NEW YORK — When “End Game,” military historian Eric Durschmied’s novel about Fidel Castro’s regime, recently arrived on the crowded desk of veteran literary agent Sterling Lord, it really was love at first sight.
For Lord, 92, the ambitious 200,000-word novel might not be the easiest book to sell in today’s marketplace. “But I just fell in love with the writing and the story. I couldn’t put it down.”
Lord, whose memoir “Lord of Publishing” (Open Road Media) on his first 60 years as a literary agent is out this week, skips over focus groups and market research when considering manuscripts like “End Game.” He doesn’t even worry about developing a big following on Twitter.
Instead he looks for unique books that keep him reading late into the night — the feeling he had when he started Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road,” Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” Peter Gent’s “North Dallas Forty,” or the fiction of Dick Francis.
Working five days a week, sometimes more, from the offices of Sterling Lord Literistic, America’s most experienced agent represents a wide list of clients ranging from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti to sportswriter Frank Deford. His success stories, ranging from the popular Berenstain Bears series to the memoirs of four U.S. cabinet members, inform the pages of his E-Riginal memoir (simultaneously published as an Open Road Publishing e-book and paperback).
For Lord, who said decades ago that publishing needed to reach the point where customers can acquire any book instantly, e-books have certainly broadened the playing field for millions of titles that were once hard to find.
“But it’s also true that it’s a tougher market for mass market paperbacks. I do think the hardcover book will never totally disappear. Too many people are not willing to give up the tactile feeling of a title that you can keep in a book case, for all of your visitors to see.
“When I started, most of the publishing houses were run by the people who had started them. They were owned by people largely interested in the quality of the books they published. You never heard them talking about profits and the bottom line. Of course at that time the reading public was much smaller than it was today.
“When big money started showing up for book acquisition and marketing in the late ’50s and ’60s, people who hadn’t bought books were suddenly reading titles that had no literary value. They were drawn by celebrity biographies and authors who could be easily publicized.”
Lord, a tennis star in his youth, carved out several important niches early in his career. Among them were sports biographies like Jimmy Piersall’s “Fear Strikes Out,” Rocky Graziano’s “Somebody Up There Likes Me” and later Jerry Kramer’s Green Bay Packers classic, “Instant Replay,” written with Dick Schaap.
“I have always felt that my job was to do everything for writers, not the agency. I felt if I chose writers properly and did a good job for them the money would take care of itself.”
Devoting four years to selling “On The Road” was typical of Lord’s tenacity. Best-sellers like Ralph G. Martin’s biography of Winston Churchill’s mother Jennie and Peter Gent’s “North Dallas 40” were rejected by a depressingly large number of publishers before finally making their way into print.
“Today,” says Lord, “selling a first novel of an author who doesn’t have a track record is harder than it used to be. We are also in a period where nonfiction books are tougher to sell. But it’s also true that books that have been out for quite some time are certainly finding their own market. The book business is not like making an auto. Each title is unique.”
For Lord, who knows what it feels like to have a book he believes in rejected 20 or more times before finally winning acceptance, stubbornness is critical. A case in point is “The Ballad of Dingus Magee,” which went on to become a successful movie.
“I believed in the book, so the mound of rejections didn’t discourage me. I kept telling myself that I was smarter than many editors. I may not have been smarter, but I had to believe that I was — and I had to really believe in the book — to keep on going.”
This led him to another truism for survival in publishing: “Whether it was a major triumph or a serious disaster, I would take only 10 minutes to moan or to celebrate before moving on to the next client or the next deal.”