The Art Of Literary Agenting

Know thine enemy so you can make him or her your bud:


by Jonathan Lee

In Chris Parris-Lamb’s office at The Gernert Company, a literary agency where staff with shrewd cheekbones sip herbal teas while managing the affairs of some of America’s top authors, there is a small en-suite bathroom in which I discovered a minor landslide of running shoes. A couple of pairs looked completely destroyed. A couple of others had the beleaguered appearance of the soon-to-be-dead. There was one pair in the pile that seemed to be brand new—stiff tongue, clean toe-box, untainted laces—but behind their game face I thought I discerned an air of resignation. It turns out Parris-Lamb is a compulsive runner, and at well over six feet in height he must hit the ground hard. “Sixty to eighty miles each week,” he explained. “Which means I go through a pair of shoes every six to eight weeks.” His most recent marathon time is two hours and forty-eight minutes, which in 1908 would have won him the world record.

Parris-Lamb, who recently turned thirty-three, shot to prominence within the publishing industry in February of 2010. That was the month in which he sold Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art Of Fielding, to Michael Pietsch at Little, Brown for a reported $665,000. It was his first big headline success after several years of assisting other agents while slowly building up his own list of authors. The book went on to become a high-profile bestseller, and since then, Parris-Lamb has proven himself to be an unusually reliable judge of what the market wants, or soon discovers it wants. This past fall, three books by authors of his—Christian Rudder’sDataclysm, Peter Thiel’s Zero To One, and John Darnielle’s Wolf In White Van—all featured on the bestseller lists at exactly the same time, while Darnielle’s was also a National Book Award nominee.

One of Parris-Lamb’s most recent literary discoveries is Garth Risk Hallberg, whose forthcoming nine-hundred-page novel, City On Fire, has already been the subject of much attention, having drawn a nearly 2-million-dollar advance. Parris-Lamb has a fondness for wincingly high word counts (“it says something about somebody, in terms of ambition”) and he also enjoys getting deeply involved in the process of revision. He’s been known to work with an author through six entire drafts before deeming their manuscript ready for submission to editors.

A looming presence even when seated, Parris-Lamb manages to be unassuming, prone to thoughtful pauses. On the occasions during our interview when he broke off from quiet logic to offer flashes of frustration (“I frankly think that initiatives like National Novel Writing Month are insulting to real writers”) he usually followed his statement with a slightly wry smile, or a quick glance towards his bookshelves.

Jonathan Lee for Guernica

Guernica: When you look at your unsolicited submissions pile, what are some of the common problems you see?

Chris Parris-Lamb: I just see an awful lot of people who believe that what makes a novel is eighty thousand consecutive words. I just wish I read more submissions where it felt like the author had taken great care with it, had spent a lot of time on it, and had a better idea—or any idea at all—of the books they saw their own as being in conversation with, as well as of how theirs was unique. Most submissions I see feel like someone checking “write a novel” off their bucket list. Readers don’t want to spend their $9.99, or even their $1.99—though that touches on a whole other problem—on a book that doesn’t give them something. And most of these submissions just don’t really justify their existence, or the time spent reading them. They might do something for the author—and that’s a perfectly good reason to have written it—but they don’t do anything for the reader, which is a perfectly good reason why they shouldn’t be published. Time spent writing a novel is valuable, but readers’ time is valuable too….

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