Interview with an Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel and Goderich
Jane Dystel, of Dystel & Goderich launches our July Interview with an Agent series. Dystel & Goderich was established in 1994 and represents a huge variety of clients from No. 1 bestseller non fiction authors like: Joy Bauer (Joy Bauer’s Food Cures) and Robin L Smith (Lies at the Altar) to best selling fiction authors like Jacqueline Carey and Anne Stuart.
Dystel & Goderich believe in the slush pile and read every submission that is sent to them, even if they chose not to represent that author. They are committed to finding the best talent and giving the authors the best representation.
The Dystel and Goderich blog is filled with fascinating posts on the book industry and literature. It’s a blog that I read every time that it is updated. When Dystel agreed to do an interview with us, I told her I would like to ask about her client, Anne Stuart, but that she was free to skip the question if she liked. Dystel responded that she was not averse to answering any question. I hope that you will enjoy her insights as much as I.
Jane: Tell us about your background. What made you decide to become a literary agent? How did you get started in your career? What types of books do you primarily agent?
Dystel: First things first. I began on the publishing side after a year of law school. My father was the President of Bantam Books, and so that was the first place I went to work, initially as an editorial assistant and then as the head of their permissions department. After 5 years, I went to Grosset & Dunlap as managing editor and then became an editor; my next stop was as the Publisher of the World Almanac and founder of World Alamanc Publications where I stayed for over 8 years. After that, I felt I really wanted to be on "the other side of the desk–? and so I joined a literary agent named Jay Acton. I left that agency which by then was called Acton & Dystel and set up my own company in 1994 with my now partner, Miriam Goderich.
I became an agent because I felt as a publisher I had grown away from what I really loved –" discovering new writers and helping them develop and sell their ideas. That is what I am now doing every day.
I agent primarily narrative non-fiction and many different kinds of fiction.
Jane: What is the primary role of the agent?
Dystel: An agent's primary role is helping his or her clients develop their ideas and selling these to the best possible editor and publisher. Then it is the agent's responsibility to "take care–? of the client by carefully reviewing their contracts, collecting their money and paying them in a timely manner, being available at all times to deal with their problems and being a troubleshooter on their behalf with their publishers.
Jane: What's the difference between agenting a fiction book v. a non fiction book?
Dystel: When we agent a novel, we often work with our clients all the way through the writing of the first draft to get it to a place where we think we can sell it and we often provide editorial support even after it's sold; with non fiction, we help the client create the best proposal possible.
Jane: I know that there has been some discussion about the decline of the slush pile at publishing houses with the move by almost every major publisher to accept only “agented” manuscripts. Is that automatically a good thing for agents?
Dystel: I really don't know. I can tell you, however, that having been on the publishing side of the desk for so many years, I do believe every writer needs an agent to look after their best interests.
Jane: What is the purpose of blogging as an agent? Is it for fun or is it a business tool?
Dystel: Blogging for us is much the same as it is for everyone. We get to talk about what we know and care about and hopefully help those who read our blog.
Jane: You have an internal book club within your agenting house wherein you introduce each other to new genres. What has been your favorite book club pick and why?
Dystel: My favorite in recent times was The Crimson Petal and the White what a masterful feat of historical storytelling! But I also love strong women's fiction (like Sue Miller's) and edgy thrillers like (George Pelecanos').
Jane: You blogged in March about the decline of the editor status in publishing and how this is affecting publishing overall?
Dystel: Yes, I believe the industry is run by sales and marketing and business types –" no editors. This means that there is a strong likelihood that the quality of the books will decrease. I fear that eventually the only things that will be published are currently well known bestselling names and commercial fiction.
Jane: I read back in November that sometimes you, as the agent, get involved in the rewriting or editing process. At what point do you do this and how do you recognize that the author needs assistance post sale?
Dystel: We only get involved in the rewriting when there is a novel we are helping the author to create. If there is an editor involved (after the book is sold to a publisher) we generally don't feel we can insert our editorial opinions anymore. If, however, an author's editor doesn't appear involved in any way and the author needs our help editorially (and this is an unusual thing but it does happen), we will help with the editorial I do not encourage this as a rule, as editing after the book has been written and delivered should be something the publisher does.
Jane: Do you contract with authors you love or that you think are saleable?
Dystel: I try to do both actually. However, it is true that as is human nature, I like some of my clients more than others–"those who are honest, straight- forward, respectful of what we do and loyal.
Jane: There is a tendency in internet discussions to compare the publisher-author relationship to an employer-employee relationship. Do you think that is a sound analogy?
Dystel: I have actually never thought of the relationship between publisher and author that way.
Jane: Why or why not?
Dystel: It seems to be that each party should contribute an equal percentage to the other –" neither should be subservient to the other as in an employer/employee relationship. There must be respect and honesty on both sides as well.
Jane: Your firm represents Anne Stuart who was the subject of an internet contretemps when an anonymous blogger took issue with Stuart's complaints about her publisher. How did you feel about that issue?
Dystel: Krissie, as I love to call her, has her own way of communicating and I very much respect her feelings and her style. As long as the author isn't disrespectful, I think that discussing their publishing experiences on line is important and educational.
Jane: What is your opinion regarding authors on the internet, on blogging, on interacting with fans on a more intimate level than what took place pre blogs and message boards? Do you think an author can hurt her reputation or help it or that it makes no difference.
Dystel: I think the internet allows the author's fans greater access which is stupendous. This can do nothing other than help the author's book sales.
Jane: There have recently been rumblings about Wal-mart's change in policy regarding the offering of midlist books at its stores and recent reports that brick and mortar stores are seeing a decline in retail sales even as book sales are increasing (with the gains being made with online vendors and other, non traditional, vendors such as Starbucks). What does this mean for midlist authors and debut authors and for you, as their agent?
Dystel: It is true it is getting more and more difficult for us to find a home for our mid-list authors; but I for one am very persevering and more often than not we do place them well. Of course we prefer not to think of our clients as mid-list and going in, we do very rarely. My motto to clients and staff is "never give up–? and I live my life this way.
Jane: Do you think that the demise of print review sources is going to mean a downturn in overall sales of books?
Dystel: I very much doubt this will negatively affect sales although I think it is very sad. Can the internet make up for the loss? I don't see why not.
Jane: Do you think that the lack of publicity dollars spent by publishers will increasingly mean more homogenization of books?
Dystel: I'm not at all sure what you mean here I'm afraid. It is true that publicity dollars seem to be down and this means the authors themselves must be much more inventive about managing their own publicity efforts.
Jane: Do you feel that being a female in the publishing industry is an advantage/disadvantage or of no importance?
Dystel: I used to feel that it was of no importance, but frankly over the years I have come to realize that there are authors who prefer male agents –" can't tell you why, but it doesn't make me happy, especially because I know that I am as good if not better at what I do than most of them.
Jane: What is your most interesting story of how you came to represent a client?
Dystel: I think my selling of Mike Leonard's The Ride of Our Lives is among the more interesting, although I do have many of these. When I first became an agent in 1986, I began communicating with Mike who was (and is) a regular on The Today Show. I kept after him about doing a book and we exchanged Christmas cards every year until in the fall of 2003 when he told me that he was going to rent and take his elderly parents (both of whom are real characters) around the country on a "Last Lap–? trip ending with the birth of their first great-grandchild (and Mike's first grandchild). I immediately jumped on this as a book idea, helped him develop his proposal after he actually took the trip and sold it for a very generous advance to Random House.
Jane: What is the best part of being an agent?
Dystel: Oh, that's easy. Seeing my clients and their ideas grow and become successful.
Jane: What is the worst part of being an agent?
Dystel: Sadly, being treated badly by someone you're trying to help. That doesn't happen often but it does happen and it is still very upsetting even today.
Jane: Do you read for pleasure and if so, what do you enjoy reading?
Dystel: I have very little time to read for pleasure but when I do, I enjoy reading fiction.
Jane: If you could change on thing in the publishing industry, what would it be?
Dystel: I do wish publishers and editors would become risk takers again. That is happening less and less as publishers are gobbled up by large corporations. Only by taking risks can real genius be found; otherwise, everything does begin to read the same.