Interviews

An Interview With Andrew Zack

andy zack, andrew zack, literary agent, small publisher, san diego, interview Andrew Zack is president of The Zack Company, Inc., a literary agency, and Author Coach, LLC, an author coaching and editorial consultation service, as well as publisher of Endpapers Press.  A publishing veteran with more than a quarter-century in the publishing business, Andy has worked in-house and freelanced for many major publishers.  He began his literary agent career at Scovil Chichak Galen Literary Agency in New York, and started his own firm in 1996.  In 2006, he moved to San Diego, CA.  His areas of interest for both TZC and AC are wide and varied, covering nearly all areas of fiction and nonfiction.

AN INTERVIEW WITH ANDREW ZACK. 

The Wardrobe: When did you first enter the publishing business?  What was it like?  And whom were you working for? 

Andrew Zack:  Technically, I started when I was seventeen and got a job working in a local mall independent bookstore.  Until the rise of Amazon, the bookstore and bookstore employees were the tail end of the publishing business, but it was certainly a tail-wags-the-dog situation.  A title that captures the attention of booksellers gets sold to everyone who walks in and asks, “What’s good?”  The Bridges of Madison County and The Notebook both became best-sellers because of hand-selling by booksellers.  But my first post-college job was in the Foreign Rights Department at Simon & Schuster.  You barely knew you were in the book business.  It was contracts, paperwork, and data entry and it was a nightmare.  One XP computer for the entire department and Selectric typewriters.  I worked for two women, M, T & F for one , W & R, for the other.  It was a nightmare and a textbook case of how not to share an assistant.

Subsidiary rights are an important part of the business, but working in rights really drives home that publishing is a business.  It’s not some idealistic endeavor where you get to read books written by wonderfully talented people all day.  As a good friend once said, “Everyone in publishing is like that homeless guy going through the bin on the corner looking for cans he can return.  We’re all just digging through the garbage looking for something that we can turn into money.”

That’s not to say everyone in publishing doesn’t take pride in his or her work.  I think most do.  But most of us in publishing aren’t working on great literature.  We’re trying to find books that will sell and earn money and thus ensure our paychecks come on time.

TW: When you were a child, did you dream of working with books?  Or did you discover this dream when you were in college?

AZ: I never even considered it until my senior year and I heard about the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Harvard (now the Columbia Publishing Course).  I really didn’t have a post-college plan and it seemed like a good way to get into the publishing business.  By the time I left, I wasn’t that enamored of publishing courses.  Yes, they expose you to areas of the business you may not have considered, but I know people who took loans to pay for it and I cannot imagine it being worth going into debt for.  Go to NYC, get a job, pay attention, be friendly.  You’ll be fine.

TW: What do you think about the publishing business now?  Do you think it has improved or declined over the years?  Please provide reasons for your answer.

AZ: I think more books are in print and more available than ever before, which is a great thing.  But I think the business has declined drastically over the years.  The pressure from B&N during the eighties and nineties to increase discounts drove up prices and cut publishers’ profits.  The pressure from Amazon and the outright hostility by Amazon toward publishers has further driven pricing up and profits down.  That’s right, it’s driven pricing up.  By demanding higher discounts off the retail price, Amazon (B&N before it) forces publishers to increase the retail price to protect profits.  And profits are not a bad thing.  Without profits, there’s no reason for publishers to stay in business.

Further, Amazon’s loss-leading pricing on eBooks has had a negative impact on the book industry as a whole.  Readers now expect the price on the eBook of a $25 hardcover book to be less than $5.  That’s insane.  It completely devalues the content of that book and the blood, sweat, and tears every author puts into his or her work.

Arguably, Amazon has massively increased the market for books, but it has essentially turned books into widgets only slightly more respected than that “avocado keeper” that actually costs more than many books. And when you factor in the thousands of self-published books that Amazon facilitates the publication of every year—books that have never been edited, copyedited, or proofread—it’s arguably doing more to lower our literary standards than raise them.

TW: Do you ever wish that you had decided to pursue another career?  Or are you happy with being a small publishing house/literary agent?

AZ: Twenty-five years into it, I have a lot to be proud of, but the hourly wage for anyone in publishing is far, far too low.  Publishing—and literary representation in particular—is gambling.  You invest time and money and hope it pays off.  But you don’t do it with one idea or product, like starting a website or a store.  You do it over and over with every book.  And if you do not find your “big score,” e.g., a Grisham or Clancy or Brown or Rowling, but just grind it out year after year, you do start to worry about the realities of paying your kids’ college tuition.  And, at that point, you probably think a career as a pharmaceutical sales guy would have been a better choice.

And, of course, there’s your love of books.  They say that you should never watch how sausages or laws are made.  Arguably, the same could be said of books.  Everyone who goes into publishing loves books.  But actually working in publishing can destroy that.  At the least, it will destroy your opportunity to have the time to read published works.  At the most, you will become so frustrated watching utter crap climb the best-seller lists while great novels sell five hundred copies that you’ll want to drive a #1 pencil through your eye.

TW: What is it like working with authors?  Do you find it fulfilling?  Or do you find it difficult?  What author have you had most success with?

AZ: Authors, alas, are often a challenge.  Authors always feel they are doing publishers a favor by letting publishers bring their books out.  Publishers always feel they are doing authors a favor.  Nearly one hundred percent of the time, authors are disappointed in the job their publisher does with their books.  And if a book succeeds, it is not because of anything the publisher did, authors think, and publishers think they did everything to make that book a success.  And there, in the middle, sits the literary agent.  Further, the number of authors with a good day job who are writing for the enjoyment of writing and aren’t massively worried about the income from their books is much smaller than the ones who are desperate to get paid immediately, whether or not money is due.  This often creates unpleasant situations between authors, publishers, and agents.  And, again, in the middle is the agent.  I once loaned money to an author, hoping the deal went through from which I would get paid back.  I have paid out many thousands to authors on the bet that the publisher’s check would clear (a couple have not!).

Many industries have clients.  The law, accounting, and advertising are a few.  And everyone has a joke that the job would be great if not for (fill in the blank), “clients and ________ {judges, the IRS, buyers}.”  Publishing is no different.

Many of my clients have had success.  Is one clearly more successful than all the rest?  No.  I have no J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown.

TW: As a literary agent, what sorts of eQueries do you receive?  Is there a genre that is prominent above all others?  If yes, why do you think this is?

AZ: I receive far more fantasy queries than any other genre.  I attribute this to the number of fantasy authors for whom I have done deals, but I would prefer more nonfiction.

TW: Out of every science fiction book you’ve read in your lifetime, which would have to be your favorite?

AZ: If I answer this, you’ll have my security question for five websites.  Sorry.  But my number one author is—wait.  Sorry, that’s on three websites.  But I read a lot of Fred Pohl and James P. Hogan and Alan Dean Foster and Robert Heinlein and Gordon R. Dickson.

TW: Out of every fantasy book you’ve read in your lifetime, which would have to be your favorite?

AZ: I actually don’t love to read fantasy.  Crazy, I know, but I’ve always been more of a science fiction fan. Unfortunately, I’m in the business at a time when fantasy dominates science fiction.  I never read novels of dragons or wizards when I was a kid.  I read thrillers about the CIA more than anything.

TW: Do you believe that this recent influx in the popularity of science fiction, fantasy, and paranormal young adult fiction novels will continue?  Or do you think that this is just a trend that will end in the next couple of years?

AZ: It will continue for more than a couple of years, but everything is cyclical.  In the nineties, Dell had an imprint that just published horror novels, because the audience seemed insatiable.  Then it became sated and the imprint folded.  Erotica is huge now, thanks to 50 Shades of Gray (well, it was huge before that, but now it is more out in the light of day than in the bedroom with the shades drawn) and we’ll continue to see imitators.  The new Star Wars movie will likely bring science fiction back to the fore and there’s talk of a new Star Trek TV series, which will also be good for science fiction.

TV and movies very much drive book markets and not just the tie-in editions.  People who see a great science fiction movie want more sooner than later, so they tend to turn to books.  The Harry Potter series was a gateway to many other fantasy novels for those whose first experience with fantasy was the world of Harry Potter.  We’ll continue to see those kinds of trends.

*Interview conducted by Jacquelyn Phillips*

For more information about Andrew Zack and his business, click HERE!

Those interested in author coaching services or independent publishing services should visit www.authorcoach.com.

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