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How Do You SOlve a Problem Like Maria

I’ve spent thirty years as an editor and now agent talking writers off the ledge. That’s what we do. And it’s never more intense than in the two months before publication when anything and nothing can happen. When all your hopes and dreams could fill a dirigible floating over the city. Your fears and anxieties florid and deranged.


HOw do I talk people off the ledge. First, I remind them their book is awesome, how much work it took, their dedication, their craft, how worthwhile it is even before a single copy is sold. Then I tell them stories the way you tell children stories to keep the bogey man away or stories to make them feel hopeful, about little trains that could. Or little books that grew up into mighty oaks. I get them thinking about their next book, about their inner life as a writer, about the long distance race. If all this fails, I suggest, they go shopping, to the movies, mani/pedi, hit the gym, start tutoring kids. If you’re in therapy: stay. If you’re not: start.

When I try to talk myself off the ledge, I realize something very scary. I am the ledge. Any advice?



Love the One You’re With


It’s not in my DNA to say I’m a writer. When someone asks me what I do, I say I’m a literary agent. SOmetimes I say I’m an accountant if I don’t want a conversation to ensue that invariably ends up with the other person telling me about a manuscript they are writing or wish they were writing. Or that their cousin is writing.

When people ask what you do, what do you tell them.



Don’t Tell Me Not To Live


Last night, I had the great honor of escorting my friend and client George Hodgman to the National Book Critics Circle Awards; his book Bettyville was a finalist. Ittook place at New School’s beautiful auditorium that looks like the inside of a deco egg. It was a star-studded event. To the left of us, Helen McDonald sans hawk. Directly in front of me Paul Beatty who I’ve loved since his first book of poems. Wendell Berry seemed annoyed to be receiving a lifetime achievement award. Everywhere in attendance proud editors, agents and family members. Margo Jefferson’s memoir Negroland won in George’s category, autobiography. No complaint there, but still I have to admit that in the moment before the winner’s name is announced, I found myself hoping with the fervor of a small child making a birthday wish. We consoled and celebrated over a long and delicious dinner with friends where much publishing gossip was exchanged. A meal in itself. When I think about reading the first pages George shared with me and sitting with him last night, and all the work in between that went into Bettyville, I feel so fortunate. Publishing doesn’t always fuck you over,

They Say as a Child I Appeared a Little Bit Wild


tumblr_m5agp4ws751rxiaoto1_500Someone recently asked me if I felt anxious about the book coming out because it is so personal. Get to know me. I’m anxious because it might not sell. I’m anxious because the New York Times might say mean things, or worse say nothing at all. I’m anxious because if I fail it’s not only in front of my friends and family, but the publishing profession where I work. I’m anxious because I’m not in therapy and I probably should be. I’m anxious because I don’t feel like myself, meaning I feel a little hopeful and that is just not part of the package.  I’m anxious because it’s all out of my hands now with the exception of boosting Facebook pages and going up and down Fifth avenue in the sandwich boards I’ve made with the Queen of Hearts on both sides.

What makes you anxious about getting your work out there? What’s your worst fear?

THe Tears of a Clown

Question: The last book that made you cry?

Salman Rushdie: I don’t cry when I read, really, though I did cry once while writing the death scene of a character I loved in “Shalimar the Clown.”

I just can’t say anything. But here’s what I’m thinking: Really? You’ve never spilled a tear over someone else’s writing besides your own? A chin quiver? A Sierra Mist? What about when Beth March dies? What about Tess of the D’Urbervilles? What about Jenny Cavalleri?

What books have you bawled over? Four hanky reads? Watcha got?

There’s a Kind of Hush All Over the World Tonight

Siobhan Adcock weights in

Lyra’s pick:
What a beautiful and frankly terrifying evocation of how scary books work on you, in the dark hours of the night. The vampires in the pecan tree–totally unforgettable, and I know exactly the feeling she’s talking about. To paraphrase Stephen King himself, I never in my life freaked myself out reading like I did when I was 13…does anyone?

Jude’s pick:
I love Jude’s point that the scariest books aren’t always tales of terror or even ghost stories. The most chilling moment for me in that book is when Merle says icily, “Please be careful with that precious object.” Yeeesh. Henry James had a way with dark corners: I read and re-read The Turn of the Screw many times when I was writing The Barter.

Amy’s pick:
Please, please, please tell me that this didn’t really happen or I might never sleep again.

Please send your snail mail address to betsy@dclagency.com for your copy of THE BARTER. And thanks to everyone for participating. And thanks to Siobhan!

It’s Hard to Get By Just Upon a Smile

Let’s go back to basics. Query letters. Here are ten opening lines from letters I’ve received or concocted.

Dear Betsy: I am a huge fan of your blog and The Forest for the Trees, which I recommend to everyone I know.

Dear Ms. Lerner: Your agency website says that you like the hard to categorize.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I have written a fiction novel of 130,000 words called The Lost Letter.

Dear Betsy Lerner: Have you ever been afraid, really afraid?

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am a Harvard graduate and a Buddhist.

Dear Ms. Lerner: I am a survivor.

Dear Betsy (if I may):  I was about to give up writing until I read your book — I am the wicked child.

Dear Miss Lerner: Part memoir, part travelogue, this is the story of my return to Los Angeles.

Dear Betsy: My novel, The Launching of Fawn Roth, is about a young woman a lot like Lena Dunham.

Dear Betsy Lerner: I am writing to you because of  your personal interest in mental illness.

If you were an agent, which one would you respond to?

Anyone want to float their opener?

Either We Lovin’ Or I’ll See You Tomorrow

Dear Betsy Lerner:
I have three short questions:
#1.  If I have sent my entire manuscript, or the required excerpts–Chapter 1, etc., to an agent via email, per his or her request, and I haven’t heard back yet…how long should I wait before sending a followup?
#2.  If I receive a positive rejection via email from an agent who has read my work, should I send them a thank you for having read it?  It feels like that’s just good manners.
#3.  If I sent an email query to my absolute number 1 choice for an agent following his/her instructions to a T, and didn’t hear back, even automatically, should I try again?
Dear Three Questions:  These aren’t really questions so much as matters to midrash as great biblical scholars have done for years not unlike: Can I wear white after Labor Day and if so under what circumstances? If I bring a baby gift to a shower, do I need to send another when the baby is born?  Do I tip the hairdresser if she owns the shop? In other words, these are questions of protocol and what makes them interesting is that they can be endlessly debated. All writers sweat submission protocol as they should–it’s that fraught moment when you are testing your work against the market, albeit the agent market. And unless you’ve been writing for magazines, you are probably new and terrified.  It’s like being fourteen and wondering if you’ll know how to kiss right. Obviously, there are no hard and fast rules,  But since you asked:
1. I would follow up in three weeks.
2. I’m always in favor of good manners, especially if the agent has given you real feedback.
3. Yes, try again. Always try for for what you want.
Your thoughts, advice, experiences??

Tell Me Lies Later, Come and See Me

Last week when I came into the office, I found a query letter on my desk with a post-it note from one of our interns. It said, “I don’t think this is very good, but I’d feel terrible rejecting it.” The letter was from a woman whose daughter was schizophrenic and had been in and out of hospitals her whole life.

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned this, but I used to be known as the pain and suffering editor. Mental illness? Show it to Lerner? Physical impairment? Show it to Lerner? Death row? Bulimia? Stuttering? Sexual Dysfunction? See what Lerner thinks. Lerner thinks if the writing sucks, no one is going to want to read it.

Dear __________________: I am very sorry to learn about your personal tragedy. It takes great courage to write about it with such candor. That said, I’m not convinced you’ve found the universal chord in your story — at least not yet. I hope others feel they can help you place your memoir. Many thanks for the chance to consider your work. Sincerely, Betsy Lerner

What kind of letter would you write?

It’s Hard To Get By Just Upon a Smile

Guys, it’s here. My article in Poets and Writers. I don’t think you can actually read it on-line. If you go buy it, it’s the issue with the four agents on the cover called, “The Game Changers.” Seems just a touch inaccurate since I wasn’t part of the photo shoot.  It’s a picture of four hot, young agents. I think a better cover would have been a collage of me: at five cutting with scissors, me reenacting the Carrie bathroom scene with my bunkmates at camp, then me, again, ironically as prom queen, then me accepting a poetry prize in 1978 for a poem I still don’t understand.

That’s me in Greece. That’s me at the Tate writing another bad poem. Here I am riding up the elevator on my first day of work at Simon and Schuster! I’m soooo nervous.  That’s me being driven around in the Hollywood Hills by an author high out of her fuck on cocaine playing LA Woman. What a cliche! But perfect as they go. Here’s me at the National Book Awards shaking hands with Jonathan Franzen’s mother. Me, smoking a doob with Mrs. Franzen and James Franco. How did that get in there?

Game changer? You never saw a girl more excited than me to get a job in publishing, to sit in a cubicle and clear permissions for some asshole, to copy manuscripts, and type up letters, and answer phones, and fetch a bottle of water for an author no one’s ever heard of.  You never saw a girl so happy to work until seven or eight every night, schlepping manuscripts home to read late into the night, who got rid of her tv, because like heroin, it would ruin her. I was so shy I couldn’t even sneak into the shrimp and wine parties S&S had when books hit the list. If you asked me what I thought, I blushed. Game changer? I was glad I could change my underwear. I’m lucky because everywhere I went, a mentor appeared and helped me. I found my passion early, it took longer to find my way.

Do you have a mentor?