Russell Galen is a graduate of Brandeis University. He started within days as an apprentice to “the most colorful and successful agent of his era,” Scott Meredith, and he made his first sale within a month. When Scott died in 1993, he joined with the two other top agents there, Ted Chichak and Jack Scovil, to found Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency.
He is seeking: In fiction, his passion lies within novels that stretch the bounds of reality. A novel needs to take him some place you can’t get to in a car, whether it be the past, the future, a fantasy world, an alternate historical track, a world in which our world touches another that is hidden or rarely seen, or one which has been changed by some new technology, event, or idea.
In nonfiction, he seeks strong, serious books on almost any subject—as long as they teach him something. He’s interested in science, history, journalism, biography, business, memoir, nature, politics, sports, contemporary culture, literary nonfiction, etc.
LS: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us. I’ve read that early on you admired the relationship shared by F. Scott Fitzgerald and his agent Harold Ober. What satisfies you most about the relationships you have with your clients?
There’s something very appealing about being a terrorist: a small group of conspirators, trusting one another with their lives, united by common purpose, going up against a larger, more powerful, better-organized entity. That’s how it feels to work with a client: like conspirators preparing an attack.
This isn’t to say that the publisher is the enemy. The enemy is not the publisher but the publisher’s indifference. Victory is not destroying the publisher: victory is converting the publisher. Maybe a better metaphor would be a team of Mormon missionaries. Nah, that doesn’t feel right. I’ll stick with terrorists.
At various points in my career I’ve thought of myself as my clients’ editor, psychiatrist, financial advisor, life coach, lawyer, parent, brother, and friend. But nothing comes close to the collaborative satisfaction of plotting a strategy with an author (along with my staff and foreign/movie subagents), executing that plan, and seeing it succeed. Editorial strategy is followed by submission strategy and then by publication strategy.
LS: Did your desire for a career in publishing come from an early love of books? If so, what were your favorite books as a child?
Yes, from the earliest age I devoured books, but I don’t know that “love” is the word that comes to mind. It was an insatiable need. I’m not sure how healthy it was or what I may have sacrificed during my lifetime to feed that addiction. A simple love of books would have been nice but I was never given that choice. I love dogs, but I have been without a dog for about three years now and am not sure I’ll ever get another one. That’s love but it’s voluntary. I cannot go one day without a long reading session. When I’m on a plane I don’t panic about crashing but about my e-reader battery running out.
As for my favorite books, I went straight from “See Spot Run“ to adult fiction. I never read the children’s classics. I became interested in middle grade and young adult fiction only in recent years when I realized that some of the best storytelling was taking place in that field, but in my own childhood I was too eager to be a grownup. In 7th grade my teachers called me “the 40 year old man” because I was so serious.
When I was twelve I thought I would become a scientist, and in fact my son is now a grad student in biology so I think it’s legitimately in my genes. But then I read Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation Trilogy” and realized I was more interested in stories about science than I was in the science itself. So I gave myself over to reading and thought of myself as an English major (or whatever the 7th Grade equivalent is) rather than a science major.
I went on to read omnivorously, a hundred books a year, all types of fiction and nonfiction. The one thing I never read was something that didn’t have a story, so if it was nonfiction, it would be history, biography, a true-life adventure, and other forms of narrative nonfiction. Now that I am a middle-aged man, my taste hasn’t changed.
LS: What has been one of your proudest moments as an agent?
When an agent dies the obituary lists the famous writers he’s worked with. This is supposed to be the sum of his life’s meaning. I reject that. The fact that I worked with a certain household name does not mean my own life was meaningful as a result. Perhaps there’s a book that sold for a $500 advance to a tiny press by an unknown writer whose work would never have seen the light of day if not for me, and perhaps that’s more representative of the significance of my time on earth.
Look, I’ve been around a long time and made a lot of amazing deals. I’ve gotten mid seven figure paydays for clients, high seven figures, and low eight. I’ve invented new kinds of contract terms and new clauses that have shifted considerable amounts of money and power from the publisher’s side of the ledger to the writer’s. I am still doing that, inventing new kinds of electronic publication contracts that I strongly suspect will be the normal deals of the future.
I’ve steered clients from obscurity to fame, taking them from a four-figure first deal through a multi-decade career of unbroken success, leading to long runs on the New York Times bestseller list and publication in 40 languages.
I’ve helped develop new marketing strategies, shaking publishers out of their lethargy, getting them to think about innovative ways to reach new readers for my clients.
I’ve done all of that. But what I’m proudest of are the acts of fertilization or catalysis.
My first NY Times bestseller was THE MISTS OF AVALON by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Marion’s career was in the doldrums and I was her new agent. Over lunch we discussed a long list of projects, none of which excited me. Finally she said, “The one I really want to do is about the women of King Arthur’s court, but everyone tells me that that’s a bad idea.” I said, “Really? That’s the only idea I like out of your whole list.” She replied that in that case she would write it, and the rest is history. 20 million copies sold in 40 languages.
The greatest work of one of the great 20th century American novelists, VALIS by Philip K. Dick, is dedicated to me, and all because after I had newly taken him on, I gave him an idea for how to finish the book, which he’d been trying to finish for seven years.
Decades later I was in the home of Ted Kerasote, a narrative nonfiction author who’d done some highly regarded small press books about nature and wildlife. We just could not come up with a project for him that seemed like it could break him out to a major house. Finally he said, “The book I really want to write is the story of my dog.” The whole house was filled with pictures of this big, handsome, charismatic dog. So I said, “Okay, tell me about the dog,” and about half an hour later I said, “That’s your book.” It became MERLE’S DOOR, widely considered one of the finest animal stories of all time. It spent two months on the NYT bestseller list and has sold millions of copies.
I have lots of stories like this and many of them are about books that never became bestsellers or classics. Nevertheless they are meaningful books that would not have been published if I hadn’t somehow provided the catalyst.
LS: What about Sci Fi and Fantasy appeals to you not only as an agent but also as a reader?
I have a different answer for each.
I will always be a science fiction fan above all else because SF is the literature of ideas. For example, my client Cory Doctorow is the hip young Asimov. His novels are great reads, filled with action, adventure, and fast pacing. He is a great entertainer. But these books literally have a nonfiction book’s worth of thought-provoking information in them. You don’t realize it when you’re reading it because you are so engrossed in the suspense, but when it’s done, your mind whirls with what you’ve just learned, and with new ideas challenging your worldview.
What I love about fantasy is that it is built around the concept that human beings are always capable of heroic actions. It’s hard to imagine a fantasy that did not have human heroism and nobility as its primary fuel, even in the most complex and morally ambiguous works. Fantasy is about men and women rising to the occasion, even if they start out on the floor.
My client Terry Goodkind writes about the character Richard Rahl, who goes from being a simple woodsman to the lord of an empire. Terry and I discovered that when his fans needed to make a tough decision about something, they asked themselves, “What would Richard do?” Richard is someone who is always true to himself. His actions are a direct expression of his own nature, no matter what the consequences.
In my favorite novel in the series, FAITH OF THE FALLEN, Richard decides to carve a statue even though it puts him in clear danger. The simple act of making that statue — at great personal risk — ends up inspiring the citizens of an enslaved city to rise up and reclaim control of their own lives.
That is a great inspiration for people and I personally have been guided by it in my own decisions in life. This is what I get out of fantasy, this genre that people deride as childish but which for me fulfills the capacity for human aspiration that some other people find in religion.
I’m not going to distinguish between what appeals to me as an agent and what appeals to me as a reader. I’ve never represented a book just for the money. I take on the books that I want to read and then figure out how to maximize the author’s success from it.
I boasted of this once to another agent who said derisively, “So if Grisham calls, you won’t take the call.” This was a British agent so you can imagine the elegant acid with which he said it. But actually, that’s right. Grisham would never call me because it would be so obvious that I have no passion for his type of work, but if he did, I would steer him to someone else. If I could poach any author it would have been the late Michael Crichton. (I do have the new Crichton, my client James Rollins, so I’m good.)
LS: As someone whose career is focused on great fiction, are you ever able to read a book for pleasure without editing it?
No, that is a terrible thing about my career. I read a lot for pleasure but I don’t experience the joy of reading that I had in college. I am sure I will never have that again. If I simply want to be transported by a work of art it has to be in a field in which I have no specialized knowledge: specifically, classical music and painting. I sneak away to museums and concerts all the time just to avoid my internal editor, because I do not know how to make an Edward Hopper painting or a Shostakovich concerto any better.
LS: The distribution of self-publishing seems to have changed the dynamic of publishing somewhat. What do you think the future of publishing holds and how will these changes impact agents?
Electronic self-publishing is a great new field which has achieved two fine things.
First, it makes it possible for certain books to reach a small audience yet still remain viable. I don’t buy these books because I’m too busy reading manuscripts, but I’m ecstatic over the equivalent in music, where I can download all kinds of obscure classical music.
Second, it’s created a new kind of development lab for major publishers, supplementing the old development labs, which were primarily periodicals.
But I don’t see a threat to the existing power structure of big New York-based publishers lording it over the world.
Writers will still demand advances, sometimes very big ones. And they will still need well-funded, well-organized marketing campaigns. I don’t think individuals, or literary agencies with their new little publishing arms, or small presses, can succeed consistently because they will usually come up short in marketing and publicity.
Therefore I believe that writers will always need big houses (and therefore always need agents).
The big New York houses will have to change as the printed book disappears. They will morph into studios that find, finance, develop, publicize, market, and distribute a wide variety of digital reading products.
The lure of self-publishing is the high royalty, the independence, and the hope that you can have a success without a well-funded marketing campaign. This just isn’t a viable vision of the future of publishing. When the big houses start offering seven-figure advances for ebook originals, with a $250,000 ad/marketing budget, a 10-city promo tour, and a 50% royalty, self-publishing will go back to what it always was: merely an interesting way to begin a career.
The big houses will do this, although right now they don’t know it. They won’t have a choice. Once they get used to it they will find that it’s a better business model than what they have now, and they’ll be happy.
I am predicting this not because I prefer screens to paper (although I do, very much) but as a matter of economics.
The cost of books can only go up and the cost of ebooks can very easily go down. When a new hardcover is $250 (in the inflated dollars of some future era) and the ebook version is $10, and given all of the other advantages of the ebook, does anyone really think that a printed book will appeal to more than a niche market? In a world where there are three billion smartphones and tablets which everyone considers as necessary and unremarkable as underwear?
LS: What makes the manuscripts you take on stand out? What are the elements of your “perfect” manuscript?
I can’t imagine that I will ever encounter a perfect manuscript. But I can tell you what I look for, and which leaves me satisfied even in a deeply flawed manuscript. What interests me is characters who are on a personal journey which leaves them changed. For this reason I avoid certain types of series which rely on the main character being the same person in every volume. My favorite of all types of fiction are stories in which the characters’ journeys are so profound that they need to be spread over many volumes which are best read in order.
The “Outlander” series by my client Diana Gabaldon is a particular favorite of mine. It is a single unbroken story which currently covers eight volumes and about 2.5 million words, with more to come. The story covers decades, and during that time its protagonist has gone from a beautiful young woman to a hearty grandmother who still has a sexual appetite that would exhaust most college students. She has changed and grown and deepened over the course of those years while also managing to stay true to her core self, despite war, disease, death, and revolution.
Very few characters are complicated enough, and experience enough growth, to remain interesting for 2. 5 million words, and few writers can envision or create such characters. But when they do that’s my perfect literary experience.
LS: What questions should writers ask potential agents prior to signing?
Someone should do a checklist for this purpose, which would have dozens of questions. I could come up with such a checklist for you now but the questions would be pretty obvious:
Who are your other clients and titles?
How do you handle foreign rights?
What are some of your best deals?
What is your record-keeping like?
Have you ever been convicted of embezzlement….?
But there’s a problem. Any agent who has been through this process will have all of his answers down pat. He knows what you want to hear. Don’t you think Bernie Madoff had great answers for any new client who did his due-diligence before investing? If you ask an agent a lot of questions, what you are testing is the agent’s ability to provide persuasive answers. Nothing else.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t do it, but it goes only so far.
I had a guy ask me something recently which I didn’t feel I answered satisfactorily, but it led to a good discussion. He wanted to know what would happen if he failed: if his books didn’t sell to publishers or didn’t do well after being published.
I’ve been through this. I’ve dropped people because I thought we were at a dead end. In other cases I have nursed a relationship for years until it woke from its coma.
I wish I could say that it depends on my regard for the quality of the writer’s work, but that’s not it. I’ve dropped some geniuses, knowing their future biographers would castigate me for doing so.
And it’s not that I stick with writers out of friendship or personal affection. Some of my longest relationships have been with assholes. I have fished drunken clients out of bars, thinking to myself, “I wish I could rid myself of this contemptible lout” but then kept working with the writer for years.
I can’t explain the bonds that form between authors and agents and I can’t provide tools for predicting whether a new relationship will last.
But I do think that when authors are selecting an agent, the most important quality is personal compatibility, because you’re going to be working together for a long time.
A well-known writer came to me a few years ago who had had six previous agents. I called the most recent one, a friend of mine, and he said, “Stay away from that guy. He just can’t get along with agents.” I went ahead anyway because I was a huge fan of the author’s work and was thrilled to have him on my list, and we’ve never had any problem together. So it was just a question of finding the right match.
I do think it’s worth a trip to NYC to interview agents in person (or summon them to your home if you are already successful). Two hours over dinner (or in my case four) will tell you more than all the specific checklist questions you might ask.
LS: Is there a specific trend that you’re tired of seeing?
I don’t think this way. I’m interested in characters. If an author has produced unique characters, I’ll be hooked, even if the external world of that character is a cliché.
That said, one of my pet peeves is the phrase “character driven” as supposed praise for a novel. I don’t think creating one-of-a-kind, interesting characters is that hard. It’s hard, but the world doesn’t have a shortage of people with this talent. There is a slight surplus.
I also don’t think it’s hugely hard to create a suspenseful plot. Again, we have a small surplus of such people.
But for some reason God decided to give out one type of talent to some writers, and the other type to other writers, and rarely give both types to the same person. How many shortstops can field and hit? One in a million have that combination, and it’s the same in writers.
I’m looking for characters with layers and complexities whose lives are then kicked into high-speed motion by important, dangerous events. Get me that combination, and will always be able to get you a great deal.
I don’t care about anything else.
I know someone is expecting me to say “There are too many vampire novels” but that’s bullshit. The reason no one else wanted Marion Zimmer Bradley to write THE MISTS OF AVALON was because “there are too many Arthurian novels.”
One thing I’ve learned about trends is that it’s impossible to spot when they’re over. You can be sick of a trend, predict its imminent demise, then it continues to produce popular and important books for years. You can declare that a trend is here to stay forever and then a week later it crashes and you can’t make a sale.
So I just don’t concern myself with these things.
LS: How different is the industry now as opposed to when you began your career? Are you surprised by these changes?
I know I’m supposed to give the stock answer that things are just so amazing and different.
But if you’re asking me to talk about something amazing, what is amazing is the timeless nature of the business, and how little it has changed not just in my 30 years, but since Homer. If I lived another 100 years I think I would still be a good agent because my basic skills would still be 99% of what takes to succeed in this business.
Here is what we do. I communicate with another person (an editor) and tell them that I’ve just read something that I think they would really enjoy. They in turn try to replicate that process, first within their publishing house, then using mass media to reach readers. Doing that well is very hard but if we pull it off, the rest is a lot easier.
There are new communication media but it still comes down to an agent, an editor, a marketer, and a publicist, talking about a book in a way that will get other people interested.
Of course it’s exciting to figure out marketing plans using media that didn’t exist two years ago. If I could go back to my 1982 self and tell him how we sell books today he would think that I was living in a science fiction story. And I am. But it doesn’t feel different to me as I go about my day of talking to people on the phone, meeting with them, or writing them letters, about the talent of my clients and the potential of their work.
But I will tell you about one thing that interests me a lot and which is unthinkable without new technology.
My lifelong interest, as I mentioned, has been long-running series featuring characters who age, change, and grow. It’s a great literary form and it’s a great business because it’s addictive. But as with all drug pushers, our challenge is getting people hooked. Readers are wary of starting a series because they committing to reading millions of words.
The most exciting thing about the new media is the many opportunities they offer to market and promote the first novel in a series. This used to be impossible in a field that was focused on each season’s new hardcovers. What house would have a marketing budget for a novel published 20 years ago?
Today we have all sorts of ways to put the spotlight on an author’s backlist, using our ability to reach millions of fans cheaply via the Internet.
That is one of the few new marketing strategies that simply has no equivalent in the pre-ebook past. It’s a revolution because it makes it possible to market an author’s life work at once, tying frontlist and backlist together. I am always pushing publishers to do this more often.
For instance, we have a client, the #1 New York Times bestselling Young Adult author Cassandra Clare, whose works all take place in the world she created, the world of the Shadowhunters. Every time she has a new hardcover, everyone busts a gut to promote and market it, as one would expect from such a successful author.
But if you haven’t ever read any of Clare, the best thing for you to do is to read her first novel, CITY OF BONES, published in 2007. Today we can promote that novel, whether that means tweeting about it, producing a great website for it, or putting the ebook on sale for two weeks for a low price. It’s an addictive read and anyone who gives it a chance today is going to be hooked on the series. That’s going to boost hardcover sales when the next new book comes out. So we can promote the new hardcover not just by the usual means but by pushing her first novel long before the new hardcover comes out.
LS: How important is a knowledge of the business of writing in relation to writing a strong manuscript?
In terms of writing a strong individual manuscript it’s neutral, but it’s a benefit in terms of creating a successful multi-book career.
Big media companies are stolid and unimaginative. They don’t innovate. They can throw vast amounts of money, skill, and manpower at a book but their marketing tends to be five years behind the times; if something works, their instinct is to keep trying it. Writers and agents need to instigate and inspire publishers to try new ideas, to think big, and to take chances.
Writers have numerous advantages when it comes to promoting their own work. They don’t represent or publish anyone else: they are thinking about their own work 12 hours a day. The other 12 hours they are envying their peers and thinking about what can be learned from whatever success their rivals are enjoying. In today’s social media universe they are in touch regularly with their fans. Most important, they are creative people. They don’t just think outside the box; they think outside the planet.
Combine the creative engine of a novelist and a shrewd business sense, and you’ve got your own private Steve Jobs. And that’s what a writer can be if he or she is thinking about the business side of things.
I haven’t really answered your question. You asked about a knowledge of the business helping the actual writing process. I suppose you mean that a canny writer might study the business and learn how to write more commercially, either by writing in a trendy area or by shaping a manuscript to have more suspense or romance or whatever seems to be working in the market. Unfortunately, my experience has been that such efforts often have the opposite effect. It’s like thinking too hard about falling asleep, being a great parent, or having an orgasm. The more you think about it the harder it is to achieve. I’m wary of writers with theories about what the market wants or what type of book will sell better.
LS: What type of manuscript would you love to see make its way into your Inbox?
My professional career has been built around fiction that contains some element beyond the mundane and real. I’m rarely interested in handling conventional realistic fiction.
But I don’t think in terms of genre. Science fiction and fantasy are two genres that I enjoy very much, but I am interested in any type of novel that — as I say in the profile I created for our website — takes you someplace you can’t get to in a car.
Distinctions between mainstream and genre fiction have no meaning. The distinction that is meaningful is between works of unique individuality and works that merely exploit conventional ideas. I have handled the latter and they have their place, but no one needs them. What I need is work that could only have been written by the individual writer who wrote it. The work that bears the fingerprint of the author.
Who cares if something is labeled fantasy, science fiction, suspense, thriller, literary, commercial? My taste has nothing to do with any of that. I simply like works of the imagination.
About half my list is nonfiction, and I’m extremely receptive to new nonfiction projects. Science, nature, and the environment are areas of particular interest to me, but I’ll do a book on almost any subject if it uses a strong narrative structure to explore something of true significance.
A pet peeve of mine is when a nonfiction writer asks me what I think of a particular “idea.” Nonfiction books aren’t about ideas. They’re about ideas that are capable of being explored in the form of a story. If there’s no story, it might be an article but it’s not a book. If there’s a story but no idea, then it’s mere entertainment, which I do not handle.