Although he admits it almost seems Pollyannaish to be an optimist in book publishing, agent Eric Simonoff still sees the glass as half full. Simonoff, who recently created a stir in New York literary circles when he left Janklow & Nesbit for a top perch at William Morris, has been building one of the most respected client lists in the industry since he started in publishing 20 years ago.
A classics major at Princeton, Simonoff flirted with the idea of law school before getting derailed by an entry-level editorial job at Norton. After he fell in love with publishing, he thought he was going to become an editor, until he received a call about an opening for a junior agent at Janklow & Nesbit. He “hit it off” with the agency’s cofounders, Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit, and wound up spending the next 18 years with them.
Simonoff’s reputation is due in large part to clients that include literary stars (like Jhumpa Lahiri and Edward P. Jones) as well as known moneymakers. Although Simonoff may be known for big-ticket deals—he recently scored debut author Danielle Trussoni a reported six figures for her novel, Angelology—he says he never takes on a client “cynically.” “Books I represent I generally love,” he says, adding that any time he takes on an author, it’s because that person’s work “succeeds on a fundamental level.”
When asked what he considered his first hit book, he refers to Edward P. Jones’s short story collection Lost in the City published in 1992. That book, by the then unknown Jones, was handed off to him when he was just starting out at Janklow & Nesbit and went on to be a National Book Award finalist, win the PEN Hemingway award for best work of first fiction and receive a Landon Foundation grant; it sold roughly 4,000 copies in hardcover and another 4,000 in paperback. “The question was always, 'Is that a success?’ ” Simonoff asks rhetorically. To him, it was an unqualified success that did, in fact, pay off down the line—Jones’s 2003 book, The Known World, won a Pulitzer and solid more than one million copies.
Building authors like Jones is admittedly harder in today’s publishing climate, with the slow disappearance of the midlist and the big houses hunting for blockbusters. And Simonoff thinks this trend will only become more pronounced in the near future. “It’s a very good time to be a brand name. It’s hard to create new brand names, so if you’re an existing brand, there’s a good chance you will be paid more in this economy than you were before. This, of course means someone else is going to be paid less.” This means the trend of the large advance isn’t stopping. “In many cases, the difference between a huge year and a terrible year [for a house] is one author. Publishers are thinking, 'Can we afford not to buy what could be our tent pole book for 2011?’ ” He adds that the assumption the money going to big advances might be spent on other, smaller books—or to expand shrinking publicity and marketing departments—is wrong. “It’s reductive to think that if [publishers] didn’t spend $4 million on [an advance] they would carve it up into hundreds of little pieces and diversify their portfolio. They wouldn’t.”
So if it’s harder to build authors and publicity efforts are shrinking, where are the silver linings out there? For one thing, there are still surprise successes. Simonoff points to the moment last summer when four first novels—The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, The Gargoyle (which he sold), The Lace Reader and The Story of Edgar Sawtelle—all hit the Times bestseller list. That feat, Simonoff says, shows that “if you write a really, really compelling book it’s possible that, even if people don’t know who you are, it can sell.”
Of the battles ahead, Simonoff sees the one between publishers and Amazon over the pricing of e-books as the most critical. He knows “there will come a reckoning” when Amazon will no longer purchase Kindle editions at the regular discount since it’s selling the titles at such steep reductions, $9.99 for $25 hardcovers. At that point, “if publishers accede to cutting the price of the e-book editions, they would be giving away the better part of our business.”
So what are agents to do in this showdown? Give advice. “Offer counsel to the publishers in presenting a unified front, because it’s in everyone’s interest not to have revenues across the board slashed by half.”
Name: Eric Simonoff
Title: Senior v-p at William Morris Agency
First job: Editorial assistant at W.W. Norton
Publishing in the future will be… ” increasingly, both the protection and exploitation (in the positive sense) of content and content providers (you know, those people we used to call writers).”