Publishing: Profit or Perish, Part II

THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lynn Nesbit
Title: “Publishing: Profit or Perish!”, Part II
VTR: 4/30/89

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.

Last time, we became so involved, my guest and I, in the question of books in America, and publishing, and agentry, that I asked Lynn Nesbit, super-book-agent, to come back and talk with me again about many other book related issues. Ms. Nesbit, I’m glad you stayed on. I didn’t give you a chance to go home and change, and you’re a good sport.

One of the things I had wanted to ask you when we taped the show just previously is, you’re talking about best sellers, you deal with best-sellers as well as books, of course, that don’t make that rank. Is it possible to make a best-seller? Are there ingredients that you, as an agent, or an editor, or a publisher, or all of you together can put together to make a best-seller?

Nesbit: Well, some people think that best-sellers can be made, and I guess occasionally they can, but I don’t think necessarily they can. If you take a public personality such as an ex-President, or perhaps Nancy Reagan, I imagine the publisher can make that book into a best-seller because there is enough public recognition for that figure. Or a Chuck Yeager. I represented Yeager on his book years ago, and he was such an American folk hero, and the publisher perceived that early enough that they slanted the whole publication toward a July 4h publication date, toward saying, you know, “Chuck Yeager is as American as apple pie, and Mom, and the 4th of July”, and they had a very large first printing, I believe it was a least a hundred thousand copies, and the book then did go on and become a best-seller. And I cite Yeager because, of course, he’s not an ex-President, nor was he the wife of an ex-President.

Heffner: Of course now that’s non-fiction. But I really meant…was talking about the block-buster fiction books where there seems to be such an incredible attractiveness that one wonders whether there’s a formula, and whether you can…whether great novels can be made rather than being born. What do you think?

Nesbit: You mean great novels or great commercial successes?

Heffner: Thank you very much, because you’re right, I’m talking about great commercial successes.

Nesbit: Well, occasionally…every publishing season there are three or four, possibly, that many of those commercial novels or those entertainment novels that make it. But forevery one of those there are the others which the publishers, which various publishers have also tried to break out, which they can’t. So a few will rise to the surface from those big promotion and ad publishing campaigns, but not all of them will. So they take their shots.

Heffner: But what are the elements? If you were…if you wanted…I was going to say “cynically”, I don’t think I necessarily mean that, if you were realistically to say, “Look, I’ve been around a while, I see what attracts the American reader and I want to tell this good writer that she or he can create a best-seller”, what are the elements that go into a best-seller?

Nesbit: I don’t think you can tell a good writer to create a best-seller.

Heffner: then a lousy writer. Can you tell a lousy writer, or a fair-to-middling writer how to do it?

Nesbit: I don’t think so to be honest with you. I think that the books that are best…the best selling authors who may not have literary recognition, and the people say that they’re purely commercial, I believe that they are as passionate about the books that they write, if a different way, as what we call, in quotation marks, “literary writers”. I mean we see millions of imitators of Judith Krantz, Barbara Taylor Bradford, others…and they just don’t make it.

Heffner: Now Judy Krantz sat at this table, to a large extent because she remembered that we knew each other when…

Nesbit: Yes.

Heffner: …we were both much younger, and I asked her about the formulas, and I had no satisfactory reply. Is that because there isn’t one, because you can’t think up a formula for a best-seller?

Nesbit: Again, occasionally I’ve heard that people have thought up a formula and it has worked. But I don’t think so, I don’t think that Judith Krantz sits down and has a formula.

Heffner: Well, those occasions where you’ve heard of that, what in the world would have gone into the formula, in your estimate?

Nesbit: In television, perhaps, it’s easier to explain. There’s a television term called “high concept”, which means that you can explain a television program in one sentence. And I think those big books of entertainment have perhaps one sentence that could describe them, and they have a very clearly marked beginning, middle, and end. The heroine and…usually if we’re talking about books…romantic books, as opposed to thrillers, we’re talking about books that mostly women buy, it’s heroine starts out in trouble, or has problems from a lower class, struggles to get out of it, either professionally or through personal things, has a little decline, or perhaps meets the wrong kind of man, then professionally or through a certain kind of courage, overcomes everything and she ends on a romantic high.

Heffner: Now, so much for formulas. Is Lynn Nesbit going to write a book?

Nesbit: I’ve never wanted to write a book.

Heffner: Why? Because you have to want to and you’ve just never been bitten by the bug?

Nesbit: I guess if I couldn’t be Jane Austen, I’m not interested in writing a book.

Heffner: Suppose you were Jane Austen, do you think Jane Austin would be published today…

Nesbit: Oh…

Heffner: …maybe Lynn Nesbit could get a…

Nesbit: Definitely Jane Austen would be published today. I really want to impress upon you and on the people who are watching this program that good writing is getting published. It really is. You don’t see it, possibly, on the best-seller list…although we always see those few books that make it on, for example the Amy Tan book which I mentioned, which was a recent book, which nobody had known who the author was. But they get critically well-received, and the reputation begins to build. I represent Toni Morrison, I mean Toni is now a, quote, unquote, “Best-selling writer”. She wasn’t when she first published The Bluest Eye, but she’s published a number of books, her critical reputation has increased, her books have each sold more, and Beloved sold a couple of hundred thousand copies, an I’m sure her next book will build on that.

Heffner: Now, you’re a modest person, so this is a lousy question…but to what extent did your good agenting or agentry, help make her talents recognized?

Nesbit: Well, again I say that I’m an advocate for the writer, and I’m quite a committed person, and I was totally and completely committed to Toni, and to trying to achieve for her what she needed, which was partly some kind of financial freedom at the beginning. So I did try to get her contracts which would enable her to stop being an editor, to go off and write, and then to get her foreign rights sold, to bring her, you know, to public attention, to keep…in the best possible way, to keep after her publisher, and I mean that really not after them, but to be there with them for her. Sometimes I have to get “after” a publisher, but not with Knopf and Toni. It was really just another support system for Toni to depend upon.

Heffner: It sounds more and more as though there is a kind of relationship here, an interdependency, between author, agent, publisher, and of course in the publisher…I mean by that too, the editor, that is necessary for the big book, the good big book. Is that fair?

Nesbit: Yes. But let me quickly say here that neither the publishers or I would be here without the authors. I never forget that without the authors, I’d be out in the street looking for another job.

Heffner: Okay, I’m presuming that one starts with a talented author.

Nesbit: Yes.

Heffner: I’ve left the question of constructing a best-seller now…

Nesbit: Yes.

Heffner: …of making one up, not out of whole cloth, but of making one up. I’d like to get back to this question of Jane Austin and your own feelings about writing. You’ve been living such an exciting life in this world of books. I would think that the desire to pick up pen and put it to paper would be overwhelming.

Nesbit: Well, living as closely as I do with writers, I know how hard it is to write a book. It’s one of the most difficult things in the world. You labor away in silence and you bring out this book, and then you have to wait for the reviews. And it’s a very, very difficult way of life. I think writers are driven to write. I don’t feel driven to do that, but I so admire writers and respect them, that I feel that my best talents are being their advocate again.

Heffner: Well, you mention reviews and at the end of our first program we touched on the question of reviews. What is the power of the book reviewer/critic today?

Nesbit: Well, for serious writers, or writers who have no reputation, they’re very dependent on reviews because the publishers are not going to spend advertising money on their books, and this is where the self-fulfilling prophecy comes in. It’s almost more for the literary books because if they don’t get good reviews, the publishers absolutely won’t advertise because that’s what they’re publishing those books for…are for the literary attention. So the reviews are extremely important, and placement of the reviews. You can have a very good review on page 15 in the Book Review and it often…isn’t that terrible, I say the Book Review, and I mean The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and it doesn’t do much for the book. In fact, you’ll try to get an ad and the publisher ways, “Well, it was on page 15”.

Heffner: Why do you mention just The New York Times? Why when you talk about “The Book Review” you say immediately, “Of course, I’m talking about The New York Times”, the only one?

Nesbit: No, and there are many other important book reviews. Let me hasten to say, but it’s almost the…it is the book review of record. Remember that The New York Times Sunday Book Review is sold throughout America, independently of The New York Times. My sister buys it in a bookstore in Little Rock, Arkansas. So it is the review of record and when we have best-seller lists…the best-seller list in The New York Times is the best-seller list that is used for bonus clauses.

Heffner: Now that’s a fact…

Nesbit: Yes.

Heffner: …as you state it, as a fact. How do you respond? How do you react to that fact? You like it? You don’t like it?

Nesbit: Well, luckily in the book business we’re not totally dependent on it. It’s not like the theatre where you’re totally dependent on The New York Times critic. First place, we have two shots in The New York Times, the daily and the Sunday, and then there are the others, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times that are important, and if you do get several good reviews outside of New York, and not a favorable Sunday Book Review, it’s not all over. But certainly a very well placed, favorable review in the Sunday Times is extremely good news.

Heffner: That must put a tremendous burden upon the people who conduct the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Nesbit: I think it’s a burden they like.

Heffner: Do they exercise that burden, in your estimation, as well as they might?

Nesbit: Well, we can…I mean people have been, you know, nit-picking at the Book Review for years. But I think in the main they do their best. It’s a terribly difficult job to keep getting…

Heffner: Why?

Nesbit: Well, because they see so many books…

Heffner: Yes?

Nesbit: …and they…also you cannot blame the individual person at The New York Times, necessarily, for the fact that it’s a good or bad review. I’ve known people who’ve worked on the Times and they look at the book, and they like it. They sent it to a reviewer who they think will like it, and the reviewer hates it. And sends back a negative review.

Heffner: Now, are you suggesting that the Times itself, that Mike Levitas when he was the Book Review Editor…

Nesbit: Yes.

Heffner: …would necessarily accept something that came back saying something he didn’t like?

Nesbit: Oh, absolutely he’d accept it.

Heffner: So that it is totally up to the reviewer himself or herself.

Nesbit: I think…I never want to say “totally”, but I would say “Yes, it is”.

Heffner: But the choice of reviewer?

Nesbit: The choice of reviewer can make a difference. But what I’m saying is the best laid plans can go wrong. In other words, an editor on the Review could love a book, send it…again, send it out, and get a negative review. Or could dislike a book, and send it to somebody, and it comes back with a rather favorable review.

Heffner: Okay. You’re the one who talked about best-laid plans. Is the assumption then that the plans are there, and the assumption is when a book is sent out that this is going to get the good review I would give it as the editor, or the lousy review that I would give it as the editor? What’s the situation there? Knowingly, are the books sent to individual reviewers?

Nesbit: Well, I think they also…let’s put aside the quality of the book. They also want a lively review. So it, they may see it…say, let’s take a first novel, and they think “this is pretty interesting, this deserves an interesting mind to review it”, so the choice is…there are some assumptions implicit in the choice of reviewer, I think. We can’t say it’s totally objective. There’s a lot of subjectivity in the choice of the reviewer.

Heffner: Now, let me ask whether you feel that efforts are made by agents, by editors, by publishers to influence in any way, and I’m not talking about something good, bad or indifferent, to influence in any way the choice of the reviewers.

Nesbit: Oh, I think so, but I don’t think there’s anything devious in this. I mean this is what publisher’s publicity departments do. They may know a certain editor on The Review who’d interested in the South. They’ll call and say, “Look, we have this wonderful first novel that’s set in Charleston, and the voice is very original. Take a look at it. Really, it’s something special”. And I mean it’s absolutely true that people are trying to influence the Book Review.

Heffner: The other reviews, New Yorker Review of Books, what about their power, what about their influence? I know you mentioned The Washington Post. Does it start up at The New York Times and then go downhill very rapidly?

Nesbit: Well, no.

Heffner: In terms of power? I don’t mean in terms of quality.

Nesbit: Well, again, let me return to the fact that because this is a big country and there are book review sections all across, and we’re not dependent on one theatre in New York, but we’re dependent on stores all across the country. If we get good out-of-town reviews, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington and other places, this can support a book and help the sales. Newsweek and Time are important because again, they’re national media. The New York Review of Books is extremely important for academic books, less important for…in terms of sales it’s not an important…

Heffner: Now in our first program we talked about the power of agents. I talked about the power of agents. You were much more modest about that. I referred to your recent association as a conglomerate. You pointed out that it’s only a partnership. Agents in the world of film…

Nesbit: Yes.

Heffner: …moved into the making of film. Is there any indication that big agents in the world of books might move further and further into the world of publishing?

Nesbit: You mean agents…movie agents have run studios.

Heffner: Yes. Are literary agents likely to run…

Nesbit: Publishing houses?

Heffner: Publishing houses?

Nesbit: If I want to be totally cynical, I would say “No because there’s not as much money involved in running a publishing house as there is in being a literary agent”. That’s a very cynical remark.

Heffner: Why cynical?

Nesbit: Well,…

Heffner: It’s true.

Nesbit: In movie agents many studios can be very profitable. As can…as, you know…movie agents. That’s also a very profitable business. If you’re asking whether I’m interested in running a publishing house, no. I’ve been offered various positions in the publishing world over the years, and I really like my job. I like the lack of bureaucracy that’s involved in being an agent. I like being there in first position with a writer. And I like the whole pace of being an agent. It’s very high energy, it’s very fast.

Heffner: Now, let me go back to this first position. That’s a nice phrase. What do you mean?

Nesbit: Well, I’m there at the beginning with the writer, and in most cases. For example, I’ve represented Tom Wolfe on every book that he’s written, and that’s a wonderful feeling. I was there when we sold his first book to his publisher. So I feel that I’ve had a primary position in Tom’s publishing life through the years. And he’s had various editors who’ve left or died, as was the case of Henry Robbins. But that’s…it’s a good place to be.

Heffner: How do you compare or contrast, if you would, the influence, not power, the influence that first position that you’ve had, perhaps with Wolfe, with the first position that Maxwell Perkins had with the people with whom he worked? He was an editor.

Nesbit: Well, I think that Maxwell Perkins had an enormous effect on the writing of the writers he worked with. I don’t think I’ve had that effect on their prose itself. What you may be saying is that today the agent replaces that central editor in the writer’s career. They replace it in a different way. But I think there is some truth in the fact that I can’t really think of a writer…especially since Bob Gottlieb has left publishing, I can’t think of a writer who has been allied with an editor…with one editor at one house for a number of years. Yes, they may have been with the editor who’s moved around, or yes they may have stayed at one publishing house, but editors have come and gone.

Heffner: Would you encourage that? Moving from house to house to follow an editor? A good editor obviously.

Nesbit: Oh, I wouldn’t discourage it. I mean an editor-writer relationship can be very important. In fact what we try to get written into contract and can very occasionally is an editor out-clause, where if the editor leaves and there’s a very special relationship, the writer is allowed to move with the editor.

Heffner: Now when you say “very occasionally”, do you mean only once in a while, only occasionally, or as often as we can?

Nesbit: Well, the publisher won’t permit it.

Heffner: You don’t blame the publisher?

Nesbit: No, no, I understand their reasons for not permitting it. But at any time that I can affect such a clause I will do so. I mean in some cases it isn’t important. There’s not a strong, strong relationship. But for certain writers, they’re extremely dependent and want that.

Heffner: Now you mentioned in our first program, mentioned again now, the movement of editors. Is that a modern phenomenon, essentially?

Nesbit: I think it is, and you know, I think writers rather resent the tremendous complaints about their moving to other publishers for more money when they say, “Yes, but my editor left to go to another publishing house for more money”. We hear constantly about the writers leaving, but not about the editors leaving to enhance their position, or to increase their monetary…

Heffner: If you, from outside, looking at the publishing world, would you say that that, let’s call it something nice “mobility”, and hopefully for them it’s upward mobility, that that mobility had been good, bad or indifferent to the cause of good books?

Nesbit: The mobility of the editors?

Heffner: Yes.

Nesbit: Oh,

Heffner: Has it worked out?

Nesbit: I’m not certain I can make a judgment on that, whether it’s been…I think it’s been disruptive to writers in terms of their feeling of security while working on a book. I don’t think it’s damaged the quality of the book, necessarily, but I think it’s been a big disruption in the writer’s life and has made them increasingly less loyal to publisher, thus resulting in this phenomenon that people talk about, about writers moving for money.

Heffner: Lynn, everything moves for money it would seem, although at the beginning of our first program you were insistent on indicating that money is not the only thing that drives, market considerations are not the only things that drive the publishing world. Would you say, though, that more and more marketing considerations drive what appears on the market?

Nesbit: Do you mean the bottom line?

Heffner: The bottom line.

Nesbit: Okay. Because marketing…if…we’re always grateful for whatever marketing publishers do for various books…

Heffner: No, I didn’t mean…

Nesbit: Okay. (Laughter)

Heffner: …I meant successful…the successful marketing (laughter), the bottom line…

Nesbit: The bottom line.

Heffner: …as you put it.

Nesbit: I would say that probably we have to acknowledge that publishing houses that are owned by large corporations which do want them to have a profit, are more driven by the bottom line then the days when Alfred and Blanche Knopf started Knopf. So…

Heffner: With what impact on the world of books?

Nesbit: Now this would be an interesting essay for somebody to write.

Heffner: You write it.

Nesbit: (Laughter) It would take some research. I do know that people complain about commercial, too much commercial fiction today. I know that people tell me when they’ve looked back on the best-seller lists in the ’40s, there were enormous amounts of commercial fiction being published then. There’ve always been books that publishers put out, if the not the Blanche and Alfred Knopf, other publishers, to make money. Is there less good writing being published today? I don’t think so. What do you think, I have to ask you, as a layman?

Heffner: Well, you, you…I raise the questions about “aren’t we going to hell in a wheel barrow”, I’ve never really felt that way myself, but then I don’t think I know enough. I know I don’t know enough, I don’t know the world of publishing well enough. In the world of movies, which I know somewhat better, I’m always astonished to find that even at the end of a year, and it’s true every year that everyone has said, “This is the worst of all possible years”, when it comes to the Academy Awards, and I’m a member of the Academy, I’m very proud to pick…

Nesbit: Yes.

Heffner: …a dozen of more films that I’d be very happy to see elected, made Best Pictures, so I suppose it’s that way in your field, too.

Nesbit: Well, let’s talk about a very good phenomenon that’s taken hold in the business, which people said never could happen. Now there is original fiction being published in trade paperback format, and that fiction is getting review attention, and is selling. And that is a very, very healthy phenomenon because fifteen years ago people said, “Oh, you can’t publish good fiction in trade paperback because it won’t sell, it won’t get reviewed, and writers won’t like it”. Now that is being changed.

Heffner: Is it good fiction?

Nesbit: Very good. Oh, yes.

Heffner: Not just formula fiction?

Nesbit: Oh, I’m talking about serious…

Heffner: Right.

Nesbit: This is how they’re launching young writers today, many, many young writers. Vintage Contemporaries, which is a part of the Random House list, Bantam is doing it, Viking Penguin. Everyone is starting to do this, and they’re getting major reviews. You know that Saul Bellow recently published a book in original paperback.

Heffner: I did now that, yes.

Nesbit: I mean this is a very, very healthy…

Heffner: Meaning that costs are significantly lower?

Nesbit: Yes, and the book is not as expensive as the twenty dollar book. More people can buy it. More people can have access to these younger writers who they’ve never heard of.

Heffner: Of course, I can’t help but remember my first venture, THE DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES, that went into paperback at thirty-five cents, and I’ve missed those days ever since. That’s not the kind of inexpensive volume that you mean?

Nesbit: No, we’re talking about seven ninety-five.

Heffner: Quite a difference.

Nesbit: A trade paperback, as opposed to rack size. These trade paperbacks are sold in book stores. They’re not sold in racks in airports…

Heffner: So that…

Nesbit: …we have mass market as that kind of rack…

Heffner: You know this is the end of our second program. We have to talk sometime about the impact of saying available, or the potential for staying available for good books, keep them on the racks or whatever, wherever…

Nesbit: Right.

Heffner: …it is they’re sold. Thank you so much for joining me again, Lynn Nesbit.

Nesbit: Thank you again.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, today’s guest, today’s theme, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Edythe and Dean Dowling Foundation; Lawrence A. Wien; The New York Times Company Foundation; and, from the corporate community, Mutual of America.

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