Jack of All Trades: An Interview with Publisher/Agent Turned Writer J.E. FishmanBy Anne Walls
November 18, 2009
Remember that over-achieving kid in your high school class who was on the varsity basketball team, President of the Student Body, AND played a mean guitar solo in the talent show? That’s J.E. Fishman…only in the publishing world. He’s been an accomplished editor at Doubleday, owned his own literary agency, and is a published non-fiction author. Did we mention he has a few novels and a screenplay in the pipeline?
But the best thing about J.E. is that he’s willing to share his experiences to help aspiring writers out there learn the lessons he has accumulated over his many years in the business. WordHustler sat down with J.E. to discuss how fast the industry moves, how much moxie it takes to survive, and why no one owes you a read. Hint: make sure you grab your reader from the start!
Read on to learn from J.E.’s heartaches, triumphs, and vision. You won’t be sorry!
WordHustler: You’ve been involved in pretty much every aspect of the publishing industry, from editor to agent to author. How long have you been writing?
J.E. Fishman: Like anyone who aspires to be published, in some sense I’ve been writing all my life. I wrote stories as a kid. Wherever I go – walking down the street, driving in the car – I see stories. Recently, I was getting rid of an old office computer and had to laboriously wipe the hard drive clean one file at a time. It was full of reading notes, book ideas – most important, story ideas.
WH: When you were an editor at Doubleday, which types of books/authors did you work with?
JEF: The books ran the gamut of non-fiction, from the equestrian library to true crime, business, sports, narrative non-fiction. When I left Doubleday, I had a lot of credibility with journalists, so I ended up specializing in narrative non-fiction, though I agented the occasional novel.
WH: What is the main difference between being an editor now and when you were one?
JEF: I’m not sure. When I was coming up, the industry was already beginning to consolidate and become more corporate. My guess is that today, at the big houses, editors are even more buried in process, giving them less time just to think. In the old days, if a respected editor really believed in a book, he or she might be able to drive the acquisition process. Now, it seems, a greater part of the process is out of the editor’s hands. It’s a team decision and everyone gets a vote. Also, when I was an editor Amazon didn’t exist, e-books didn’t exist. Now they’re having a huge impact on the business.
WH: Then you opened your own agency- had you been amassing talent when you were editing that you represented in your agency? What inspired you to make the switch?
JEF: I did take a few authors whom I’d edited as my early clients, but amassing talent would be an overstatement. It was only a few people. The reason I left was I was feeling ground down by the corporate thing. It has its good and bad points, but I couldn’t see myself doing it forever. Plus, it seemed like editors were spending more and more time selling the books on their lists to all the other departments in the house. I figured: if I’m going to be a salesman, I may as well be trading on my own account, so to speak.
WH: Then another switch- from agenting to writing. Do you think a lot of agents are also writers? Did you feel it important to your writing career to spend your time doing just that and not repping other writers?
JEF: I don’t think a lot of agents are also writers – certainly not the successful agents. Good agents are big fans of writing, though. And some good fiction agents are great editors. Everyone in book publishing, I think, lives for the act of discovery, as all readers do. Successful agents are very good at communicating their enthusiasm in those discoveries to others. As for writing exclusively, yeah, for me it’s important to have immersion in the writing process. Agenting is difficult. I don’t think an agent is doing much justice to his or her clients if he’s off working on his own stuff half the day.
WH: What are you working on right now?
JEF: I’ll probably be doing some revisions on my first novel, PRIMACY, which I hope will be ready for sale soon. I’m working on two more novels and a screenplay, all on spec. One of the novels, CADAVER BLUES, is being serialized on the web right now. I also write essays – hate the word blog – for TheNervousBreakdown.com.
WH: Who are a few of your favorite authors out there today?
JEF: I read really eclectically. Among living authors, I’m still a big fan of Philip Roth, after all these years, Pat Conroy (though I haven’t read his latest), E.L. Doctorow, Richard Price, Junot Diaz – you don’t need me to tell you, but these guys can all really write. I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch out, and my women friends say I don’t read enough women. They’re certainly right.
In thrillers and mysteries, Dennis Lehane is very good. C.J. Box. Janet Evanovich is fun. There’s a woman! Elmore Leonard. Daniel Silva. James Lee Burke. Harlan Coban. I’m sure I’m leaving out someone important. My favorite writer of all time is probably Saul Bellow – no longer living, of course. But there are so many others. I find flaws in much of what I read, because clean story telling is much harder than it appears, but there’s a lot of talent out there.
WH: If you could put on your psychic hat, what trends do you see making a splash soon? Or is following trends a waste of time?
JEF: The only thing I’d say about trends is that they seem to be shorter and shorter lived. Some genre catches fire and then everyone chases it so manically that the quality declines and people get bored. If I could predict trends – if anyone could – they’d be a lot richer. As a writer, I don’t think you can chase it. I had an agent recently ask me to write a novel that emulates Lee Childs, whose Jack Reacher series is fun and hot right now.
But – setting aside the issue of whether I could just order this stuff up from my brain – by the time you get the book finished, it’s likely that the world has moved on. You just have to follow your muse, I think, and hope for the best. That said, I think it’s most important to understand existing story forms and be creative within those forms rather than try to defy them. It sounds boring to say so, but there will always be demand, I think, for great stories with beginning, middle and end. Making it fresh within that is the hard part, and it has to come from authenticity, not chasing trends.
WH: What’s your overall take on publishing today? In dire straights or blooming and flourishing?
JEF: I think book publishers in general are facing significant challenges going forward. Bill Gates said people overestimate the effects technology will have going two years out and underestimate their effects ten years out. There will always be authors and stories, but the book publishing business will probably look much different in another decade or two. Publishers will have to find new ways to add value or they’ll be gradually disintermediated. It’s a scary time for them, and yet the big ones have to figure out how to change while making their quarterly numbers and carrying big overhead. Like much of the media, their business is changing rapidly. The same could be said of bookstores. A big part of the growth is electronic, and that will only accelerate going forward.
WH: To return to your editing/agenting roots for a moment: how important is the query vs. the sample pages?
JEF: On and off, I’ve attended a high-level writing workshop in Philadelphia the last couple years called the Rittenhouse Writer’s Group. Before I started, I hadn’t done a writing workshop since I was just out of college – certainly long before I went into book publishing. Now the thing is, people go to these workshops and you’re obligated to read everyone’s stuff, no matter how good or bad, no matter whether they’ve grabbed the reader by the lapels on Page One or have sauntered up to the reader and finally got around to their story on Page Twelve. The thing you can lose sight of in that environment is that all writers, in a sense, are in the entertainment business.
Editors, agents, publishers – at least in the fiction area — all in the entertainment business. So when writers ask for advice with regard to getting an agent, I remind them of this single truism: no one out there owes you a read. No one. You have to grab their attention. In the realm of non-fiction, the query letter may be more important than the sample pages – because if the author’s concept and credentials are strong, an agent can always find them a writer to do the proposal. In fiction, you’re going to live and die on those first ten sample pages. But it’s all important. Agents are so pressed for time. It’s easy to shout, “Next!”
WH: What are the main things in a query letter that make agents/editors want to read more?
JEF: For non-fiction: credentials, concept, a platform for promotion. For fiction: consistency between the demands of the genre and the ambition of the writer, originality, and some sense that there’s an authorial voice there.
WH: What are the main things that let agents/editors know this project/writer isn’t for them?
JEF: In my opinion there are really only two things. First, is this a genre in which I’m working? An agent who has no interest in science fiction isn’t going to look at a science fiction manuscript. Period. Second, does it capture my imagination? People – even editors and agents – read with their gut. If they like it, they’ll ask themselves whether they can come up with a coherent pitch that has a chance of succeeding, based largely on their experience in the market over the past year. If they don’t like it, they can come up with ways to rationalize why, but the bottom line will always be a matter of taste. Presuming, of course, that the writer was able to string sentences together. A certain level of competence is expected.
WH: Do you think with the rise of digital publishing that there’s a difference between hard copy queries and e-queries? Does one seem more disposable/less serious than the other?
JEF: It’s all up to the preference of the agent. Some still won’t read e-queries, but if I were still an agent, my thinking would be: why waste your time re-stuffing the envelope? Words are words.
WH: What advice would you give aspiring writers out there?
JEF: Someone asked this of Carl Reiner once. He said, if you’re a writer, then write! Nothing else matters if you don’t bring your vision to the page. You’re a painter: paint! Malcolm Gladwell notes that excellence in any endeavor requires a ten-thousand-hour investment. For writers, that’s not ten thousand hours dreaming about the book tour, it’s writing.
Joan Acocella observes that the single thing most successful people in the arts have in common is perseverance. Don’t just talk about doing it, strategize doing it, worry about how the world will receive you… It starts with product. You want product, then produce! Amazingly, it takes some of us a lifetime to realize this. But most of the great writers you know are banging it out every day.
WH: Well said, Sir. So do you think WordHustler helps writers successfully get their work out there, professionally and effectively?
JEF: It sounds that way. The brilliance of WordHustler, I think, is that it has the potential to give creative people more time to create. If you enjoy sending queries more than writing, then you should be an agent, not a writer. That’s why I’m a writer now. I’m happier telling stories than making pitches.
Straight talk from a man in the know! So take J.E.’s advice and put in those hours to perfect your craft, focus on persevering even when the going is tough, and spend some time crafting your queries and projects with the za-za-zing that will grab an editor or agent’s attention right from the start.
Why not submit your masterfully-written prose to an esteemed literary agency like Writer’s House? If you want some help nailing your query letters, take a glance at our Cover Letter Clinic here! Write your best, edit your best, then do your homework so you can send your work out to the best publishing professionals out there. And WordHustler is here to help. Write on!