Copyright © 1999 John F. Baker.
All rights reserved.
Dominick Abel Literary Agency, Inc.
The first thing that strikes the eye in the small Upper West Side ground-floor apartment that serves Dominick Abel as his office is the shelveslined not with clients' books (they're in a back room), but with a world-class collection of colorful clay works from a long-defunct pottery in Zanesville, Ohio. Abel and his wife have been gathering this material, once sold for dimes in dime stores but now highly collectible, for years, and he gazes at it fondly as he describes his trips to out-of-the way Midwestern country auctions where you can still occasionally pick up some good pieces.
It seems somehow appropriate that Abel, whose list consists largely of mystery and suspense writers ("That's most of what I do") should have the kind of offbeat hobby that could easily turn up in a detective story. A tall, graying man with a rather scholarly air and an English accent that reflects an early colonial and United Kingdom-based life, Abel actually began as an agent in Chicago after a brief career as a magazine and later a book editor. He was born in India, educated in Britain, became a schoolteacher in Uganda for a time, then came to the United States expecting to do postgraduate work in African studies at Northwestern. Finding he cordially disliked it, he quit in his first term, got an editorial job at a magazine called Christian Century, thence to the Henry Regnery publishing company, located in Chicago (and now no relation to the right-wing company run by Alfred Regnery).
He was there for seven years before he decided that when it came to choosing between publisher and author, his sympathies were on the side of the latter. "You're sympathetic to the author, but you're paid by the publisher, and you can only say no to an author as long as you're comfortable with that decision. When you're not, it becomes a problem. I found I wanted to be answerable to authors alone, to be a constant in their life; and in fact I have clients I've had forever. Stuart Kaminsky was one of my first and he's still with me; though he's been through many editors and publishers, he's had only one agent, and I find that extremely satisfying. Very few editors can say they've worked with the same author for twenty years or more."
His sympathies being what they were, agenting seemed a natural career for him. In any event, "It was a case of Hobson's choice," he says, using an old English phrase for a decision where there is no real choice. "I was very lucky to be starting up when and where I did." Chicago in 1975 had more publishing houses than now, but no real agent, at a time when writers were beginning to realize they needed one. "Publishing was bigger then, in the sense of more markets, and many writers didn't have agents. And a Chicago agent seemed a bit exotic to New York editors. They were very generous with their time whenever I went to New York: I'd have breakfasts, lunches, dinners lined up. They probably gave me more time than they would to the local agents they were used to."
Two years later his wife, who was book editor at the Chicago Tribune, got a job as executive editor of the Literary Guild, and since both had always wanted to live in New York, they made the move. He built his clientele in the usual way. "I made a lot of calls, got a lot of referrals, went to writers' conferences for the first ten years or so." These he found less useful for the writer contacts than for the chance to enlarge his acquaintance among editors and other agents. "It's also useful to help give you a view beyond the Hudson. We're somewhat parochial in New York, and seeing how differently people think and work `out there' is like a cold shower, it's good for you."
He probably has, he says, seventy-five to eighty active clients, though he quibbles a bit about what is meant by "active": "One of my writers has done only two books in ten years, whereas another writes two or three a year, but I regard them both as active." In any case, his fiction list contains some fifty names, which makes his percentage estimate of 75-25 in favor of fiction about right. His authors include a number of Edgar winners and such trailblazers among women mystery writers as Sharyn McCrumb, Sara Paretsky, Susan Dunlap, and Joan Hess; Loren Estleman, John Lutz, Bill Pronzini, and Barbara Michaels are also in his stable. He has no particular nonfiction specialties, though he doesn't do what he calls historic biography (recent subjects for Abel biographers include Jerzy Kosinski and Clark Clifford) or history, tending to contemporary subjects like self-help, parenting, the occasional specialty cookbook, management, and business.
But mystery is where his heart is (a mystery he defines as a book that has a sleuth, either amateur or professional, who usually gets paid for the work) and it is a market, particularly for series heroes or heroines, that he finds still very healthy, "though the window of opportunity closes more quickly these days." By this he means that publishers are more impatient to see a series pay off. "They're not so likely to stay with an author for the long haul; they'd rather sign up a previously unpublished author. I know lots of authors who've done fifteen or twenty books in a series, and you won't see many of those in future. Yes, it's true that good authors are finding it harder to get published, and I think it's very short-sighted. If they're good, why throw them out?"
He goes on vigorously, in carefully formulated sentences: "I understand the demand for sales, we all want that. `We only want big books.' So do we all, but it's not so simple. The junking of quality writers in favor of writers who may not have what it takes means the same process will just be repeated, again and again." He shares the common complaint of slow contracts and payments: "There've always been people who were slow, but now there are very few who are quick." And he mentions an author doing a "quickie" book in about six weeks, which will be finished before he has even received a contract for it. There seem, he thinks, to be fewer people nowadays in each of the publishers' departments that work with authors.
He also perceives a significant gap among editors. "Today there are a number of senior people and a lot of very junior people. There were a lot of firings a few years ago when publishers took out the whole middle level, and it's never come back. So there's probably much less on-the-job training than there used to be, and younger editors can't learn as much as their predecessors did. Publishing houses are much less respectful of editors' opinions now, they're easily second-guessed by sales and marketing people. But that leads to irresponsibilitythey can always blame someone else. Editors should be given more authority. They were hired to exercise their judgment, make decisions. If everyone else can now make the decisions editors were hired to make, why have them at all? They think it can all be done by numbers, but it can't; choosing a book to publish doesn't lend itself to template, formulaic procedures, and to pretend otherwise is to ignore reality."
So the need for agents, as he sees it, is greater than ever. "When so many editors now are simply acquisitions people, who don't do line-editing and leave that to freelance people who may or may not be any good, the author is essentially left to his own devices, i.e., the agent."
All this means Abel feels he is "having a good time, but that's not the same as being completely satisfied. I want more for my authors, no matter how successful. I want them to be better appreciated." As for the flow of unsolicited material, "I think writers have finally got that straight, so we get lots of queries but very few actual manuscripts any more." He and his assistant read them all, "and many are so clearly not for us that it's not too much of a burden. It's the very few that just may be for us, that's the problem. Should we or shouldn't we?"
WHO: Dominick Abel Literary Agency, Inc.
WHERE: 146 West 82nd St. (Ste. 1B) New York, NY 10024 212-877-0710; fax: 212-595-3133
WHAT: Adult fiction and nonfiction, specializing in mystery and suspense.
LIST: About fifty-five clients, approximately 75 percent fiction. Clients include: Susan Dunlap, Loren Estleman, Stuart Kaminsky, John Lutz, Sharyn McCrumb, Sara Paretsky, Barbara Michaels, Bill Pronzini, Paco I. Taibo II, Susan Wolfe.
Member of AAR
Virginia Barber Literary Agency, Inc.
Virginia Barber, familiarly known as Ginger, runs Virginia Barber Associates out of a top-floor suite of offices on lower Fifth Avenue. She is a pretty, lively, petite woman whose voice still bears traces of her native Southand who admits that when she is trolling on behalf of a Southern client, like best-selling novelist Anne Rivers Siddons, for example, the voice slows down from its usual rapid-fire enthusiasm to become much more honeyed and measured.
Rather unusually among agents, she came to the profession from the world of academe. After getting her Ph.D. at Duke (her thesis was on poet William Carlos Williams), she became an assistant professor at Teachers College at Columbia University, offering what was called "Critical Perspectives" in British and American literature. "Actually, I was teaching things I wanted to learn about myself," she says with a laugh. She might have stayed in that world, in fact, had it not been for a bitter university dispute over tenure for a long-serving woman professor. At that time, at the beginning of the 1970s, there were no tenured female professors at Columbia, and Barber was deeply demoralized and disillusioned over the way the issue was handled by the university.
Theatrical agent Helen Merrill was a friend, and the pair decided to go into business together as agents, Merrill continuing to handle theatrical clients, Barber taking on literary ones. "I had some of the right abilities," she recalls. "I knew how to evaluate manuscripts, but not how to find the authors of them." She searched eagerly, writing to authors of stories she liked to see if they wanted to do a book, but didn't know enough back then to attend writers' conferences. "You had to be invited, and nobody knew I existed. And I was very shy and diffident."
One of the authors she took on in those early years was Rosellen Brown, who has stayed with Barber for thirty years, finally achieving bestsellerdom only four years ago with Before and After, which later became an admired movie with Meryl Streep. For many years Brown was published by Robert Gottlieb at Knopf and received excellent reviews, but unspectacular sales, for a series of novels that included Civil Wars and Tender Mercies. Then Gottlieb left to edit the New Yorker, and Barber decided it was time to switch publishers. She sent Before and After to John Glusman at Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "He did a terrific job, got it out to the scouts, there was an early movie sale, then a lot of foreign rights sales." Paperback rights eventually went to Dell, for a hefty six-figure sum.
But all of this was way ahead for the struggling young agent in 1972, who found that after a couple of years together she and Merrill were too different in their personalities and interests to make a go of it, and decided to split up. Two agent friends kept Barber going at this time, Elaine Markson and Phoebe Larmore, who shared offices and sent occasional clients her way. One was a man who wrote books for movie professionals. "He wrote six of them, and I still get royalties." Another was Alice Munro, the celebrated Canadian writer, who like many Canadians at that time ("I got a lot of them") was unrepresented. Larmore urged Barber to write Munro and offer her services, but at first Munro said she didn't feel she needed an agent. When Barber persisted, sending her an early Rosellen Brown book as an example of a client's work, "Alice wrote back saying any agent who represents a writer as good as that is okay by me," and another long relationship was born.
For a time Barber had a tiny office in the Flatiron Building, until one day when the phones went out. "That nearly put me out of business, because an agent can't function without a phone." Markson and Larmore then asked her to join them in their little Greenwich Village office suite. They shared a receptionist, and things were cozy for a while until Larmore went off to Los Angeles, where she still practices, and Barber took over her space. She stayed eight years, but her list kept growing and "after a while we had people hanging from the rafters," so she opened an office in the Chelsea brownstone where she lives with her husband Edwin Barber, then editorial director at W.W. Norton, now an editorial consultant for that house.
A marriage between an agent and a publishing executive is a comparatively unusual circumstance, and Ginger found it had distinct advantages and disadvantages. "You can go over manuscripts together and get a professional second opinion right at home. And of course you both understand when you each bury your head in a manuscript after supper." But their views on many questions are, inevitably, diametrically opposed. "We spontaneously think differently as publisher and agent. And of course I could never, never, deal directly with him on a book." In fact Edwin had a rule that he would never be told about submissions she had made to Norton, and would never discuss them. This naturally had a somewhat dampening effect on submitting books to that house.
One of the subjects on which they would differ most strongly was on publishers' payment policies. "They'll go through any contortion to try and avoid having to pay you as soon as they should," she fulminates. "They'll say the only man who can sign the checks is out sick, or on holiday. I always feel like asking how do they manage to get paid then? They practice this built-in lateness, of course, because they want to keep the money in the bank earning interest. Meanwhile, authors have families, and they need the money, often a lot more urgently than the publishers do. I don't need it so much myself any more, but I still identify strongly with the poor author."
Her academic training helped Barber in one important way. She became a keen student of various publishers' author contracts, studying them one by one and going over them with lawyers until she understood all their subtle differences and shades of meaning. She even wrote an article about them for an academic journal: "Academics were fascinated, because so few of them had agents." Barber is also active in the agent community, and served until recently as president of the Association of Authors' Representatives, its trade group.
After an unfortunate slip in which she failed to notice an obscure foreign rights clause that, she feels, probably cost one of her authors thousands of dollars in lower royalties, she made herself an expert on those too, and now hangs onto foreign rights whenever she can in order to resell them through a network of associated foreign agents. In some cases these have done extremely well for her. Peter Mayle, for instance, who has turned writing about an Englishman's experiences in Provence into a cash machine, came to Barber, through his tax lawyer, many years ago when he was a comparatively obscure author of children's books. Her agency could now prosper on its share of his worldwide royalties alone.
Some clients, like the late MacDonald Harris, do fine work for many years without ever making a big-money career; yet, ironically, in his role as a teacher of creative writing at the University of California at Irvine, Harris was responsible for providing Barber with two of her brightest young stars. One was Michael Chabon, whom Harris sent to her "with a letter full of the most generous praise" and who scored a great success with his first book, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. Another was Marti Leimbach, whose first novel, Dying Young was a huge hit (and a not so successful movie, starring Julia Roberts) but who has not been much heard of since.
In her early days Barber tried to find appropriate nonfiction subjects, line her authors up to write them, then doctor their proposals. "The problem with that approach was that you'd get a lot of one-book authors, journalists, people who knew only one subject; and to be a successful agent you need clients who can write many more than just one book."
She is amazed at some of the differences in the publishing scene then and now. "I used to read authors who wrote excellent short stories, and I'd send them away, telling them to come back when they had a body of work. That seems laughable now, when anyone who's ever published one story probably already has an agent." She also finds authors today much more sophisticated in their approaches, less likely than in former times to clutter up the offices with unwieldy manuscripts without querying first. But there's still a lot of mail: "We used to average about ninety submissions a week, and it's probably a bit more than that now." Fiction outnumbers nonfiction proposals by three to one, and most of the successful ones come in by recommendation. They have discovered a few publishable items in the "slush" but it's quite rare. What's usually wrong with the fiction submissions is lack of attention to the need to tell a story, and to dramatize the characters by the action.
The eighty or so authors Barber represents are divided almost equally between fiction and nonfiction, though at one time it was more heavily tilted toward fiction. She still loves finding new talent, "to see where and how far they can go." But she seeks long relationships with authors. "That way you can estimate what someone is capable of, and see how it works out over time." She has some new promising writers she's especially keen about, naming Ixta Maya Murray, David Pilsky, Elizabeth Tippins, and Ann Cummins. Then there are old-timers like Anita Shreve"She always makes good movie sales, but I expect her to come forward even further as a writer"and of course Anne Rivers Siddons, who came to her at the suggestion of her Harper editor Larry Ashmead after her longtime agent, Gloria Safire, died suddenly nine years ago. "You'd better believe I suddenly got a lot more Southern when we talked! Anyway, it worked."
Although she still bubbles with gusto for the job, Barber has to concede it's more tense and competitive than it used to be. Yes, she's had authors poached away, "but only in a relationship that has really worn out anyway; most of those who have been approached report it to me, and we work it out." But her real problems are with the hustle by the corporate publishing owners for ever higher profits. "They'll pay enormously for big-name writers, okay for brand-new authors they think may go somewhere, but nothing for all those very good writers in the middle. I'm always grateful that Mac Harris died before I had to tell him I just couldn't find a publisher for his new novela writer like that!" Too much attention is paid to an author's track record, she feels, and not enough to the manuscript in question. "And even a perfectly decent record won't necessarily help, whereas a patchy one will kill them. I think a publisher should be prepared to stay with an author." And she cites Carol Shields, whom she used to represent, and who was faithfully published by Viking for many years before her career was turned around in 1996 with a simultaneous Pulitzer and NBCC award for The Stone Diaries.
"Editors who used to be able to parlay their enthusiasms into an offer, and who are convinced they can make a book work, are now routinely shot down by the marketing people. These people fear there may not be a market, so they're letting their experienced editors' opinions be subsumed by what they think the public wants. That's the Hollywood approach, and we've all seen what it's done to the movies."
Other things, too, seem out of proportion to her. "The publishers are cooperating with the chains, who seem to need those enormous stacks of books to pile up. They're terrifying to me, but some authors seem to want it, and even if they don't really have the mass market touch it takes to sell those huge stacks, they'll leave their agents and publishers in search of bigger money, bigger printings."
Barber does see some hope, however, in the burgeoning small press movement and its improved distribution. "We need more small houses like Soho, Graywolf, Jack Shoemaker's new Counterpoint, to publish the kind of work the big houses won't." And she has begun to send books to some of them. "I realize there's not much money up-front, for the author or the agent, but you just can't not have some of these authors published at all!"
WHO: Virginia Barber Literary Agency, Inc. Virginia Barber; Associates: Claire Tisne, Cornleius Howland, Jay Mandel, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh
WHERE: 101 Fifth Ave. New York, NY 10003 212-255-6515; fax: 212-691-9418 email: email@example.com
WHAT: General fiction and nonfiction.
LIST: About eighty clients, split approximately 50-50 between fiction and nonfiction. Does not accept new clients except by referral. Clients include: Rosellen Brown, Alice Munro, Anne Rivers Siddons, Anita Shreve, Peter Mayle, Michael Chabon.
Member of AAR