Many have lamented the current state of book publishing. With independent bookstores closing in droves, publishing houses consolidating, and e-readers throwing the publishing model into chaos, it’s enough to make veterans of the business throw up their hands.
But not Molly Friedrich ’74, one of the industry’s most successful literary agents for the past 34 years. Her enthusiasm is undimmed. “It’s just so much fun!” she exclaims again and again, letting loose her trademark laugh, a low-pitched “Ha!” that is equal parts glee and self-satisfaction. “What’s exciting is being there first, being an original spotter of talent. It doesn’t ever get tired. It really doesn’t.” Calling a first-time author to say a publisher is making an offer “is as good as it gets. It’s so much fun to be part of changing a life.”
Friedrich has changed many lives in her career, as agent to some of the country’s top authors—among them blockbuster detective novelist Sue Grafton, Pulitzer Prize-winners Frank McCourt, Jane Smiley, and Elizabeth Strout, and bestselling novelists Melissa Bank and Terry McMillan—by wielding a potent mix of intelligence, charm, and determination.
“She is as savvy as can be, and really, really passionate,” says Bank, author of the 1999 short story collection The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing, which was a runaway success.
Friedrich wins over authors and editors with the same doggedness with which she landed her first job in publishing, just after graduating from Barnard, where she majored in art history. In order to pass the typing test for an internship program at Doubleday, she spent “my entire last semester at Barnard typing the OP-ED page of The New York Times.” Still, her score was dismal. She took the test three more times, and finally, she says, “I think really just for my tenacity, they said, ‘We have to let her in.’”
A few years later, Friedrich took a job working for a literary agent, in large part because she and her husband were planning to have children and she knew she could have a more flexible schedule working on that side of the business instead of a corporate publishing house. The couple had two daughters, Julia and Lucy, now 30 and 25, and then adopted daughter P-Quy, now 14, from Vietnam, and a son, Fernando, now 9, from Guatemala. After close to three decades at the Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency, she formed the Friedrich Agency in 2007, representing mainly literary and commercial adult fiction, narrative nonfiction, and memoir.
When she sits down with a manuscript, Friedrich is looking for something that “moves me intellectually, or moves my groin, or moves my heart,” she says. “And when all three of those parts of a body are moved simultaneously, forget it!”
That’s when she makes the call that every author dreams of getting. But instead of heaping praise on the writer, she lists all the ways the book needs to be revised. The author of a thriller came to her office recently for “a four-hour editorial session” where Friedrich told him “every eighth word was an unnecessary word, and it was flabby, and we had to get all the adipose tissue out of it, and we want it to be cleanedup and ready for submission” in two weeks. And the author? “He was beside himself,” she reveals.
First-time author Elena Gorokhova broke out in hives the night before meeting Friedrich, the agent she hadn’t dared to hope would take on her memoir. As Friedrich went through the manuscript and reeled off everything that needed to be fixed, Gorokhova thought, “She’s obviously going to reject it.” Friedrich gave her two weeks for revisions, and later sold the book, A Mountain of Crumbs, to Simon & Schuster. “She’s so professional and so fabulous—nurturing and at the same time efficient and tough, like a great mother who has this tremendous love but at the same time she tells you what to do and gives you direction,” avows Gorokhova.
One of the keys to finding remarkable authors, Friedrich notes, is being accessible. “When you go to a party or an event—or a cheese store—you are inclusive,” she says, “open to the universe.” That attitude can yield manuscripts from “someone who has a sister who knows a cousin who lives in another state who met me at a barbeque in 1976.”
Snooping around helps too. At a booksellers’ convention more than 20 years ago, Friedrich decided to quiz the people waiting for autographs from Grafton, then a relatively new author with a line of alphabetical mysteries, who was then signing F is for Fugitive. Friedrich discovered a throng of independent booksellers who loved Grafton, leading her to an unusual proposal. She offered Grafton’s publisher a new multi-book contract on the condition that it ship 60,000 copies (a huge leap at the time from Grafton’s previous sales history) by the pub date, she explains. The strategy worked. After G is for Gumshoe was published, Grafton never had to look back.
“She’s a strong advocate for the writers she represents, and that’s somewhat rare,” says Carole DeSanti, vice president and editor at large at the Penguin Group, who is the editor for Bank and McMillan. “She gives unstintingly to her projects.”
Devoting so much attention to her authors is harder these days because of the changes in the publishing business. “It’s much, much more work now to be an agent than it was 20 years ago,” says Friedrich. With staff cuts at publishing houses, editors who used to have their own assistants now may share their assistant with one or even two other editors, she points out, leaving fewer people to work on an author’s book. And with newspapers cutting back on book reviews, it is more difficult to gain attention for a work. Whether the author will be adept at drumming up publicity is now crucial. “The whole nature of the business has changed so profoundly,” she acknowledges. “It used to be authors wrote the best books they could, and sometimes they were promotable and sometimes they weren’t, and it wasn’t devastating if they weren’t.”
Likewise, e-books have “shifted the paradigm so quickly” that nobody really knows what’s going to happen in the future, she says. Nevertheless, she doesn’t think much of e-readers, as least for herself. She tried one, but gave it away after a month.
In 2004, Friedrich shifted her own paradigm by taking on a new role in the publishing business: author. Her children’s book, You’re Not My REAL Mother!, came about after her daughter, P-Quy, made that declaration to Friedrich one afternoon while she was jumping into Friedrich’s arms in a swimming pool.
“With interracial adoption, for the first three years the child who does not look like you does not question the difference,” she says. But “when the first playdate comes home, around age 3 or 4, the child walks in, looks at you, looks at the child, and says, ‘Where’s your real mother?’” Friedrich wrote the book to give adopted children “a language for saying, ‘This is my real mother.’’’
In the book, which has drawings that resemble Friedrich and her daughter, the mom explains to her daughter, as Friedrich explained to P-Quy, that a real mother is the one who teaches you to count on your toes, plays tea party with you, and lets you put 20 bandages on a bruised knee when one will do.
The book was hatched over a lunch date. Friedrich was chatting about her daughter with an editor at Little, Brown and Company and mentioned the “you’re not my mother” declaration, along with her response. The editor said, “Oh, Molly, that’s a book.” What did Friedrich do? She negotiated the deal herself—on the spot. “I didn’t even think about getting an agent,” she adds. “Everything I’ve been trained to do went out the window!”
These days, Friedrich is passing that training along to daughter Lucy Carson, who recently landed a major deal for a young adult novel. “I’m preparing her to succeed me,” Friedrich says. But that’s somewhere down the road. For now, Friedrich is still reading manuscripts, making deals and lighting up when she talks about the new novel she is about to send out to editors.
“Who says publishing is dead?” she asks. “It is not. It’s flourishing. If you have the right conditions and the right hunger, the right sense of the magnetic field working, it’s all this kind of alchemy and it really works.”
—by Jennifer Greenstein Altmann
So much about agents “used to be shrouded in mystery, but now almost every agency has a Web site of some sort. You can find out an enormous amount about large and small agencies and how they function. I would say if you are a beginning writer, the best thing is probably not to go to the person whose name is on the door. Which is not to say that I don’t want to be approached. It’s just that the chances are that I’m not terribly hungry right now. Going to somebody who is younger and slightly hungrier is always very smart.”
“It’s really important for a writer to know how to pitch his or her work, to describe it efficiently and compellingly. It’s vital.” The tone of the query letter should be “as though you were writing to a sibling with whom you have not been in touch for a couple of years.”
“Someone writes to me as M-o-l-l-i-e Friedrichson, I don’t even get to the first line, because the letter has already indicated such a degree of sloppiness. And that sloppiness is going to be translated right into their manuscript.”
“A lot of writers get so excited about the fact that they’ve written a book that they tend to part with it too soon. They tend to squander their one or two great names of agents early, and they really need to not do that. They need not workshop something to death, but should make sure it’s as good as they can possibly make it before they part with it. You don’t want to use your agent as your dry-run editor.”