of literary matters.
interview with Eric Simonoff
Heather H. Havenstein
searching for a literary agent, contemporary authors look for
someone who will provide them with a significant level of publishing
guidance. Someone who will not only represent them, but moreover,
who will fortify a durable career.
today's fast paced world, that kind of distinguishing thoroughness
may be a luxury, a dislodged trait. Today authors expect to
obtain a covenant for the sale of a book or two, with their
agents giving them minimal attention. Until Eric Simonoff.
agent Eric Simonoff, based in Manhattan on Park Avenue, consigns
his days to an impressive client
list that includes Pulitzer
Prize-winning authors Edward P. Jones and Jhumpa Lahiri, along
with Norah Vincent, Thisbe Nissen, ZZ Packer, Chandler Burr,
Louis Gerstner and Bill O' Reilly. This is a roster of authors
whose books have achieved critical and commercial acclaim, and
they are the writers who seek the specialized skills that are
specific to Simonoff's methodology.
a successful vice president of Janklow & Nesbit Associates,
is often sought after by authors not only for his publishing
prowess but, moreover, for the personal style that infuses his
work with authors.
often approached by people who are leaving their agents,"
Simonoff says. "What I hear cited as the number one reason
for dissatisfaction from authors is - 'My agent never returns
my telephone calls.'"
answer to that universally heard reproach, Simonoff says, "Responsiveness
is key. It is essential to give clients a feeling that there
is someone looking out for their interests in New York City."
Nissen, whose book "The Good People of New York,"
was published in the spring of 2001, has been represented by
Simonoff since soon after they met in 1995. She says Simonoff
signs on with an author to forge a long-standing relationship
for a career, not with an eye solely toward the commercial success
of one book.
was my agent for about five years before I earned him one red
cent," she says.
were plenty of times I called him up and said, 'Do you want
to get rid of me? I am a burden.' And he would always say, 'I
addition to his loyalty to her work, Nissen also values Simonoff's
keenness for explaining the minutiae of the business of publishing.
I know about business - nothing," she says. "At every
stage, he explains to me what is going on and how my interests
are being represented."
who has been with Janklow since 1991, expected through most
of his college career at Princeton to follow a customary family
path by becoming a lawyer.
he says, as the end of college approached, "It suddenly
occurred to me …that what I really loved more than anything
in the world was books. I decided I wanted to have something
to do with the making of books."
career services department offered meager resources for the
publishing business, compelling Simonoff to turn to some alumni
for advice on breaking into the business. After sending out
a mass mailing of resumes to the editors-in-chief of all the
large publishing houses, he began work as an editorial assistant
with WW Norton six days after graduation. After two years with
Norton, Simonoff was anxious to take on more responsibility.
With no looming openings at Norton, Simonoff was hired on at
Janklow as a junior agent handling subsidiary rights.
had never occurred to me to become a literary agent," he
says. "My dream had always been to be an editor. The relationship
between author and agent tends to be much more enduring these
days than the relationship between editors and authors. The
likelihood of an author having one editor for her entire career
is very slim. It's very, very hard to find an editor who has
been at a house for 12 years."
Simonoff had always aspired to be an editor, he draws a clear
line between his responsibilities as an agent and those he defers
to an editor.
disagree about how much editing agents should be doing,"
according to Simonoff. "If you read a proposal or a manuscript
and see a way to make that better…it's your obligation
to share that with the author. What I don't want to do is replace
the editor in the process. There comes a point where the agent
needs to step aside."
his vantage point in the publishing business, Simonoff sees
the value of a good story, both in fiction and nonfiction, emerging
as a dominant trend.
popularity of "chick lit" books such as "Bridget
Jones' Diary" along with potboiling thrillers is waning,
he says, to be replaced by literary novels such as "Atonement"
and "The Lovely Bones."
on the debate about plot-versus-character-driven writing, Simonoff
says, "There is latent snobbery among some readers who
diminish the importance of story. People really do have an appetite
for well-written books, provided they are also good stories."
have backed away from the idea…that you can create commercial
authors overnight. Publishers themselves are becoming more interested
in exploring more avenues," he says, noting that they recently
hit a dead end with certain genres like international thrillers.
"There was a certain sameness to a lot of the books they
complicate the publishing picture, the recent decade provided
this already congenital industry with new business twists, in
what might have been considered a case study for monopolistic
practices. Although much was made in 1990s of the effects of
media conglomerates gobbling up publishing houses, Simonoff
says there is minimal synergy in everyday publishing.
argument can be made that a Fox TV personality would fair well
at Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins Publishers, as Harper would
have an additional reason to maximize their investment,"
he says. The implied synergy in this case offers justification
for tie-ins and crossover marketing from the two media groups.
fiction, however, it is rare that Little Brown publishes a book
and Warner Brothers makes the movie based on that book. Or if
not rare, then there are even odds any other studio would make
the movie," he says. "As for convergence, there are,
of course, fewer and fewer corporations owning more and more
houses, but still enough to generate heated bidding. Should
Warner publishing be folded into HarperCollins or Bertelsmann,
it would take a significant player out of the picture and that
could hurt writers."
to working with authors, Simonoff bucks the inclination of some
publishers to pressure authors to churn out a second book on
the heels of a commercially successful first book.
a tremendous success with a first book can be a tremendous hindrance
to the creative process. I don't think it does the author any
good You spend so much time touring, being interviewed [that]
it's very difficult to get back into the place you need to be
in order to write. At the same time, to have a publisher saying,
'Get us the next book fast.' It's a tremendous recipe for disaster."
addition to taking pains to be responsive to his clients, Simonoff's
agency also labors to ensure authors' financial interests are
protected via its accounting department. In fact, the agency
has more people in its accounting department checking and double-checking
every royalty statement in every market than it has literary
devote an enormous amount of time and attention to accounting,"
he says. "Most agencies simply don't have the resources
to do this."