Working for Ralph Vicinanza, as I did for a few months right out of college, was a master class in the publishing business. While at work, Ralph didn’t have much time for anything besides work, so there were none of the long philosophical happy hours and lunches and weekly check-ins that became the norm in all my following relationships with bosses. What I got instead was clear direction and brief, efficient interactions, often with quick, almost accidentally imparted insights into his many years of accumulated wisdom, if I was paying attention. The man lived books and spent his entire career making them more widely available, so it made sense that he would casually drop more book knowledge into a conversation about the broken copy machine than some industry pros can pack into a lecture. My time at that agency was barely a blink but I consciously recall more lessons from it than I do from all my following jobs combined.
If you haven’t heard of Ralph or his super agency it’s only because he designed it that way. He thought super agencies were too big to get anything accomplished so he managed his multi-million dollar business with careful attention to the needs of the authors and the quality and salability of the books. Younger literary agents, like all young people, have something to prove; many are eager to show off the deal-making prowess they don’t yet have or the editorial prowess they feel they should have. Since early successes are so important to a career, many agents starting out look for a big hit – any big hit will do – to satisfy their editors who are looking for the same thing. Instead of honing quality literary work and building a strong base of hardworking clients writing good books, work is rejected if it isn’t immediately and easily selling itself. Ralph had incredible successes (I remember one particular day of whirlwind deal-making that resulted in $1,000,000 after lunch) but he didn’t seem to need any of the headlines or industry accolades. Even today, the agency still doesn’t even have a website.
Clients who worked with Ralph benefitted from his tenacious commitment to making books and making money. He opened up, and then arguably owned, the field of foreign rights representation. Selling rights to Russian sub-agents for a few hundred dollars per deal may not sound very glamorous to a young agent today trying to find his legs, but it exponentially increased the annual income of Ralph’s clients. If there was a market for your book – foreign, audio, book club – he would find it, and if the market wasn’t there he would build it by singing your praises in endless face-to-face meetings at book fairs and meetings and power lunches. In other words, he built a successful business – not a single bestseller or a momentary genre trend, but a sustainable business – by spreading the word and getting his clients paid. Happy authors led to more authors, and good deals led to lasting relationships with editors. Not everything worked, of course (even in my short time there I saw the agency reluctantly give up on a few projects and a few authors) but in aggregate, the happiness and the dollars and the published books far outweighed the failures and the dusty unseen manuscripts that seem to clutter up other careers.
I didn’t know that Ralph died last fall. How could I have, when I lost touch with the agency after taking off too soon for silly and important 20-something adventures? No one takes their first job too seriously and I almost immediately put the whole experience behind me. I found out by accident one night while thinking about the current state of affairs in publishing and wondering what a veteran of Ralph’s acumen would think. I searched around online to see if I could find any quotes from him, some new pearls of wisdom to add to the ones I received ten years ago. Instead I spent hours reading through the hundreds of personal remembrances.
Most of them focused on his singular accomplishments: foreign rights, genre publishing, the Dalai Lama, Stephen King’s serialized novel. I remembered something else, something once half-tossed aside as we were going over messages received that morning or what he would be having for lunch. Looking over at the slush pile I was struggling to work through, he said, “People always ask me what makes a bestseller. I tell them the main thing – maybe the only thing – is that gotta-turn-the-page element. The book has to keep you up at night wanting to know what happens next.” The message is so simple it almost tricks you into thinking it’s simplistic when it’s actually the answer to everything – if no one wants to read your book then they won’t buy it, and it’s hard for people to enjoy reading your book if there’s nothing to keep them engaged. In today’s industry we waste time trying to crack the code of what “works,” developing nice-sounding false aphorisms that contradict each other as they give us comfort. For every one of these fake rules there are 1,000 exceptions, yet we allow ourselves to cling to them because it’s easy. Ralph understood in his gut what so many of us today struggle to define – if authors write good books and agents work hard to sell them and editors work hard to publish them then our readers will greatly reward us. Say that to yourselves again – good books and hard work.
Good books and hard work.
It’s not easy or quick, and certainly not noticeable or press-worthy, but it’s how it’s done. It’s how you can look back at years of work and take comfort that you built something, that because of you, the world of books is better.