The Self-Made Literary Agent

By: Larry Lefkowitz


in obtaining a publisher for my novel, I decided to take matters in hand: I would become my own literary agent.

I debated about the name – as literary agent for my novel. I decided on Flavian Zorbach – panache with a European touch. I was not less meticulous when it came to the cachet of the Flavian Zorbach Literary Agency. The letter pitching my novel to publishers was of the finest paper. For the logo, I opted for a slanted stem common to the Z and the F; a logo that has become an icon in the book trade.

Ok, name, logo and fine paper. The signature was next. I have terrible handwriting and blessedly the quill has been supplanted by typewriter and then computer. Fortunately, I know a gentleman whose beautiful, ornate handwriting made him an ideal surrogate signatory. He owed me – from time to time I had helped him by ghost writing his stories which, alas, did not succeed in overcoming the poor quality of the originals sufficiently to get any published. I toyed with the idea of making him the literary agent for my novel, a fleshed-out Flavian Zorbach — his hoary white hair made him an impressive figure (my thatch is in retreat), but he lacked the canny finesse of your-agent-at-the-top-of-his-profession. No, personal appearances were out. Everything by mail.

All this herculean effort was directed at getting a publisher to look at my novel in view of the fact that most publishers nowadays stipulate “agent submissions only;” and the eternal conundrum of can’t-get-an-agent-without-a-published-novel versus can’t-get-your-novel-considered-without-an-agent.

Thus equipped with name, logo, signature (and chutzpah), I had to draft the body of the agent’s letter to accompany my manuscript. Believe me, writing the novel was easier. From Borges I borrowed the idea of bogus references — not excluding fabricated novels successfully negotiated to publication by me. (Sample: “The Summer of the Samovars: A Russian Memoir”.) I labored long and hard constructing labyrinths to forestall checking these out. (As, for example, with reference to the Samovar novel, a serpentine pseudo-history of its author and its writing that would have pleased Nabokov.)

My novel topped the New York Times best-seller list for some months. An accomplishment considerably aided by The New York Review of Books reviewer, Tony Zorbach. And yes, my agent surname was chosen with a prescient eye to Tony – you need all the help you can get in the blurb business and I thought it might give me an edge once I had found a publisher. Getting published is the Rubicon (in my case the East River), but once crossed the shelf life in bookstores is short indeed, and a glowing review by ‘Boy Wonder’ T. Zorbach spurs demand which lengthens shelf life which spurs . . .

I had declined all requests for author interviews and kept myself center stage so that I featured in Tony’s review as much as the author; this forced him to take pains to clarify that I was no relative of his. Still, he and I are the only culture celebrities, beside Woody Allen, with a permanently reserved table at the Four Seasons. (Albeit, it is “the Zorbach table” which must be populated by me and Tony jointly and severally, and I check to make sure Tony is not occupying it when I come, so as not to push my luck with him.) When, on one occasion, our paths crossed there, as he exited and I entered, I greeted him effusively as “My Man for All Seasons,” but he was churlish, addressing me sneeringly as “Zorbach Two” and accusing me of exploiting his name to publicize my client’s novel. I tried to mollify him by saying I intended to change my family name to Tolstoy, but he dismissed my humor as “superficial as your, ah, client’s novel.” (The “ah” worrying – had he begun to smell a rat?) Surely an unkind cut of the moment and, more importantly, a sentiment that hadn’t appeared in his review of the novel.

As My “Four Seasons” status attests, I am duly famous. There is, however, a slight problem. Actually, two problems. The first being that my having declined all requests for author interviews on behalf of my client has earned me enemies in the trade. (“The more famous you are, the more you will be attacked,” warned Neruda.

“For every praise, there will be two or three insults: thief, pervert, traitor, thug, cuckold.” Believe you me, I could add a few more choice insults to his list.) There have even been suggestions (by envious agents? Book clubs?) that foul play is involved. It is rumored that Tony threatens to seek a writ of habeas corpus. I cannot put off producing the author much longer. I was hoping to reveal myself as the author of the novel (maybe on the Jay Leno program or a press conference in a plush Vegas hotel) timed to the publication of my second novel (in-progress). The second glitch is that Flavian Zorbach is besieged and inundated with would-be novelists clamoring to have him represent them in getting their first novels published. I am wrestling with the decision whether to forget about my novel-in-progress (6 figure advance from the publisher) — a sequel to “The Tarnished Pen” (my first novel), working title, “50 Shades of Ennui” – or to go for the big bucks as the literary agent, Flavian Zorbach, penthouse office overlooking Central Park, limousine, the whole shtick. The public knows that Flavian Zorbachs don’t grow on trees. And trees are what novels are made from – or were – before the days of the E-book. E-books would be beneath my agency’s consideration – I like heft and the aroma of paper and ink.

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