Publishing Trends, June 2008

California Love: Agents Don’t Need to Live in NYC. They’ve Got E-mail (and Great Weather)

Publishing Trends, June 1, 2008

by Laura Hazard Owen

Ah, the life of a California literary agent. Client meetings on the terrace overlooking the cliffs, the sound of aquamarine waves crashing on sparkling white sand as a lovely soundtrack to the discussion of character development. Later on, a quick spin in the cute red hybrid convertible over to a movie studio or five, promising manuscripts optioned, big sunglasses worn throughout. All in an afternoon’s work.

That’s just what it’s right, like? No? Well. We must have been watching too many old OC episodes. Better talk to some real California agents (and one from Seattle!).

“Fifteen years ago, people thought they had to go with a New York agency,” says Jillian Manus, President of Manus & Associates Literary Agency, which has offices in Palo Alto and Manhattan. “That’s not the case anymore, because the world is flat. We are all in the same field. We can all get information at the same time, and we all have access to everybody. Technology enables us to make deals and get in the game.”

“I tend to keep very long hours,” says Sharlene Martin, founder of the Encino, CA–based Martin Literary Management (now with offices in Chicago and New York, and soon, Seattle). “I start my day at seven, so that I’m on New York time in the morning, and I usually end my day at seven at night, to keep up with the West Coast, where a lot of my clients are, and where the film and television and entertainment people are. It makes for a long day, but the day goes by very fast when you love what you’re doing.”

Felicia Eth, who’s worked as an agent on both coasts, was at Writers House for nine years, and now owns the Palo Alto Felicia Eth Literary Representation, says the biggest difference between West and East is focus. “On the West Coast, my focus is very much on the writers,” she says. “On the East Coast, it’s very much on the publishing industry. Agents need both parts to be successful. But so much time in New York is built around lunch, drinks, parties. I miss those perks, but I’m able to put my time into getting together with writers, helping them revise materials, and spending a lot of time connecting with the world outside of publishing. After all, that’s who we’re selling to, so having a bit more of a genuine connection with what’s happening ‘out there’ is a good thing.”

“The philosophy I’ve had from day one is that my job is to play Lewis and Clark,” says Ted Weinstein, owner of Ted Weinstein Literary Management, which also has an office in New York. “New ideas rarely spring up in the center of a media culture [like New York]. Structured, hierarchical settings aren’t where new ideas grow and thrive. But to reach their full spread around the country, they eventually have to be validated in those places. My job is to scout and package new voices, new sensibilities, new perspectives, and bring those people to a larger audience, through the often New York–centric media outlets.”

Many agents agree that trends tend to start on the West Coast and make their way East. “I feel like I’ve had an edge here because I’ve been educated and immersed in it for a long time,” says Manus. “Because we are the West Coast, we are part of Silicon Valley. We are very much on top of multimedia and Internet marketing and sales. I find myself in meetings with publishers where I know as much as their IT people because here, I’m immersed in it every day.”

“The earlier, fuller familiarity with the Internet and new technologies has the potential to give West Coast agents a leg up in terms of spotting projects,” says Weinstein. “Those of us deeply immersed in the Internet are better at scouting. I discover a quarter of my client list over the Internet. Particularly, working in northern California, I find it an enormously fruitful stomping ground. It’s the best combination of the East Coast discipline and the West Coast open-mindedness and curiosity and experimentalism.”

“I sometimes joke that I’m a little bit like the present-day Hudson Bay Company,” says Elizabeth Wales, owner of the Seattle, WA Wales Literary Agency. “The way Seattle and San Francisco were during the Gold Rush, I’m here. There are certain talented people that I can be aware of earlier than New York, or maybe they come to me because I’m here. Of my last four books sold, three are related to where I am.” She sold Nancy Lord’s Early Warming: Alarms and Responses from the Climate-Changed North to Counterpoint and Bill Streever’s Cold: An Untold Story in a Warming World [ed’s note, 5/11/2009: now Cold: Adventures in the World’s Frozen Places] to Little, Brown; Lord and Streever are both Alaskan authors. “Those two clearly have to do with that we’re here and that we feel connected to Alaska,” says Wales. “And we just sold David Mas Masumoto’s Wisdom of the Last Farmer to Free Press. He queried me because some of his family originally came from Japan to this country through Seattle and he thought there might be a good intuitive connection. He sent me the arrival ticket from one of his grandparents. I thought that was wonderful; I took that as a sign.”

There’s no denying that for now, New York is still the heart of the publishing industry. But when West Coast agents fly cross-country, everybody is excited to see them. “It’s like spending time with your children,” says Manus. “It’s the quality of the time you spend, not the quantity. When we go to New York, our meetings are very substantial. They look forward to it.”

“When I travel, either with clients or to meet with editors, they understand that I’m not local, and they tend to make the time to see me,” says Martin. “I really think it can be an advantage, because I don’t ever have trouble getting in to see the people I need to see.”

“When I first got in the business on the agent side, in 2001, I didn’t have a lot of established contacts, so I had to cold-call editors,” says Weinstein. “One big editor in Midtown called and said, ‘Please, I want to meet you, because I have no idea what’s happening west of the Hudson River.’ But there were also people who would not take calls from anyone not in New York; one of them was a big dog in publishing. Well, he lost his job about a year ago. He just took a job with a smaller publisher and e-mailed me, saying, ‘We’ve never had a chance to meet. Are you going to BEA?’ I’m not going to remind him of all the times he blew me off. Anyone who still has that New York–centric bias is missing their own opportunities. I can’t worry about those people. I have my own books to worry about.”

Oh yeah, and those sparkling sand stereotypes? They’re not entirely untrue. “California has taught me that New Yorkers need to get out more, both literally and figuratively,” says Robert Shepard of the Robert E. Shepard Agency, located in Berkeley. “Yeah, there’s a lot of self-congratulatory marveling around here about the quality of the lettuce and the darkness of the coffee and the sheer, mind-blowing gorgeousness of Yosemite and the Golden Gate Bridge. All true, by the way. But sometimes I get into these conversations in Manhattan that are nothing but cheesy gossip about some editor moving from one imprint to another and I think, ‘Why are you wasting so much time talking about this unimportant nonsense? Get some fresh air! Read something other than the Times, for crying out loud! Or come visit—38 million Californians can’t be wrong!”