How does one gracefully exit a long-held job? In most businesses, executives who resign—whether by choice or by force—cite "personal reasons"; sometimes they say they're "exploring other opportunities" or "spending more time with family."
In publishing, of course, there's only one acceptable post—corporate job path: become an agent. Last month, longtime L.A. Times Book Review editor Steve Wasserman hinted he would become a book broker; this past week, Time Warner Book CEO Larry Kirshbaum shocked the business with the same declaration. "I have not really begun to discuss when and where...," Kirshbaum wrote to me in an e-mail. "But my future is in literary agency."
And well it may be. While many publishing folk are wondering at Kirshbaum's surprise announcement (and, of course, debating whether it was completely his idea), I don't doubt he could turn his 30+ years of book business experience into a real, live, agenting life. After all, many who've gone before him have done exactly that: there's Joni Evans, who went from editor (Simon & Schuster, Random House) to William Morris; Betsy Lerner (Doubleday et al. to, most recently, Dunow, Carlson [and now] Lerner Literary Agency); and, perhaps most successfully, David Gernert, who used to edit John Grisham and now represents him. But there are many, many more, too, from Ira Silverberg to Brian DeFiore to Sarah Burnes.
Sometimes, the exec-to-agent move works—and publishing folk find themselves in satisfying second (or third) acts. But often, too, when a deposed editor or publisher publicly proclaims himself an agent, he's simply activating a face-saving device; he's found a polite way of saying "fired and forcibly retired." There are dozens of names that would fall into that category, but I won't mention them: it's not nice, and besides, it would only prove my point because they're names you haven't heard—or heard from—in years.
Still, I can see why the idea is tempting (I considered exactly this move myself, a couple of years back—don't laugh) For one thing, agents can be some of the biggest money makers in publishing, especially when compared to salary-confined editors. Done right, they can rewrite one of the most basic rules of the marketplace: they don't cut out the middlemen, they become them.
Which is not to say, of course, that becoming an agent is always the right move. Sure, one-time publishing execs have a wealth of contacts among their old crowd; they know who publishes what and for how much. But unless an editor plans to pull a Gernert and abscond with his former writer, he might be woefully unpracticed in seeking out new, and preferably unagented, talent. Because if there's one thing that everybody hates, it's a client poacher.
Besides, although some agents these days do more editing of proposals and manuscripts than the folks who buy them, agenting requires some additional noneditorial skills. For one thing, an agent needs to possess simultaneously an entrepreneurial and a patient spirit. An ingratiating, pleasant personality also wouldn't hurt (although the success of many less-than-personable agents belies that statement).
Cynics might suggest that becoming an agent is simply the publishing equivalent of putting up a "Gone Fishin' " sign and cashing in on some connections. While it can be that, it can also be an honest attempt to continue to work in a business that you love, free of the restraints and restrictions of corporate life. It is, in other words, a way to stop working for The Man, and end up working for yourself.