There comes a time in a baseball game where the score is tied. It’s bottom of the ninth. The bases are loaded. Suddenly, out of the darkness comes a figure…you know him instantly just by his silhouette.
Timpanis begin to sound, the volume growing louder and louder like something out of the score of A Space Odyssey.
He walks slowly up to bat. His features come into focus. The crowd gasps in sheer amazement, knowing they are about to see a miracle come to life.
They know who they’re seeing: the big boy, the pinch hitter, the mastah!
In baseball, it may have been Babe Ruth, Roberto Clemente, A-Rod. But when we’re talking about the great agents in the literary world, it’s got to be Daniel Lazar of Writers House.
He’s the person you put down on your wish list of agents first. (I did.) He’s the person you just know, instinctively, will work for you the way you want to be worked for. (I believe it.) Dan is the man (I bet he’s heard that line before!) and he’s the person you go to when you really really want to win.
So first question, is it “Danny” or “Daniel” or “Dan”?
Dan is fine.
Alright, let’s get serious. I hear your name a lot in casual conversation I have with fellow authors. You have an impeccable reputation, your a true professional and love what you do. It’s pretty safe to say you get a lot of queries on your desk. How many would you say you get per day?
Probably between 50 – 75 a day.
There is no doubt being a literary agent is a stressful job. You have significant responsibilities. Is it hard to go from hammering out details in a contract to reading the slush pile? Personally, I find it very difficult to go from “reporter” mode to another. It’s two different mind frames for me and sometimes, I just can’t switch them on and off.
I consider all those aspects part of the job, so it’s not difficult. No radical secrets there, I’m afraid.
What do you feel is the most fundamental thing a person must possess to become an agent – besides of course, a love of reading?
I would say persistence. Being an agent means being a squeaky wheel, since people have short attention spans, and you want to keep them focused on your author in the grandest way possible throughout the entire publication process, which can be a long one. (Being a good editor and publisher and publicist often requires the same talent!)
A Hollywood director (and I forget his name) once said that he was incapable of watching a movie nowadays because he dissected them as he we
nt along. He couldn’t just enjoy the story for what it was. Do you have a similar problem? Can you read for pleasure anymore?
Thankfully, yes. I’m reading a lovely novel right now called The Hakawati, published by Knopf, that I have zero professional connection with. I’m simply enjoying the ride, and it’s a wonderful one! In some cases, though, the agent’s side of the mind kicks in– for example, I’m reading an advance copy of The Gargoyle, and novel Doubleday is publishing this fall. They paid a reported bucketload of money and are giving it a major marketing push, so as I read, I’m certainly enjoying, but I’m also studying it a bit… Trying to see what makes it such a “big” book in the publisher’s eyes; imagining what I might have done differently if I had read it as a manuscript on submission; trying to see how I can apply some of its tactics to books I’m working on, so that I can position them in a big way too. (It’s a great read, by the way.)
You work at the famed Writers House. You started out reading slush on Al Zuckerman’s couch. That must have been quite a learning experience for you!
It certainly was. Al still dictates all his letters and emails, so I learned quite a lot by osmosis when I was his assistant. Typing up his 10 page editorial letters, for example, you pick up a thing or two. He’s an amazing agent, and also a brilliant editor.
To have a career – not just a job but a life work – you need people to be interested and supportive of you when you first begin. How did working with the esteemed Al Zuckerman impact your work and ethics?
I actually worked for two agents here, first for Al Zuckerman and then for Simon Lipskar. I was promoted to full agent in 2005. I learned (still do, every day) from them both. They’re both incredibly persistent– Al will submit a book for years until he finally sells it, and he always does. I remember one author he was already exhaustively submitting when I was his assistant in 2003, and he finally sold the book when I was a full agent already in 2006. Simon is equally devoted to his authors. I remember one author in particular who he stuck with for three unsold books, and untold revisions in between, finally selling the author’s fourth manuscript. They’re both well respected for being honest and forthright with editors they work with– so editors look forward to hearing from them and buying books from them. The feeling is that they’re working with the publisher for everyone’s best interests, not automatically (as some agents do) working against the publisher to squeeze every nickel from them, sometimes to the author’s ultimate detriment. There’s a whole group of terrific agents here at Writers House that I’m lucky to work among.
Conversely, when you take on a new author, you become that person who invests in them. You become his or her lifeline. What do you enjoy most about the author/agent relationship?
I love being with a project at its earliest point– sometimes even at its inception. I often do a lot of editorial work on my books before submitting them, so I get to watch the project grow, and see some of my ideas and influence on the page. And it’s a great feeling to call the author to tell them there’s an offer on their book, and listening to their first reactions. (They vary– dumbfounded silence to total over the top screaming.)
You obviously love the written word. Does it worry you, though, that more and more young people are NOT reading? What do you think we, as a publishing industry, need to do to change that?
I don’t know enough about literacy rates to comment on that, but I do know that the children’s book market feels very bullish in many ways– far more than the adult market. You’ve got companies like Egmont and Sourcebooks and Weinstein entering the market aggressively, while adult fiction houses are slashing their lists. And you have Twilight, Eragon (both Writers House authors), Lightning Thief, Wimpy Kid, Gossip Girls and more. Kids are buying these books in droves. The children’s book market is incredibly vibrant right now– perhaps it’s going the way of the adult world, where the successes are growing bigger, and the failures are more stark, since advances and expectations are higher. Obviously the internet is changing the way books are marketed and distributed, especially to kids, and I support publishers that take risks in this way. But ultimately, the heart of that market hasn’t changed. Kids are smart. They’re voracious. They know what’s good and they can sniff out an “agenda” from a mile away. If you give a kid a great book, and strike the right chord, you’ll have parents all over the world begging them to please turn out the light and go to sleep already. That hasn’t changed.
I interviewed a ballerina once and asked what was more important: technique or artistry? She answered that she could not do the ballets she had become known for without the proper technique. Do writers need to have that “classical training”, or can you take a raw, new writer and smooth out the edges? Would you hesitate to sign someone with that kind of style?
If the voice is there, you can smooth out the edges. I believe that 110%
Finally Daniel, the publishing world right now is changing. Some for the better, some for the worst. What do you predict the next ten years will bring for writers and agents?
I think the internet is going to keep changing our business in ways I simply can’t imagine. The Kindle’s tearing up the e-world as we speak– it’ll be interesting to see if readers really take to it in a major way, or if hardcopy books still remain the core of our industry. Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same. There will be big brand names that dominate the lists. Publishers will keep paying big advances for big books that might or might not work. Publishers will continue to be pleasantly surprised by “little” books that take off and turn into big books. And readers will keep buying, so publishers will keep selling and agents will still answer questions like this on the future of the industry!