Agents & Editors: Eric Simonoff

by Michael Szczerban

Special Section

Posted 7.1.13

July/August 2013

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When I first entered the offices of Simon & Schuster as an intern seven years ago, I half expected to find rooms heavy with pipe smoke and equipped with decanters of whiskey, their inhabitants ensconced in the quiet seriousness of a library. Instead, I found an ordinary office in midtown Manhattan alive with the ringing of phones, endless photocopying, and assistants scurrying from cubicle to cubicle. An ordinary office, yes—except that it was teeming with books. They were everywhere. They spilled off of shelves and hid in the corners of conference rooms. Boxes of them obstructed hallways. Their jacket art adorned every wall. 

I soon learned that books are the magic dust that turns an ordinary building into a publishing house: a place where writers can feel at home.

This spring I spoke with Eric Simonoff, one of the wizards who casts such dust around the hallways of New York City publishers, to learn some of his spells. He is a literary agent at William Morris Endeavor (WME) known for representing some of the most impressive writers—and for making some of the most lucrative deals—in the business. 

Visiting WME’s office is different from visiting a publishing house: It feels more like walking into an investment bank. The reception area is sleek and modern, and the place hums with quiet efficiency. Insofar as one sees books lining its corridors, they are tastefully displayed. Everything about WME seems designed to say, “This is where serious creative careers are made.”

The literary agents at WME work in an estimated $300 million enterprise that includes talent agents in Beverly Hills, California; Nashville; Miami Beach, Florida; and London. Like all agents, they are charged with their clients’ economic and professional livelihoods. No wonder, then, that so many prominent writers choose to work with WME, which is both the oldest talent agency in America and one of the most powerful. 

When Simonoff and I met, it became clear that the bank comparison stopped at his door. He wore a sweater and canvas shoes, and we sat on a comfortable leather couch inside his office, which is decorated with sports memorabilia, historical artifacts, and the prizewinning books whose authors he has represented. We had never met in person before, and as we shook hands I thought, “Now here’s someone who loves to read.”

Simonoff began his career as an editorial assistant at W. W. Norton in 1989. Two years later, he moved to Janklow & Nesbit Associates as an agent. He became a director of the firm sixteen years later, in 2007, and was widely expected to take its reins one day with his colleague Tina Bennett. Then, in 2009, Simonoff departed for William Morris, where Bennett joined him three years later. Simonoff’s list of clients includes Pulitzer Prize winners Edward P. Jones, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Stacy Schiff, as well as Jonathan Lethem, Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston, ZZ Packer, Philipp Meyer, Bill O’Reilly, Daniel Alarcón, Alexander Maksik, and Karen Thompson Walker. 

For Simonoff, the business always comes back to the books. That’s where we began.

Did you grow up around New York City?
I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia, but my parents were from New York City and my grandmother lived in Brooklyn. The entire time I was growing up, I spent all of my vacations with her in her tiny little studio. They were the best memories of my childhood. 

It was New York in the 1970s, but I had no idea how bad New York in the ’70s was. To me it was a magical place. We’d go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Natural History, the top of the Empire State Building, and always, always, always to Gotham Book Mart, which was a legendary used bookstore in the Forties. I never left empty-handed. I still have all the books my grandmother bought me over all those vacations from Gotham Book Mart, which is sadly no longer there.

You were a bookish kid.
It was what I did best. That’s probably still what I do best: sit quietly and read. It defined my childhood. I was never not reading. My parents could bring me anywhere. So long as I had a book, I’d be quiet and well behaved and happy. And that’s still the case.

You went to college at Princeton, where you studied classics. What did you anticipate doing afterward? 
I applied to law school and got in. I had worked in three different law firms during the summers in college, and I suppose I should be grateful that I did, because working in those law firms made me realize that I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I deferred admission for two years and sent résumés to the editors in chief of every trade house in New York City. It wasn’t until very near graduation that I got a job as legendary fiction editor Gerry Howard’s assistant at Norton.

Did you aspire to be an editor?
Yes. I didn’t know what literary agents were. So I thought, “Max Perkins, that’s what you do.” Gerry was certainly the closest thing—probably still is the closest thing—to Max Perkins out there. It was thrilling to get to work at a house as venerable and recognizable as Norton, and for an editor as groundbreaking and yet old-school as Gerry.

Gerry wrote incredible editorial letters, longhand, on yellow legal pads, that I would then have to type. Observing his relationship with a text, and also the relationships that unfolded in his correspondence with his many writers and friends, was an incredible and valuable education. 

How do you think people learn how to edit today?
I wonder about that. Depending on a boss’s relationship with an assistant, there’s a permeability of e-mail that makes it possible for an assistant to track all of the professional correspondence in real time. That is, to see what’s coming in and to see what’s going out, and to learn the rhythm of a relationship—with a client or with editors, if you’re an agent. So it’s evolving. It’s not the same as Gerry dropping off four or five single-spaced legal-sized handwritten pages and asking me to type them, but I think there’s a substitute for it.

Have the types of publishing relationships that you saw Gerry cultivate changed over the years? 
Probably not. It is still fundamentally a business of relationships, as it was then. It probably has always been a business of relationships. 

One of the things I marvel at is that so many of the people who were assistants when I was an assistant, or who had recently been an assistant, are running publishing companies today. At the time, it seemed like a complete impossibility that the people with whom you had relationships that were built primarily around swapping books would someday be the heads of houses. 

But I think it’s those relationships that are forged at every step of your tenure in publishing that are the ones that ultimately bear the greatest fruit, both in terms of friendship and in terms of business. 

Who are some of the people you met at Norton and have stayed in touch with?
There are a lot. I’m not sure I met them all at Norton, but Bill Thomas, who’s at Doubleday; Jordan Pavlin at Knopf; Reagan Arthur, who was then at St. Martin’s; Jon Karp, who was Kate Medina’s assistant at Random House. Molly Stern came a little bit later. We were all assistants at one point. Almost everyone you encounter will have been someone’s assistant at some point.

You were at Norton for two years. Why did you leave?
Norton still is a terrifically stable place, which is to its credit—it’s an employee- owned company. But it was a long wait to become an acquiring editor, and there were people who had already been there four and five years answering phones and typing their boss’s mail. They were beginning to acquire their own books but were not really editors yet. I asked myself, “How many years can I do this before I become hopelessly restless and fail to believe it could be possible?” And at the end of two years I began to mention to my friends that I was looking for a job as an assistant editor at another house. 

Jenny McPhee, who was Ash Green’s assistant at Knopf, said, “A friend of mine, Lydia Wills, tells me that Janklow & Nesbit are looking for a young agent.” So I reached out to Lydia. We had a drink, we hit it off, and she gave a favorable report to Mort Janklow and Lynn Nesbit. They had me in to meet them shortly thereafter, and on the basis of a single conversation with Mort and a conversation with Lynn, they hired me to be a junior agent doing magazine work, selling audio rights, taking the movie meetings when development people came through town, and then eventually building my own list. 

I was twenty-three years old, and I went from being an assistant in a cubicle to having an office with an assistant in a cubicle. It was a shock, to say the least.

Had you edited any books on your own at Norton?
There was a book that Gerry and I jointly acquired called The Wives’ Tale by a terrific writer named Alix Wilber. The book was a wonderful work of rural magical realism. All the pieces were there but it was a complete jumble. 

Gerry said, “Look, if you think you know how to fix this, we’ll buy it and fix it.” It was a question of taking a pair of scissors and cutting it up and putting it back together again, and working with Alix very closely. 

That’s the only book I can claim I really left my fingerprints on. It was a thrilling experience. The agent was Sally Wofford, now Sally Wofford-Girand, who was with Elaine Markson at the time. 

You took your taste from one building to another. What else did you bring from Norton into your life as an agent?
It was hard to shake the notion that I wasn’t going to become an editor. It was a relatively recent dream, but my dream was that I’d be an editor someday. 

There are some agents who edit, and there are some agents who don’t edit. I came to agenting at a time when editing became a lot more common among the agents. It was still that relationship to the text that I found thrilling, and that is probably the main thing that I brought with me from one building to the other. The other is the realization that I had been completely and utterly bitten by the publishing bug, and I couldn’t imagine working in any other industry.

I’m imagining what it would have been like to join Mort and Lynn.
What impressed me right off the bat was how incredibly comfortable they were with their clients—all of whom, to me, were giants. The notion of being the longtime agent and friend of Joan Didion was so completely outside my experience that it was awe-inspiring. Or David McCullough, or Michael Crichton, or Tom Wolfe, or any of these people. 

Lynn Nesbit has represented Tom Wolfe for his entire career. I found that incredibly inspiring, and I thought, “So, I could do that? I could find some bright young journalist and say, ‘Hey, you don’t know me, but let me be your agent,’ and wake up several years later with a superstar client?” Working with Mort and Lynn made it seem achievable.

Who was the first writer you represented on your own?
There was a playwright named John Jiler who proposed a book about Hurricane Gloria hitting Fire Island in 1985. He had summered for his whole life on Fire Island, and in advance of the hurricane the entire island was evacuated by the Coast Guard. John huddled in a school shelter for the duration of the storm, but later heard that ten people had refused to leave. He went back and found the ten people who weathered this unbelievable storm, and told their individual stories alongside the natural history of Fire Island. 

What about that proposal attracted your attention?
I remember being struck immediately by the voice. The accessibility of it, the gentleness of it, the sophistication of it, the broadness of it. There was a feeling like, “Okay, this is someone who can tell me a story. He seems to know what story he wants to tell me, the story is a compelling one, the story has not been told before.” That is so often at the heart of what strikes us both in fiction and nonfiction.

After you made your first sale, you continued to sell subsidiary rights for Mort and Lynn. When did the focus shift to your own authors?
I think it happened about three years in. The books I was taking on were beginning to make some decent income, and it made more sense to focus as much time on that as on the subrights. So we hired another agent to help with that.

She was a young woman who at the time had no publishing experience, not a day of it. She had been a graduate student at Yale in English. Her name was Tina Bennett, and we hired her to do the rest of the subrights work. That was a good hire. [Laughs.]

She ended up going on to not just become one of my closest friends in the world but represented Seabiscuit and Unbroken and Fast Food Nation and Malcolm Gladwell’s books and Atul Gawande and you name it.

What about Janklow & Nesbit appealed to you?
There was a very, very strong ethos to the place, from the top down. It was always an extremely dignified office, with a very clear sense of itself, and very focused on wanting to be in the highest of the high end, both in terms of literary merit and commercial possibility. It was never a volume business. It was really about curation.

Did you always see eye to eye about the quality of the books you took on?
I can’t remember disagreeing about quality, and it was a fairly independent process. In the very early days I would run by Mort or Lynn what I wanted to take on, so they had some sense of what was going out under their name. When you’re the name partners in the company you like to know what’s being sent out under your letterhead. But they were great at trusting Tina and me not to embarrass them.

What kinds of risks did you take as a young agent?
When you are young and building a list, you’re able to roll the dice on new talent and think, “I’ve only read three stories by this person, but they’re three of the best stories I’ve seen all year. I have to believe this person is capable of contributing another seven stories to a collection and eventually writing a novel,” and then say to them, “Yes. I want to be your agent.”

In the time that I was coming up in the business, there were many fewer agents than there are now. I felt tremendous amounts of competition from my peers—that if I didn’t take the plunge and say “yes” to a writer, someone else would be there in the next five minutes to say “yes.” And today, it’s unimaginably more competitive than it was then.

There’s always a risk when you call the seven or ten editors with whom you have the best relationships and say, “I’ve read the most extraordinary novel.” Every time you do that, you’re putting your reputation on the line. You send it out and you hold your breath.

No matter how many years you do it, you still sometimes think, “What if I’m crazy? What if the three people who love this book most are me, the author, and the author’s mother?” [Laughs.] And then when the phone rings the next day, and the first person says, “Oh my God, I was up all night reading this, I can’t believe how great this is,” you exhale. 

Credit: Christy Whitney

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