top book agents on Schwarzenegger's flop, the Lena Dunham-Gawker spat and why Hollywood loves "The Fault in Our Stars."

THR: Where are you looking to find talent these days?

HARRIS: I grew up scouring magazines and literary journals, but that has largely dried up. Most magazines have their writers already under contract, and there's very little space there. Our younger colleagues are reading blogs, are watching Amazon best-seller lists for books that may be unrepresented but are starting to pop. It's encouraging to see the business learning how to create new places where writers can actually develop their voice and make money while they're growing enough of a fan base to potentially jump over and join the commercial trade publishing side.

GOTTLIEB: Amazon has created an opportunity for authors to be published who under normal circumstances would never be published because of the bottleneck of traditional publishing. We represent a book called The Abbey, a story of a Midwest homicide detective who's a Muslim American. If I went out with that book to a traditional publisher, I would have a very hard time selling it. The book sold 1 million copies on Amazon, 350,000 copies on Barnes & Noble, and suddenly publishers start to notice.

SIMONOFF: It's interesting in the push and pull between bloggers and online providers of free content that people will still pay in book form for that which they can have in many cases for free. There's Awkward Family Photos, Stuff White People Like, The Book of Awesome.

WITHERSPOON: We're seeing the influence of self-published romance on commercially published romance. Which is to say that there is a lot more sex in it now.

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THR: Obviously, that's Fifty Shades.

WITHERSPOON: Most traditional houses would not have thought that Fifty Shades was a book that they could do real business with their core romance audience. It was [Random House's] Vintage ultimately who triumphed.

THR: Was it because it was too sexually graphic?

WITHERSPOON: Yeah, and the quality of the writing, quite frankly.

THR: Is there a lesson to be learned from that about what can cross over?

HARRIS: There is an enormous amount of opportunity in chasing what's going on in self-publishing and chasing blogs, but at the end of the day, as Christy said, you have to believe in it on a sustainable level. Following trends is a really, really tricky way to build a client list in our business.

GOTTLIEB: I think it's important to be open-minded today and not characterize an original e-book necessarily as a down-market book because it was published in that format first but to look at it from a new perspective.

SIMONOFF: We're in an age of experimentation. Publishers are experimenting, we're experimenting, and authors are experimenting. There are many more outlets than there used to be. There's apparently a hunger, at least among a number of companies, for midlength material -- longer than a short story or essay article but shorter than an actual book. There's Byliner, there's Atavist, there's Kindle Singles that in a certain sense takes the magazine [or book publisher] out of the equation and plugs something else in there. The results so far have been somewhat mixed but interesting.

HARRIS: It literally is this very old-fashioned, very dysfunctional business sort of shape-shifting before our eyes, which is incredibly exciting.

WITHERSPOON: It's kind of perfect timing isn't it? We would all be so bored otherwise.

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THR: Do recommendations from existing clients help?

WITHERSPOON: It does go a long way. You're getting a recommendation from somebody whom you trust pretty completely not to be wasting your time.

SIMONOFF: Because we do get queries from people who say, "So-and-so recommended us." Then you call [the client] and they have no idea what you're talking about.

REAMER: That happens more often than not.

WITHERSPOON: The imposters. (Laughs.)

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