For PJ Mark, who wears two hats as agent and foreign rights director for literary agency McCormick & Williams, the dual responsibilities couldn't be more complementary. “Not only do I have autonomy,” he says, “but I get to handsell foreign rights for my own clients as well as the rest of the [agency] list.” And this is no small order, as the agency's authors number over 200. But, as Mark sees it, the foreign component is critical to the success of a book. “The momentum of foreign rights can feed a publisher's enthusiasm domestically,” he explains, adding that, in the best case, “this can act as a circuit”: foreign deals feed domestic enthusiasm, which in turn creates more foreign deals, and so forth.
Mark was indoctrinated early on about the importance of foreign rights. He got his start in publishing as a scout with Mary Anne Thompson, absorbing the ins and outs of the international market during his six years there. Now that he's an agent, Mark says, his grasp of the market and his relationships with specific international editors have helped him build a “network of like-minded sensibilities,” so he's able to focus titles for specific publishers. This synergy benefits everyone, says Mark, particularly authors. Aside from being an additional income source and a platform, foreign sales “buoy an author's confidence: they like that their books are being read worldwide.”
Rights responsibilities aside, Mark still finds the time to cultivate his own list, as the growing profiles of his authors attest. Of late, first-timer Dinaw Mengestu has racked up all sorts of accolades for his debut novel, The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears (Riverhead, Mar.), including the 2007 Guardian First Book Award. And the next six months will see several of Mark's authors hitting the shelves, including Samantha Hunt, whose second novel, The Invention of Everything Else (Houghton), was just selected as the inaugural pick for the WNYC radio book club. Other forthcoming titles include Believer co-founder Ed Park's first novel; poet Sarah Manguso's memoir of her battle with autoimmune disease; and photojournalist Abrahm Lustgarten's book on China's plans to build a railway to Tibet. Mark is also a longtime comics fan, and maintains a small list of comics writers.
Though scouting paved the way for Mark's rights career, it may be his time at Kurt Andersen's startup, Inside.com, that's most benefited him as an agent. When Mark heard that Andersen was launching his behind-the-scenes media news site in 1999, he approached Andersen blind and convinced him that he could be a kind of “online book scout,” applying the insidery ethos of scouting to the Web site. Though Inside.com shut down in October 2001, Mark was left with an invaluable pool of contacts. Several writers and editors connected with the site, including Todd Pruzan, Stephen Battaglio and Joe Hagan, are his clients today. “[Inside] is the gift that keeps on giving,” Mark jokes.
Mark's career path illustrates the often accidental, who-you-know aspect of the publishing profession. “I got to Mary Anne by accident,” he says of his first job. Waiting tables, he met a colleague of Thompson's in the restaurant where he worked. At a reading, Mark met agent Ira Silverberg, who gave him a few names to help him get in the door. He read manuscripts, freelance, for Viking president Clare Ferraro when she was at Ballantine. He got his start as an agent at IMG when Mark Reiter, whom Mark met while covering Reiter's Jack Welch book deal for Inside.com, called him up and asked him if he was interested.
But publishing and books have always been part of the plan for Mark, who came to New York in 1990 for college. “The whole goal was to be in books,” he says. Fifteen years in, and he has few complaints, though he does hope that more attractive technology options will soon be available to readers and would-be readers. “It would be so good for our industry if e-books worked,” he says. Despite his increasingly prominent list, Mark insists he's committed to the foreign rights duties at the agency. Someone recently asked him when he was going to “give up the foreign rights stuff,” Mark says, implying that the day-to-day managing of the agency's list took up too much time. “But I like this micromanaging,” he asserts.