NEFF: Betsy hi! Please tell us, how did you get started at the major publishing houses? What did you do there?
BETSY: I started as an assistant to two young editors at Vintage, which at the time was the only trade paperback division of Random House. I acquired my first reprint after being there for four months, and it was named one of the New York Times' notable books of the year. That hooked me. I'm one of those people who's very organized (even though my desk is a mess), so before long I was promoted to managing editor, a job which involved keeping track of all the production schedules and nagging my fellow editors to get things in on time. (I had a sheriff's badge that I copied onto most of my memos.) I also continued to acquire and edit projects. Soon thereafter I was recruited by Pantheon, another division of Random House, to be managing editor there.
I stayed for 7 years and acquired a wide range of nonfiction, as Pantheon imported most of the novels it published from Europe. On the side I reviewed fiction for various newspapers and magazines, from Newsday to Ms. For two years after I left Random House I was editorial director of a small press called Globe Pequot, which at the time was located in a barn in rural Connecticut. I acquired the whole list and then passed the projects on to an excellent staff of developmental editors. The pace of this job, and its relentless focus on the front end of the process, helped prepare me to be an agent.
NEFF: Aside from providing connections, can you tell us how your years at Pantheon, Vintage and Globe Pequot prepared you to be an agent?
BETSY: The connections are paramount. Most of the people I worked with at Random House are still in publishing. Many of my peers have become top editors at some of the largest houses. It's also useful to understand—from the inside—all the quirks of publishing, such as how decisions are made, what's realistic to expect in a given situation, and how best to cultivate publishing personnel, from the editor to the publicist to the cover designer. Working at Globe Pequot forced me to be extremely entrepreneurial—much more entrepreneurial than I had to be at Random House, where agents were eager to submit to me and my colleagues. At Globe Pequot I had a limited acquisitions budget and had to go out and rustle up most of the projects I acquired. When I began as an agent I was a champion bush beater. Most of my clients come to me by referral at this point, but I stil like to pursue writers whose work I've admired in newspapers or magazines.
NEFF: How does the nature of the literary mainstream market differ from say twenty years ago? Anything significant?
BETSY: Years and years ago The New Yorker published a piece called (if I'm remembering correctly) "The Blockbuster Complex," on the rise of brand name authors. This has only gotten worse with the increasing dominance of chain bookstores. It's harder and harder to launch a literary first novel in the current climate. Enormous bookstores are a great place to wander around, but they're not always the best place to get attention for a book, especially since publishers have to buy the display space, and of course their budgets are limited. It's frighteningly easy to get lost in the shuffle.
That said, I think there's still an interest in original voices and in writing that takes risks, even if it may not sell zillions of copies. A wonderful first novel by a client of mine—I WAS HOWARD HUGHES by Steve Carter, coming this fall from Tin House/Bloomsbury—just got a starred review in Kirkus. You may know how hard these are to get. What makes it especially sweet is that the novel has an unconventional narrative—it consists of stories, interviews, memos, diary entries and letters that, taken together, describe Hughes' rise and fall. Kirkus called it "a madly inventive mock bio." They appreciated it precisely because it's not the usual fare. This pleases me no end.
NEFF: So that our readers more easily understand the role of an agent, can you tell us how you make contact with an editor at a major house once you have an ms you are excited about? Do you send them a formal proposal of some type? Just pick up the phone? A little of column A and B? Or does it vary from house to house, press to press?
BETSY: Sometimes I e-mail a snappy little query (I've found editors to be enormously responsive to these), sometimes I pick up the phone.
NEFF: How many first novels do you plan to publish this year? How many have you published over the past five years?
BETSY: Four or five a year. I only take things on that I'm madly passionate about, because first fiction can be VERY hard to sell, and I have to love it enough to be persistent. It took me three years and more than 40 publishers to sell one of my favorite first novels, for example.
NEFF: You've told me that you handle "narrative nonfiction." I suppose that means books like "Seabiscuit"? Can you name a few of your favorite NNs of the past year?
BETSY: My author Louise Steinman wrote a wonderful memoir called THE SOUVENIR: A DAUGHTER DISCOVERS HER FATHER'S WAR (Alongquin hc, Plume pb), which describes her discovery of a blood-speckled Japanese flag in her father's effects after he died, together with some 400 letters to her mother about the war. She took it upon herself to return the flag to the family of the soldier who lost it. The book describes her journey to Japan as well as the journey she took with her father after his death, by way of the letters, which helped her understand his wartime experiences.
Another client—Frank Clifford, the environmental editor of the Los Angeles Times—wrote a beautiful book called THE BACKBONE OF THE WORLD: A PORTRAIT OF THE VANISHING WEST ALONG THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE (Broadway). Tony Hillerman praised it as "an astute and loving look at those high, dry places along the Continental Divide where only durable people endure. It's an American classic."
NEFF: How do NNs differ significantly from novels, apart from the fact they are nonfiction?
BETSY: That's precisely how they differ! In both cases, the story line needs to carry the reader along.
NEFF: Who handles the selling of film rights for you? Or do you take care of that also?
BETSY: I work with a variety of co-agents at the various film/TV agencies in L.A.
NEFF: What are you teaching now over at the UCLA program? Any promising writers coming out of there?
BETSY: I generally teach a class on finding and working with the right literary agent for you. I'm not teaching craft, in other words, I'm teaching the business of publishing. I did take on a couple of very savvy young writers whom I met in one of my classes—Camille Landau and Tiare White, whose WHAT THEY DON'T TEACH YOU AT FILM SCHOOL Hyperion published.
NEFF: If you could pick the perfect literary novel to represent this coming year, what would be its defining characteristics?
BETSY: Strong voice. Sure writing. Inventive story. Characters with depth. Something that surprises and delights me. I'll know it when I see it!
About the Interviewer
Michael Neff is the Director of WDS and Algonkian Workshops. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org