Publishing Power Agents on Obama's Literary Potential, Why Vince Gilligan Should Write a Novel
Sloan Harris and Esther Newberg, partners/co-heads of ICM's publishing department, which helped bring 'Steve Jobs' and 'Black Mass' to the screen, also reveal their dream celebrity memoir (Clint Eastwood) and why Newberg's favorite book is by a Yankee.
This story first appeared in the April 22 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Sloan Harris and Esther Newberg are in charge of arguably the most influential collection of book agents at a Hollywood talent agency. The publishing department at ICM Partners represents more than 100 best-sellers a year — including the last two Pulitzer winners (The Goldfinch and All the Light We Cannot See), authors as diverse as Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai and comedian Steve Martin — and helped bring Steve Jobs and Black Mass to the screen. Harris, 53, and Newberg, 74, who have co-run the department since 2007 and whose offices sit 10 feet apart, have the easy familiarity that comes from having long debated issues professional (Harris admits to liking to edit proposals, Newberg believes in a light touch) and personal (she roots for the Red Sox, he the Yankees).
Newberg joined the agency in 1976 after a career in politics (she worked on Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential run). Harris, who lives in Connecticut with his wife and two sons, started in the mailroom in 1990. They now find themselves at the top of the publishing world during a period of radical transformation amid digital disruption. The pair invited THR to their Midtown offices to discuss the industry, whether President Obama's memoir will be a hit and why Newberg's favorite book is by a Yankee.
The past few years have seen upheaval in publishing because of digital and mergers. Is the worst over?
HARRIS For the moment. It's not so much e-books, but what's going on in retail. Barnes and Noble is in dreadful shape and Borders closed. The big brand-name authors with a track record, we're still fetching top dollar for them without breaking a sweat. It is progressively more difficult to launch a new voice and to create a sales track that's sustainable, and that's all about the inefficiencies of retail.
Has the Fifty Shades-led "mom porn" boom peaked?
NEWBERG It hasn't receded, no.
HARRIS The thing that seems to have peaked is the runaway success of certain self-published authors, and the sense that self-publication was going to be a panacea for everything that's wrong with the business.
What are you looking for in a proposal?
NEWBERG Depends if it's a subject you're particularly interested in or if it's been recommended by a client who's at the Times or someplace and says this is a new best thing.
Do you listen to your assistants to find new stuff?
HARRIS A lot. We have a bumper crop of really smart, younger colleagues. We realize they'll have an ear for new kinds of writing that we may not. What we've been doing a lot more of recently is mentoring our younger colleagues and representing clients together.
NEWBERG I had an assistant who sold a gluten-free cookbook for $2 million.
The financial pressures on publishers have created the perception that editors are editing less.
NEWBERG I don't sell to somebody who doesn't edit, maybe that's why it goes often to the same group of people. I hate people saying that publishing has changed in that way. "Just go to Amazon. They don't edit." Bad agents are selling to the wrong people.
How about marketing? Do you take on more of that now than you did a few years ago?
HARRIS Absolutely. We're representing an author for their career, so every outcome counts when we're thinking about the span of that career. We take a very active hand in asking what the marketing plan looks like. Publishers often are defensive about our involving ourselves. The truth is, we're just trying to help. If the book sells well, we've done everyone a favor, so it's sometimes surprising that they resist our efforts when, in fact, we're really partners.
An author appearance on Colbert Report, Jon Stewart's Daily Show or Oprah guaranteed sales. Has anything filled the void since they left the air?
NEWBERG [Tenth of December author ] George Saunders couldn't get on the morning shows, but George Stephanopoulos controls the three-minute segment on This Week where he interviews anybody he wants and the sales jumped because it's a smart audience who buys books.
HARRIS NPR's Fresh Air is a home run, but pretending there's some template for unlocking this stuff doesn't match reality, and this is where a lot of our frustrations come from. Editors have typically bought these books from us in some paroxysm of enthusiasm, and then the book delivers, and we expect them to remember what they loved about it and how to present it enthusiastically. Unfortunately, by that time, we often have our work cut out for us.
You think publishers should move faster?
NEWBERG They ask for 18 months to publish. It's paper, for God's sake or now, digital. Why? They'll tell you they need to plot out each one of these campaigns. Seriously, there are only so many places to go anymore.
HARRIS Of course. We have big commercial novels that go into production two months before their pub date. It used to be that they were shuffling galleys to long-lead magazines for review coverage, using them really to sell into the accounts. I'm not persuaded that those nine months or a year are being used effectively.
Which has had more of an impact on your business: "Peak TV" or the way in which the movie business has become more franchise driven?
NEWBERG Peak TV. Huge.
HARRIS Some of that has to do with how much better integrated we are with the L.A. office, but part of it is, as you say, that market is white-hot.
NEWBERG Sloan and I both represent a lot of big commercial writers [Nelson DeMille, Patricia Cornwell], and you have to be very careful. If a successful commercial writer makes the mistake of putting one of the characters from his main series into a second series, the studio still owns that character.
You're more careful now?
HARRIS The attorney who conducts all of our TV and [film] deals is actually here in New York. We think it's important to have her in this department. It's these colleagues who make us look smarter because they're thinking about these permutations regarding character rights, sequels and prequels. They help us be superproactive in limiting the rights we're granting the studios. The era of hustling to take a big fat option and being happy for the transaction passed long ago. We're far more cautious.
NEWBERG This was after having gone through bad experiences. I represent John Sandford [Prey series], who is a number-one best-seller. I sold his first book to a publisher for $450,000. I sold that book to producers who didn't do anything with it for a very long time. There was no turnaround. Our lawyers 35 years ago didn't look at this stuff. The producers won't give the rights back, even if John were to pay the money to buy it back.
Do you have a dream get among celebrity memoirs?
HARRIS Clint Eastwood. I would love to get [ICM client] Vince Gilligan to write a novel, too. That guy is a master storyteller and we could create a monster business for him.
How much do you think President Obama's memoir will sell for? A bigger deal than Bill Clinton's reported $15 million or George W. Bush's $7 million?
NEWBERG It could be the biggest because publishers are, for the most part, liberal. They know he can write — he wrote his first book himself. Maybe now, he'll tell things that he couldn't.
How about the first lady? Bigger than Laura Bush?
NEWBERG Much bigger.
Is there anyone else in the Obama administration whose book has potential?
NEWBERG Yes, but I'm not telling because some of your readers will be literary agents.
Out of the current presidential campaign, is there someone that readers will care about?
HARRIS Given the tenor of the conversation, it's really hard for me to imagine anyone really inspiring coming out of this campaign.
Megyn Kelly and Amy Schumer just got huge advances over $5 million. Lena Dunham and Tina Fey, too. Bruce Springsteen got over $10 million. Do numbers like that make your job easier or harder?
NEWBERG Tina's book worked, Lena's book worked. It's good when it works. It isn't when it doesn't.
HARRIS Rarely are you going to match a figure like that, but if you have the goods, it's great for you, right?
What's a book that people would be surprised to know you like?
NEWBERG Mariano Rivera's autobiography. He came from nothing and ended up as one of the finest human beings to ever wear a uniform. I'm bitter, hold grudges, and he's a Yankee, but I did love that book.