The New York Times

December 20, 2005

Ex-Publisher, Now Agent, Looking Both Ways

Three days into his new life as a literary agent, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, the former chairman and chief executive of the Time Warner Book Group, admits he is not yet an expert on the agent business. He still has some things to say, however, about the problems facing the publishing industry.

"I'm sure in a lot of publishing houses that there is a frustration that people feel, that they're not in control, that they are puppets and the corporate bosses are manipulating the strings," Mr. Kirshbaum said Wednesday in an interview at his new firm, LJK Literary Management, where boxes were yet to be unpacked and computers were still being wired together.

Surprising words from someone who, just a few days earlier, was one of those corporate bosses - the head of one of the country's biggest publishers, owned by one of the largest media conglomerates.

Mr. Kirshbaum, who spent 30 years in the book business, nearly all of it at Time Warner and its corporate forebears, made his mark in the staid publishing world by signing up celebrity authors like Madonna and offering million-dollar advances to franchise writers like James Patterson and Nelson DeMille.

Now he has become part of a steady stream of editors and publishers who, over the last two decades, have jumped to the agenting side of the business. Just how many people have switched sides is impossible to count, in part because - unlike Hollywood talent agents and sports agents - literary agents are unlicensed and unregulated. The Association of Authors' Representatives, a trade group, counts 341 literary agents among its members, up 5 percent from a year ago.

"It's very hard to work now in a publishing house," said Liza Dawson, who left a job as the executive editor at Putnam nine years ago to start her own literary agency. "You can only do the kind of books that that publisher is good at." While at Putnam, she focused on hardcover commercial fiction, but the publishing house "was not necessarily eager for me to nurture my interest in nonfiction or business books."

Now, Ms. Dawson added, "as an agent, I never have to give those books up."

Mr. Kirshbaum, 61, started work 30 years ago at Warner Books, which later became part of the Time Warner empire. He said that he "felt tremendously supported at Time Warner," by Richard D. Parsons, the company's chief executive, and by Ann S. Moore, the chief executive of Time Inc.

"But publishing is built on an economic model that is really very painful for the people working there," he said. "It is still a little bit of a medieval guild system," where apprentices take years to work their way up a ladder of a half-dozen rungs, from editorial assistant to low-level editing spots and, if they are very diligent, to full-fledged editor.

"They love their jobs, and they love the creative excitement that comes from working there," Mr. Kirshbaum said. "But when you're sharing an apartment in Queens with four other people because you're getting 3 to 4 percent annual raises on a $25,000 salary, it's not a great thing."

Of course, it's been a long time since Mr. Kirshbaum struggled to make ends meet. And he is not revealing any secrets by bemoaning the low pay and limited paths for advancement in the publishing business. But in saying that "there is a certain amount of disenfranchisement in publishing," Mr. Kirshbaum is also speaking of the greater role played by sales and marketing in a business where editors once spent most of their time polishing manuscripts and nurturing relationships. Given the flood of books that flow through the big corporate publishing houses - Time Warner published about 300 new titles last year - there is not time to do it all, he said.

"The demands of publishing and marketing a book today have grown to exceed the ability of a publisher to cope," Mr. Kirshbaum added. "I felt very keenly that we were leaving so many good marketing ideas unexplored because there were too many authors and too little time."

That, Mr. Kirshbaum said, has put more of the burden for selling a book onto authors. "The author has to be more involved in choosing the book jacket, in promotion, marketing, dealing with retailers," Mr. Kirshbaum said. "A nonfiction author has to bring a platform with him - radio, a TV show or some kind of recognizable vehicle to help launch them. And the agent is really necessary to represent all of the business interests of the author."

Mr. Kirshbaum has long been known as a master salesman. And he ended his tenure at Time Warner in character, with the success of "The Historian," the debut novel by Elizabeth Kostova, published by the Time Warner subsidiary Little, Brown & Company. The book ranked No. 1 on the New York Times fiction best-seller list in its first week on sale, a remarkable feat for a first novel.

"That didn't happen just because Little, Brown printed a few hundred thousand copies and waited for positive reviews," he said. The campaign for the book began a year ahead of time, with the company telling booksellers about it at the annual Book Expo America, then sending early copies to bookstores, setting up dinners between retailers and the author and introducing her to the company's own sales force.

"But the fact is that we are a consumer products business," Mr. Kirshbaum said. "You go into Costco and you're not that far from batteries and corn flakes." And at work, "every nanosecond of the day is taken up with meetings," he continued, adding, "The imperatives of the day crowd out much of the creativity from the publishing life."

Mr. Kirshbaum said he had thought about someday working as a literary agent since the late 1970's, when he first met Morton L. Janklow, the well-known head of Janklow & Nesbit Associates. "I'd only been in the business three or four years, but I told myself that someday I'd like to be Mort Janklow," he said. (Mr. Janklow said he remembered the meeting as well: the two talked about an upcoming book by Sidney Sheldon, a client of Mr. Janklow.)

Mr. Kirshbaum said he has signed up eight clients so far, including Donald E. Westlake and David Ellis, both past winners of the Edgar Award for mystery writing, and has hired two fellow agents. And he doesn't see his former colleagues as adversaries now that he's on the other side of the table.

"The name of the game is not to make a quick buck for the author and make the publisher take a write-off" on a big advance, he said. "What really matters is what happens after the deal. If the books are selling, the money will follow."