What Good Agents Know

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So a longform piece like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point in the June 3, 1996 edition of The New Yorker is a slam dunk easy sell as a book project, right? It went from four thousand words in a magazine to seven figures worth of guaranteed book advance just based on its level of professionalism and readability.

Gladwell’s literary agent Tina Bennett probably just called up Random House and Doubleday and Little Brown and HarperCollins and St. Martin’s Press and Houghton Mifflin and Viking etc. and asked their big nonfiction book editors to read Gladwell’s article and then call back with offers, right?

The hard part for her was over at that point.

Signing Gladwell was the big win for her. There were probably a score or more of book agents pounding on his door to get him on their client list since his first piece, Blowup, appeared in The New Yorker, right?

Once Bennett beat out the hoards of other hungry young agents wining and dining Gladwell the rest of her work was autopilot city.

I mean there’s a hard and fast process in place for agents to convert great Story ideas into guaranteed book advances, right?

Once you have the sponsorship of a big literary agency, like Bennett did working at Janklow & Nesbit, then all you have to do is plug into the system—that old boys and girls network. If the stuff you represent is fantastic (and who wouldn’t immediately recognize that The Tipping Point was masterful work) you’re set. You just field offers, funnel off 15% of the proceeds and pound the streets for more clients. In time, that Hamptons or Berkshire country home is yours.

Right? That’s the way it works, right?

No. That’s not how it works at all.

Here is what I know for sure.

  1. Selling a magazine article as a book is extremely difficult. Most in the business would tell you it’s more difficult than selling original material.
  2. If you have nothing “on the page” explaining specifically how a magazine article could become a book, you have no business calling an editor and asking them to make an offer.  Even asking them to read the thing in the first place takes Chutzpah.
  3. I’d wager that Gladwell had very few agents pursuing him. I’d even make a confident guess that Tina Bennett was the only one. I’d even guess that she didn’t “pursue” him. She met him through a friend and over time the two of them thought maybe working together could be fun.
  4. There is no ironclad 100% reliable process for converting an idea for a book into a commissioning contract from a publishing house. Working for a big agency can get your phone call returned, but it will not get an editor to take you seriously.  If you blow the pitch, your Ivy League suit or your close ties to Hollywood or the fact that your mother plays bridge with the publisher mean absolutely nothing—actually worse than nothing. Subconsciously, the editor will enjoy rejecting your project because he hates the Ivy League, thinks Hollywood is filled with idiots, and can’t really stand his publisher or bridge.

Here’s how I know.

I’ve made a living on both sides of the buy/sell transaction.

And if you as an agent do not know how editors think you will not get them to raise the remarkable amount of courage it takes them to walk into their publisher’s office—interrupting his or her afternoon cocktail or cup of tea—and ask that the company back their hunch that a bunch of words they’ve read will contribute to the company’s corporately mandated 10% net return on dollars invested.

Okay that’s a sufficiently dramatic and longwinded answer.

Good agents know how editors think.

So how do editors think?

[Don’t worry.  I promise this is leading to the Story Grid for The Tipping Point in all it’s wonky glory.  But I thought it would be fun too to examine not just how Gladwell structured the book creatively, but the extraordinary tale of how Big Books come to be in the first place. From the wonderfully strange book business viewpoint as well as the creator’s. There are a lot of people behind a bestseller who make invisible contributions. Their work is indispensable and unheralded. And I just love the inside baseball of it all too. If you don’t, hang in there.  I’ll deliver the graphic goods soon. Thank you for your indulgence.  I’m having a blast with it!]

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Shawn Coyne

SHAWN COYNE created, developed, and expanded the story analysis and problem-solving methodology The Story Grid throughout his quarter-century-plus book publishing career. A seasoned story editor, book publisher and ghostwriter, Coyne has also co-authored The Ones Who Hit the Hardest: The Steelers, The Cowboys, the ’70s and the Fight For America’s Soul with Chad Millman and Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Out-Think Fear with Mark McLaughlin, M.D. With his friend and editorial client Steven Pressfield, Coyne runs Black Irish Entertainment LLC, publisher of the cult classic book The War of Art. With his friend and editorial client Tim Grahl, Coyne oversees the Story Grid Universe, LLC, which includes Story Grid University and Story Grid Publishing.