There was a time when the words “please hold for Sterling Lord” could be a tricky moment for an acquiring editor. How do you reject a manuscript from a relentless agent who specializes in launching bestselling authors?

When Sterling Lord died in Florida on Sept. 3, 2022—his 102nd birthday—the impact of his eponymous agency could easily be identified on the shelves of every American library and bookstore. He was best known as the agent who spent four years on the uphill battle to find a house willing to take on the risky business of publishing Jack Kerouac’s widely rejected novel On the Road. (Sterling even talked Viking up from its original $900 offer to $1,000.) From Kerouac and Ken Kesey to Doris Kearns Goodwin, Erica Jong, Gordon Parks, and the bear-centric Berenstains, his authors continue to be widely read and assigned at home and abroad.

Born in the Mississippi River town of Burlington, Iowa, at a time when you had to take a ship to get to Europe, Sterling launched the Sterling Lord Agency in 1952. It happened after he was fired from Cosmopolitan—which, years later, would be one of many magazines he’d help me and other clients break into. At the time, many major publishing houses were still owned by their founders, and the entire paperback output of the dominant publishers could be found on a single floor at Brentano’s.

I am writing at a disadvantage because I only knew Sterling for his last 54 years. (He began representing me in 1968.) Nonetheless, I think his against-all-odds story is as intriguing as many of the impressive bestselling biographies he agented, such as Ralph G. Martin’s Jennie, the story of Winston Churchill’s mother.

“I believed in Jennie, so the mound of rejections never discouraged me,” Sterling told me one afternoon as we were sitting courtside during a Knicks game time-out. “I kept telling myself that I was smarter than many editors. I may not have been smarter, but I had to believe that I was—and I had to really believe in the book—to keep on going.”

“Survival in publishing,” he said another evening, at a Hungarian restaurant overlooking San Francisco Bay, “is always a matter of timing. Whether it was a major triumph or a serious disaster, I would take only 10 minutes to moan or celebrate before moving on to the next client or the next deal.”

During Sterling’s nearly 70 years in the book business, there was just one surefire bestseller that never made it to the proposal stage, much less an acquisition editor’s desk: his own story.

Sterling was partial to journalists writing about sports stars who won over new readers who didn’t normally frequent bookstores. Among those early hits were books that became successful films, including Jimmy Piersall’s Fear Strikes Out, Rocky Graziano’s Somebody Up There Likes Me, and Peter Gent’s North Dallas 40.

He relentlessly pursued deals that became turning points in the lives of many of his authors. After On the Road made the broke Kerouac an overnight success, Sterling wired him bus fare for the ride from Florida to New York. That book has sold more than five million copies. When Stan and Jan Berenstain were not getting what Sterling thought they deserved from Random House, he secretly, without letting anyone in his own agency know, put together a $3.2 million deal with HarperCollins.

During Sterling’s nearly 70 years in the book business, there was just one surefire bestseller that never made it to the proposal stage, much less an acquisition editor’s desk: his own story. Ironically, the legendary agent who represented everyone from flat-out broke novelists to Teddy Kennedy, Howard Fast, and Jaqueline Susann did not work with a writer to publish his own biography.

Readers will never be able to learn all about how Sterling’s agency landed four of the top 10 bestsellers on a year-end New York Times list. Nor will they ever have a chance to get all the details on his four marriages, or his decision to quit Sterling Lord Literistic a few years ago to start a new agency with old clients like Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

During our last call in July, Sterling was enjoying a sunny trip on the Staten Island Ferry, talking about the possibility of continuing his work if he could find the right writers for the right books to take to the right publishers.

“A book,” he told me one afternoon, shortly after waking up from an office power nap, “is forever.”

I hope one day someone proves me wrong and publishes the biography he deserves. It could win the National Book Award. Meanwhile, we’re all on hold for Sterling Lord.

Roger Rapoport is the author of the novel Patty Hearst: A Symbiotic Love Story, out this year from Lexographic Press.