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NYTimes.com Article: An Odd Business Felt Even Odder (fwd)

           See The Exhibition Online, And Order Your Catalog.

Hi, all --

I realize that this New York Times article is about book agents &
commercial publishing rather than art and bookmakers, but given the recent
discussions on-list about getting back to work, I thought it an
interesting side-note.


---------- Forwarded message ----------

An Odd Business Felt Even Odder

September 20, 2001


For all but the grieving, the rescuers, the reporters at
the scene, there's the sense of having been marginalized
this past week. People have been getting back to work,
cautiously, and that is true in book publishing as
elsewhere. But nonetheless there's the feeling of
cessation, abeyance, except for those publishers and
literary agents who by circumstance had work at the ready
that was precisely of the moment. I received several books
on Afghanistan and Islam yesterday from publishers, for

It was a week in which it was nearly impossible to talk
about books. But books are the purveyors of information as
well as literature, and it seems to me that the quicker
publishing returns to normalcy — the faster the agents
start to balance their genuine distress for what has been
lost with their solicitousness for what's happening to
their authors' books — the better it will be. Peter Osnos,
the publisher of PublicAffairs, put it this way: "We are
people who provide information, whose books are supposed to
help, teach, comfort, and people who feel sheepish now in
publishing should remind themselves that this is what we
are meant to do."

I am thinking about this because tomorrow night the
Association of Authors' Representatives, the pre- eminent
agents' group, with about 350 members, will celebrate its
10th anniversary at the hip and snappy W Hotel at Union
Square. A case can be made that it's one thing to get back
to work at this time, and quite another to party, but
Donald Maass, president of the group, said, "Yes, we
thought about canceling but decided that it would be better
to go ahead, that it was best in this situation, since
publishing is one of the most important things done in a
free society, and we can't be cowed." The dance as symbol.
Well, why not?

Publishing is a community, and in that populace the agent
is the caretaker of the writer. One agent told me that she
received calls from every client. "They were genuinely
concerned about my well-being." she said. "Once they knew I
was all right, they wanted assurance that the person who
takes care of them wasn't weeping under her desk.
Friendships abound between writers and agents and editors,
and I was really touched by the calls."

Every agent I spoke to had a similar experience, and
despite their clichéd reputation for rapaciousness, few
were doing business as usual.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about agenting is that
it hasn't actually changed that much in the 10 years since
the organization was created. (There are at least as many
agents who aren't members of the association.) Agents are
the betwixt of publishing — they want this or that, and
publishers say yes or no — so an update of their thinking
is a fairly good indicator of where publishing is at any

Between 1991 and 2001 there have not been a lot of new
revenue streams for writers. Esther Newberg, a leading
agent and not a member of the association, said that
perhaps one the more striking occurrences was one that
didn't occur. "The revolution that hasn't happened,
e-books," she said. "We all overreacted to them."

Unlike movie agenting, which has roiled and bubbled, book
agenting has been somewhat resistant to change, some would
say, although it is true that agents are more crucial to
their clients than ever before: for one thing, the
pinballing of editors from publishing house to publishing
house means that the agent is often the only constant in
the writer's professional life. And the conglomeration of
publishing means that there may be fewer customers who can
write the checks that buy the writer's work. It should be
noted that there's a similar trend to merge in agenting,
and there are perhaps fewer independent entrepreneurial
start-ups now than in the past.

Obviously there have been some changes in the last 10
years. Meredith G. Bernstein said that her fellow agents
"will now do more developing of projects, have ideas for a
book's subject, not just sit back and wait for writers to
come up with the ideas for their next book." Jean Naggar, a
former association president, added, "We've always been
activists, but even more so now, putting together as many
elements as possible, marketing, getting blurb quotes."

Robert Gottlieb, head of the Trident Media Group, goes even
further. He sees the agent as both agent and manager. "As
much as we are a literary agency," he said, "we are also
our authors' business manager, and we look after their
intellectual property and we help our clients market their
work. We are franchise building." None of this is
particularly great for young writers, who will find it
harder to get representation from agents so busy. Theresa
Park, a young agent at Sanford J. Greenburger Associates,
said that more than ever, "we can no longer take on clients
indiscriminately — we need to be more selective."

I spoke to several other young agents this week, and like
nearly everyone else in their business, they were not quite
ready for business yet. Generally, agents are holding back
on submissions. For instance, Amy Williams, at
International Creative Management, said, "Unless a client
has something that relates to an issue of the crisis,
directly relates to what's going on, I feel more
comfortable laying back a bit right now."

Jay Mandel at the William Morris Agency was a bit more
personal. "I have to pace my way back into a normal work
life," he said. "As much as I can I'd like to focus on
things that have nothing to do with the recent events."
Then he added, "Every agent in town has some sort of
submission out there he feels largely uncomfortable about
right now." But Ms. Williams, Mr. Mandel and Ms. Park see
their jobs as going beyond the traditional agent role of
simply making the deal.

There's no entrance exam to becoming an agent; anyone can
put up a shingle. What attracts people to it are the love
of books and writers — and the knowledge that if you have
the right property to sell on any given day, any given
agent, even the youngest, could strike it rich, could even
make the biggest sale in the history of publishing. From
the oldest and most experienced to the youngest and newest,
no matter how publishing has changed, there's that sense of
excitement and adventure in the belief that the very next
writer coming around the corner headed toward your office
might be the next John Grisham or J. K. Rowling.


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