LitChat Interview: Betsy Lerner, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency

Betsy Lerner
Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency

Betsy Lerner is a legend. We aren’t joking. Her craft book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers has aided thousands of writers on the ins and outs of our insane industry and how to best focus on what is most important (to us anyway) about writing: that the story must come first.

Betsy worked as an editor for 16 years at major trade publishers including Simon & Schuster and Houghton Mifflin and as an executive editor at Doubleday. She mostly works with nonfiction writers in the areas of science, psychology, history, cultural studies, biography, current events, memoir and the hard-to-categorize. Lerner was the recipient of the Tony Godwin Publishing Prize. She holds an MFA from Columbia University. In addition to The Forest for the Trees, she is the author of Food & Loathing. Her blog on publishing can be found here.

Thanks for chatting with us, Betsy!

LS: Did you read a lot as a kid? If so, did that love of reading influence your decision to seek out a career in publishing? What was your favorite book as a child?

I loved all the Carolyn Haywood Betsy series book because the titles had my name  in it. The budding narcissist. I also loved The Diary of Anne Frank and started keeping diaries as a result.

LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without editing it?

I am actually a nonfiction person. If the writing is great, I put my blue pencil down. It’s a relief.

LS: How has self-publishing and the popularity of the e-book impacted literary agents? Do you believe traditional publishers will have to change the way they function because of self-publishing?

There has always been self-publishing whether in the form of political pamphlets, subversive fiction, comics, etc. I don’t know many people who really love to read e-books, yet the sales are great. Overall, the more books we can sell in any format, the better.

LS: I have to say, The Forest for the Trees for many writers (myself included) has become a writing “bible.” What prompted you to write this book and what do you hope it helps writers to accomplish?

First, thanks. I should have been a psychiatrist but medical school was beyond me. I am first and foremost interested in what makes people tick. Observing writers up close has been Technicolor and I was largely inspired to write about it after working on a book called No Bad Dogs by Barbara Wodehouse. In it she described different kinds of dog behavior (dominant, submissive, dogs who bite, dogs who run away, etc.) and the parallels with writers struck me like lightning.

It took about six years after that to muster the courage. After all, who was I? PLUS, I had clipped every article about writers and publishing, every obit, read tons of writers’ letters and diaries, so I had all this information to draw from. I didn’t have to go out and research. I had a packed accordion file to work with.

LS: What is the greatest lesson you hope writers will take away from The Forest for the Trees

To buy six copies for friends.

LS: Did your years as an editor with some of the major houses in the industry impact your role as an agent? Would you consider yourself an editorial agent?

Yes, I am an editor in agent’s clothing. I love to edit. I have confidence in my editorial work. But I learned working for publishers that you also had to be a great salesperson in order to acquire a book and then to get the publishing house behind it. A booster, an enthusiast, you had to create an aura around a book, get people to read it and hopefully love it and work hard on making it a success. As an agent, I have to bring all of this to bear as I sell books, as I help authors navigate their careers, and it is always renewed by finding wonderful new writers and seeing more seasoned writers get better and better.

LS: What do you think are some of the biggest mistakes debut novelists make?

Novelists are basically insane. The transition from living inside your head to becoming public, whether on a large or small scale, is mind blowing. Don’t quit therapy. Don’t allow the public reaction, positive or negative, to stop you from writing for even one day.

LS: For someone who is seasoned in the industry, are you ever surprised by writers or the buying public?

All the time.

LS: What makes the manuscripts you take on stand out? What are the elements of your “perfect” manuscript?

Pristine prose or voice or funny or a brilliant simile in the first page or a great title or a great character name or authority or what the fuck or whole new world or something intangible but moving or alarming or surprising or terrifying or consoling or titillating or suicidal.

LS: Can you finish this sentence for us? “It would be my dream to represent the next__________.”

Malcolm Gladwell



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