A novice author braves NYC’s publishing jungle

OKAY, MAYBE IT’S not a miracle. Maybe it is, as one amused and superior New York friend put it, just business as usual: “Oh, come on, Jo, that’s the way books get sold, you know.”

No, I didn’t know. Sure, I had heard rumors of large advances from publishers and dramatic bidding wars, but I assumed they were for writers with previous big sales. I’m not exactly James Michener, you must admit. So when my agent, Molly Friedrich, called in mid-November with the news that five major New York publishing houses were bidding eagerly upward toward six figures for the privilege of publishing a book to be written by me, I called it a miracle.

It has also been an education. Like many fanatical book lovers, I’ve always reserved my highest respect for REAL AUTHORS, those half-mythical beings who put an ear to the lips of God and transmit divine messages to mankind. Now I have discovered how alert the author’s other ear needs to be to the sounds of the marketplace. What God has to say can get lost in talk of volume sales, preempted offers, reprint splits and second serial rights. Unless you’re just plain lucky, to publish a book today you need the savvy of a market analyst, the discernment of a lawyer, connections like (though not with) Cosa Nostra, the tact of a con artist and the technical expertise of an MBA. Above all, you need the glorious make-me-an-offer audacity called chutzpah. Or you need an agent.

I am just plain lucky, so I have Molly. What I lack in chutzpah, Molly has. When I told her I was taking an extended, unpaid leave from teaching to try writing in New York, “Oh, good,” she said in her tough, cheerful voice. “You can write books, and I’ll sell them.” So far, she’s selling them before I write them.

“My agent”: no words ring more sweetly for a person who lives by the pen or create more jealousy in the disadvantaged or apprentice writer. Before Molly took me on, I sometimes had murder in my heart at “my agent” remarks carelessly tossed my way, like bones to a toothless dog. Now I can “my agent” with the best of them. Not that Molly looks much like you’d expect an agent to look. She doesn’t chomp cigars or swill martinis at lunch, nor is she a brassy blonde with a past. A wholesome young woman with a lawyer husband and a 4-year-old daughter, she shares the concerns of other working mothers (of her young daughter Julia, she once wrote me, “It truly bothers me that one of her first phrases was, ’Back soon. Mommy?’ “).

“I went to Glengarry Glen Ross last week,” she told me at a recent lunch, stirring her Virgin Mary. “It was tragic, of course, but funny too. I loved it.” Her eyes gleamed. “It was all about selling!”

For Molly, selling the book I am going to write was all in a day’s work-by her standards, though not by mine, a mid-level deal. The next week, she was “very pleased” to get a $2,500 advance for a first novel. At the other end of the spectrum, a year or so ago she negotiated an advance of more than three-quarters of a million for Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s second novel, Molly’s-and Hailey’s -first big sale. What Molly looks for, like most agents, is an original voice in a narrative that will appeal to many people. But, unlike more complacent agents, who simply gaze blankly over the landscape as the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg scan the road from West Egg, she looks hard, to get a book she believes in and to create a deal for the writer. Witness the deal she just created for me. 1 got so fascinated with the machinations involved that I asked Molly for the sheaf of scribbled legal paper on which she recorded the intricacies of proposal, bids and negotiations. With her notes and my imagination, I can reconstruct much of the “miracle.”

It all began early in 1984 with a telephone call to Molly from an editor at a large publishing house. Let’s call her Doreen (as you read, you’ll understand why I use fictitious names for these editors). Doreen told Molly of research by one Margaret Smith that had just been accepted for the Harvard archives. Incited by experiences in her own family, Mrs. Smith, a housewife from Birmingham, Michigan, had spent three or four years interviewing upper-middle-class women whose children had violated certain basic family values of one kind or another. The research contained 32 elaborate case histories and in-depth interviews of women from “the silent generation.” The children of these women had become drug addicts and pushers, alcoholics, homosexuals, anorexics and Moonies, had made biracial marriages and had sex-change operations, had been sent to jail, had gone mad and had killed themselves. Their educated, traditional, stay-at-home mothers, financially well off, married to highly placed business and professional men, bulwarks of church and community, had spilled their guts to Margaret Smith. What a book was here! But Mrs. Smith couldn’t write. Did Molly have any ideas?

Molly certainly did. She contacted Margaret Smith. Would she be willing to work with a writer? Margaret certainly would. Molly contacted me. Was I interested? I was just coming out of a large project, and I waffled a bit. At the end of May, Molly and 1 had lunch in a Japanese restaurant near the office of The Aaron Priest Literary Agency, where she is a partner. Over sushi, Molly used her considerable powers of persuasion on me. “Look, Jo,” she said, “I can sell this book. There’s a real book here, and somebody’s going to write it. I want it to be you.”

So early in June 1 visited Margaret in Birmingham and talked about mothers and children. I came home with 2,000 pages of transcribed interviews. I spent the summer reading, brooding, thinking, laughing, and crying over the stories of those mothers. By the first of September I had written a 60-page proposal for the book, which I called (never mind why) Demeter’s Dilemma. In spite of the title, Margaret and Molly had loved the proposal. Margaret felt that I had represented the spirit of her research, Molly that it would whet an editor’s appetite.

First, Molly sent the proposal to Doreen, of course. Doreen turned it down flat. Margaret and I were crushed, Margaret was thrown into a snit because she thought the validity of her research was being questioned, I was morbidly depressed because of the disdain of my writing. Molly was cool about the rejection. She was relieved to have the “exclusive” lifted. Now she could get down to the serious business of selling.

Already she had begun talking the book up, over lunch and in phone conversations, letting editors know that one of her authors was working on a fascinating proposal and gauging the various reactions. She listened, too, to the gossip at trade parties. “There’s so much to know when you send a proposal out-what books you send to which editor, who’s on vacation, what books the house bought recently and might not want to duplicate, whether they’re feeling broke because they’ve been spending a lot or they’re frustrated and eager to buy because they’ve missed out on a sale. It helps to know what best sellers they’ve had in the past that this book might happily remind them of. And you’ve got to know which editors have the power to act independently and which will be compelled to drum up a lot of in-house support.”

By the end of October, she had selected the editors she planned to focus on. She called each, then keyed a cover letter: “Enclosed, the proposal you and I discussed at lunch many moons ago”; “Seeing you at the UJA luncheon reminded me of how much I’d love to do a big book with you”; “Since you know my mother, let me tell you she is extremely sympathetic to this.” With these tactful insertions, she introduced “Demeter’s Dilemma-a rather oblique title for what I consider a monstrously commercial proposal.” And she gave each editor the same deadline for a first bid: high noon on November 15.

Some rejections came back immediately:

“I’m afraid that I felt, and readers here agreed, that the material lacks focus…”

One female editor took a curious personal umbrage, writing distastefully:

“I’m afraid that I don’t have any interest in this DEMETER’S DILEMMA … I found myself really impatient with those women whose “suffering” seemed uncalled-for to me. I felt they lacked sympathy and empathy with their children and that much of the ’problem’ lay with them rather than with the people they were complaining about.”

“Now what triggered that?” Molly wondered. Apparently we’d struck a nerve.

Some editors wanted to meet me, and I enjoyed these meetings, though I sometimes came away sorely puzzled. What do you say to someone who wants 2,000 pages of research “expanded”? To someone who, stimulated by what you’ve got, wants what you haven’t-a study of Jewish mothers or ghetto mothers or poor rural mothers? To someone who thinks the mothers should be portrayed as villains? To someone who flatly declares, “The book I want you to write is not on paper. The first thing you need to do is get rid of Margaret Smith”?

Other responses were more gratifying. One day to countdown, I sat on the couch piled high with books in Molly’s comfortable office and listened in on her speaker phone: “Seductive writing.” “I want this one so badly I can taste it.” “I love it and I want to tell you, dahling. that I’ll be playing tomorrow.”

Tomorrow came. As I got my coffee and sat by the telephone, I thought over the people who would probably be “playing.” I knew we could count on at least two, whom I’ll call Natasha and Jane. It was Natasha who’d called Molly “dahling.” I haven’t met Natasha, but I have a clear picture of her in my mind. She is a power in a major publishing house, an editor who can make independent decisions and who is a Geiger counter, according to Molly, as to how a non-fiction book will sell. That she would “play” was deeply encouraging to our cause. But then, Natasha loves to “play,” loves auctions, loves the whole business of topping the opposition in her wonderful deep voice. Natasha has style.

No one could be less like Natasha than Jane. Jane, from an even larger house than Natasha’s, spent 20 years working herself up through the ranks to a position as one of the most respected editors of so-called women’s books. Several years ago, she’d edited and promoted a blockbuster of which our book reminded her. When I learned that the blockbuster had sold 60,000 copies in hardback, my heart had gladdened at the similarity. I had also met Jane and liked her, liked the gentle intelligence in her brown eyes, her willingness to listen, her ideas about the book.

She had just had a baby. Subliminally interested in all things maternal, she suggested a title, Second Birth, Second Self, which sounded a lot better, I thought, than Demeter’s Dilemma. When we parted, she’d said, “I love this book, and I’m going to try to get it.” I had my money on Jane.

Then there’s Simon, the only male editor who did any bidding. Simon comes from the biggest publishing house of all, a vast machine of buying, editing, printing, and marketing that can guarantee the success of any book, unless the book gets lost in the hugeness. Simon doesn’t yet have the status in his house Natasha and Jane have in theirs, but he’s a go-getter, circles under his eyes, lots of nervous energy.

The Monday before the auction, Molly called him. “I haven’t sent you the proposal,” she said. “I think we should forget it. First bids are Thursday. You can’t work that fast.”

“Why don’t you give me a chance?” Simon pleaded. “Send it around by messenger.” With some misgivings, Molly did, with a note, “You will love this and see it walking onto The Phil Donahue Show” Simon had two days to drum up support for a proposal the others had had for two weeks. No one knew whether Simon would “play.”

Sitting by the phone, I thought over these various personalities and wondered what it would be like to work with them. I imagined the Literary Guild party on the St. Regis roof the evening before, which I knew they had all attended, and wondered if over their white wine Natasha had spoken casually to Simon or Jane about our book. I also thought about money. Molly had told me her worst fear was that everyone would love the book-for $10,000.1 thought about how big the advance would have to be to give Molly her percentage, Margaret her half and leave me enough for a year of writing. I figured we could just squeeze by with $40,000, but that seemed like a lot.

At 12:30 Molly called. “Well,” she said, “you have an offer for $10,000.” “Oh.” “And you have an offer for $15,000.” “Oh?” “And you have an offer for $25,000.” “Oh!” “And you have an offer for $45,000, and one for $50,000.” We were in business.

Natasha had bid $25,000. “Isn’t that nice?” she said to Molly. “Not so nice,” answered Molly, who’d just gotten Jane’s bid. “Well, call me this afternoon and we’ll talk,” said Natasha. She sounded surprised.

Jane was at $45,000. “How does that sound?” she asked. “That’s a friendly offer,” Molly responded. Then Jane tipped her hand. “How are you going to proceed?” And she gave Molly her itinerary for the rest of the day.

Simon was at $50,000, but he was running nervous, panting after first serial rights and ways to make his cash bids less extravagant. He was also running from floor to floor, trying to get support and approval for the deal.

Molly called Natasha. “You have to top $50,000.” “Hmm,” said Natasha, “52,500.”

Molly called Jane. Jane said, “I’ll stretch a little. How about $60,000?”

“I’ve got $60,000,” Molly told Simon. “Are you still playing?” A long silence. “Put me down at $65,000.”

“Oh, my dear,” said Natasha, “this is getting serious. You have really conducted this so well.” Uh-oh, Molly thought, she’s out. “Dahling,” Natasha came back, “I’m going to make you a beautiful offer, but first I have to know-can I change the title of this book? I mean, Demeter’s Dilemma-I ask you!” “Make me a beautiful offer, and you can call it anything you like,” Molly said. “What do you have in mind?” “When Bad Things Happen to Good Mothers!” said Natasha triumphantly. Molly shuddered. “But there’s a book with a title like that already.” “Of course, my dear, that’s just the point, don’t you see?” “Well,” said Molly, “what’s your offer?” “It’s beautiful numerologically” said Natasha. “Because a 7 and a 6 make 13- $76,000! Only 22 is better than that, and we’re beyond 22, aren’t we?”

Jane was at home, getting dressed for the theater. “I’ll go to $80,000,” she said. “I’m seeing The Real Thing, if you need me tonight.”

Friday morning Simon called Molly. “The most I can get is $80,000,” he said, “but I’ll throw in all serial rights and give you a fabulous reprint split.”

Natasha called. “But of course I’ll go to $80,000, too, dear child. I love it-When Bad Things Happen to Good Mothers,’’

“Natasha,” Molly said gently, “I somehow don’t think this book is for you.”

Molly called me. “They’re all at $80,000,” she said. “What do you want to do? Who do you want to work with?”

Moments like that one haven’t come along very often in my life. I breathed it in, savoring its sweetness, feeling quite a bit like James Michener. Then I remembered the intelligence in Jane’s gentle brown eyes, her happy maternity, her willingness to listen. “I don’t know the others,” I said, “but I really like Jane.”

Molly called Jane. “Jane,” she said, “it’s winding down, and you have a real advantage: The author knows you and trusts you. She wants you, even though she can get a better reprint split from another house. Let’s not ask her to take a loss, and let’s not nickel and dime this wonderful book to death. Go to six figures and you’ve bought it.”

Now it was Jane’s turn to pause. “I’ll call you back in five minutes,” she said.

Six minutes later, Molly called me. “One, zero, zero-“

So one snowy Friday, Margaret flew in from Michigan for the day. We met in Molly’s cubbyhole of an office, signed the contract and went to lunch. Then Margaret hailed a cab for La Guardia, Molly went back to work, and I slipped down the street to St. Bartholomew’s to say thank you for a miracle.


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