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The distinction
of literary matters.

An interview with Eric Simonoff

By Heather H. Havenstein :: Literary Agent Eric Simonoff ::

When searching for a literary agent, contemporary authors look for someone who will provide them with a significant level of publishing guidance. Someone who will not only represent them, but moreover, who will fortify a durable career.

In today's fast paced world, that kind of distinguishing thoroughness may be a luxury, a dislodged trait. Today authors expect to obtain a covenant for the sale of a book or two, with their agents giving them minimal attention. Until Eric Simonoff.

Literary agent Eric Simonoff, based in Manhattan on Park Avenue, consigns his days to an impressive client list that includes Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Edward P. Jones and Jhumpa Lahiri, along with Norah Vincent, Thisbe Nissen, ZZ Packer, Chandler Burr, Louis Gerstner and Bill O' Reilly. This is a roster of authors whose books have achieved critical and commercial acclaim, and they are the writers who seek the specialized skills that are specific to Simonoff's methodology.

Simonoff, a successful vice president of Janklow & Nesbit Associates, is often sought after by authors not only for his publishing prowess but, moreover, for the personal style that infuses his work with authors.

"I'm often approached by people who are leaving their agents," Simonoff says. "What I hear cited as the number one reason for dissatisfaction from authors is - 'My agent never returns my telephone calls.'"

In answer to that universally heard reproach, Simonoff says, "Responsiveness is key. It is essential to give clients a feeling that there is someone looking out for their interests in New York City."

Thisbe Nissen, whose book "The Good People of New York," was published in the spring of 2001, has been represented by Simonoff since soon after they met in 1995. She says Simonoff signs on with an author to forge a long-standing relationship for a career, not with an eye solely toward the commercial success of one book.

"Eric was my agent for about five years before I earned him one red cent," she says.

"There were plenty of times I called him up and said, 'Do you want to get rid of me? I am a burden.' And he would always say, 'I have faith.'"

In addition to his loyalty to her work, Nissen also values Simonoff's keenness for explaining the minutiae of the business of publishing.

"What I know about business - nothing," she says. "At every stage, he explains to me what is going on and how my interests are being represented."

Simonoff, who has been with Janklow since 1991, expected through most of his college career at Princeton to follow a customary family path by becoming a lawyer.

However, he says, as the end of college approached, "It suddenly occurred to me …that what I really loved more than anything in the world was books. I decided I wanted to have something to do with the making of books."

Princeton's career services department offered meager resources for the publishing business, compelling Simonoff to turn to some alumni for advice on breaking into the business. After sending out a mass mailing of resumes to the editors-in-chief of all the large publishing houses, he began work as an editorial assistant with WW Norton six days after graduation. After two years with Norton, Simonoff was anxious to take on more responsibility. With no looming openings at Norton, Simonoff was hired on at Janklow as a junior agent handling subsidiary rights.

"It had never occurred to me to become a literary agent," he says. "My dream had always been to be an editor. The relationship between author and agent tends to be much more enduring these days than the relationship between editors and authors. The likelihood of an author having one editor for her entire career is very slim. It's very, very hard to find an editor who has been at a house for 12 years."

Although Simonoff had always aspired to be an editor, he draws a clear line between his responsibilities as an agent and those he defers to an editor.

"Agents disagree about how much editing agents should be doing," according to Simonoff. "If you read a proposal or a manuscript and see a way to make that better…it's your obligation to share that with the author. What I don't want to do is replace the editor in the process. There comes a point where the agent needs to step aside."

From his vantage point in the publishing business, Simonoff sees the value of a good story, both in fiction and nonfiction, emerging as a dominant trend.

The popularity of "chick lit" books such as "Bridget Jones' Diary" along with potboiling thrillers is waning, he says, to be replaced by literary novels such as "Atonement" and "The Lovely Bones."

Commenting on the debate about plot-versus-character-driven writing, Simonoff says, "There is latent snobbery among some readers who diminish the importance of story. People really do have an appetite for well-written books, provided they are also good stories."

"Publishers have backed away from the idea…that you can create commercial authors overnight. Publishers themselves are becoming more interested in exploring more avenues," he says, noting that they recently hit a dead end with certain genres like international thrillers. "There was a certain sameness to a lot of the books they were publishing."

To complicate the publishing picture, the recent decade provided this already congenital industry with new business twists, in what might have been considered a case study for monopolistic practices. Although much was made in 1990s of the effects of media conglomerates gobbling up publishing houses, Simonoff says there is minimal synergy in everyday publishing.

"An argument can be made that a Fox TV personality would fair well at Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins Publishers, as Harper would have an additional reason to maximize their investment," he says. The implied synergy in this case offers justification for tie-ins and crossover marketing from the two media groups.

"For fiction, however, it is rare that Little Brown publishes a book and Warner Brothers makes the movie based on that book. Or if not rare, then there are even odds any other studio would make the movie," he says. "As for convergence, there are, of course, fewer and fewer corporations owning more and more houses, but still enough to generate heated bidding. Should Warner publishing be folded into HarperCollins or Bertelsmann, it would take a significant player out of the picture and that could hurt writers."

Dedicated to working with authors, Simonoff bucks the inclination of some publishers to pressure authors to churn out a second book on the heels of a commercially successful first book.

"Having a tremendous success with a first book can be a tremendous hindrance to the creative process. I don't think it does the author any good You spend so much time touring, being interviewed [that] it's very difficult to get back into the place you need to be in order to write. At the same time, to have a publisher saying, 'Get us the next book fast.' It's a tremendous recipe for disaster."

In addition to taking pains to be responsive to his clients, Simonoff's agency also labors to ensure authors' financial interests are protected via its accounting department. In fact, the agency has more people in its accounting department checking and double-checking every royalty statement in every market than it has literary agents.

"We devote an enormous amount of time and attention to accounting," he says. "Most agencies simply don't have the resources to do this."



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