Brave new literary world
Urban was here last week to participate in the Jerusalem Prize award ceremony, where Haruki Murakami, one of the writers she represents, was honored. She says Murakami is thrilled with Israel, and especially its readers.
Urban is the executive vice president of International Creative Management, one of the five largest agencies in the United States. ICM represents not only writers but also performers, directors, movie actors - and Beyonce. In 2006 and 2007, The Hollywood Reporter listed Urban as one of the 100 most powerful women in entertainment, and she is considered the top literary agent.
She represents writers including Toni Morrison, Bret Easton Ellis, Nora Ephron, Cormac McCarthy, Jay McInerney, Richard Ford and Donna Tartt. She created a bidding war among publishing houses for the rights to Tartt's first novel, "The Secret History," and garnered Tartt a $450,000 advance. The book was a tremendous success.
Urban, 62, grew up in New Jersey ("It's a prettier state than most people think") and moved to New York after college. She was general manager of New York Magazine, Esquire and an advertising agency. At that stage, she says, "It wasn't even a career, just jobs I had. At the age of 32 I became an agent. All those diverse jobs kind of came together into one thing."
She married writer and journalist Ken Auletta, who is a New Yorker contributor.
How do you choose which writers to represent?
"With nonfiction, its fairly easy because the idea is either compelling or not compelling. And it's either sellable or not sellable. With fiction of course, you just fall in love. Fiction is harder - it's harder to get people started as novelists, because you are really asking people to take a leap of faith to buy the books and read them.
"One of the important things for an agent is learning to trust your own judgment and your own taste. This is the hardest thing to learn, and also the hardest thing to teach a young agent."
How do you work with the authors, some of whom are already world famous, like Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison?
"We had dinner the other night with Toni, and she told me what the next book is going to be about. It sounded fantastic. And then she goes away and she writes it. When she finishes it, you know, a very polished first draft, which means it's probably her seventh or eight or tenth draft, she gives it to Bob Gottlieb, her longtime editor and me, and we read it, and amazingly she is always open to comment. The best writers are. They want reactions and if somebody has something smart to say about the book, they'll go back and rework it. It's very interesting. She's great to work with - she's very easy to work with and she's so brilliant and she's so much fun. Cormac McCarthy does not like to be edited in the same way, but he's eager to know about factual errors."
McCarthy, whose book "The Road" was recently published in Hebrew (Modan), refuses to give interviews.
"Cormac just likes to write - he just wants to spend his time writing. He just wants his writing to speak for itself," says Urban.
In spite of this, McCarthy agreed to be interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, who included him in her Book Club. Urban says she called McCarthy to tell him Oprah wanted to interview him. "I told him that before he says no, an Oprah Book Club pick means sales of between 750,000 and 1.2 million copies."
There was a long pause, and McCarthy replied that he knows he owes a lot of people, and maybe he should consider it. She asked him whom he owed, and he replied that he owed her and his publisher (Knopf). "I said, well don't do that for us, and he said no, I think I should.
"This was a completely generous reaction on his part. But then he said that he didn't want to go to Chicago and he asked if she would be prepared to come to him.
"I thought that would never happen, because she never has gone on location, moving all her team and her crew, but Oprah agreed and said that she would be glad to travel to Santa Fe, which is where Cormac lives. So the interview took place at the Santa Fe institute. She recorded the show with Cormac, and the president of the institute held a lunch for her with all the institute's scientists. Where were they ever going to meet Oprah, and where was Oprah ever going to meet them? She went back to Chicago and then made a donation to the institute.
"So the entire thing happened out of complete generosity. Cormac did it for his publishers, Oprah did it for literature and the institute did it for Cormac."
McCarthy's book has sold 1.5 million copies so far, says Urban. But the U.S. book market, like American markets as a whole, has taken a beating this year. She explains that the economic crisis and new technologies have necessitated changing the book market.
"We are now seeing the first generation that completely grew up on computers. And some of our worst nightmares and worse fears about them are not coming true - they are in fact very social, not alienated individuals; they are very smart; they are very well-informed because the computer allows them to travel worldwide; they are very good at multitasking; they do tend to want things when they want them, how they want them, where they want them, but they also read.
"The thing is, they read online. They don't read The New York Times the paper, they read the New York Times online. By the way, while I'm in Israel, I'm reading the New York Times online ant it's completely fine. It's great.
"Books are something a little bit different - they are not newspapers. They're longer, but that transition is going to take place. In the first quarter of 2008, publishers sold more electronic books than in all of 2007. And this is growing by leaps and bounds. If we could get a Steve Jobs, who will do what he did for music with the iPod, we would be all set."
She says it's only a matter of time and hardware: "Sony's Readers are good, and so is Kindle 2, which was just launched." She is impressed by what is happening in Japan, where consumers can download book chapters to their mobile phone, and the books are later printed and sell millions of copies.
Do you think that Kindle and the mobile phone will one day replace the book entirely?
"Real books aren't going to disappear. The Kindle bestseller list contains contemporary novels of all sorts, but books that appear on the list are thrillers like James Patterson's, which are sheer entertainment, and also romance novels. These are books that people want to read but don't necessarily want to have a copy in their library. If you read a book on a Kindle or a Sony Reader, and you decide that you love it and you want a copy of it at home, you can buy it."
Another issue that concerns her is book pricing: Amazon is breaking the market, she says.
"Amazon prices books at $9.99. Books in hardback cost $30.00, and the stores give a discount and the price goes down to $15.00. Amazon is not regulated the way retail outlets are, so they can do whatever they want."
So they might wipe out the publishers. Are you fighting them?
"They can definitely wipe out the publishers. The problem is that the publishers need them. Amazon isn't an easy company to do business with. It's a very secretive company; they will not share any of their sales data."
Are signs of the shaky economy already evident in your deals? Is it getting harder to get large advances?
"I think it will start affecting authors' advances, and I think authors' advances will become more in line with what their actual sales are. And that's probably a good thing - we are just selling fewer books. The whole business needs adjustment."
Altogether, she adds, "Too many books are being published in the states today, and all of them are in hardcover at ridiculous prices.
"So fewer books will be published, and those whom we call midlist writers will no longer get published. The major writers will keep publishing, debut books will always be published, and the ones in the middle will have a problem."
So you won't be able to nurture writers.
"That's exactly the point. When I met Richard Ford for the first time, he already had published three novels, which had been very well-received critically and had sold 7,500 copies. When he came to me, he said he may never write another novel, which is not what an agent wants to hear. The next novel he wrote was 'The Sportswriter,' for which he won the Pulizer Prize.
"When I first met Cormac McCarthy, he had already written four novels, none of which had sold more than 2,500 copies. I moved him from Random House to Knopf, they did a fabulous job, and the next book he wrote was "All the Pretty Horses," which sold about 300,000 copies in hardcover and millions in paperback.
"The question is really how you keep authors alive until they break through and garner a large readership. That's what I stay awake at night and worry about."
Despite the difficulties, Urban says she is optimistic.
"I think we are in the midst of a revolution. Bad things happen in a revolution, but revolutions also always give rise to opportunities, and also give rise to good writing. When complacence sets in, things become steel. So I think there's going to be a new vibrancy in all of this. We just have to manage this period and be smart about it, but I'm looking forward to it."