Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Andy Ross: How the former owner of Cody's has found a new life as a literary agent
Andy Ross at Cody's Books in the 1970s

Andy Ross is well-known in the publishing industry through his former ownership of Cody’s Books, one of the country’s most renowned independent bookstores. For 45 years, Cody’s flagship store on Telegraph Avenue hosted the world’s most accomplished writers and carried books written by well-known and obscure authors. It had a large selection of poetry, local history, literary fiction, history, and computer books. Its magazine section was enormous. When Ross shuttered Cody’s on Telegraph in 2006, book-lovers and publishing insiders shuddered; the closure turned out to be a precursor to a wave of closures of independent bookstores around the country. The last branch of Cody’s closed down in June 2008.

Ross leveraged his knowledge of authors and writing to become a literary agent. As he explains on his website, his involvement with Cody’s gave him “a unique understanding of the retail book market, of publishing trends and, most importantly and uniquely, the hand selling of books to book buyers.”

Ross opened Andy Ross Literary Agency in Oakland in 2008. His clients include many iconic figures from the 1960s and Vietnam War era, including Daniel Ellsberg, the man who leaked the Pentagon Papers, Paul Krassner, the editor of The Realist, the 1960s political and satirical magazine, and Michael Parenti, the radical political scientist and historian. Ghost Word recently spoke with Ross to hear his thoughts on being a literary agent.

Why did you decide to become a literary agent?

When I left Cody's in December, 2007, I wasn't sure what I could do. I had been a bookseller for 35 years, all my adult life. I was thinking that my future might lie in sacking groceries at Safeway. I woke up one night in January. I decided that this would be a good job for me. It was a good decision. I love this job.

What is the best thing about being an agent? Hardest thing?

Everything about being an agent is great. I wish I had started 10 years ago. I love working with writers. I love being a part of the creative process. I suppose some agents just flip contracts. But most of the agents I know and respect do much more. Sometimes authors have something important to say, but they need to be told exactly what it is. That is my job, too.

Every day I seem to meet someone new and interesting from all over the world. I have worked with authors in New Zealand, Israel, England, and India. As well as my friends in the East Bay. I cannot tell you how fulfilling it is to find a good home for a great book. Whenever it happens, it brings tears to my eyes.

The hardest thing is actually getting an offer. Publishing is in the pits right now just like everything else. Publishers are extremely risk averse. They still seem to be paying big money for celebrity books. Word on the street is that Sarah Palin got a $7,000,000 advance. But most of the books I am working with are what they call "the midlist". Every book I have worked on would have found a major publisher several years ago and sold quite well (at least at Cody's). It is hard to get them published at all right now. The corollary to this is that an agent gets a lot of rejections. It is very painful for me and, of course, for my authors. Telling a writer that there is no interest for a book that the author has poured his heart into for several years is heartbreaking for me as well as for the author.

When someone sends you a query, what is the first thing you look for?

I need to find out in a very factual manner what the book really is. If I can't figure this out on the first paragraph, the chances of me taking it seriously go way down. Next I will look to see if the author has qualifications to write about the subject.

I can't tell you how many queries I have gotten where I have had to read 4 paragraphs before I could figure out if it was fiction or non-fiction. This is a very bad sign.

When the first line of the query is that the author has written "a non-fiction novel", this is also a very bad sign.

If the author tells me that millions of people will want to read this and that the author will be good on Oprah, I begin to see that the author has some very unrealistic expectations.

How possible is it for someone to get an agent through the slush pile? How many clients have you gotten through blind submissions compared to referrals from friends, clients, or writers?

Most of the time I work with people who have been referred to me by someone I respect, or who I have contacted. I receive about 20 queries a week over the transom. But I am proud of the fact that I have gotten contracts for 2 books by unknown first time writers who sent me unsolicited queries. Neither of them have impressive "platforms". One is a graduate student at Oxford, who wrote a memoir of his year in the Marshall Islands. Another was living in his brother's attic in Maine. He wrote about his experiences in the standardized testing industry. I'm very proud of these guys. When this happens, I feel like my work is making a difference.

When I think of agent-editor relationships, I always imagine them going out to lunch. Being based on the west coast, how do you permeate the east coast literary world? Do you fly back frequently? Can you establish a relationship by e-mail?

There seems to be a common misconception amongst writers that having a New York agent gives you an inside track with getting published. This isn't true. If anything, NY editors are interested in agents outside of New York who have access to different groups of people and bring different sensibilities. In New York, they have lunch with the same agents. It gets a little stale.
I have gone to NY a few times and visited lots of editors. I realized while I ran bookstores, I never really understood the life and work of editors. But I did understand (better than many agents) what imprints were publishing what books. Fortunately, most of the editors knew who I was because of the high regard for Cody's in publishing. And, if you look at my projects, you will see that they tend to be very "Cody's" sorts of books.

I don't believe that doing business through the old friend's networks is particularly effective any more. Publishing is big business. Editors are pretty gimlet eyed and selective. Friendships don't play much of a part. Although given the many books I have worked with that are political or scholarly, the editors who have an interest in these areas know what I'm doing.

I do most of my business through email. It is efficient and it is friendly. I think I have mastered the art of the charming email. When it comes to selecting the right editor, I am a fundamentalist. I have access to all the major deals that have come down in the last 5 years. I study them carefully. And I determine, based on this, what the editors are looking for. This works pretty well for me.
Andy Ross with Salman Rushdie. In 1989, someone threw a firebomb inside Cody's to protest the prominent display of The Satanic Verses.

Is there an East Coast bias against West Coast writers?

Quite the contrary. California is the largest market in the US. The Bay Area is a bellwether of future trends. Publishers are nothing but encouraging. (Even when they rejecting your proposal).

Which is easier to sell, fiction or nonfiction? Why?

Uhh—well---non-fiction is easier by a mile. Look, I don't want to rain on the parade, but look at the numbers. Publishers will only look at fiction that has been submitted by an agent. These submissions have been heavily vetted. I would imagine that out of 100 queries received by agents for novels, they might select 1 for submission (probably less). I have spoken with a number of fiction editors. They inform me that of the submissions they receive, they may decide to publish (again) 1 in 100. Just looking at the numbers, selling a novel is like winning the lottery. Of course, if you are a published author with a good track record, you are in pretty good shape. It isn't very hard to sell a new novel by Philip Roth. But if you are a published novelist whose last book bombed, it is extremely difficult. Publishers are making decisions by the numbers now. They have a data base that tells them the sales of every book on the market. Refined taste in literature plays a very small role.

What’s the most recent thing you’ve sold?

I got an offer today from a major university press for a book by a renowned Orthodox Jewish scholar. It is not an academic book. It is a memoir of his relationship with his neighborhood synagogue. It is really a one of a kind book.

Considering the economic times, what is the mood of publishers? Are they offering smaller advances? Are there still auctions for books? Or are publishers being more particular about what they buy?

Things are pretty grim in publishing. A lot of the best editors in New York got laid off. Yes, they are giving smaller advances. Yes, they have become much more selective. Yes, they are becoming much more commercial. There are still big advances for celebrities. Millions of dollars. There are still auctions for these kinds of books.

Let me give you an example of the problem. Last month I was in New York. I visited with one of the most highly regarded editors of a highly regarded imprint. He specializes in books of history and current events by distinguished authors. He told me that books that might have sold 20,000 copies several years ago now might be selling 3000 copies. These numbers make me very apprehensive.

What do you miss most about owning Cody’s Books? What do you miss least? What skills did you learn as a bookstore owner that have been useful as an agent?

I spent my whole adult life as a bookseller. I owned Cody's for 30 years. The last 10 years were very difficult. The growth of the chains and Internet bookselling has been devastating for independent stores. In a sense, we were the victims of history.

I have spent a lot of time soul-searching and wondering what I could have done differently. I haven't found a satisfying answer to this. When I think about those 30 years, I still believe that we did some pretty good things. Cody's meant a lot to a lot of people. Sometimes it makes me sad that we couldn't keep Cody's going for another 50 years. Wasn't it Camus who said: "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart"? I'm just going to have to accept that and move on.

For a list of Ross' clients and recent sales, click here.

Cody's hosted more than 5,000 author events over the years, and Ross took photos of many writers and taped their lectures. Ross donated the author photos that used to decorate the stores to the Berkeley Public Library. He donated more than 760 audiocassetes of author talks and other materials to the Bancroft Library.


Peter Richardson said...

Delighted to see this. I'm working with two of Andy's authors (Todd Farley and Kate Tulenko) and will see a third (Dan Ellsberg) tonight. Great idea, Frances.

Anonymous said...

Hey Andy that sounds great.How is your golden haired daughter doing.We miss seeing her.DO you have any good authors on golf because I need one right now.How is your game ?
Hope all is well
The Renfrews

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this interview. I was heartbroken for Mr. Ross and Cody's after watching Paperback Dreams. I really believe it is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. I have shopped at independent music and bookstores since I was sixteen. Independents have a special place in my heart, and have been an important influence in shaping my intellect and worldview. People like Andy Ross help build the bulwarks that protect true freedom of speech and expression. I am so glad to hear that he has moved on to a promising career doing what he does best: working in the literary world. Best wishes!