Publishing: Profit or Perish, Part I
VTR Date: April 30, 1989
Guest: Nesbit, Lynn
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THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Lynn Nesbit
Title: “Publishing: Profit or Perish!”, Part I
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND.
First, of course, there was the word. But then – on this program at least – it would seem that there was the book…and people of the book. For over THE OPEN MIND’s three decades and more I suspect I’ve sat at this table with literally hundreds of book people: book authors, book editors, book publishers, book sellers, even book critics…though never before, strange as it may seem, with a book agent, a “literary representative”.
That is strange these days – and largely why I’m remedying the situation right now – because in our time agents play such an enormous role in the world of the book that when a few months ago she left her long-time power position as Vice President of ICM, International Creative Management, to form a literary partnership with that other super agent, Morton Janklow, today’s OPEN MIND guest, Lynn Nesbit, made the kinds of headlines usually afforded only other major moguls and mergers in American publishing.
Indeed, confronted with the press literally going bananas over this new book agent conglomerate – and thinking about once again putting pen to paper myself – I realize just how little I know about “literary representatives” today…what they really do, and how and why. And I thought I’d just begin our program by asking Ms. Nesbit precisely what it is she most of all represents: Literature? Her clients’ creative instincts? Her clients’ literary reputation and future? Or essentially the bucks a particular book could make…like perhaps right now? Ms. Nesbit?
Nesbit: What I represent, I hope, is the best interests of whatever client I’m then working for. Clients are not uniform in any way. Some client may want me to get the most money possible for a book. Then it becomes my obligation to try to do that. Another client will say, “Look, I’ve been at X publisher for years. I like my editor. My editor is one of those few editors who hasn’t moved around the publishing business, and I’d like to try to stay here, even though perhaps you might find another editor at another house who’d pay more”. So within the confines of what I hear from that client, I try to set up and make the best deal I possibly can with the house they want to stay at.
Heffner: Now making the best deal…where does literature and literary interests come in, in this configuration of ideas?
Nesbit: Well, if…the author that I just posited probably is a literary writer, and what do we mean by a literary writer? I would say that it’s the kind of author who writes because that’s the only thing they could do in life. They didn’t set out to make money, necessarily, they didn’t set out to become household brand names, which is what the chains often call authors. They set out because they wanted to do something to make their mark with a literary voice. So in that case, I still have an obligation to try to get that author the most money, or the best back-end possibilities for his or her book that I can. I can’t say, “Well, this is not a big, best-selling author. What difference does it make what kind of deal I make”?
Heffner: Is it money, though, that drives the making of books, the signing of contracts today essentially? That’s what one hears that more and more given the conglomerates in the publishing business, given the necessity for an expensive company to bring in lots and lots of dollars, that the books that are going to be the big sellers, those are the books that will get the only real breaks. True or untrue?
Nesbit: Well, the books that potentially seem like they’ll be the biggest money-makers will probably get the biggest advertising budgets. But that’s always been true. I mean it’s been true ever since publishing started. Well, in our lifetime, at least. For books which don’t get those big advertising dollars, what matters is very, very good reviews and also possibly that strange thing that can happen when the bookstores recognize it early on as having some kind of special potential. I mean most recently there was the Amy Tan novel which made a tremendous splash in the publishing world. Amy Tan was unknown. She did not have a particularly large advance from the publishing company. The book got wonderful reviews, the public seemed to respond to it, and it made the best seller list.
Heffner: Is that more likely these days to be the agent’s work, getting the book sellers to recognize the value of a particular author, a particular book?
Nesbit: No, that rally isn’t the agent’s role…that’s the publisher’s role. We seldom, if ever, see the actual sales staff at a publishing house. I mean the people that go out and sell the book to the bookstores. What we try to do is position a book with a publisher. Now, do you want me to talk about…you want me to talk about a smaller book, in other words, not a gigantic advance?
Heffner: Well, I like this word “position”. What do you mean that your job is “to position” a book? Whatever the book is.
Nesbit: If I’m selling a book of non-fiction, for example, that has a particularly contemporary bent, but the author is not well-known, I will go to a publisher and talk to an editor and say “Look, this author has no real track record…” but discuss the journalism that he or she has possibly written or the essays, and then discuss what kind of potential that this book could have. How it could trigger a certain impulse in the book buying public. How I feel that we could…we as agents…could sell very good first serial rights, which would again give it a little extra pre-publishing flourish so that the public would see what was coming. I also think it’s important, you know, I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again, our job is not just in negotiating the contract, but it’s tracking the book through, up until the time it’s published.
Heffner: What do you mean “tracking it through”? In what terms?
Nesbit: Well, when the book comes in, that would be the moment we would sell magazine rights. I sold, for example, Jonathan Kozlo’s most recent book to The New Yorker this year, the book on the homeless, Rachel and Her children. That helped Crown really wake up. “My goodness, The New Yorker’s interested in this for a two-parter”. That makes the publisher listen. They you can say, “Well, with that kind of first serial sale, don’t you think possibly you should increase the print run because it shows a bigger audience than Kozol’s possibly received in the past”? This is an important issue even though it’s what publishers would call a “down” topic. I mean people don’t like to read about negative subjects, such as the homeless and Central America. Those are subjects which seem to be anathema to the book-buying public.
Heffner: But you know, you say you worked at this, you help run it through the publisher. Wasn’t this twenty, thirty years ago, essentially the business of the editor or the publisher or the marketing arm of the publisher rather than the territory of a very smart, very good agent?
Nesbit: I think that it was. I wasn’t…I wasn’t around thirty years ago, but I do think that certainly in the last fifteen years, the role of the agent has increased, and I think that’s partly due to the fact of the publishing conglomerates. As publishing has become bigger and bigger, and as editors move around in order to get salary increases, the agent has become increasingly the focal point in a writer’s life. I mean I represented a writer once who had three different editors come and go during the publication of his book. I mean that’s astonishing.
Heffner: Does that mean that the agent today must have skills, abilities and experiences that are different from ten years ago, let’s say, that you must have the skills that perhaps an editor does, too?
Nesbit: Well, I don’t edit, and I don’t think most agents do. I mean I don’t put pen to paper and line edit. Sometimes I’ll have suggestions for a book. But what I think is that increasingly we’re the writer’s advocate, the real advocate, and that we not only bring the book to the publishing house, but we have to stay involved in the process because as the publishers publish so many books, the writers depend on us to keep flagging the book, and saying to the publishers, “Look, keep paying attention to this” because they’re publishing, you know, hundreds of books.
Heffner: If you were on the other side of the fence, is there any downside to the more and more importance that literary representatives play, that book agents play today, in terms of the well-being of the world of books?
Nesbit: Well, I think that most editors would tell you that they’re glad to have writers represented by strong agents. I really do think that.
Nesbit: Because it helps make their job easier. First place, they…we are the ones who really have to translate what’s happening in the publishing house to the writer. If we weren’t there to mediate, the writer would be on the phone a hundred times to the editor about and beyond just the normal process of editing. They would be calling the editor about the size of the first printing, the advertising budget, whether it should be published in March or May. Instead they’re on the phone to me, and I’m on the phone to the editor.
Heffner: Now, let me ask about this business of…to the degree that you are successful in representing the writer’s economic interests…
Heffner: …does that include, necessarily, bigger and bigger advances? Is there something damaging, as I’ve heard suggested to the million dollar, two million dollar, three million dollar advance, something that happens to the writer himself, or herself?
Nesbit: Well I think that depends on the writer. I don’t think it is inherently damaging to writers, per se. Do I think the big advances are damaging to the publishers?
Heffner: No, not to the publishers. To the world of books.
Nesbit: Well, usually the writers who get those big advances are not the struggling young writers anyway, who are going to be overcome by receiving these pots of money. Actually a more interesting question would be “To a first or second time writer who receives a $300,000, a $400,000 advance…” because I’ve heard of certain writers at that level experiencing some sensitivity about being able to write a book that will then justify that kind of money. The people who are getting seven figures probably already have a track record.
Heffner: Okay, well, let’s…let’s take the question that you think would be better. What is the answer to that? Do you think it more, rather than less, frequently happens that that middle advance is…weighs too heavily upon a writer?
Nesbit: I think it does from time to time, but I don’t think you can tell any writer not to accept it if they want it.
Heffner: Have you ever done that?
Nesbit: No. No. Most writers pretty much know what they want. I think this is…there’s some sort of misconception that agents tell writers what to do. Writers have a firmer idea of what they want than I think the publishing world, or the world outside knows. What we can do is help channel their thoughts, but if a…you know, again I have a writer who I just did an enormous deal for, but she’s a…she has a huge track record. And when I did this deal it was for a two book contract, and it was for…a…
Heffner: A lot of dough.
Nesbit: …a large seven figures. I said to her, “Look, I know that if I took these books elsewhere, not to your regular publisher, that somebody would pay, probably a million dollars more”. She said, “It’s okay, I’d rather stay with my present publisher. They published me well. It’s a very, very good contract. I will finish the contract. I write…it doesn’t take me ten years to write a book. I will finish the contract in the next four years, my books will go into royalties, and I don’t want to be stretching for that last dollar”.
Heffner: Well, now what do we do about the statement that’s frequently heard that Lynn Nesbit is so successful in getting big bucks for the people she represents, that those monies represent, not the only monies that publishers can put in, but a larger and larger percentage of the monies publishers will invest, and therefore little guys, little gals don’t have a chance.
Nesbit: Oh, I think it’s…I think that’s untrue, and I represent a lot of people who don’t get gigantic advances.
Heffner: Well, let’s take the notion, where does it become untrue if there’s a certain amount of money, and I assume that there is a certain pot from which the publishers will make these advances, if they go three, four, five million dollars to your clients, that’s three, four, five million dollars less for a lot of other authors.
Nesbit: but those clients who are getting three, four, five million dollars have also often earned it. Now there are the exceptions where we’ll hear…there was an author recently who’s name I can’t remember, who was sold to Simon & Schuster in a two book contract for two million dollars. Nobody in the publishing world had heard of this woman. I mean she did not have a very big reputation. But Pocketbooks, I believe, went in on it and they must have gambled on the fact that over the next few years, the book would earn out. But there is, I mean you know there are crazy wild cards in our business. It’s true, there are. I mean you get into an auction and somebody will pay way, way…what one thinks is way, way too much money.
Heffner: Now, let me ask…how does one become one of those…one of those clients that you look after? There must be a long list of people who want to be represented by Lynn Nesbit, and particularly now that you have this super conglomerate…
Nesbit: Well, it’s not a conglomerate…wait a minute…
Heffner: What do we call it?
Nesbit: We have a very small partnership. (Laughter)
Heffner: Two people.
Heffner: Make up a conglomerate in terms of the clients they represent, the dollars they represent…is that totally unfair?
Nesbit: Well, I think there are lots of other agents out there with clients who are making money or representing writers with the publishing houses. We do have, you know, a big list of writers, important and others who we hope will be important. Now…I’m sorry, I forgot your question.
Heffner: Well, the question was…a) how does one become a client, meaning really, what do you look for as you take or do not take someone? b) how do you provide the time for looking after all of these chickens that you’re mothering here?
Heffner: What is it that happens?
Nesbit: Well, at this point I do have a large list of clients who I’ve represented over the years, so in taking on new people I try to avoid what I call ”one-shots”, meaning one…that the person will only come with one book, say a celebrity book, or some book that is…that the writer’s not going to continue to keep doing other books. Now there are exceptions. I might take something. But I try to avoid what I call “one-shots”. I also try to take things that I, personally, respond to. I feel I have that luxury right now.
Heffner: People or books, or both?
Nesbit: Oh, no. books. I always say to…occasionally a writer will want to meet me before I read their book. And I say “I might love you and not like your book, and after all I’m representing your book. So let me read the book first, and then we can talk”.
Heffner: But doesn’t that, in a sense, fly in the face of the situation in which someone becomes your author, and you arrange for so many, many, many, many different books over the years then. You are talking about a person rather than just that first book.
Nesbit: Right. But then it becomes a relationship or a friendship over the years. Really, we should say a professional friendship. I think that we should never confuse the fact that it is a professional relationship. This, you know…I don’t represent somebody because he or she is my best friend.
Heffner: Now, you use the word “profession”. I’m glad you raise it. I showed you before the transcript of a program that Sam Vaughan and I did eleven years ago, and we finally got down to the question of “professionalism”. We’re talking about him as a publisher, as an editor. How much of the business of publishing makes it…or to what degree is it a profession, and not just a business, if that phrase is not offensive…just a business.
Nesbit: Well, I think we do have a commitment to something higher than just making money.
Nesbit: To ideas. To literature. To some books which have a kind of cultural and intellectual importance. I mean, even publishers have this…we all may have some books which seem mostly like entertainments. We all have some of those on our lists. But I think there isn’t a major publisher that doesn’t have a commitment to doing books that stand for something.
Heffner: Well, that’s of course why I asked the question about whether…to what degree the bottom line drives publishing. And I’m sure you’re correct, that there is an element of commitment, thoroughly. I’m not going to make the same mistake, and talk about twenty, thirty years ago because you can’t respond to that. But going back to when you entered this incredible field…
Heffner: …do you think that dollars, per se, do less by way of driving publishing decisions?
Nesbit: Well, I think that in the late sixties and early seventies when mass market paperback houses began to pay enormous prices, remember that?
Nesbit: And people would say, “Oh, it’s the end of the business”. I mean it’s…nobody cares about anything but money”. Then there was a bit of a recession in terms of the publishing business, the paperback advances went down. Now we’re seeing a big upsurge again of big money, for a few brand names, and I think we should talk about the chains for a minute. About eight…
Heffner: The selling chains.
Nesbit: Yes. The chain bookstores have made it…have made a difference in the business. They came into prominence about eight years ago, I would say, and they did some discounting, and they were only interested…or not only interested, I want to be very careful here, but their primary interest was in big brand name authors, people with big track records, and everyone in the business preached doom and gloom, “Oh, this is the end of literature, this is the end of the first novel, this is the end of everything”. Well, now what we see happening is that the independent bookstores have strengthened against the chains. Some of the independent bookstores went out of business, but many of them strengthened, and now we have in the terms of bookstores across America about fifty percent are chain bookstores and fifty percent are independents. And the chains are now assuming more of a proper role in the whole business. The discounting didn’t pay very well for them. They lost money, so now the books cost pretty much the same anywhere, except for the top ten. And I think that in the last couple of years, and I think we’re going to see this in the future, there’s going…we’re going to be encouraged about the business, and about new ideas, new writers. I feel that it’s in a way, we’re at the beginning of a very good period.
Heffner: Well, you rejected before the notion that you and Mr. Jankow made up a conglomerate. It’s a partnership. What about the conglomerates taking over any number of publishing houses? Are you concerned about that? Because that hasn’t stopped. In fact when Sam Vaughan was here eleven years ago, and I raised that question he said, “Well, no longer, that’s, that’s dying out now”. But in these past years that has not died out. Pretty soon there will be, perhaps, one large publishing firm. What’s your response to concern in that area?
Nesbit: I think it is somewhat troubling because we have fewer buyers and that’s always a problem. I t does seem to me that it’s getting to be more like the movie business in which you have four or five major distributors. What may happen is that there may be more and more independent lines, which are distributed by those four or five major companies. Seymour Lawrence Books has done…has been one of those for years. You probably know Sam. He’s a maverick and has a wonderful line of books, very much his own taste, and his books are distributed now by Houghton Mifflin, and we may see that happen more and more.
Heffner: Now that’s been happening though, that imprint business has been happening for a long time. Is that what you see? You say it may happen more and more. My sense is that it’s not happening more frequently than it did a decade ago.
Nesbit: But I think it…is it happening more than it did a decade ago? It is not decreasing. I don’t think it’s decreasing at all.
Heffner: And the matter of the conglomerates therefore, you feel, will be to some extent offset by these private imprints? And Seymour Lawrence is very important. When we went to high school together I knew that he was going to surface that way. Seriously, one question that keeps occurring to me…politicians and critics and so many other people in our society are so nay-saying about the ability of the American people to read. Has that impacted in any way upon your business? Upon your profession? The matter of publishing and agenting? And printing? And editing? And authoring books?
Nesbit: Well, I think it has. I mean literacy is an enormous problem in this country, and I looked at some statistics recently that were, I think, done about five years ago in which the…I think from thirty-five to forty-three there are more readers, and there are more readers in the upper age levels, but that from twenty-four to seventeen, readership is declining, and that’s very frightening. So our business hasn’t yet been impacted by it, but it could.
Heffner: What about the impact of the other media…television, film?
Nesbit: Well, I was just on a panel discussing that very thing, and one could make the argument that films or television miniseries that are successful can help a book enormously. I believe that Lonesome Dove sold a million more copies after it appeared as that very successful miniseries.
Heffner: but I guess the question that comes up then is does the success of that kind of book, not preclude, we’ve gone through that, and you’ve said “no”, but does it diminish the opportunities for books that, by gosh and by golly, are never going to be televisible? Does the attractiveness of the Lonesome Dove or of a Judy Krantz book…
Heffner: …make is less and less possible for the clearly non-television book to find a publisher?
Nesbit: No, I don’t think so, but I think perhaps what you’re saying does the attraction of buying a more commercial book for a publishing house impede them or prevent them from buying a book that has no commercial potential?
Heffner: You ask the question so much better than I do.
Nesbit: Well, I don’t think that, but I can answer it in saying I think that any book with real value, now somebody will probably call in and say this isn’t true, but books with intellectual value or fiction with serious literary values can be sold. But what we see is, and this is where…it’s the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. Those books which are still published receive, but are not big commercial books, receive so much less attention. Perhaps they don’t even get big review attention. They get nice reviews, but not front page reviews, so they’re not getting huge critical reviews and they’re getting practically no advertising or promotion budget. So in the publishing world now, where they do increasingly spend big dollars for a few books, you see the disparity so clearly.
Heffner: It becomes in a sense a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Nesbit: Yes. Although there’s too much talk about self-fulfilling prophecy, I think. (Laughter)
Heffner: Why do you say that?
Nesbit: Because it’s just too easy to say that a big advance, that if the books get a big advance it’s necessarily going to sell well. I mean I don’t want to cite any examples on television, but we’ve all see too many books which got big advances, big advertising budgets, but which the public really didn’t like, and the reviewers didn’t like either.
Heffner: Ms. Nesbit that…we have thirty seconds left…I just wanted to ask you about that. Do books come a’cropper? Do huge advances come a’cropper?
Nesbit: Well, of course they do, and there are books which receive small advances which then go on and a book club takes them, or they get a front page review in a couple of places, and suddenly the publisher is rushing back for ten, fifteen, twenty-five thousand more copies.
Heffner: You know, we have to end the program now, but I would like you to come back some time and talk about the impact of “the reviews”, the impact of the press, essentially upon the success of books. Meanwhile, I want to thank you so much for having joined me today on THE OPEN MIND, Lynn Nesbit.
Nesbit: Thank you.
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.