About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Carl and I

So while the rest of the world is having this Carl Sagan moment with the debut of the new Cosmos TV series, inspired by Sagan's original series from 35 years ago, let me tell you what Carl taught me.  It's something different from what everyone else is saying...

When I started work at the Scott Meredith Literary Agency in February 1986, I got to be Carl's literary agent.  Well, not really, or not exactly, but each desk at the agency had certain clients assigned to it, and Carl was assigned to my desk.  For Carl, this didn't mean very much. It meant that I was the person in the office who got to type out a transmittal letter for each check.  Yes, this was the 1980s.  This was done by hand on a typewriter, that we had gotten $568.76 for French royalties to Cosmos, and after our commission and 2% to Alan Lomax and some percent to the ex, here is your check for $352.32.

This was a pain in the neck, but it was still a thrill to be even that close to someone like Carl Sagan.  Cosmos was still a big deal and still selling lots of copies along with Broca's Brain and The Dragons of Eden.  His novel Contact had come out the year before and was a very very big deal.

But there was just one thing.  Carl hardly published a word during the entire eight years I was at Scott Meredith.  One collaboration about nuclear winter, A Path Where No Man Thought, and one with his wife, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.  But by and large, Carl spend those eight years allowing himself to become forgotten.

So here's the first group of lessons that Carl taught me.

Writers might write at their own pace.  And rather frustratingly, neither the writers nor their publishers may know exactly what that pace is until their careers are underway.  First novels are never written on deadline.  Second novels usually are.  And eventually we all find our way to realizing that this author can write two novels a year, that one three novels every two years, this one a book every 14 months.

Celebrity isn't good for writers.  Even the best-intentioned writers realize that you can't tour, be invited to be GoH at four conventions a year, do guest blog posts and interviews, to to WorldCon and World Fantasy, and keep up the writing pace you had before all of those things were part of your routine.

But tied in with that...

If, as Neil Gaiman put it memorably some five years ago, "George R. R. Martin is not your bitch," and George doesn't owe it to anyone to have his next Song of Ice and Fire sung, the reader isn't GRRM's bitch.  Some things we choose to wait for.  Others we choose to forget.  There are enough authors that we choose to forget that even publishers sometimes seem to be long on the uptake when they're publishing an author like GRRM or Patrick Rothfuss or Peter V. Brett whom the readers are willing to wait a little bit extra for.

And Carl Sagan ... well, he was one of the authors that the world was clearly willing to forget.  And I never saw any sign that Scott Meredith was willing to have that discussion with Carl, even though it seemed pretty evident to me kind of quietly observing in the background.

And the world was willing to forget other Scott Meredith clients.  Norman Mailer spent my several years at Scott Meredith making that transition, and getting monthly checks from Random House all the while.

Getting back to A Path Where No Man Thought, my name appears nowhere in the acknowledgments, but I had an important task for this book Carl wrote with Richard Turco.  I had to clear all of the permissions for his epigraphs and other extended quotations.

This annoyed me.

Maybe it was just that it was a pain in the neck to do all this work, and as someone still in his mid-20s, it's safe to say that I wasn't enamored of this sort of work.

But I also couldn't figure out why the Scott Meredith Agency was doing this work for Carl, and not getting paid a dime for doing it.  Carl had his office at Cornell.  He had secretaries, he probably had a team of work-study students at his disposal.

So agents do things for their clients sometimes.  But even today, I'd still argue pretty strongly that this shouldn't have been one of those things, that this was someplace where the agent needed to say "no."

I don't think Scott's hands-off and indulgent attitude toward authors who were falling out of the conversation was helpful to anyone.  Nobody reads Carl Sagan any more.  This might seem hard to believe for all the hosannas showing down on him as this new Cosmos series comes on the air, but it is true.  His Bookscan sales are essentially non-existent.  And Norman Mailer's most enduring works were all published by the time I started at Scott Meredith in 1986.  Maybe nothing Scott said would have changed any of this, or maybe not.   Going just by age, Sagan was in his fifties and Mailer his sixties during the time I was at Scott Meredith, and it's hardly pre-ordained that a writer's best work is by then in the past.  Nor do I think it entirely coincidence that Carl Sagan managed to deliver A Pale Blue Dot to fulfill a contract obligation to Random House after Scott's death in 1993, and not before.

Carl was also one of the only authors who tried to escape paying commission on existing contracts for existing books to the Scott Meredith Agency after Scott died.

So that's my Carl Sagan story.  It's different than most of the others going around this weekend, but I will say that he's certainly had a lasting influence on me.

1 comment:

Elizabeth Moon said...

Fascinating. I'm wondering if you have any insights on what makes a writer's work something people will wait for--if the writer can't finish by a deadline--and what make it something they're willing to forget. I read a couple of Carl Sagan's books, enjoyed them and they may still be somewhere in the house, but they weren't "re-readers" for me. I don't think that's because they were nonfiction--I have plowed through some nonfiction multiple times.

Can readers "feel" a writer's loss of interest in communicating that way? Or does the social/political climate change to make the work less appealing to the next wave of readers, or...what?