Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Power of a VERY good agent

This is in this morning's Shelf Awareness, a website about the book trade that sends daily email.

The Art of Meeting an Author in a Cafe

Two years ago, before the Shelf had offices or employees, our mail went to a post office box in Seattle. Once a week, my ritual was to collect the mail, go to a café and eat lunch--just to get out and feel social.

One day at the luncheonette counter, I saw the owner of the restaurant sidle up to a man sitting three stools down from me and say, "Hey Garth! How's the book coming?" I glanced sideways over at the man. He looked, well, not scary. (Okay, fine. He's spiffy.) I wondered: do I introduce myself? Could he be the feared author who gloms on to anyone in publishing? I took the risk. It turned out that he knew about the Shelf and that he wasn't the glom-my type. So, about once a month we'd meet for lunch and talk book biz. A few months later, he came to lunch with a large box--the manuscript. Gulp.

Of course, we all have stories in this biz about loving a book, hating the author, and vice versa. I liked Garth and his family. We were neighbors. I really didn't want to hate his book.
I took the manuscript home and stared at it for a week. The title page read "The Art of Racing in the Rain." Hmm. Okay. Good title. I dove in.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein is told from the point of view of a dog named Enzo who aspires to be a racecar driver like his owner, Denny. The TV is left on during the day while Enzo's owner is working, so he's learned a lot about the world. (He's often quite miffed at not possessing opposable thumbs.) Through Enzo, we learn the story of how his master fell in love with his wife, Eve, the addition of their daughter Zoey, and how it all tragically unraveled. Have a box of Kleenex near.

Early on in my reading, I kept trying to meld the baker from The Godfather (the only other Enzo I've known) with the early moments of the movie Splash where Daryl Hannah the mermaid learns to speak English from watching TV. But I quickly learned there were no models for Enzo. He was completely original and calming in a Zen-like way. You're totally under the spell of a dog who's telling us his completely believable and authentic story.

The test of a good book for me is to read it, put it away, then see if I can still hear the voices, miss the characters and wish it hadn't ended. I said nothing to anyone about Garth's book for three weeks after I had read it. Later as I was playing with marketing ideas for it, I knew it was special and brilliant. (I'm still very partial to a campaign based around "What Would Enzo Do?")

When I called Garth to tell him what I thought, he said, "Well, I'm glad you liked it, because my agent just turned it down." Then began the saga. During the next few months, several more agents passed on this gem. The rejections came with explanations like, "It's not what they are looking for." "No one knows how to market it." "Too much (or too little) like everything else."

What the--? Hello? Did you even read it? Arrgh! I was incensed. I think it's one of the hardest things to bear in this biz: when the good books don't make it.

But finally, Garth found an agent who understood The Art of Racing in the Rain. It went out, and the offers started to come in. They started small and progressively got, well, almost other-worldly. Keep in mind that Garth had published two other books to critical acclaim, but without significant sales numbers.

In the end, the fine folks at HarperCollins won it for $1.2 million, English-only rights. I saw Garth about a week after this, running along the lake, near the neighborhood where we both live. I stopped him by asking if he was that "rock star author Garth." He laughed and answered, "My Mom calls me everyday lately and says, 'Really? Are you sure they want it? Did you hear that number right?' "

The Art of Racing in the Rain will be out in mid-May. Get ready. Read this wreckingly great novel. Meet Garth. Get him in your store.

We at the Shelf think it's going to be huge. I'm almost afraid of walking into Target one day and seeing little stuffed movie tie-in Enzos everywhere.

No one should begrudge Garth a smidgeon of his success. I certainly can't. This, of course, has nothing to do with the fact that my daughter stars in his book trailer. Ahem. Click here to see it.--Jenn Risko

Now, what Jenn Risko doesn't tell you is that Garth's new agent is Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management. I know how Jeff sold that book: he called up editors and said "I loved it, you will too." And editors know Jeff is a very very smart guy. They did read it, they did love it, and now you can see if you agree.

Garth Stein didn't need an agent, he needed the right agent. When he found Jeff, it was Jeff's reputation that got the book read. It's the SAME book other people turned down. The only thing different was Jeff.

Now, I have to dust off that list of the seven deadly sins cause I think jealousy and envy are right there in the mix.


Liana Brooks said...

Very encouraging for those about to dive into someone's slush pile with our heart on our sleeve. Finding an agent is like selling a house, you only need one buyer, you only need one agent, you just need the right one.

SundaySoup said...

That kinda made me teary, but I cry at commercials. At least, I would if I had a TV. I just put it on hold at my library...four copies on order at a tiny rural Canadian library...this book is gonna be huge! Congrats to your colleague and the author!

Unknown said...

Today's Publishers Lunch includes news of more pre-publication success for this book: Starbucks Coffee has made it its next featured book, and it will be featured for sale in more than 7000 Starbucks shops starting in mid-May. I can't say that I'm jealous or envious: Just happy to hear a story about a good project getting the recognition it deserves. Nice to have a dose of hope with my morning coffee!

Thanks for sharing the backstory.

Kristin Laughtin said...

What an amazing story. I love when people share encouraging stories such as this, because I can imagine that once I start querying, there might be some temptation to sign up with the first agent who will sign me, whether they're the right agent or not.
(Or maybe there won't be, as I intend to research agents and try to find out who I'm most compatible with beforehand. Still, it's good to remember in case I face that feeling of "Argh, get signed already!")

SundaySoup said...

Starbucks to Sell Racing in the Rain
The coffee chain's next featured book selection will be Garth Stein's THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN. Starbucks Entertainment head Ken Lombard says it was picked because it's "an inspirational story told from such a unique perspective." The novel will be featured in more than 7,000 Starbucks locations as of the laydown date of May 13.

Heidi Willis said...

On Monday Jeff published the query letter from Garth on his new blog,

I was more impressed by the "pitch" on your blog than his as it felt a little more specific but I was definitely intrigued by the idea of a dog-narrated story when I read his query. And interested in why his agent wouldn't even read a book by his client just because it was narrated by a dog.

I hope someday to have this kind of buzz, but for now not an ounce of jealousy. Authors who have great ideas and write well deserve to be successful.

Chris Eldin said...

This story has all sorts of possibilities. Sounds so creative and definitely a book I'd finish in one sitting.
Thanks for sharing the behind-the-scenes with this one!
:-) said...

I depleted the stockpile on my shelves and hit the library (rather than the bookstore) last week with ennui (because I'm), completely unsure of what I'm in the mood for. THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is it. I can't wait!

Unknown said...

I know Jeff personally--when he's enthusiastic about something, a freight train won't stop him! Good for Garth, the book, and Jeff. :)


Mindy Tarquini said...

I think Envy and Jealousy are the same deadly sin.

Heidi the Hick said...

How wonderful!

"Enzo" is the name of a Ferrari model, isn't it?