Walking into the offices of the Book Group, housed in a small (by Manhattan standards) building on West 20th Street, one is greeted by the standard design trappings of literary agencies. Posters of book jackets line the walls and dozens upon dozens of books sit on shelves hanging above desks in cubicles and offices.
In the conference room, where the books of clients sit spine out on shelves that stretch from hip level to the ceiling, the vibe is unusually positive. Those who work in publishing can tend toward glass-half-empty. The eight women who work at Book Group (four principals, one senior agent, one agent, and two assistants) seem different. It feels a bit like stepping onto the set of a TV show about book publishing—one cast by the creators of Friends, featuring characters written by Aaron Sorkin.
Founded in 2015 by Julie Barer, Faye Bender, Brettne Bloom, and Elisabeth Weed, the Book Group marked the coming together of four highly regarded agents. (Each either left her own firm or a position as a principal at another firm to form the Book Group.) It also marked the union of four friends. This might explain the congenial atmosphere in the conference room. And, according to Bloom, the creation of the agency was, to some extent, a long-term goal.
“The four of us grew up as assistants in the business, and we’d meet after work for drinks and talk about having a company one day,” Bloom explained. Working together seemed logical, she went on, since, as assistants, they had always leaned on one another. “We had gone to each other to celebrate our successes, to commiserate about our challenges, to get advice from each other. From the beginning, I think, we really shared a philosophy about how we see our roles as agents.”
Bender said it helped that they were all coming from places of strength. “We had each built our lists independently and were at a very good position,” she added, noting that they were all, also, “at a similar place in our lives.”
This may be, in part, why, for such a young agency, the Book Group boasts an impressive roster of authors, many of whom hit that elusive publishing sweet spot: they are critically acclaimed and commercially successful. A few notable clients include Elisabeth Egan (Bloom), Joshua Ferris (Barer), Liane Moriarty (Bender), Alice Sebold (Barer), and Lisa Wingate (Weed). Brenda Bowen, an established agent in children’s publishing (who was a publisher at Henry Holt, Simon & Schuster, and Disney-Hyperion before becoming an agent in 2009), joined the firm in July as senior agent. The authors and artists on her large client list include Raúl Colón, Karen Hesse, Hilary Knight, Chris Raschka, and Rosemary Wells.
Looking at more recent deals, the Book Group has unquestionably been on a roll. Though the agents are loath to discuss advances, they have sold quite a few books, of late, for sums rumored to be in the six- and seven-figure range. There was the six-figure deal for mystery author Charles Finch (extending his stay at Minotaur) that Weed closed last month. Before this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, in October, Bender sold a debut YA novel called The Firekepeer’s Daughter, by Angeline Bouley, for a rumored seven figures to Holt Books for Young Readers after a 12-bidder auction. In September, Barer sold Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Avad Akhtar’s novel Homeland Elegies to Judy Clain at Little, Brown for six figures. And over the summer, Barer closed a seven-figure deal at auction for Dear Edward, a buzzed-about novel by Ann Napolitano; Whitney Frick at Dial wound up winning the book, which publishes next month.
Many in the industry have noticed the deals these agents are making, and the authors they’re launching.
Claire Lundberg, a film scout who runs CTL Scouting, said she and her colleagues became aware of the firm’s track record last year. “We realized that Book Group clients were dominating the bestseller list,” she noted, adding that at some point in 2018, the agency had four or five authors on the New York Times bestseller list.
While the Book Group has always had “quality clients,” Lundberg said, more recently it has “launched several authors into blockbuster status—sometimes with accompanying film and TV deals.” Examples she gave include Barer’s clients Madeline Miller (author of 2018’s Circe) and Celeste Ng (author of 2017’s Little Fires Everywhere and 2014’s Everything I Never Told You).
Jon Baker, founder of Baker Literary Scouting, called the women at the Book Group “visionary.” He feels the agency’s status is owed, in part, to the fact that the principals were all known quantities when they launched the firm. “Individually, the partners made names for themselves as trustworthy advocates, and I think talent gravitates to them as a result.”
“I think a lot of people enjoy working with them—and their material is top notch,” said Jennifer Barth, executive editor at Harper. She added that the staff seems unusually collaborative, and that she feels, when she buys a book from one agent there, she will get “the full force” of the group behind it.
“Their list is curated, smart, story-driven and often quite commercial,” said Little, Brown’s Clain. “And they roll up their sleeves at every step of the way.”
The agency represents a full range of fiction and nonfiction but is considered a specialist in one category.
Pam Dorman said she associates the agency most with “upmarket reading group fiction and nonfiction.” She elaborated that the agency is especially strong in “memoir—ones that possess strong, original voices, full of insight and emotion, but ones whose characters and storytelling are their hallmarks.” And Dorman feels, like Barth, that the agents at the Book Group are “true partners with the editors and publishers who publish their authors.”
That feeling of partnership and support can be felt internally, as well. Though publishing is ostensibly an industry built on mentorship, support for those coming up in the business isn’t always there. And, in such a low-paying field, that can be tough. At the Book Group, there seems to be a tacit understanding that the junior members of the team are very much members of the team.
Discussing her role, assistant Nicole Cunningham, who supports Barer, said she always feels included: “The great thing about being a young person here is that when one agent gets in something that doesn’t feel exactly right, they’ll ping it off to someone else.” She paused. “I feel like everyone’s kind of looking out for me as well.”
Hallie Schaeffer, who supports Bloom and Weed, agreed, as did Dana Murphy, the one junior agent at the agency. Murphy, who said she’s been with the firm “since before its inception,” specializes in adult nonfiction and dabbles in YA.
Getting back to that matter of specialization, the members of the agency smart at the insinuation, when put to them directly, that their sweet spot is book club books.
“I think that would be limiting to what we do,” Barer responded. “I mean, we have #1 New York Times bestsellers and we have Pulitzer Prize–winning authors and Pulitzer finalists. We have National Book Critics Circle finalists and National Book Award winners, as well as massively selling book club reads.”
Fair or not, the reference to book clubs seems to be one the agency can’t shake. The tag might stick because it’s friendship that underpins their business.
Agents occupy a unique place in the publishing ecosystem, as they can be both friend and foe to publishers. While most agents are respected and well liked, some (perhaps to the benefit of their clients) are known to ruffle a few feathers, so to speak. This is why the feeling of camaraderie that editors express when talking about the Book Group seems surprising.
“The Book Group is an agency that I wish I was in a real book group with!” said Jennifer Enderlin, executive v-p and publisher at St. Martin’s Press, when asked about the collective. “They so clearly love all aspects of books—the discussion of them, the packaging and marketing of them, and the development of talent.”
As it happens, the Book Group staff actually had their own book group. Three of the principals (Bender, Bloom, and Weed) were members of a book club made up of other publishing professionals, which Bloom said “went on for years.” She added that the club was fun precisely because it was driven by a serious commitment to the material.
Bloom recalled that one of their selections was Gilead (Marilynne Robinson’s 2014 novel, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize in fiction). The group met at Old Town Bar in Manhattan to discuss the book. Engaged in an intense conversation about the text, they were interrupted by the waitress, who was carrying a round of shots. The drinks were courtesy of a guy at the bar. His message? “You all look like you need to have some fun.”
What that guy in the Old Town didn’t understand is that they were having fun. And, it seems, they very much still are.