Is he the most interesting man in the publishing world? I must confess, a few chapters into Sterling Lord’s recently published memoir, Lord of Publishing, my first impression was that the guy in those Dos Equis beer ads has nothing on Sterling Lord. As a young man from the Midwest, Lord was a nationally ranked tennis player, playing legends like Don Budge and hitting around with eight-time Wimbledon champ Helen Wills Moody. After returning from Paris in the ‘50s, with his French wife, he began working as a literary agent in New York City, through the publishing industry’s golden age and into its lucrative corporate era, a career that has now spanned more than 60 years.
“Think of the people Sterling has known, think of the people that have confided in Sterling, asked him for advice,” says sportswriter Frank Deford in Open Road’s promotional video for the book. “He’s a giant.” In fact, when Lyndon Johnson was looking for representation, Lord said no thanks. That’s President Lyndon Johnson—the Great Society, Vietnam... yeah, that guy. Cue the line, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
Indeed, as Deford suggests, think of the people who have trusted, relied upon, confided in, and ultimately entrusted their careers to Sterling Lord—from Deford to Gloria Naylor to Jimmy Breslin, Ken Kesey, and Stan and Jan Berenstain, whose Berenstain Bears books have sold nearly 290 million copies in the United States and Canada alone. And, think also that Lord has built one of the world’s premier agencies, and in turn launched the careers of many of today’s top agents—including Flip Brophy, who began as Lord’s assistant.
But more than any other accomplishment, Lord will forever be remembered for his role in ushering in the last great American literary movement—the Beats. Sterling Lord represented Jack Kerouac, and without Lord’s determination, On the Road, might never have gotten into print.
At 92, Lord is going strong, and PW caught up with him at his Greenwich Village office to talk about his memoir, his life and career, and his thoughts on the publishing business then, and now.
Congratulations on a fascinating publishing memoir. I have to ask, have you been taking notes for your entire career and keeping them in a sock drawer?
No, and that was a problem—I probably should have done that. I’ve been very circumspect, pretty much all my professional life. I’ve never really told people things that have gone on here. But for years I’d have lunch with people, and I’d tell them a story, and they’d always say, “Sterling, you have to write a book.” Well, after five or six of those, all from people I respect, I started thinking seriously about it. And, I also began to realize that there are not many books like this—a real insider, sort of “what happens in publishing,” book.
Yours has been a remarkable career, highlighted by your role in the Beat movement. You came to represent Kerouac, in 1951, or, was it 1952?
I have to confess, I couldn’t remember exactly, but I think probably it was ’52. I had been in business a short time when Bob Giroux [then an editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, later a partner at FSG] called and wanted to have lunch to talk about another project he was interested in. A few weeks after that lunch, he called and said, “You’re going to hear from a man named Jack Kerouac. He needs an agent.”
Now, you have to remember, I was about 20 years younger than any agent alive at that time, and because I was younger, and close to Jack’s age, I think Bob thought I would be ideal for Jack. But, he warned me, there were a couple problems. For one, the manuscript was on an unending scroll that is miles long, and that would be my problem to deal with.
When Jack came to meet me, he actually thought Giroux had already rejected the manuscript. But I had a long talk with Bob after he retired, and it turns out he didn’t reject the manuscript at all. What happened was, Jack came in and started to unroll the scroll on his desk, and Bob said, “You know, Jack, this isn’t the way authors are submitting manuscripts now.” So, he rolled it up and gave it back to Jack. For Jack, that was a rejection.
Giroux, incidentally, came back after On the Road was published and asked to see the original manuscript because he had the idea that there were enough changes made so that there could be another edition, you know, an original edition that was identical to the manuscript. But, he decided, there weren’t enough changes to publish a separate book.
You actually open your memoir with a chapter on Kerouac—does that speak to how you see his place in your career?
Well, Jack was probably the best known of all my clients, and I was quite fond of him. And Jack was there at the beginning, and certainly for a long time he was the writer I represented who was best-known.
I’ve often wondered whether a book like On the Road would be published by a major house if it emerged today; or whether the game has changed so much that a writer as unconventional as Kerouac would ever get a shot, given the corporate pressure to produce bestsellers; or whether he’d end up doing something online—I mean, it took four years to get a deal for On the Road. What do you think?
That is a complex question. When I first read the manuscript for On the Road, I certainly didn’t know whether it was going to be successful, I just knew his was a voice that should be heard. But in the book I describe how, at one point, because I hadn’t been successful in selling the manuscript, Jack asked me to pull the book from submission. I knew Jack well enough to know that he was going to change his mind, and he did about 18 days later.
But let’s talk for minute about how Viking eventually bought the book. Malcolm Cowley, who was an advisory editor at Viking, had read the book at Stanford, where he was teaching, and he liked it. But he also knew that all the top editors at Viking were rather old, and wouldn’t respond to the book. So he waited until the young Tom Guinzberg [Viking’s principal owner, who was then around 30 years old] came back from Paris, and he got him onboard. That’s how Viking got enough muscle together to make an offer. In the book I quote rejection letters from editors who were about Jack’s age at the time. One of them was Joe Fox, at Knopf, who I always thought should have, in principle, responded positively. But in his letter he says he doesn’t believe that On the Road is a saleable novel. But, really, I think it was generational—I think age was why On the Road was rejected by for so long.
Did you have any sense at the time that the Beats were going to become an important American literary movement?
No. All I knew was that On the Road ought to be published. And, you know, every time it was turned down, I’d think, “Well, I’m smarter than those editors.” But I’ll tell you, it seems to me that a big part of why the Beats happened was the economic atmosphere here in New York. You know, one of the first guys I met here in New York was a fella who lived on Carmine Street and paid $25 a month for a big apartment. He had to go out in the hall to go to the john. But he had a big apartment, and he threw parties, and he wasn’t part of the Beat movement, but the point is you didn’t need much money to live in a society like that. Now, it’s tougher, much tougher. Ideas and movements grow by association with other people, and the way things are now, I don’t see any comparable movement on the horizon.
There’s also some great stuff on another of your longtime clients, Jimmy Breslin—who actually went to Kerouac’s funeral with you.
Yes, Jimmy called my house one night, as he often did, and said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I said, “Oh, I’m going to Lowell, Mass., for the funeral services for Jack Kerouac.” And he said, “Nobody should have to do that alone.”
So Jimmy canceled his plans and met me at LaGuardia airport. And then he took over. On our way into Logan Airport, he asked me how we were getting to Lowell, and I told him I thought we’d grab a taxi, but Jimmy said, no, no, and went to the first phone booth we saw, and looked in the directory under limousines for one with an Irish name. I was listening to the conversation from Jimmy’s end, and he got the owner on the phone, and I could hear the owner say, “Are you really Jimmy Breslin?” The guy was in bed when we called, but he was at the airport in about 20 minutes! And he took us to Lowell, and waited around, and after the church, we went to the burial and he stayed with us, and I’ll tell you, I heard a lot of Irish all the way up and back, which made it a much more pleasant drive.
On the way up, I remember Jimmy asked me how Jack died. He drank himself to death, I said. He didn’t have any food for about five days. Jimmy, the expert, said, “Oh, no, no, you can’t do that—you have to have something about 10:30 or 11 in the morning every day.” Well, after the funeral, there was a gathering, and Jimmy found out Jack was on bennies, and, you know, bennies and alcohol don’t get you very far.
That Jimmy did all that for me, I’ve never forgotten that.
In a way, Kerouac also led you to another of your notable clients, Ken Kesey, right?
Yes, that’s right. I got a call from Tom Guinzberg one day to ask if Jack would be interested in reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and possibly doing a blurb. He sent me the manuscript and I read it before sending it to Jack, and I knew right away this was a guy I wanted to represent. So I called Tom and said I’d really like to represent Kesey, and if he doesn’t have an agent, could you introduce me? And that’s how it happened.
Ken I liked enormously. I had represented him for some time before I actually went out to visit him in Oregon. I stayed in their barn house, whatever it was, and Ken and Ken Babbs were working on editing film, but Kesey stopped everything for three afternoons in a row, each time taking me out for a ride through the countryside, and each time it was to prettier country than the day before. And when it came time for me to leave, he got Further [The Merry Pranksters’ Bus] out of the barn and had some of the Pranksters come along, and that’s how I got to the airport.
You career spans six decades, now into a seventh, and at the risk of being overly broad, can we talk a little bit about how the book business has changed over your lifetime? What stands out most to you?
Well, when I came into the business in 1952, publishing was not a business—it was an occupation. Houses were run by their owners, and you never heard them talk about the bottom line, or profits. They talked about the quality of the books they published and the writers they worked with, writers who usually stayed with them for their entire careers.
Literary agents, too, were people who were in the business because they liked writing, rather they liked books. It wasn’t all about money, and for a long time, the money really wasn’t very good. For example, when I started out, many agents weren’t interested in the movie business at all, because they thought those guys out there were thugs. But in the late 1950s, there started to be big money, and that was because of paperback books. Well, soon enough, people like the Hollywood agent Swifty Lazar, whom I knew quite well, were representing books. I don’t know that Swifty ever read a book.
Now, Swifty may be an extreme example, but I’ll say that when I began, agents were different. Now, well, money is what it’s all about for many of them.
In the book’s last chapter, you write about the current state of the publishing business. Do you think that the money and the conglomeration of the publishing business fundamentally changed it?
Yes, I do. Books are merchandise now. I think there’s less editing, less actual editing, today, and I think it is harder now to find editors who really care about books. There is less copyediting, too—one publisher told me that when publishers are trying to cut expenses, the first people to go are the copy editors. I mean, would I go into the agency business now if I had to start all over again?
Well, that’s a great question…would you?
You know, I’m not sure I would. Let me put it this way. In writing this book, there was a lot of self-examination, and I wondered why I had the success that I’ve had for so long. I probably got good genes from my parents, and I’ve been a competitive tennis player for about 78 years. I never really smoked, or drank. But the key thing, I think, is that I’m in a business that is absolutely captivating. I think it’s enabling me to live forever. I don’t want to retire, and I don’t think I’m going to.
But I’m not sure that agents starting today can get as much out of the business as I did. I think agents have to exhibit more imagination now than they have in the past. But, also, it has become so driven by money. From the beginning, I’ve always had one goal in mind: to help my writer in any way I can. But these days I hear of decisions being made by agents that are not for the writer, but for the benefit of the agency. In the book, Guinzberg is quoted saying the thing about dealing with me was that I was a tough negotiator, but he never walked away feeling he’d been had. I always figured that if my judgment was right, and I was out to get the best situation for my writer, my income would take care of itself. And it has.
You saw firsthand how paperbacks changed the publishing game. What are your impressions of the e-book? I’m guessing you feel pretty positive about e-books, since you’ve published your memoir with Open Road, an e-book publisher.
Well, I’ve sold [Open Road cofounder] Jane Friedman a lot of books, over 125, and in doing that, I’ve gotten to know her and know her company pretty well. I saw the various things she was doing, and I saw her not wasting money on things that other publishers do. I think she’s running a tight ship and a good business, and I was attracted to that.
As far as the e-book, you know, I’d just be guessing, because I really don’t know where e-book publishing is going. I think it probably will draw a different kind of person into the reading public than existed before—I think it probably already has. But, I’m not sure what springs from that. Personally, I don’t think the hardcover book that we know will disappear. There are just too many elements there—the tactile element, the element of keeping it on your shelf. Whether or not a totally new form will originate, I don’t know.
All I know is that we’re in a period of deep change, and that change is going to continue.