Wednesday, March 16, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Christopher Schelling

A 1/2 Dozen for Literary Agent

(the hilarious and brilliant)


who reps some HUGE names

and is here to talk about the current

Age of Uncertainty

in publishing, literary trends, love,

and being kind asshole-ish.

Is there some trend you're seeing too much of? What's feeling overplayed in publishing these days?

Trend-spotting has been one of publishing’s favorite games but we’ve now entered the Age of Uncertainty. It is historically a glacially-paced industry, so a successful book can spawn imitators that spawn imitators, and by the time we’ve crested any particular wave, there are still years’ worth of imitative inventory for the publishers to lay on weary, wary consumers. At that point, publishers make sweeping claims that X or Y genre no longer sells, as if it’s the fault of the category, when in fact the houses have madly over-published these genres, and much of it is a bad imitation of something that may not have been so good to begin. I’m not saying I don’t participate in this process – I’m a fucking agent and we’re not above almost anything – but if a client proposed, say, a YA paranormal romance about fallen angels right now, I’d steer them away from that clogged pipeline.

This is all changing as the digital revolution heats up, as more writers emerge who make their own work available direct at cheap prices. (Those authors with such current successes are, as far as I can tell, massively hard workers and self promoters, so it’s not a matter of simply writing, or even writing quickly. There are several entire jobs to do after the manuscript is complete, and not every writer is made for those tasks.) Because the traditional year from delivery to publication shrinks without the need for catalogs and sales conferences and reps selling by season and all the trappings of 20th-century publishing, trends can be taken advantage of faster. This is not necessarily a good thing. It’s just a fast thing. And it may result in pipelines that are more quickly clogged.

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

At a breakfast last Thursday, an editor said he needed a writer to do an extremely fast ebook-only work-for-hire job. This is not my usual thing, but I happened to have the perfect client for the project, someone who is between contracts and restless and hungry. It wasn’t an enormous deal by any means, but it was decent money for little work as long as it was done quickly and well. We came to an agreement by Friday morning, the author sent me the manuscript Sunday night, I delivered it to the editor Monday morning – and for a variety of reasons, none of which had to do with the author’s work, the project was canceled on Monday afternoon. My client still gets the entire fee, and he’s proved both to himself and to this editor that he’s a go-to guy for future work of this variety. That’s a win-win. We saw the entire cycle of publishing flash by in a weekend, like time-lapse photography. And we didn’t have to deal with that peskiest and riskiest part: actual publication. So to quote Michael Scott from The Office, it was a win-win-win.

On the flipside, five of my clients had their editors laid off in the first six weeks of 2011. The majority of the editors were publishing veterans who were too expensive to keep on staff, so all their years of industry history and insight and acumen have been summarily trashed. That, my friend, is a lose-lose-lose.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as an agent?

I had a blissfully uneventful childhood in suburban Ohio. My parents, still together after 53 years, are wonderful and supportive. I was a strange kid and they let me be strange. My mother was an elementary school teacher and I was an early reader, so books have always been central to my world. But no amount of reading can prepare you for publishing. They have curiously little to do with one another. Being an English major was especially unhelpful preparation for the book industry. I went from writing papers on Henry Fielding to working on science fiction for a mass market publisher. Of course, I was a horrendous student, so I’d gladly tackle the slush pile if it meant I never had to be in a classroom again. Once I realized that being a bossy, opinionated talkaholic with a desire to protect creative types was a profession, I was set.

The sale of what project was the easiest of your life?

I don’t know that I’ve ever had an easy sale. I don’t mean to sound like an asshole (even though I am) but I don’t think of projects in terms of the acquisition only. There have been times when the perfect editor has emerged immediately and all the stars have aligned in terms of the initial sale, but those are invariably balanced by the amount of work that goes into the rest of the publication process. A couple projects I sold to the recently-laid-off editors mentioned above were breezes in terms of the contracts, but now we’re in potential minefields and the manuscripts haven’t even been delivered in some cases. So the negotiations and acquisitions were swift, but I would not call them easy. An agent should be present and engaged at every step, because never once has every step gone smoothly. Which is why authors need agents. (He said, asshole-ishly.)

What's your advice to an agent who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

For a cranky bastard, I have a super sweet story. I’m in a great relationship with a guy who is not just a writer. He’s one of my clients. We were already very good friends, having worked together closely as agent and author for an entire decade before the, uh, upgrade, so we got to skip all the “new relationship” steps of telling one another about ourselves. If either of us is going to hear something new about the other, it’s happened that day. Most people suspect romantic involvement would strain our working relationship, yet that’s been enhanced as much as our personal one. But since I didn’t have to leave my office to find a spouse, I’m not exactly sure what advice to give. “Shit where you eat”? “Wait ten years before your first date”? “Never settle for just 15%”? Maybe it’s the perennial Wizard of Oz logic: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” Given that he’s a crazy writer, it’s also possible that this will be the night he cuts off my head and stuffs it in the freezer. And my final literary salvo will have been a sad, faggy Judy Garland quote.

This is a vast question. Interpret it at will. What’s the future of the publishing industry?

We are still in the infancy of change. We don’t even have the proper device to convey ebooks yet. Kindles and Nooks are great first steps, but technology marches on so they’re destined to be the Edison cylinder phonographs of reading. And despite what many have breathlessly hoped for, the iPad is not a device mainly used for e-reading. For any publisher – or writer or agent – to say they are fully prepared for the next wave is specious. No one in this industry can really find their ass with both hands right now, which is kind of great. So to circle back to the first question, the next “trend” is more likely a black swan. (The concept from the thought-provoking Nassim Nicholas Talib book, not the ghastly ballerina flick.)

After braying about how no one knows anything, I’d be foolish to hazard too many guesses here. But the last decade of the music industry is certainly a cautionary tale for publishing. We’re not at a point where the audience for books wants all its content for free, as music consumers seem to, but we should remain wary. It’s a much larger issue for magazines and newspapers at this moment. As far as the agent role in the future, it seems writers who keep finding paths to success that bypass traditional publishers will still need advisors. Even the most business-savvy writers can use someone to do their arguing for them while they focus on the writing and the public elements that are driven by the author’s personality. Like it or not, the hulking corporations provide a certain amount of protection, so it might be wise for writers to have their personal guard dogs ready if they plan to fly on their own. The corporations aren’t going to simply vanish but the balance of power may shift. I’m not going too far out by guessing that contracts and intellectual property rights aren’t exactly going away either. So while the traditional agent role may morph into more of a marketer and manager than “I am your gateway to contracts with the corporation,” there is a role for the author’s advocate and business minder in the creative process. (He said, justifying his asshole-ish role.)

After being a literary agent at Ralph M. Vicinanza Ltd. for the past fourteen years, representing a wide-ranging list of fiction and nonfiction authors, Schelling has recently opened his own agency, Selectric Artists. His clients include New York Times bestsellers like memoirists Augusten Burroughs (Running With Scissors), Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy), and John Elder Robison (Look Me in the Eye), YA fantasy author Cinda Williams Chima (The Demon King), and humorist Jen Yates (Cake Wrecks). Prior to being an agent, he held Executive Editor positions at both Dutton and HarperCollins. He can be reached at