Skip to Content

The Art Of Agenting


The literary agent on gatekeeping, the truth behind big advances, and why Amazon neglects the “humanity to good books.”

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/CHris-Parris-Lamb_by-Victor-G-Jeffreys-II____.jpg
Image by Victor G. Jeffreys II.

In Chris Parris-Lamb’s office at The Gernert Company, a literary agency where staff with shrewd cheekbones sip herbal teas while managing the affairs of some of America’s top authors, there is a small en-suite bathroom in which I discovered a minor landslide of running shoes. A couple of pairs looked completely destroyed. A couple of others had the beleaguered appearance of the soon-to-be-dead. There was one pair in the pile that seemed to be brand new—stiff tongue, clean toe-box, untainted laces—but behind their game face I thought I discerned an air of resignation. It turns out Parris-Lamb is a compulsive runner, and at well over six feet in height he must hit the ground hard. “Sixty to eighty miles each week,” he explained. “Which means I go through a pair of shoes every six to eight weeks.” His most recent marathon time is two hours and forty-eight minutes, which in 1908 would have won him the world record.

Parris-Lamb, who recently turned thirty-three, shot to prominence within the publishing industry in February of 2010. That was the month in which he sold Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art Of Fielding, to Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown for a reported $665,000. It was his first big headline success after several years of assisting other agents while slowly building up his own list of authors. The book went on to become a high-profile bestseller, and since then, Parris-Lamb has proven himself to be an unusually reliable judge of what the market wants, or soon discovers it wants. This past fall, three books by authors of his—Christian Rudder’s Dataclysm, Peter Thiel’s Zero To One, and John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van—all featured on the bestseller lists at exactly the same time, while Darnielle’s was also a National Book Award nominee.

One of Parris-Lamb’s most recent literary discoveries is Garth Risk Hallberg, whose forthcoming nine-hundred-page novel, City On Fire, has already been the subject of much attention, having drawn a nearly 2-million-dollar advance. Parris-Lamb has a fondness for wincingly high word counts (“it says something about somebody, in terms of ambition”) and he also enjoys getting deeply involved in the process of revision. He’s been known to work with an author through six entire drafts before deeming their manuscript ready for submission to editors.

A looming presence even when seated, Parris-Lamb manages to be unassuming, prone to thoughtful pauses. On the occasions during our interview when he broke off from quiet logic to offer flashes of frustration (“I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers”) he usually followed his statement with a slightly wry smile, or a quick glance towards his bookshelves.

Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: When you look at your unsolicited submissions pile, what are some of the common problems you see?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I just see an awful lot of people who believe that what makes a novel is eighty thousand consecutive words. I just wish I read more submissions where it felt like the author had taken great care with it, had spent a lot of time on it, and had a better idea—or any idea at all—of the books they saw their own as being in conversation with, as well as of how theirs was unique. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking “write a novel” off their bucket list. Readers don’t want to spend their $9.99, or even their $1.99—though that touches on a whole other problem—on a book that doesn’t give them something. And most of these submissions just don’t really justify their existence, or the time spent reading them. They might do something for the author—and that’s a perfectly good reason to have written it—but they don’t do anything for the reader, which is a perfectly good reason why they shouldn’t be published. Time spent writing a novel is valuable, but readers’ time is valuable too.

Guernica: Did you grow up in a bookish household?

Chris Parris-Lamb: My parents are very strong Christians, so the values of the family were built on a book, you might say, but there weren’t many novels in the house. My Dad was in the military. My Mom became a minister after I left for college. We moved around a lot when I was very young—from Alabama to Georgia, then Georgia to Tennessee, and then when my Dad came back from the First Gulf War and left the Army, we moved to Burlington, North Carolina. Burlington isn’t small enough to be charming or big enough to be interesting, but I had some really amazing teachers there, and they nurtured my love of reading. I remember Mr. Armstrong, my eighth-grade English teacher, turning me on to Kurt Vonnegut, and then me reading all of Kurt Vonnegut. But at the same time, I had no awareness of literary culture as a living thing. I couldn’t have told you if Vonnegut was alive or dead.

Guernica: Was college important in terms of growing your awareness of literary culture?

Chris Parris-Lamb: It was. I mean, I got the Internet. [Laughs.] I starting reading mcsweeneys.net in the very early days of that, and then I read A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Infinite Jest, back to back in my sophomore year. An author like David Foster Wallace—it might have been the first time I thought of a writer as a living person who would write more and more books, books I could look forward to buying and reading reviews of, just like I looked forward to buying and reading reviews of new albums from favorite bands. I remember desperately awaiting the New York Times review of Wallace’s Oblivion, sitting in this internet café in Greece. I remember feeling so deflated when Michiko Kakutani panned it.

Guernica: What was your first job in the literary world?

Chris Parris-Lamb: While I was still at college I had to do an internship somewhere, for a particular scholarship program I was a part of. I wrote off to The New Yorker and Harper’s and all these places. I waited for the phone to ring. I was nineteen and very naïve. I didn’t get any responses. Finally, when I was the last person in my program without an internship, the administrators ended up sending my résumé to Burnes and Clegg [the literary agency run by Bill Clegg and Sarah Burnes at that time]. I think a secretary knew someone there. Anyway, I turned up at the agency and Bill [Clegg] interviewed me. This was in the summer of 2002.

Guernica: Did he ask tough questions?

Chris Parris-Lamb: Bill asked me halfway through the interview, “Do you know what a literary agent does?” And I said, “You publish books, right?”

Guernica: Ah…

Chris Parris-Lamb: Yeah. I just honestly assumed that’s what literary agents did. What else were they doing, if they weren’t publishing books? So that wasn’t a great start to the interview. I also remember being really stressed-out, during that interview, that I’d never heard of any of the writers that were on the shelves. It had never occurred to me, you know, that there were writers I hadn’t heard of—thousands of them. The idea that there was this big marketplace in which some books got attention and others didn’t? That had just never occurred to me.

Guernica: You thought every book that came out got blessed or panned by Michiko Kakutani?

Chris Parris-Lamb: Honestly, I think I did. As I said, I was very naïve.

It’s never hard work to decide what you like and don’t like. If there’s a beauty to my job, it might be that.

Guernica: Do you think of yourself as having been a pure kind of reader back then—focusing purely on the pages, rather than the business surrounding it? Perhaps there’s something enviable about that, looking back?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I do miss that purity sometimes. It’s difficult to retain it when you’ve worked in the industry for a few years. That’s why I always make time to read for pleasure, and read classics. I always want my interns to be pure. Some people who apply for internships here think we want them to have an insight into the business. I don’t want them to have any insight into the business. If they have an insight, it’ll be lacking. I just want to know what sort of books they like, what taste they have, what personal library they’re bringing to the books they’re reading for me. I want them to know what they like.

I remember in my interview with Bill that I talked a lot about Infinite Jest, and also about Dave Eggers, whose work I later realized Bill didn’t like. I didn’t know what a literary agent did, but I knew what books I liked. There’s a value in that. It’s never hard work to say what you think about a book. You’re just articulating your feelings. It might be hard work to put it in writing, to craft the words to express what you like and don’t like, but it’s never hard work to decide what you like and don’t like. If there’s a beauty to my job, it might be that.

Guernica: You ended up becoming an assistant at Burnes & Clegg and then moved with Sarah Burnes to The Gernert Company when Burnes & Clegg collapsed. That must have been a strange time.

Chris Parris-Lamb: Yes, very strange. Kind of traumatic, witnessing the collapse of this noble little agency, which had no backlist, and was committed almost entirely to literary fiction.

Guernica: Can you talk briefly about that period?

Chris Parris-Lamb: Well, Bill was a drug addict, as has been well-publicized. He went AWOL at a certain point and wasn’t responding to his clients at all, or to anyone. The clients didn’t know what had happened to him. We at the agency couldn’t reach him. Sarah had to do everything to keep the agency going and I had to try and help with that. All of that has been written about at great length, and there’s no need to say more about it here. But I will say that in that period, Sarah Burnes became, not just a mentor, but a hero to me, personally and professionally. A fact that goes notably unmentioned in Bill’s memoir was that she was six months pregnant when he went AWOL. She had to shut down the agency—which meant that Bill’s assistant and the Rights Director lost their jobs—then move all her clients over here to The Gernert Company, and also help Bill’s clients find new agents. Meanwhile, there were still payments coming in for authors every day and I had to process them while we wound the agency down. I was, at that time—as an assistant earning $23,000 a year—the entire financial entity of Burnes & Clegg. It was crazy.

Guernica: When you joined Sarah at her new home here at The Gernert Company, was it hard to find editors and authors who’d take a chance on you?

Chris Parris-Lamb: Well, it was difficult and it wasn’t. For the first couple of years I was just helping Sarah with her clients, rather than finding my own. But I guess I knew I wasn’t going to be happy just assisting other agents forever. A key moment came when a manuscript entitled Mudbound was submitted to Sarah. It was by a new writer named Hillary Jordan. I read it for Sarah and sent her an email saying it was great. She wrote back after taking a look at it and said, “You’re right, but I’m going to be really busy when I come back from maternity leave.” She suggested, generously, that I write to the author, and promised to help sell her on the idea of being represented by a twenty-three-year-old—which, to her credit and to Hillary’s, ended up working.

When I sold Mudbound a year later, I got the bug. I knew I wanted to be an agent. And I started to realize that it’s genuinely true that hope springs eternal in the publishing business. If there’s a young, enthusiastic agent or editor around, people will give them a chance. Maybe only one chance, but a chance nonetheless. If you pick up the phone and call a really big-shot editor, and they can hear in your voice that you’re really excited about something, that’s probably going to be the first thing they read that night. They might not have a clue who you are, but they know real enthusiasm when they hear it.

Guernica: When was the first time you rang up a big-shot editor in that way?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I guess The Art Of Fielding. I sent that book to Jonathan Galassi, whom I’d never met before. I sent it to Michael Pietsch, who—because of Wallace—was the only editor I knew by name when I entered the business. I had met Michael but had never sent him anything. That was obviously a huge deal for me.

Guernica: How quickly did they put you out of your misery?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I emailed Jonathan Galassi the manuscript at 1pm on a Friday, I think. He emailed me back the next day, on Saturday afternoon, and said it was an extraordinary manuscript. Not so with Michael Pietsch. Michael was completely silent for two weeks after I sent him the manuscript. I had all these editors telling me how great it was, but when we got to the day of the auction Chad [Harbach] was still saying to me, “What about Michael Pietsch?” It still wasn’t clear to me, on the morning of the auction, whether Michael was at all interested in the book. I didn’t even know if he’d read the book—not until he called me just before the auction started.

Guernica: What did he say?

Chris Parris-Lamb: He said, “Hi, it’s Michael Pietsch. I’m going to buy this novel from you.” Something like that. And, of course, he did.

Guernica: It’s been a few years since you sold The Art Of Fielding, and of course you’ve had several other significant successes since. Do you have a particular group of acquiring editors to whom you now send the manuscripts you’re most excited about? What goes into deciding who comprises that group?

Chris Parris-Lamb: It happens fairly organically—insofar as drinks and lunches are an organic part of the publishing ecosystem—and you get to know people’s tastes. I guess the first thing is the natural winnowing process that happens at each agency and publisher. Not every twenty-two-year-old sticks around to become a twenty-seven-year-old with an expense account. This is a business a lot of smart people enter and which a lot of smart people leave, because it’s hard to make your way. But the people who were junior at the same time I was junior have become, largely, the group of editors I send stuff to. So most of the people on any given submission list of mine are people I’ve known for several years. We’ve grown up in the industry together and I know what they like. These were friendships forged in the early years of our careers—working very long hours, spending our evenings reading submissions, earning very small amounts of money, and wondering if we’d ever progress.

Guernica: Who are the editors you like to submit to?

Chris Parris-Lamb: You want names?

Guernica: If you feel you can.

Chris Parris-Lamb: Noah Eaker at Random House. Diana Miller at Knopf. Allison Lorentzen at Viking. Tom Mayer at Norton. Ginny Smith Younce at Penguin Press. I’ve gotten to know people outside my micro-generation, as it were, as well, of course, but those are all people I first met when they were editorial assistants and I was an agency assistant, and I think they are all editors with excellent taste. I met Noah in, I think, October of 2004, right after he’d started as Susan Kamil’s assistant. I met Diana in 2006, when she was Sonny Mehta’s assistant. Tom was working as Bob Weil’s assistant when I met him. I remember being so nervous meeting Allison for the first time, because I knew her by reputation as this superstar who somehow managed to be both Tim Duggan’s assistant and a co-founder of n+1. Now all these people are powerful acquiring editors at publishing houses, but the friendships and mutual respect came long before that.

Guernica: The mingling of friendship and business—it must present some problems at times.

Chris Parris-Lamb: Yeah, sometimes.

Guernica: What happens when you submit to a group of editors that includes several friends, and they all want to buy the book?

Chris Parris-Lamb: It’s hard. I can’t pretend it isn’t. Sometimes in the final round of an auction, at the very end, there are very close friends of mine all offering on the manuscript I’ve sent to them. I don’t want to get too specific about it, but with one debut author whose book I sold recently, the last day of the auction was the greatest day of that author’s professional life, and in my mind I knew that it was one of the best professional days of my life too. And yet, calling close friends to tell them that I’d sold the book to another editor? That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. It was truly horrible. I guess people on the outside of the industry might hear that and think, “Come on, it’s just business, it’s not that hard.” But it’s really, really hard. You have to match your author with the editor who you think will be best for them, and you have to put a lot of weight on who the author has the best feeling about. It’s not all about what I think is best—it’s about what the author wants. Though it’s my job to give them the information they need to make a decision.

Guernica: There’s been a lot of publicity of late about a new author you took on—Garth Risk Hallberg. You sold his nine-hundred-page novel, City On Fire, for a seven-figure sum. It comes out with Knopf later this year. I’m curious—how did Hallberg’s work come to you?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I met Garth at the wedding of mutual friends. We were sat next to each other, which I think was a deliberate move. The bride and groom knew Garth was looking for an agent. As soon as Garth told me he’d written such a long novel—I think it was 380,000 words, at that stage—I told him I was interested in reading it.

Guernica: Seriously? My heart would sink.

Chris Parris-Lamb: Infinite Jest, Ulysses, Middlemarch. These are my favorite books. I just like long books, I guess. There aren’t many of them out there and it says something about somebody, in terms of ambition, that they’re prepared to try and write that kind of novel. Anyway—I read the manuscript, thought it was terrific, and told Garth I’d like to represent him. Garth then took a while to pick an agent. Luckily, he picked me. We worked through a new draft of the manuscript together, and a year after we met, we sent out the book to editors. I first read the manuscript during Hurricane Sandy. I’ll never forget that. I knew I had something special in my hands. Four pounds worth of specialness.

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we?

Guernica: Doing editorial work with an author on a manuscript before you try to sell it—is that common practice for you?

Chris Parris-Lamb: Obviously, every agent is different, and every book is different. Every author is different too in terms of what they need and want—macro advice, micro advice, et cetera. I do a lot of editorial work with most of my authors. I want, before the book goes to editors, for there to be as little as possible to detract from my advocacy of the book. If there’s something in the novel that I have serious misgivings about, that will detract from my advocacy. So I ask that my authors at least give me a chance to make suggestions for revisions. With Mudbound, the first book I sold, I think Hillary and I went through six different drafts before we decided it was ready to send out to editors. It’s not my job to tell the author what they want to hear. I have to be honest. That’s the main thing. The only thing I can give an author that no one else can is my opinion, and that’s valuable. Take away my honest feedback and I add no value at all.

Guernica: We talked about your disappointment with the majority of the unsolicited manuscripts you receive. Are there too many people writing, and not enough people reading?

Chris Parris-Lamb: There’s almost nothing I can say about this that won’t bring a lot of rage pouring down on me from the internet. But, to give a short answer, yes. I try to take a philosophical, and I hope empathetic, view of it all. I mean, we’re all going to die, and we have a short time here on earth, and we all want to achieve distinction of some sort while we’re here. Meanwhile, we all have Microsoft Word installed on our desktops. We all already spend a lot of time typing. One way to leave one’s mark would be to, say, write a great symphony, but most people don’t know how to read music. Whereas more or less everyone does have the means to put down words on a page and save them and share them. That’s a great thing—I’m all for technology eliminating barriers to communication and expression—but it can lead to delusions. Just because you’ve written it doesn’t make it worth reading. And it’s depressing when people forget that you can’t be a good writer without first being a good reader.

I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers. We don’t have a National Heart Surgery Month, do we? I’m being intentionally provocative there, obviously—being a good or bad writer isn’t a matter of life or death—but I’m also serious. Great writers are as rare as great heart surgeons—maybe even rarer; I don’t actually know anything about heart surgeons. But I would argue that it takes as much time and work to perfect their craft, in addition to having talent to begin with that most people just don’t. What I really object to is this notion behind these initiatives that anyone can write a novel, and that it’s just a matter of making the time to do it. That’s just not true.

To be fair, true talent—the Gift, as Lewis Hyde would call it—can come from anywhere, and if National Novel Writing Month causes one of those talented people to finally make time in their life to cultivate their gift, and something great comes of it, then maybe it’s all worth it. But I am really skeptical of the idea that, but for National Novel Writing Month, those gifts would go undiscovered. I think part of the nature of the gift is that you can’t not give voice to it—having received the gift, you must give it in turn. Which is to say, the people who really do have a great novel in them are going to find a way to write them anyway. If it’s not clear by now, I think every writer should read Lewis Hyde.

Guernica: Many people in the industry say it’s harder to sell a book than ever. Do you concur?

Chris Parris-Lamb: It’s true. It’s harder to sell a book to a big publisher now than it was ten years ago, I think. The blockbusterization of the book industry has had the same effect as the blockbusterization of Hollywood—among many other industries. It’s the rule of the Power Law distribution—a decreasing number of producers get an increasing share of the rewards. Obviously this is what’s happening with income inequality, too. Publishers are buying fewer books and publishing fewer books. If you’re an agent, you have to take more time than you might have done in the past to make the manuscript as strong as it can be—because an entire imprint may be only acquiring half a dozen debut authors a year. It’s really, really hard to get a book published by, say, Random House now. They’re acquiring less. That’s the Hachette model too. That’s the Crown model. Of course, when you do have a book that lots of editors love, it’s still possible to sell it for a lot of money and get lots of momentum behind the book—if anything, when publishers do really want a book now, they’re willing to pay more than ever, for the very reason that they’re otherwise not buying much. It’s the other side of the coin—it’s feast or famine. But big books don’t come along every month.

Guernica: Is there ever a situation where you’d advise an author not to take a big advance that’s being offered?

Chris Parris-Lamb: No, not really. Which is not the same as saying they should always take the biggest advance that’s being offered. But I’d never advise an author to turn down an advance because it’s big. Statistically, your book is more likely to do well if you receive a big advance. There is more pressure on the publishers to make it work and get their money back if they’ve paid out a large advance. The downside of any advance is always the same—your book might not sell. That’s a risk if you get a small advance, and a risk if you get a big advance, so if there’s a big advance on the table, take it, and use the money to write your next one.

I think there’s this idea that if you receive a big advance and then the book doesn’t work, it’s a disaster, and your career is ruined. That’s just not true. If your first book doesn’t work, it’s always going to be harder to sell the second book, and that’s the case regardless of whether you were paid a big or small advance. If someone wants to make a bet on you, why not take it? If your first one doesn’t work, you might have to take a haircut on the advance for the second, but so what?

Guernica: I guess one downside specific to really large advances is that all the publicity about the book tends, at least in the beginning, to focus on the size of the advance. That can put an author under a lot of pressure, and I suspect it brings out a certain bitterness in some members of the literary community, too—people who you’d ideally want as supporters of the book. People love a good underdog story. “Author gets big advance and goes on to become bestseller” isn’t one of those stories.

The law schools in this country churn out first-year associates at white-shoe firms that pay them $250,000 a year, and people get upset about an excellent author getting $65,000 a year? Give me a fucking break.

Chris Parris-Lamb: There’s some truth in that, and I wish it wasn’t the case. I hate that advances—for my authors or anyone else’s—can become public knowledge. But it also drives me crazy that readers of books get upset about this stuff—people who presumably love literature and want writers to do well. Chad Harbach spent ten years writing his novel. It was his avocation, for which he was paid nothing, with no guarantee he’d ever be paid anything, while he supported himself doing freelance work, for which I don’t think he ever made $30,000 a year. I sold his book for an advance that equated to $65,000 a year—before taxes and commission—for each of the years of work he’d put in. The law schools in this country churn out first-year associates at white-shoe firms that pay them $250,000 a year, when they’re twenty-five years of age, to sit at a desk doing meaningless bullshit to grease the wheels of the corporatocracy, and people get upset about an excellent author getting $65,000 a year? Give me a fucking break.

Guernica: How do you feel about Amazon?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I feel that the whole dispute with Hachette said more about the state of Amazon’s business than it did about the state of the publishing industry. Books are, what, less than 4 percent of Amazon’s overall business? So Hachette—a single supplier—must account for less than 1 percent of Amazon’s bottom line. And yet Amazon cared so much about their profit margin—or cared about being seen as caring about it—in relation to this little 1 percent of business that they were willing to take a pummeling day after day in the press—a huge wave of negative media—to preserve their margin. My guess is that Amazon was starting to feel pressure on Wall Street to show a profit—to bring a stop to their pattern of making an operating loss quarter after quarter.

Guernica: Putting the retail element to one side, it’s interesting to see what’s happened with Amazon’s literary publishing arm.

Chris Parris-Lamb: Yeah, that has been a big failure. There are good people in that office, I know some of them, but Amazon’s attitude toward books is data-driven—at the top, they see books as products, just like everything else. That’s true at the transaction level, but it’s not true beyond that. When you’re dealing with art, or even entertainment, all these questions of taste and subjectivity—which can’t be quantified—come into play. Almost no one writes books for economically rational reasons, and yet Amazon insist on trying to squeeze books within a rational economic framework. In a traditional economic model consisting of entirely rational actors, an author should not care more about the epigraph on their book than they do about the list price of their book. But let me tell you, they care more about their epigraphs. All of them do. I saw Amazon delete an epigraph from an author’s book the day before it went to print, because the author was never told he needed permission to use it. He got permission that very day, and yet they wouldn’t restore it in the printed book. To them, it’s just an epigraph, they can get rid of it, who cares? To the author, it’s a different thing. A book is basically irrational—or fiction is, anyway. That’s why we read it. Amazon doesn’t seem to be able to get their heads around that. There is a humanity to good books that data can’t account for.

Guernica: You mentioned earlier that mainstream publishers are publishing fewer books than ever before. I’m getting the impression you think that’s a good thing, on balance. But is there a risk that the reduction will lead or has led to a certain conservatism—a narrowness of range—in what’s reaching our shelves from the big publishers?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I do think it’s a good thing that publishers are publishing fewer books. It makes my job and the job of other agents harder in the short-term, but there’s a net benefit for authors. If you’re an author, a good one, do you want to be on a publisher’s list with twenty-four books for the season, or do you want to be on the list with thirty-six? It’s a fairly simple equation. If you publish less, there’s a chance to do more for each book.

That said, I don’t mean to presume that we, the much-reviled gatekeepers of the publishing industry, know for certain what books deserve to be read by the public. Of course we don’t, which is why it’s important that a wide range of books get a chance to break out. Nobody could have anticipated the success of books like Gone Girl, or All the Light We Cannot See. They were both books by previously midlist authors whose publishers had faith in them over a long period of time—whether you like them or not, you should be happy for their success. They caught something in the public mood, and that kind of serendipity is what makes the business fun. There are self-published books that catch the public mood too, obviously.

Guernica: You don’t have a problem with self-publishing, then?

Chris Parris-Lamb: There’s a role for self-publishing, definitely. But just playing the odds, if you’re a new author, it’s almost always going to make sense to publish with a big or small professional publisher, if you can—a proper editor, some degree of marketing, some degree of professionalism and advice. Want to upload your book onto a self-publishing platform along with hundreds of thousands of others that month, and hope for the best? That’s fine, but you’re basically counting on a miracle.

Guernica: One of the comforting things about the list you’ve built and the books you’ve sold is that they suggest there are still editors out there, at the big publishers and at the independents, who want to take a chance on big, messy, ambitious works of fiction or nonfiction—high-quality literary books that don’t conform to the standard idea of a bestseller. I assume you feel there’s still going to be an appetite for those books ten years from now?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I think it’s a myth that editors don’t want these kinds of books on their lists—that all they want are sure-fire genre successes. I haven’t been in this business that long, but I’ve found that there are always editors out there who want to take a chance on great writing. I don’t think that will change anytime soon. When I send out a big, ambitious literary novel, part of the excitement I hear from editors is precisely because they receive these kinds of books so rarely. If there are big, original, ambitious novels full of bold ideas and great writing that are being turned away en masse by literary agents and publishers, by the gatekeepers, then I’m not aware of them.

There simply aren’t that many great manuscripts out there, and readers want to be shown what they are. So I don’t think gatekeeping is going away anytime soon. Writers might not like it, but readers definitely do, whether they realize it or not. It takes a lot of time to read a book—much more than it does to listen to a song, for instance. People have this misconception that the publishing industry only ever really existed to print and distribute physical books, something that is increasingly unnecessary in the digital age—although I hasten to note that print sales were up in 2014. That’s not why the publishing industry exists. It also doesn’t exist to give writers a way to publish their books, as much as writers might not want to hear that. It exists to bring readers books that are worthy of their time and attention, which is increasingly scarce and valuable. We sift through the bad stuff so you don’t have to. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative.

G

To contact Guernica or Jonathan Lee, please write here.

Readers like you make Guernica possible. Please show your support.

Tagged with:

You might also like

  • This Little Light of Ours This Little Light of Ours The Freedom Summer director on Mississippi and the role of music in civil rights.
  • The Art of Independent PublishingThe Art of Independent Publishing The publisher of Graywolf on the pleasure of finding books others have overlooked.
  • Literary Culture ClashLiterary Culture Clash The “super-agent” talks about finding success with messy, difficult books, re-thinking how we publish works in translation, and the advice she gives to authors---no hotel porn on book tours.
  • Notes for the StageNotes for the Stage The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright on his relationship to Jewish artists, “the simple sense of being human,” and experiencing his work for the first time along with its audience.

12 comments for The Art Of Agenting

  1. Comment by Jon on March 2, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    I’m not sure what law firms Chris is familiar with, but any law firm that would pay a first-year associate $250,000 is no longer in business and/or never existed.

  2. Comment by Will on March 2, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    There are 300 million people in this country and he’s glad fewer books are being published? Is he glad publishing houses are merging into one big corporate decision-maker? What does he think is keeping all those lawyers so busy? What is he doing to groom authors? He is waiting to receive the masterpiece at the end of 10 years of struggle but at that point, what do we need him for? Where was he when we needed him?

  3. Comment by novembertwentyleven on March 3, 2015 at 2:27 am

    “…nine-hundred-page novel…”: you must be joking. Does anybody read this stuff? Can anybody follow what’s happening, the characters, and so on, in such a behemoth?

    Kafka, come back and save us from this lunacy 🙂

  4. Comment by Alexandra Donald on March 3, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Wonderful interview. I love how realistic he is and how he doesn’t pull any punches!

  5. Comment by Trev on March 3, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    This guy comes across as arrogant and with a very high handed view of his role. As if agents are the sole arbiters of good taste in books when in reality they are only literary gamblers who make bets on what consumers want to buy based on their own very limited tastes and life view. His disrespect of writers who he deems unworthy of being read is breathtaking.

  6. Comment by Mygod on March 3, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    Amazing interview. This guy gets it. Also, I understand that he was being facetious when he said “250,000” for a first-year law student. His main point still obtains: that calculated in terms of hours of work even authors with huge advances end up being merely an upper-middle class or lower-upper class occupation. And yet people complain about it all the time (entirely because of jealousy).

    There’s a total lack of big ambitious fiction right now, due to either people being told they can self-publish their work and that anyone can write a novel (untrue), and from the fact that writers are now made via a system of mass production (MFA programs).

  7. Comment by Alice on March 3, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Wonderful interview Jonathan Lee! I think the people who get offended are the ones who don’t read challenging fiction and do not have a reverence for the ART of writing and think that everyone is entitled to having their work seen. I appreciate his honesty and insight (even if I wasn’t too crazy about THE ART OF FIELDING…Hahaha…)

  8. Comment by Kathy Palmer on March 3, 2015 at 6:53 pm

    A pleasure to read this article. I always find it interesting and titillating to see the vocal few that believe they know what I like to read. So funny… reminds of Woolworths and Coles Supermarkets that limit me to what I will be allowed to purchase from them too. Long live the independent writer – so many voices would be lost if they didn’t have a go. Personally, never heard of this guy before it was posted on a Nanowrimo site. Now that’s irony.

  9. Comment by Marjorie on March 4, 2015 at 2:04 pm

    I appreciate reading about one agent’s views and agree with some of his points (loss of respect for the writing craft, for instance). Where I disagree is with regard to agents being the sole arbiters taste. We see all kinds of books, some poorly written and meant to generate money and others that show ability with craft. But readers know that! There is so much good writing that never gets read because only a few—men, it seems, according to this interview—are permitted to pass through the gate and make the big bucks. I’m heartened by readers who are open to reading something so long as it’s a good read.

  10. Comment by Kris K. on March 5, 2015 at 12:28 pm

    A number of Top Tier law firms in NYC pay 1st year salaries of $250K. No question. I know people who made that in 1997.

  11. Comment by Jon on March 5, 2015 at 5:52 pm

    The standard salary for first-year associates at big NYC law firms has been $160,000 for the better part of a decade. Even with bonuses, it doesn’t even come close to $250,000. Any firm paying that much to a first-year associate is most likely not giving that associate “meaningless bullshit.” But regardless, the editors that Chris sells his clients’ books to are part of the same “corporatocracy” that hires the law firms he rails against, so I’m not really sure what his point is, other than to create a straw man and to curse in an edgy way.

  12. Comment by Radhika on March 6, 2015 at 1:16 am

    ” But I am really skeptical of the idea that, but for National Novel Writing Month, those gifts would go undiscovered. ”

    Why is this agent saying this? Who told him that without Nanowrimo, one may lead his life never knowing that he could have been a great writer? Chris Baty, creator of Nanowrimo, never said that. No one has ever claimed nanowrimo to be some great talent scout contest. Nanowrimo, at its heart, is a challenge to write 50000 words of a novel in a month. It’s an opportunity to stop procrastinating and get on with writing that first draft. In some cases, to finish a half-complete draft. That’s it. That’s what Nanowrimo is, a chance for writers to work towards a common goal, with some community support. Nobody said it’s the next best thing since distilled beer. Before bashing an initiative, at least take the time to understand what it is all about.

Leave a comment




Anti-Spam Quiz:

Subscribe without commenting