Is sixty years of performing successfully as a literary agent enough to make you a literary lord? It is if your name is Sterling Lord (love that first name, too).
In a guest article Sterling did for Publishing Perspectives, he gives us an intriguing insight into how literary agents worked before the digital tsunami and how he personally has adjusted and is presently working at the ripe young age of 92.
His goal has always been to help the writer and the writer’s career first and foremost. He believed (and still believes) by doing all he possibly could to ensure his client’s best interests would produce the by-product of success for himself.
I would love to believe that agents with this integrity exist today --- but, I seriously have my doubts --- If they do exist they are rare and in the minority. I just have this gut feeling that most of today’s agents put their own bottom line first and their client’s careers second.
Now, big publishers are another, but simpler, story --- they had clearly (before the digital onslaught) already jumped from mentoring writers to grabbing the fastest bucks.
I think you will truly enjoy reading Sterling Lord’s perspicacity into publishing:
Sixty Years of Sterling Wisdom from the “Lord of Publishing”“Publishing has come to resemble less the selling of paintings or other creative work and more that of carpets or refrigerators.”
What have I learned from my long experience? What wisdom can I impart? Sometimes it’s the unanticipated moments that clarify and offer a larger meaning.
That happened for me on a sunny day in the late spring of 2009 when I was hailing a cab at Lafayette Street and Bleecker in Manhattan, half a block from my office, to take me uptown to a luncheon appointment. The first empty taxi saw me, stopped, and I hopped into the back seat.
The cabbie was a Middle Eastern man in his late thirties or early forties, and as we headed up Park Avenue South, which at midday is like traversing quicksand on rollerblades, we engaged in conversation.
We were about up to 40th Street when, emboldened by our conversation, the driver said to me, “Excuse me sir, but may I ask you a question? This may sound naïve, but I’m relatively new to the city. How do you get rich in New York?”
I paused for a few moments to think and then said, “What you should do as early in life as you can is find an occupation or line of work in a field that really interests you. If you get involved and become committed and stay with it, you can live a long time and enjoy it, and have a rich life.”
He was probably talking about money and I about personal reward, but he seemed to understand.
After stepping out of the taxi, I realized I had given him a two-sentence synopsis of my life. For seven decades, my work has sustained me emotionally and spiritually. It carried me through four divorces and periodic difficulties in business. It enabled me to work with and be at ease with men and women of talent, influence and status.
As the world has changed around me, my goal as an agent has remained the same: to help the writer advance his or her career, rather than just to increase my personal income. If I did the former successfully and chose my clients well, I assumed the latter — the personal income — would follow, and it has.
I realized, shortly after starting my literary agency in 1952 and after making a few sales, that my knowledge of what a New York literary agency does and how it works was very thin. Yes, an agent sells books to book publishers and articles and short stories (not much anymore) to magazines, but the day a friend who was editor-in-chief of all the Time Life magazines told me he didn’t know what an agent did, I began to think.
The agent has to know good writing and what is a good, interesting-to-the-publisher idea at that moment in order not only to judge what he can sell and what he can’t, but also because often writers tried and untried will eek his advice. And he must know.