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Artful Agenting

A conversation between two literary agents.
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Over a 48-hour period, Sam Hiyate, president of The Rights Factory, and Hilary McMahon, vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists, interviewed each other about their development as agents, the responsibilities of a literary agent and the "golden age of non-fiction." The interview was conducted via e-mail.

Hilary McMahon:

This should be an interesting discussion - as agents focused on our own clients, we tend to exist in somewhat parallel universes, where our paths only cross at bookfairs or publisher parties. Without the distraction of crowds and cocktails, this is a rare opportunity to talk shop. Where to begin? Perhaps at the beginning of agenting life. You used to be the publisher of Gutter Press and so had your hand in many different aspects of the business. What was the most interesting part of the transition for you? Any myths about agents dispelled? Do you think you're tougher in terms of taking on new clients, because you know first hand how difficult it is to sell books through to the booksellers and the public? Of course following that line of thinking, you could technically also tell a publisher not to increase an advance, because you know it would never earn out - a strategy that would make you popular with editors but not earn much favour from your writers!

Sam Hiyate:

I guess the clock is ticking now? ;-)

I think in many ways being an editor/publisher was the perfect training ground for becoming an agent: it seems to be a regular occurrence nowadays that agents and editors are switching roles: Nicole Winstanley goes to Penguin and becomes a star editor, and Jane Warren goes to Key Porter. Before that, Janie Yoon worked at an agency before working at Key Porter and now is managing editor of Anansi. The toughest thing I found about running a small press was trying to do everything as well as the bigger houses. In the end you can’t, simply because you don’t have the resources. When I became an agent I took the things I love most about my old job – finding and working with new writers, and promoting their talent and work – and took it to the bigger publishers to do the rest of the work: figuring out how to make a beautiful book, marketing and selling it, actually getting the booksellers and media excited about it and ultimately hoping this gets the attention of the general book-loving public.

So as far as the transition, I’d say that little changed initially from what I knew: I took my passion for new authors and redirected it towards finding publishers who might share that enthusiasm. The next part was much more difficult. I had to learn how to sell to publishers and how to negotiate the best possible deals. I’d say those things are both so difficult and impossible to master overall that I am still learning. As an agent, I see myself as an ally to the author, as their champion. I think I have become much tougher with new clients because of the diminishing part of the market that is literary fiction – though I still have my favourite literary authors on whom I barely make money, hoping that we’ll eventually get a breakout book together. (I still have the gambling instincts of a publisher.) I feel that we’re living in the golden age of non-fiction, and with my international focus it’s no surprise that I’m doing better with, say, David Gilmour’s first non-fiction book The Film Club, over many other titles I love but am finding hard to sell.

I would never fight for a low advance. My authors have to live, after all. The trick I think is to first find the best editor for a book and then to try to get the best possible deal. The advance is only part of the negotiation. The right editor will do much more for a book than an advance. I once heard a major author say that his editor was worth $50K – in other words, someone would have to pay that much more before he would consider moving. I think that’s the right way to look at it – the editor you work with, and their publishing house, also has a value. Also, the strategy varies with the author. Each literary career represents different opportunities along with the talent to be exploited.

I think there’s actually new terrain to uncover having two agents talk. Can you tell me more about your own evolution into agenting and what excites you the most about it? Would you ever consider moving into a publishing house as an editor?

HM:

To pick up on one of your points first, absolutely, securing the best deal for an author is about much more than the advance. It's finding the perfect combination of editor, marketing support, position within a publisher's list and timing of publication, and then trying to round that out with strong financial terms. The chemistry with the right editor is worth a significant amount - it's when you have a few wonderful editors fighting for the same book (and don't we wish that happened more often) that the dollars become more significant. Because if the rest of the publishing house isn't backing up that editor with marketing and sales support, all the editorial passion in the world isn't going to help a book get noticed by readers.

Now to answer your question, I came to this business rather circuitously. I did journalism and English in university, loved the program but didn't want to be a reporter or an English teacher at the end of the day so I went into public relations. There was much that I enjoyed about the field but I realized early on that it meant I had to essentially sell things that I didn't always believe in, or try and produce a news hook out of something that I knew wasn't newsworthy at all! So I decided to try and break into magazines because the magazine course had been one of my favourites at Carleton. But simultaneously I started the publishing program at Ryerson, after accepting that I'm far more passionate about reading than I am about writing. In my second month at Chatelaine, I came across a posting through Ryerson for a front desk job at a literary agency. I went for the interview with absolutely no idea about what agents did, but thought it was a tremendous place with great energy, and they gave me the job in part I think because of my accounting background (at that time it included taking care of all the author payments). That was 1995, if you can believe it! Bruce Westwood had just acquired Lucinda Vardey Agency and was merging it with Sterling Lord Associates and MGA, and every day I'd answer the phone with a new company name that they were trying out (eventually settling on Westwood Creative Artists). I worked on the front desk for a few years, which was tremendous training - seeing how the different agents worked and experiencing all facets of the company. Then I became Bruce's assistant, which was also an amazing experience; working with writers like Rohinton Mistry and Timothy Findley was a pretty great way to learn the ropes! When Jennifer Barclay left the agency to travel the world (she's now crossed over to be an editor too!) I inherited her client list and have been adding to it steadily ever since.

I'm not tempted to try the editorial side, because I love the diversity of my job. I have incredible freedom, not only on a day-to-day level of when I work and how I organize my time, but more importantly to choose the writers that I represent, and help shape their careers. I enjoy working with an author to develop a proposal, or giving feedback on the first draft of a novel, but I also really relish the business side of things - selling the books and negotiating the deals. When you can call an author and make them weep because you've sold their novel to the house they've always dreamed of, or have negotiated an advance that buys them significant time to write, or feel like you're having a hand in the development of a truly worthy project, it's tremendously rewarding. But when you go through those weeks where you simply can't sell anything; when books you believe in just can't find a home, it's very discouraging. And it's made worse because of the relationships you've established with those authors, when you know all too well how much they've invested in their work.

Recently I'm sure you've noticed too how the so-called 'midlist' authors are being cast aside by their publishers. In today's difficult marketplace, publishers want either the sure thing or the completely untried, hoping that either one will become a bestseller. Authors on their third book who haven't yet broken out are in increasingly untenable positions, and there aren't many options in our small marketplace. Is that part of the reason that you're focusing internationally? I'm racing off to lunch - sorry this is so long-winded, hope it makes sense!

SH:

Sorry about the delay. I’m swamped with prepping for [Book Expo America] and readying projects for submission, though I am excited that BEA is in L.A. again this year. I had a great time in 2003 when it was there last, and this time I know more film people to pitch to.

Getting to your question about focusing on international rights sales, I think it entirely depends on your ambitions as an agent and the kind of agency you have. I envision The Rights Factory as eventually having a presence everywhere we can sell rights, whether through co-agents or through our own branches. I think that some of my books will have an international market, and sometimes I feel that no co-agent will ever get my books the way I do. To be honest, the thing that has tweaked my interest in foreign rights is how much money there can be if you get the right property (and by foreign I mean anything other than English Language). I have always sold to the US directly (and I think you do too?) and now am doing direct deals in all but the Asian countries (where culturally, they are used to intermediaries). The fact that the Euro is so high is a bonus; when you do a deal for say Euro 20,000 it comes in at over 30,000 CAD. ;-)

I love that the scouts in NYC are so helpful, too. Maria Campbell fell in love with one of my books and her enthusiasm for the book resulted in several foreign deals.

I agree that the dreadful mid-career writer with poor sales record is a tough commodity to sell. Sometimes the best thing to do in that case is to reinvent their careers by doing something completely different. For example, if you look at Mark Leyner’s comic writing, he was almost over until someone (his agent?) thought to get him to co-author Why Do Men Have Nipples?, which was an international bestseller. It depends on the versatility of the writer, I suppose.

HM:

We don't generally go to BEA, finding it more productive to have separate selling trips to New York. The next book fair for me is Frankfurt in October, so I've got some time to prepare rights catalogue copy, etc., but at the moment the push is on getting all the submissions out before summer vacations start, and it's challenging to work around editors' vacation schedules.

Yes the high Euro is wonderful, but I (and more importantly my authors) have lost thousands of dollars from American deals that were done a few glorious years ago when the conversion rate was 1.4!

To answer your question, yes I sell directly in North America, and the agency now goes direct in the UK and Australia too. Those four markets are still where the largest advances are for us, and those deals help fund (both financially and psychologically) our efforts in all the other territories. We have quite an extensive list here at WCA, and pursue rights sales very aggressively, but I think it's fair to say that it's more likely that a very select group of titles will take off and demonstrate that they can travel, and sell in a dozen markets, rather than have 12 titles each sell in one or two separate territories. I've had tremendous success recently with a non-fiction international project (memoir of a young female Afghani MP, with a Canadian writer attached), and rights were sold in Australia (for six figures,) France, Israel and Norway before the US and UK! So yes, foreign markets can really pay off, but I think that many writers have unrealistic expectations about seeing their books published internationally, not always recognizing that they're competing against major writers from around the world. So a German publisher who only publishes five novels a year will be looking at the big name, best-selling authors from the UK, the US, Spain, the Netherlands, etc., as well as the first-timer from Canada.

To have any hope of overcoming the many obstacles that stand between an author and publication, I really believe that as agents we play an increasingly important role in guiding our writers as they choose their projects. It's so much easier to sell something (at every step of the process, from the editor right through to the public) if there's a real hook. Insightful, original, beautiful writing will only get you so far. Editors demand that superb writing, but above that they want a really unique story, whether it's Life of Pi, No Logo, Fast Food Nation or The Tipping Point. Those are certainly the books that I've had the most success with. To keep this going as interview, a few questions for you:

1. Canadian publishers don't generally do very much in the self-help or more commercial vein. But if we'd been the agents for The Secret, we'd be flying to those bookfairs first class (and enjoying a few other perks besides.) Do you have any interest in acquiring more authors in those areas?

2. Everyone loves the success stories, but the failure stories are even more entertaining. I'm sure everyone in publishing has rejected a book that went on to win a major prize, but are there any that you're willing to share - the one that got away? Not absolutely necessary to name names....

SH:

While I’m not personally into books like The Secret, I do represent a dating expert and plan on building my self-help titles. Also, anyone who is watching Oprah would be proud to represent Eckhart Tolle right now. I know it’s neither of us. Because I worked previously at The Lavin Agency, I know the marketing and sales power someone with a speaking platform can bring to the book world. So a big yes, for the right clients in those areas. What about you?

I don’t have any stories of the one(s) that got away necessarily, even though I did see an early version of Prisoner of Tehran by Marina Nemat and wasn’t interested in repping it. What is disappointing is when I believe in something and can’t seem to find a place in the market for it – it can be quite discouraging!

After five years as an agent, I’m starting to feel that my roster if almost full – that it is harder and harder to squeeze in new talent. How do you manage that – to keep building your clientele? I think you’ve been doing this longer than I. Everyone I do sign I feel I have to have a personal passion for their work – otherwise it’s such a tough thing to take on.

Another thing I’m curious about is, following along the same lines, when do you decide to let someone go and release them from representation?

HM:

True, we need to be able to see the market for something, even if it's a book that we wouldn't read personally - that's how I've ended up selling a number of high profile business books. I have taken on a commercial novel recently because I read it and loved it, and have sold it in Canada and Russia, of all places, but breaking into the US has proven difficult. Coming up I have a great non-fiction book about unrequited love, that I'm hoping will sell very strongly in the US in particular, and it will help subsidize the quiet literary projects!

I have indeed been doing this for a while and have quite a lengthy client list. So I'm incredibly selective, because I don't want my existing authors to suffer because I'm taking on too much additional work. Some years I don't take on any new authors, then I might take on three in a month. I'm generally looking to take people on for the long term, but some people only really have one book in them, or take four years to write a novel, so it isn't like all the writers on the list are producing material at the same time. As you say, it's having the requisite passion. I read a first novel a few months ago that really excited me - very strong, original voice - and I couldn't wait to bring the author in for a meeting. We talked for hours about the book, and he's now working on some revisions. I know that my genuine enthusiasm for the book will really carry through when I pitch it to editors, and I'll just have to hope that they respond in the same way! When you find a book that you can't stop talking or thinking about, then you just have to take it on - and you need that kind of boost when you go through those inevitable months of disappointment.

Some agents cull their lists quite regularly and terminate relationships that aren't mutually productive. We don't tend to do that at WCA, though of course we have had authors leave the agency. It's interesting - we've noted that often when a writer is going through a mid-life crisis, or their work isn't being favourably reviewed in the media or selling to publishers, they'll change agents hoping that will improve their lot. I remember an agent telling me years ago, after a major client left her, "well it's better that he leave me than his wife." Sometimes of course the relationship really isn't working, or the agent isn't doing a good job, and it's in everyone's best interest to part ways. I think I've only let two authors go, and it was because when I read their new novels I just didn't respond to them with the necessary enthusiasm, and I knew that I couldn't stand behind their work with conviction. My relationship with editors is too important to jeopardize by sending out substandard material. And if I repeatedly send out books that don't sell, then editors will come to question my taste. This is a small industry and our reputations are crucial.

If you were going to take on just a few more clients, living or dead (just to make it interesting) who would they be?

SH:

I didn’t realize other agencies go through that period of housecleaning. My list is still very small, but I imagine a time when I might have to do that. When I first came into the business, someone told me that in the agents' pit at William Morris they have a big poster that everyone looks at every day, “THE TALENT ALWAYS LEAVES,” so that when that Jerry Maguire moment happens you know you are not alone.

That’s a good question. I’d love to represent Michel Houellebecq or Paul Auster, only because I am such a fan of their work. I would also love to represent Oscar Wilde, because as well as being a fan, I’m sure he’d be a brilliant conversationalist. Ditto for Marguerite Duras or Haruki Murakami. When I approached David Gilmour to be his agent, it was because I had read all of his books and was already a fan that he signed with me – so that strategy can actually work.
What about you – any living or dead authors you’d love to rep?

HM:

I could facetiously say J.K. Rowling because then I wouldn't have to worry about my mortgage, but seeing as I didn't make it past the first Harry Potter book that might not be a good fit.

Hmm, a surprisingly tricky question to ask because so much of my time is spent reading manuscripts that I'm not nearly as up on published books as I'd like to be (I'm looking forward to my retirement way down the road as a chance to finally get caught up.) Michael Chabon because I loved The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. John Berger because of To the Wedding, and also his non-fiction is brilliant. Anthony Bourdain because I'm a foodie and love his irreverence and wit. Malcolm Gladwell. Rohinton Mistry. Barbara Kingsolver. I went through a Russian literature phase in my late teens, so if I could go back in time I'd love to work with Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Bulgakov. Thomas Hardy to counter my eternal optimism. If I had Dickens on the list he'd certainly keep me busy too! Sophie Kinsella as an antidote to all the heavies! In an ideal world, I'd have lots of time to go after writers that I have an interest in, or develop non-fiction ideas from intriguing articles in The Walrus, etc., but my heavy workload tends to make me more reactive (plus we're very strict about poaching here).

Final question, Sam: what do you think is the biggest challenge facing agents going forward, and how can we deal with it?

SH:

(Whew! My L.A. trip is almost finished and I can finally wrap this up:)

I think the biggest challenge facing agents is the marketplace: the declining market for books and the consolidation of publishers. I myself have been saddened with the poor sales of literary fiction over the past few years and the result that publishers are really cutting back on it. Added to that the fact that publishers keep buying each other up, especially in the US and the UK, and what you effectively have is a smaller market for us to sell to, and as well as smaller market, a trade market that has a tenuous business model at best, and is shrinking in terms of the number of possible publishers who might want to compete for a book.

To address this, I think the answer is to do two things: one is to take on projects with an international market – authors and projects that will travel from Canada to the U.S. and into the global market. The other is to find those properties where as agents we can exploit other media rights, such as film rights. In a recent film deal (yup, sold a film to SONY with Julia Roberts attached), I made way more money for my author than the advance on the book deal. By expanding our efforts in these areas we reduce the risks of selling to smaller local markets and also do the best work for our clients by trying to make them household names.

Sam Hiyate

Sam Hiyate is president and principal agent of The Rights Factory, a literary agency. Before that he ran the literary division of The Lavin Agency. He is co-founder and former editor/publisher of the litmag Blood & Aphorisms (b+a) and the editor/publisher of the avant-garde literary publisher Gutter Press. Sam also teaches at U of T and has lectured on publishing at Simon Fraser University, Humber College, and Centennial College, where he sits on the Publishing Advisory Board. He has taught creative writing at a private workshop in Toronto since 2000.

Hilary McMahon

Hilary McMahon is vice-president of Westwood Creative Artists, where she acts as literary agent to more than 80 writers of fiction and non-fiction. Her varied clients have graced bestseller lists, won the National Business Book Award, been shortlisted for the Giller Prize, longlisted for the Booker Prize, widely published internationally, and seen their work turned into a television series. She earned a journalism degree at Carleton University with a double major in English.

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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