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Literary Agents: A Writer’s Introduction

by Janice Albert

IF GOOD LITERARY agents are hard to find, a good guide to agents is just as elusive. Fledgling writers have had little choice but to consult R.R. Bowker’s Literary Market Place, or an assortment of industry magazines. But John F. Baker, the vice-president and editorial director of Publisher’s Weekly, came out with a book to fill the vacuum. Published by Macmillan, “Literary Agents: A Writer’s Introduction” seemed to provide a unique product: an insider’s guide to the wily inhabitants of the agenting world. But according to some of the agents profiled in the guide, the
book is riddled with errors.

At the Gramercy Tavern in New York two months ago, several veteran agents, including Robert Lescher, Lois Wallace, Don Congdon and Carl Brandt, got together for lunch. During the course of the meal, the topic of Baker’s book came up, and the group dished its numerous mistakes. The entry for Lescher (of Lescher and Lescher) was one of the more egregious examples: Even though Lescher is listed as the agent of George Soros, Seymour Hersh and Jonathan Harr, he hasn’t represented any of these authors for years — or, in Hersh’s case, for decades. Baker claims that Lescher was once an executive editor at Houghton Mifflin, when in fact he had held that position at Henry Holt. To top it all off, Baker got Lescher’s address wrong.

Robert Lescher has since written Baker a polite letter of protest.

I came across several other errors. In the entry for Virginia “Ginger” Barber, Baker lists Michael Chabon as one of Barber’s clients, when in fact Mary Evans has represented the “Wonder Boys” and “Mysteries Pittsburgh” author from the get-go. According to the book, Congdon (of Don Congdon Associates) represents the estate of William Manchester, an author who is still living, and Lillian Hellman, the late “Little Foxes” writer – whose estate is not represented by Congdon but by several other agents. “There are many mistakes in the entry,” said Congdon’s assistant, Cristina Concepcion. “But we have sent corrections.”

Will there be an error-free second edition of Literary Agents? “From our end of the game it’s too early to tell,” Macmillan publicist Kate Fisher said.

Literary Agents nevertheless received a starred review in PW, and the volume does demonstrate an intimate knowledge of various leaders in the industry – some of whom Baker describes as though they were B&B innkeepers. (Mega-agencies like Andrew Wylie’s and ICM are not included.) In fact, Baker’s guide has a distinctly literary tone. For example, Charlotte Sheedy, of the Charlotte Sheedy Literary Agency Inc., is portrayed as “a comforting figure, a cheerful person with fashionably cut gray hair framing a rosy face, and a warm smile.” Knox Burger of Knox Burger Associates Ltd. is described as “a lean, bald, craggy-faced man with a game leg which he assists with a cane, an expression usually either amused or sardonic, a gruff manner that can sometimes seem downright brusque, and a reputation as one of the truly upright men in the business.”

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