NEFF: Lisa, hi. As most aspiring authors know, ICM is one of THE most successful literary agencies in the publishing world. Can you tell us just a little about the agency and its relation to ICM in Los Angeles?
LISA: There are eight book agents in the New York office. We each follow our own instincts and passions, thus developing a client roster reflective of these individual interests and passions. In ICM's Los Angeles office are agents whose mission is to sell dramatic rights based on the books and magazine articles we send to them. Whether it's feature film or television, network or cable, stage or screen, or even opera -- these are elements we discuss prior to manuscripts being sent to producers or directors. Let's not overlook our recently-opened London office where agents are charged with selling rights in the UK and elsewhere abroad. Set your watch-- on any given day, I'm operating in at least three different time zones.
NEFF: Given your clout in the publishing world, what has made you decide to stay with ICM rather than forming your own "boutique agency" as so many other agents have?
LISA: I made a conscious choice to come to ICM in order to learn from the best in the business. I'm still learning. And I like the steady paycheck; in important ways it frees me. It obviously has its limitations, as well, but for now it makes the most sense.
NEFF: You specialize in literary fiction, but does that also include commercial fiction, general fiction? How do you define "literary"?
LISA: Literary fiction nourishes and provides all the essential vitamins. It sticks to the soul. Commercial fiction is dessert, empty calories, harmless unless overindulged.
NEFF: Your client list, as noted above, is impressive, and you've represented most of these authors since their first novel. It appears you take pleasure in nurturing careers. Any memories you care to share with us?
LISA: My favorite story is about my first sale, a stroke of beginner's luck both for me and the author. I worked as an assistant to the late, great Jed Mattes when I first started out. I'd been reading the slush pile regularly-- I still do-- and found a letter from Ralph Beer, a Montana rancher. He was proposing an anthology of Western writing and offhandedly mentioned having recently finished writing a novel. I wasn't interested in the anthology and asked instead to see the novel. It was perfect. I sold THE BLIND CORRAL to Bill Strachan at Viking. Ten days later, Bill left for a new job elsewhere. Walt Bode inherited the book and worked on its edit. Walt left the company before the book saw print. Dan Frank stepped in and saw it through publication. it sold out its first printing, got terrific reviews in all the right places, won the Spur Award, and had a long life in Penguin's Contemporary Fiction paperback line. What could have been a complete disaster-- the orphaning of a first novel represented by a completely unknown agent-- turned into a success.
NEFF: Aside from great wordsmithing, what combination of literary factors make an author successful in terms of book sales? For example, original setting and unique dramatic premise?
LISA: I wish I knew the answer to this question. Great wordsmithing alone guarantees nothing. It's the storyteller's art that remains, for me, a tantalizing mystery. Like perfect pitch. But beyond the creative elements, a book's fortunes will generally rise and fall depending on its marketing; that's something that hangs largely on a combination of the publisher's energy, savvy, imagination, continued support, and then there's luck.
NEFF: Given your extreme success in the field, will you continue to represent first novelists? If so, how do they find you ... or do you find them?
LISA: I'm only as good as the material given me. New people are often recommended by clients and editors. Every so often I'll read something in a magazine that makes me sit up, take notice, and want to pursue; this happens more often with nonfiction, which is the other half of my list-- the half that seems to be a well-kept secret and includes WAR IS A FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING by Chris Hedges, which was a finalist for the NBCC; David Lipsky's bestselling ABSOLUTELY AMERICAN about West Point; POPULATION 485 by Mike Perry, a Book Sense "Book of the Year" finalist; WHEELS FOR THE WORLD, historian Doug Brinkley's history of the Ford Motor Company... I love working with journalists. I was heading to journalism school at the time I detoured to ICM, so it's something of a vicarious thrill.
NEFF: What is the publishing climate now for first time literary authors as compared to when you started the business? In what ways does it differ from the current genre climate?
LISA: It used to be far easier to find editors who would be willing and able to grow a writer from a first novel that today is deemed too small, too labor intensive, and therefore too much of a longshot. A quiet gem isn't what gets an editor excited.
NEFF: Given that big publishing houses make more dollars with genre fiction (mystery, crime, thriller, SF, etc.) than literary, what keeps them in the literary business at all? Are literary editors in dollar-focused mangement cultures under seige? Will independent publishers eventually have to carry the literary torch? Is a trend underway?
LISA: I think these various categories have always coexisted and, given the diverse human appetite, will continue to do so. Big or small, publishers want to be taken seriously and they recognize there's inherent value, prestige, and potential for an enduring backlist in literary fiction.
NEFF: A very successful author, Ann Patchett, is your client. Her book, Bel Canto, when in hardback, sold small compared to later paperback sales. Is there a story in this that illustrates a changing market or simply a variation on the status quo? And, btw, do you consider Bel Canto to be literary or commercial/general fiction or some hybrid thereof?
LISA: Ann is a literary writer-- first, last, always-- but one whose books are enjoying huge commercial success. Hardcover sales of BEL CANTO can seem small only if compared to a million paperback copies. From what I sense, reading groups (including my own!) have taken this book to heart; these groups have transformed the trade paperback landscape.
NEFF: Booksellers attributed greater sales of Bel Canto in paperback, at least in part, to a more "welcoming" cover. As Ann's agent, do you get any say whatsoever on how the book is actually marketed? Aren't good marketing decisions by the publisher crucial to the success of a book?
LISA: I love the cover of BEL CANTO. This was definitely not one of the frequent occasions when I'm compelled to pull on my art director's hat and gloves. HarperCollins has published the book brilliantly.
NEFF: In the old days, literary editors at publishing houses looked forward to nurturing new literary fiction talent over the years to a pinnacle of success. Do you find this is still the case anywhere or is it sudden death for literary authors if the first novel doesn't do well enough after the first three months on the shelf?
LISA: It's less sudden death than a slow and debilitating illness, but not without hope of recovery. I've had to move writers among houses when the sales numbers have been too modest. I'm thinking of one client who has published four novels with three different publishers. That's not ideal, certainly. But what happens is that the sales reps have a harder and harder job each time they go out to fan the flames and bring back orders. Under those circumstances, sometimes the only thing to do to bring justice to the new book is to change the scenery.
NEFF: What does the future hold for Lisa Bankoff? Will she continue to derive as much pleasure and satisfaction from her trade as she has in the past?
LISA: I've learned to make no predictions.
NEFF: And you indicated in an earlier conversation that your pool table needs resurfacing. Is that done yet? And if not, why not?
LISA: The pool table remains imperfect. I decided instead to invest the money in a better cue stick.
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org