Steven LEVITT: Suzanne Gluck is one of my absolute favorite people, I just admire her so much. When I first met her, I was prepared not to like her. She’s a literary agent, and she approached me to try to convince me to write a popular book. But I had zero interest in writing a popular book. I mean, I was dead-set against it. I only took her call grudgingly out of courtesy.
But I have to say, by the time we hung up 30 minutes later, I was in complete awe of Suzanne. Using some sort of black magic that I simply can’t explain, she had convinced me to co-author a book with Stephen Dubner, someone who I barely knew and I didn’t even like.
So how much did my admiration grow for Suzanne over the years? Well, when my oldest daughters were teenagers, I flew them to New York for a weekend, the only purpose of which was to have them meet Suzanne, because I just couldn’t think of a better female role model.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt.
LEVITT: Often I’m worried before an interview about whether it will go well or not, but with Suzanne I’m not really worried because she’s so naturally social. The only shred of concern I have is that she’s hardly ever been interviewed before. And sometimes people act really differently when you put a microphone in front of them. But hopefully, that won’t be an issue today.
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Steven LEVITT: Just to get any conflicts of interest one hundred percent out in the open. If you had to choose your all-time favorite author among the many authors you’ve represented, given that this is my podcast, and you’ve represented me for the last 15 years, I’m guessing you would probably say me.
Suzanne GLUCK: I’d have to say you and Stephen are tied. I’d have to say that.
LEVITT: O.K., that’s fair. So, all kidding aside, let’s just make that clear to anyone who cares about it, that you represent me and I am a proud client of yours for many, many years. Before we do anything, Suzanne, what’s your official job title?
GLUCK: Official job title is partner at W.M.E., William Morris Endeavor.
LEVITT: Great. And this would be a literary agency that you’re part of?
GLUCK: No, it’s a multifaceted talent and entertainment agency that stretches from books — which, of course, we think is the be all and end all — but we have theater, we have television, we have motion picture, we have podcasts. So it’s a very diversified company.
LEVITT: But what you do is literary. You work on the literary side of things.
GLUCK: I am books, beginning, middle, end.
LEVITT: And just to anchor people who don’t know too much about this industry, in terms of literary agencies, are you the biggest and the best in the world?
GLUCK: In terms of just metrics, we’re the single largest supplier of books to the Big Five Publishers. So I would say, we’re not the only very big and very successful agency in the business — I only wish — but we’re definitely an industry leader here in the States and internationally.
LEVITT: Who are some of your better-known authors?
GLUCK: Well, of late, one of the novels that I’m very proud of is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, which I assure you many people you know have read and loved. This year at the National Book Awards, I was very excited because I had to duck and run between tables because Sarah Broom, who wrote the memoir The Yellow House, was up for a National Book Award.
As was my other client, Julia Phillips, who wrote Disappearing Earth, which she was up for fiction. So I had to run between tables because I wanted to sit with each of them when the award was announced. And Sarah actually won the National Book Award.
LEVITT: Judy Blume, right?
GLUCK: Judy Blume, who’s written so many books that we all love so much. She has adult. She has young adult. She has children’s books. She definitely, in the aggregate, has sold way in the tens of millions.
LEVITT: It seems like a big part of the job of a literary agent is being able to identify books that people will like, and I assume you just get sent hundreds or thousands of books. How do you figure out who you’re going to take on as a client?
GLUCK: Yes, we definitely get dozens and dozens of requests a week. First of all, you eliminate everyone who doesn’t say, “Dear Suzanne.” You’d be surprised how many of them say, “Dear Eric.” So that’s easy. And the query letter has to be one of many things: either has to be putting forth an idea — “I’ve just discovered new historical research about something that just hasn’t existed before.” Or a point of view — “I’m going to tell the story about this school for delinquent boys in Alabama that you’ve never heard before.”
Or if it’s a novel, the query has to be extremely well written and feel like a book that you really would want to read. A lot of it has to happen in two paragraphs. But agents read those queries as often as they can. And people come in out of the slush pile. I have people come in that way a couple of times a year. The bigger trade publishers, at this point, get 95 percent through agents. Our slush pile is relevant. We are the point of entry. So we do take it seriously.
LEVITT: Let’s say you get a thousand inquiries out of the blue. How many of those will you end up reading some part of the manuscript?
GLUCK: I would say 20.
LEVITT: So 20 out of a thousand. And how many of those 20 do you get more than five pages into it?
GLUCK: Let’s say 10. Now, some of them I’ll get a few pages in and think, “Ah, this is really good. This is not for me. This is for my colleague,” and redirect.
LEVITT: So the odds are really stacked against someone who cold calls a literary agent. So maybe one in 100 of those folks could get enough of your attention to have a shot.
GLUCK: It’s a tough place to be for the authors. However, the easiest thing for people to do is to go to a bookstore or go online, now, and look at books — not books that you admire and love necessarily but books that you think speak to the same reader that your book will speak to.
Nine times out of 10, they’ll mention the agent. And you can put together a query list that is pretty focused in terms of the kind of work that a particular agent is drawn to, so that you’re not just flying blind.
LEVITT: So what advice do you give to those people?
GLUCK: Well, first of all, for decades, I would ask myself, “Why is it that every single year at Thanksgiving, it’s four o’clock, I’m elbow deep in trying to figure out how to make gravy,” — which I really can’t make, and I must give up trying — “and invariably I get queries from authors.” And I couldn’t figure it out.
And two years ago at a writer’s conference, a young man was very, very helpful in setting me straight. He said, “You go to Thanksgiving with your family. And even though you always said you wanted to be a writer, you have this job in marketing and they start needling you, like, ‘Hey, Seth, when you’re going to get that agent? When you’re going to move ahead with that novel?’ And finally, just because you want to shut them up and just because you’re a little embarrassed, you hit send on that query.”
Thus explaining why I get queries every year on Thanksgiving. I would say don’t do that. I would say business hours. And I would say do as much homework as possible before you send the query, because you really have a very small window of an agent’s time to get somebody’s attention.
LEVITT: I go even farther in my advice when people ask me about writing a book.
GLUCK: What do you say?
LEVITT: I say, “Don’t write a book. Please don’t write a book. For sure don’t write a book if your reason for writing a book is you want people to read it.” I say, “If you’re going to enjoy the process, if you’ve got an idea, a book burning inside of you that you need to let out, then by all means go ahead and write that book, if you’re going to be happy at the end of the day if nobody reads it.”
But I think that people who start out on book writing with the idea that they’re going to get famous or they’re going to be best sellers or they’re going to do this or that, I think the chances of that happening are so low that it really leads to disappointment so often. My mother wanted nothing more her entire life to be a bestselling author. And my whole life growing up, she sent out packages of manuscripts to agents like you and was always frustrated by it. So I lived in this world where I had seen people who had that desire.
GLUCK: Well, many times a year, writers will come to me — good writers — and say, “Look, I’m now willing to write whatever it is to write a bestseller. Just give me the guidance in terms of what kind of book can I write that’s going to be a bestseller.” And the truth is very disappointing, which is you have to write the book that you’re passionate about or you have no chance it will be a bestseller. There is, unfortunately, very little way to architect a bestseller.
LEVITT: So do you remember the circumstances surrounding our very first phone call, the first time we ever spoke?
GLUCK: No, refresh.
LEVITT: So there had been an article Dubner had written about me in the New York Times Magazine and probably a half dozen publishers had called me and said, “Hey, we’ve read this piece. We’d like you to write a popular book for us.” And I had zero interest in writing a popular book. And I gave them all the same answer, which is, “Why don’t you spend some time reading some of my academic papers? And if you still think I’d be an interesting person to write a popular book, come in and be in touch.”
And I will, for the record, say that none of them, having read my academic papers, thought I would be a good person to write a popular book. But I know that you had reached out to Stephen, who you represented — Stephen Dubner — and you had an idea and you wanted to bring us together to write a book together. And that’s what brought you to call me. So you don’t have any recollection of that phone call at all?
GLUCK: I remember that very, very clearly because this was over a vacation and smack in the middle of summer. And I read the profile that Stephen did and even though he was a longtime client and he was in the middle of a two-book contract with his publisher — interestingly, the second book was supposed to be on the psychology of money, a book that never got written, or shall we say, yet — and I called him and said, “Stephen, this should be your next book.” And then, as you remember, there was a very colorful back and forth with our publisher.
LEVITT: So, before we get to the negotiation, I want to start with that first phone call, because you and I come from such different worlds, Suzanne, and just being completely honest about what I had been doing for the 15 years preceding the phone call we had, I literally had been penned up in my office in front of a computer. One of the most anti-social people on the planet.
And you said you wanted to have a phone call, I said, grudgingly, “Yes, I will talk to you,” because I really didn’t think it would go anywhere. And then what I remember distinctly is that when I picked up the phone, instead of talking to you, it was your assistant. And I had never known anyone who was important enough that her assistant would do the calls and she would only jump on once the other person was on the other end. So that’s the first thing that struck me about you.
So then we talked, and I have to say, it took all of your persuasive powers, not even to make a book like Freakonomics happen, but even to get Dubner and me to talk on the phone. Because I would say that we left that New York Times piece not particularly cordial because, again, I was super antisocial at the time and didn’t really want to be written about. And I think he found it a lot of work to write that piece and maybe not that rewarding.
But you convinced us. And it probably took a half an hour for you to get me to even be willing to do that phone call. And then I got on the phone with Dubner and we talked and we actually came to a meeting of the minds because neither of us wanted to write this book you were dreaming up.
But a happy coincidence was that Dubner and I had the same price, roughly, in mind. And we told you that if you could get a deal, then we would write the book. So do you remember what happened to the bargain? The bargain was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever witnessed in my life. You probably don’t remember the details because you do this all the time.
GLUCK: Well, I do do it all the time, but I remember it really clearly because it was a lot of fun. And I remember that Stephen’s editor started off with a kind of aggressive posture. And as we were starting to negotiate, I was also getting feedback from editors and publishers around town who also loved the piece and thought this could be something very cool.
So some funny agent antenna went off. And by the time she came back and met it for us, we went up higher and higher because part of what I see as my role is to fully exploit the market for whoever the client is
LEVITT: Let me tell it even more explicitly. So you went to our eventual publisher and you told them something like, I don’t know, 500,000. And I think they told you that was ridiculous. Were you crazy? “No one’s ever heard of this economist guy. We’re never going to do it.”
And you called me back and said, “Well they weren’t happy about it. So we’re going to have to shop it to other publishers.” I said, “O.K., that’s fine.” But as I remember the next day, they called you back and said, “O.K., fine. This is totally ridiculous. But we’ll take the deal.” To which you said — which really shocked me — you said, “Nope, that was yesterday’s deal. Today’s deal is 750,000 dollars, not 500,000.”
To which, if I remember correctly, there were many expletives sent your way and they slammed down the phone and said, “You’re a horrible person.” And I think it was no more than an hour or two later, they called you back again and said, “O.K., you’re a horrible person and you’re taking everything from us, but we accept.”
To which, again, to my complete and total shock, you said, “Sorry, the deal’s off the table. Now, the deal is 750,000 thousand, but only for North American rights, not for worldwide rights, and I refuse to sell you the worldwide rights no matter what.”
GLUCK: O.K., and the ending of the story is, we did better than that. Listen, there are publishers who also make some very good decisions and have great negotiations also. But in this particular case, I think that they were chasing our excitement. I had a very, very, very strong sense of ballast about what the project could be and what the response could be outside of that house with other U.S. houses, but also around the world. And it turned out that this was a huge international success.
LEVITT: But it’s interesting, I’m not sure how you saw that, because I know Dubner couldn’t see it. I know I couldn’t see it. I know my own father, when I called up my dad to tell him that we had signed this contract, he was furious. And he demanded that I give the money back, because no person in their right mind would ever want to read the stupid stuff I wrote about. And it would be immoral to take the publisher’s money.
GLUCK: I remember your father’s response very well — I remember your father’s response.
LEVITT: So somehow you had the vision. But in some sense, we wrote the book very differently than we would have otherwise because we didn’t expect anyone to read it. And it really freed us up. We just thought, “Let’s have fun writing it.” And I think that really helped. It fits with exactly what you said.
GLUCK: A hundred percent. Which is why it can be very frustrating to be a career author and be extremely smart and accomplished and a very fine writer and yet have a limited audience. And I understand the impulse to be willing to negotiate the subject, the style of writing, other things, if you think it’ll get you that wider audience, but it generally doesn’t work that way.
There’s a famous story where some decades ago, HarperCollins hired McKinsey to do a study on how to change their business. They wanted them to consult on how to be more profitable. And at the end of it they said, “Here’s our advice: just publish the bestsellers.” Of course, everybody in publishing laughed. “If we only knew. Give us that second report. Now, how do we know which ones they are?” So, in the same spirit, I think your best tactic, as frustrating as it might be, is to write the best book, and the book that seems most authentic.
You’re listening to People I (Mostly) Admire with Steve Levitt and his conversation with top New York literary agent Suzanne Gluck. They’ll return after this short break.
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LEVITT: So I thought the first part of the interview went pretty well, but I also felt like Suzanne was holding back a little bit. The best interviews are the ones where the interviewee is a little bit braggy, eager to paint a picture of how important they are, how clever, how awesome. And if anything, I think Suzanne was doing the opposite, downplaying her own accomplishments just a bit.
O.K., so my challenge for the second half of this interview is to see if I can get her to toot her own horn a little bit more. And I think my best shot at doing that is to get her talking about the subject of negotiation, because I’ve never met a better negotiator.
LEVITT: Let’s go back to the negotiation. So what you did was fearless and really ruthless in a way that I’m not really accustomed to. Does that just feel natural to you? I mean, not in a bad way. I mean, it’s amazing. What you did is amazing. But most people live in fear and most people worry a lot about what other people think of them. And you just seemed completely confident and untroubled by anything around you.
GLUCK: I’m not fearful about what other people think of me, and I honestly think that people need advocacy. I learned early on from a very funny example. Don’t be afraid to ask. You actually might get it. Back in ’91 when I was a baby agent, I represented Michael Jackson‘s sister La Toya, and the book was a huge bestseller.
And I had to call the U.K. publisher and ask for an additional budget so La Toya Jackson could travel on her U.K. publicity tour with her pet snakes. In today’s parlance, we would probably call them therapy animals. But boy, was that a crazy phone call. And yet, I wrapped my mind around it and why she might need that to happen, because she was my client, and I called them.
And guess what? They gave her a snake budget. So that was a really interesting moment for me to think, “You know what? As long as you can figure out the rationale behind it, go ahead and ask, because you often get.”
There’s such a sway in terms of how publishers value a book. So that in my business, where you largely have a bunch of English majors who are in some cases excellent business people, but they are intuitive business people. They move from your head to your gut very, very quickly. And because it’s virtually impossible to predict what kind of book is going to succeed, publishers are also very influenced by other people’s enthusiasm — mine, but also other publishers’ enthusiasm.
LEVITT: So economists write endless academic papers that are aimed at bargaining. But you’re a world-class, real-world bargainer. What kinds of strategies or approaches do you use when you enter a negotiation?
GLUCK: So, I am largely an intuitive negotiator, meaning that I don’t use the same strategies over and over again and they work a certain percentage of the time. I have a variety of strategies and I’m mindful of the fact that in some ways, book publishing is a little bit different than other industries.
Rightly or wrongly — probably wrongly — all of us in book publishing think we really could have made more money doing something else, but we wanted to be in an area that in some way was making the world a better place. So you’re dealing with an industry that is, despite the Freakonomics negotiation example, it’s less ruthless than a lot of industries. There’s not a lot of industries where a competitor will email me or call me up and say, “I saw your book hit the bestseller list. Good for you.”
So I’m dealing with a slightly different population and if anything, I think my superpower is that I’m an emotional influencer. So if I’m excited about something, I can get other people excited about it. So there are a lot of tactics that you have in publishing, but mostly out-and-out aggressiveness without context isn’t as effective as helping a publisher to see where their success can lie. How big this thing can be. Also, to play a little on the loss aversion — “How are you going to feel if you don’t get it?”
LEVITT: So, there are very specific things that people might do or not do in a negotiation. Do you try to make the first offer?
GLUCK: No. I know that classic negotiating 101 says that if you lay down the first number, it’s a marker in a neighborhood where you’re going to live. I often find that if I just give very good arguments — other books that have sold this way, why has there never been another book like this, what is the platform of the author — I find that I can actually nudge people beyond a number even that I would feel comfortable laying down as the marker.
So I wait to see what the marker needs to be. It often can go further than you’re thinking at the outset. Sometimes things get bigger as you think about them. And in fact, one of the strategies that I find incredibly effective is to make the other person feel like they are saying yes from their own volition. If you can make that happen, it’s a very good negotiation and you will get a lot further than if you push without stopping.
LEVITT: Well, what you’re really relying on is mistakes in some sense, that the person on the other side is pulling from some completely different distribution than you have in mind. And so by letting them make the first offer, you have the possibility of getting into some realm that you weren’t even imagining when you started with. But you can get there.
GLUCK: Yeah, and if somebody, by the way, comes back in the wrong neighborhood, I absolutely have no problem saying, “Can’t even take that to the client. You’re very far out of the neighborhood we need to be in.” And that doesn’t seem to have a negative effect. So I don’t feel like there is a downside.
But it really depends. It depends if you are somebody who already has a track record. And by the way, in our industry, in the book industry, unlike many other industries — most other industries, they start you at a certain number, a fairly low, getable number. And then they creep you up and up.
In books, when you are a first-time writer, even though a certain kind of logic will say, that person deserves less because they haven’t proven they can pull it off yet — the lack of a track record is considered a huge positive. So often first-time writers, you can have a much more open-ended negotiation, let’s say, on a first novel particularly, than you can on a fourth novel. So there’s a little bit of a cult of the first novel in terms of selling.
LEVITT: Yeah. Do you bluff?
GLUCK: I certainly paint the optimistic picture of what’s going to happen as part of a negotiating strategy. But I don’t know if I’d exactly say bluff. I operate in a small universe of buyers, and one of the reasons that I think I’m a very effective negotiator is that people know that I will tell them the truth. That’s my orientation. But it’s also a very effective strategy. If people know that you are truthful, they’ll take you at your word.
LEVITT: So given that I now know that you are honest—
LEVITT: Honest-ish, O.K. I’m really curious what you thought of me when we first met, because I know that I shocked you in various ways.
GLUCK: Well, definitely your eating habits. We went out to a fancy dinner and you said, “Is it O.K. if I have a hamburger and a milkshake?” And I said, “Sure. Of course, you can.” And you said, “And then I think I’m going to have ice cream for dessert.” So definitely, you now are a very clean eater. So I’m going back a long time.
I’ve had other academics and it’s a different world. I think at that point, you were just coming into the world of the general reader. You had accomplished so much in terms of your academic career. But the piece in the Times that Stephen wrote was crossing over a bridge to the average person knowing your name in a different way. So I think that you were getting used to it.
LEVITT: Oh, I wasn’t even getting used to it. And the interesting thing is I didn’t really want to get used to it, because I’m sure most of the authors you work with, it’s been a lifelong dream to write a book, a bestselling book. I really had no interest in being an author, or any of the things that came with being an author. So I was thrust into it as an outsider.
And what was for me amazing is that it opened so many doors to do so many things that I eventually realized I did want to do. Like this podcast is really fun for me, and I never could have done that without Freakonomics. But the actual being a bestselling author, it doesn’t get me excited at all. It’s really wasted on me. I wish I could trade that experience to someone who actually wanted it.
LEVITT: Let’s talk about power, because from the first time I met you, the thing that has most fascinated me about you is that you exude power. And I’m not sure if it comes across on this podcast or not.
But I have rarely been in a room with you, certainly in a business setting, where you didn’t control the room and everyone turned to you for guidance and you were the center of everything that happened. I think many times men come with the association of power more than women. And what’s odd about it — people who have never met you — is not only you’re a woman, but you’re tiny.
GLUCK: I am very small.
LEVITT: I don’t know. Are you five feet tall? Maybe you’re five feet, maybe you’re not five feet tall. But you just embody power. And I’m curious, do you recognize that in yourself or is that something that’s invisible to you?
GLUCK: No, I do recognize it. And by the way, I’m humiliated to say that if I stand super-straight with perfect yoga posture, I’m five feet and half an inch, and I put it on my license and I insist on that half an inch. It’s embarrassing. However, number one, I grew up in a family that was very small and my father was very successful and it didn’t seem to be a thing to be small. But I just naturally felt I’m a person who can convince other people to do things. I grew up, in a sense, realizing that.
LEVITT: Do you think being a woman has any effect in negotiations? Has it been a positive or a negative for you?
GLUCK: I would only say if it’s been an influence, it’s certainly not been a negative, but just in my observation, it comes more naturally to women to use a variety of tools and not to value “consistency” but to go situationally. I’m in a business where because there wasn’t a lot of money in literary agenting for a long time, there are a lot of women in it. So there’s a tradition of women doing what I do. There are a lot of men who do it too. But it’s not unusual to be a female literary agent.
And as a woman, the thing about publishing that mitigates the female issue is that women buy books disproportionately to men, and older women buy books disproportionately to the general population. So you are traveling in a world where your buyer is somebody who either you are, which I can say now. Or as a young woman I could certainly relate to. So that didn’t feel like a disadvantage.
Although ambition was then and is often now considered an unappealing attribute. That’s something that I think we’re getting over — I hope we’re getting over. There is still so much social science research that continues to say that the more powerful women get, the less “likable” they are. So that anti-powerful-woman bias still lives and breathes big-time. And I sometimes think being very small might have helped because I don’t look like somebody who’s going to boss you around. So maybe I have that surprise sneak advantage.
LEVITT: Yeah. So it’s easy now. You are in a position of power. But what was it like in the beginning as a woman, just getting started, in a pre-#MeToo era? What do you think about #MeToo? And do you think that there have been real changes?
GLUCK: I think it’s been fascinating and amazing. I think that for anybody who has daughters, you should make them read She Said, which is Watergate for girls. It’s The New York Times reporters writing about breaking the Harvey Weinstein story, and the reluctance of women to come forward. I think there has been a change in awareness.
Do I think that there has been a change in certain kinds of fundamentals? Things that you could say a couple of years ago, you can’t say now. Things that you could do a couple of years ago that you can’t do now. And all that is for the good. Hopefully it’s the beginning, though, of more systemic changes in terms of female representation in the corridors of power in all different ways.
If I can, there’s an interesting moment in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement and The New York Times bestseller list. It’s amazing that the bestseller list is reflecting what everybody is thinking about, talking about, the national conversation. It’s a moment that publishers are rightly celebrating. It’s actually a great moment to see that when people want to think about thinking — because we’re in a mass moment of metacognition — it’s very, very gratifying that people are coming to books.
LEVITT: Are there particular rules or maxims that you’ve used to guide your life that you think could be helpful to other people?
GLUCK: First of all, do what you can. I am the opposite of a lot of people. I’m not a big-picture thinker. I’m an incrementalist. What can we do today that’s effective? And I think knowing that about myself lets me deal with what I can most effectively. Sounds like a very small piece of advice, but it could be really powerful and it can be really game-changing.
The second piece of advice that I give myself, and that I try to live by, is I’m a very big believer in playing to your strengths. What are you good at? There’s a lot of stuff that you can do in the world. So I do think that people need to reasonably assess what they’re good at and then see within that realm what might be a fit in terms of career.
LEVITT: Suzanne’s last point is great advice, and you know how I know that? Because every time I’m with Suzanne, I watch her and I admire her social ease and her confidence and the way she controls the room. And each time I vow to be more like that.
And for a few days I do a really terrible imitation of Suzanne and I make a mess of everything. And it turns out being myself, with all those limitations, it’s still a thousand times better than being a pale imitation of Suzanne. So I’ve learned the hard way that you just got to live with who you are and do the most with what you got.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, and is produced by Freakonomics Radio and Stitcher. Matt Hickey is the producer, and Dan Dzula and was the engineer on this episode. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, and Mark McClusky; our intern is Emma Tyrrell. All of the music you heard on this show was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.