Free Agent: The Rosalie Siegel Interview

Rosalie Siegel was my first literary agent and friend in the business. In 1977, she founded her own agency, going on to represent many well-known writers such as William Wharton, Ann Rinaldi, Jonathan Ames, and Nancy Huston. Throughout the long and often excruciating process of shopping around my first novel, she was the best ally a writer could hope for. I miss reading the long and thoughtful e-mails she used to send me to soften a publisher's rejection (though not the rejections themselves). Rosalie is never one to shy away from lamenting the state of the industry, yet she retains a tenacious optimism. Now that her distinguished literary career is winding down, I asked Rosalie to share some of her thoughts about publishing past and future. It's a pleasure and an honor to reprint them here.

Rosalie 2012

How did you get your start in the publishing world?

After graduating college with a major in French literature, and a junior year in Paris, I was fluent in French. A week after being advised that I'd never land a job in New York publishing using my French, I was hired by Atlas Magazine, a monthly magazine that translated and published articles from the world press. Very quickly I began to work on the back pages dealing with cultural matters, particularly book reviews and translations of excerpts from books under review. I was charged with contacting European publishers for permission to translate and publish the excerpts and became entranced with French and Italian publishing. I translated all the articles and excerpts from the French and Italian.

Four years later I moved into book publishing, working as an editorial assistant for George Braziller when he published Sartre's Les Mots, among other French writers. It was a small house with an upmarket list in fiction and superb art books. With a serious art background, and a wide range of tastes, Braziller was a fine first job in book publishing. I was a voracious reader since childhood, with no trouble suspending disbelief when it came to fiction. Book publishing was a natural. Being paid to read was a perfect fit.

Who were your mentors in those early years?

In 1967 I was hired by a French publisher, Robert Laffont, to run their office in New York, scouting for American books, as well as agenting their list of French authors to American publishers. My first day on the job Laffont won the Prix Goncourt. Editors in N.Y. book publishing were keen on the acquiring the rights.  The following January Laffont acquired a memoir entitled Papillion, and again, editors were keen on acquiring the rights. Pure luck. I had two hot titles to agent immediately. It was on the job training. There is no school that teaches you how to become a literary agent. You quickly learn that you cannot please all of the people all of the time. You learn to strike while the iron is hot, in the honeymoon phase, to get the best deal possible for your author.

Robert Laffont was definitely a mentor. Observing the courtesy and warmth with which he treated his authors, admiring his wide range of taste in fiction and non-fiction, his lack of pretention and snobbery, his intense interest in current affairs, and the way he put together the list was a significant learning experience.

The business has changed a lot since you began. How did those changes affect your ability to advocate for books as an agent?

Before President Nixon cut the subsidy for libraries, publishers had assurance of selling a definite quantity of copies of a given title. If memory serves, American libraries accounted for approximately 7,000 copies of all serious non-fiction: history, biography, etc. With diminished book sales and the advent of electronic publishing, it has become increasingly difficult to sell both fiction and non-fiction by unknown authors. Sales for literary fiction have diminished substantially. Publishers now expect non-fiction authors to have a national marketing platform, which basically means, national name recognition.

Corporate publishers are focused on first printings of 15,000 copies and more. What were once family-owned publishing houses are now owned by international corporations.  Only Norton, Grove/Atlantic, and some of the fine small Midwest literary houses remain independent. Publicity budgets are sharply reduced. Authors are expected to do the lion's share of promoting their work.  Book publishing has always been a low margin business.  But formerly mid-list books had a chance to sell a respectable number of copies.  That has disappeared.  "Mid-list" is a pejorative term. Many appropriate projects simply do not find a publisher today. For first novels it takes more time and patience, more submissions than ever, to find a house willing to take a chance with a relatively unknown novelist. If the first novel doesn't sell respectably, or garner excellent reviews, you can almost forget about selling a second novel.

Americans are working longer hours than ever before.  While they have far less leisure, they also have far more choices for entertainment than reading a good book. Not a healthy combination for the book business.

What qualities do you look for in a manuscript? How do you decide which books to represent?

I look for a book that puts a gun to my temple, that engenders that do or die feeling where it is impossible not to go ahead. I have to be keenly moved by a novel, or care deeply about the subject of a non-fiction title, before I will offer to represent the book. Agents are pragmatic creatures; I have to have an instinctive feeling that I will come up with a deal, that I can name ten editors easily who I think will respond the way I have to the project. If I can't easily envision a multiple submission then I cannot go ahead. In fiction I am looking for a novel that I have read with alacrity, where I keep turning the pages, unable to put out the light and go to sleep. Storytelling, writing style, character development, the fact that the whole is greater than the parts, yet each element turns me on--all these ingredients come into play. I am keen on voice, on finding an original voice.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?

Authors who don't get a deal are fortunate today to be able to publish on Amazon. This is a definite plus. However no book store is going to stock their book. This is a disadvantage. Yet authors now have the ability to reach a substantial audience, if they blog and know how to present themselves online. Amazon has had some authors sell in the tens of thousands of copies. Even before the advent of Amazon, it was true that if a self-published title hit really big, a major trade publisher might well pursue the author.

Now that you are winding down the agency, what are your future plans?

My future plans are to spend more time out of doors, gardening, plein-air painting (I paint in oils in both a studio and out of doors) and also reading books for pleasure. Balzac, Stendhal, Proust, Dickens, to name a few of the authors who I would like to read. Publishing professionals are not able to read as much as they might like for pleasure. I also hope to have friends over for long Sunday lunches and conversation. I have grown weary of the tyranny of the computer screen. I remember a time before we were peering at an electronic device 24/7.  I want to travel, to visit Prague, Budapest, and other cities I have never seen, as well as back to London, Paris and Rome as frequently as possible. I want to spend summers walking in the Alps.

Have you ever considered writing a book of your own?

I have considered writing on my own---short fiction, a novel---but I know too much about the slings and arrows, the vicissitudes of publishing, as well as the dedication, energy and talent it takes to sustain writing a full-length book, to ever make the attempt.

Although I have made negative comments above, I would like to end by stating that I remain enthusiastic regarding the exciting fiction scene in America today. As a country we should be proud of our young novelists, of the fact that students can major in creative writing and go on to have a serious career as fiction writers. It is harder than before, but it happens. We enjoy a mobile society, we welcome immigrants from a vast array of cultures, all of which is increasingly mirrored in the novels that appear each season. There is reason for optimism. I recently spent an hour browsing the fiction section in the Harvard Coop and saw many novels I want to read.

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