Malaga Baldi: Ask the Agent
Author: William Johnson
July 3, 2013
“…if I am reading a novel and I start comparing it to something else that is popular or I have read…then I know something vital has been washed away.”
High-profile queer literary agent Malaga Baldi, owner of the Baldi Agency, has worked as an independent literary agent since 1986. Her agency “is an independent and eclectic agency specializing in literary fiction, memoir and cultural history.” Baldi’s agency represents a cadre of revered authors like Kate Bornstein, William Mann, and Barrie Jean Borich.
Baldi took some time to talk with the Lambda Literary Review about her life in publishing, the ins and outs of being a literary agent, and the books that inspire her.
So my initial questions are about character, because as good old Heraclitus was fond of saying, “character is destiny.” Were you always a bibliophile? Did you always have a love of books?
I really started reading in 9th grade. Mrs. Zwick, a wonderful Social Studies teacher, assigned us Another Country by James Baldwin. It totally blew me away. I must reread it. I spent a lot of time at our fantastic local library perusing the stacks. I found and read Nina’s Book by Eugene Burdick because I had crush on a girl by the same name. Then there was another quietly beautiful novel, One Summer in Between by Melissa Mather. I remember reading a passage in a paperback of The Adventurers by Harold Robbins over and over again for years. I discovered Moise and the World of Reason by Tennessee Williams when I worked at the Gotham Book Mart. All these books took me places I had never been before. I will never ever forget them.
When did you decide that you wanted a career in publishing?
As I came out, I took a year off from college and traveled in Europe. For a while I was a mother’s helper for Lois Wallace, the literary agent! She had just left William Morris to strike out on her own. As her nanny, I got to meet all sorts of people…Joan Didion, John Gregory Dunne, Donald Klopfer (former head of Knopf), Erica Jong, Ted Morgan. One afternoon Eric Segal (writer of Love Story) was knocking at the apartment door. His hard contact had popped out of his eye. The three of us were on our knees lightly tapping the vestibule floor with our fingertips, searching for his lost contact. That did it for me…I can’t write, I don’t edit [well], but I know a good book and I will look hard for a contact.
What were your first jobs in publishing? How did those jobs lead to your career as an agent?
I worked at Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart as a cashier. A lousy cashier. My job was to keep a record of each book sold. The stockers complained that my writing was illegible. But incredible literary traffic walked down those steps…people like Tom Verlaine, Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith, and Gilbert Sorrentino. I worked as a publicity assistant at Ballantine Books. Then I worked for three great agents: Candida Donadio, Eric Ashworth and Elaine Markson. The writing was on the wall…I needed to go out on my own.
What are the main responsibilities of a literary agent?
Two things come to mind:
1. Insight. It takes time for me to read a manuscript. It is a subjective experience. As I consider the work, I turn it over in my head, imagine an editor, a place, a function for the book.
2. Formula. All the administrative and business planning that go along with supporting and submitting a book for publication. Developing the language and strategy that will move an editor and a house to acquire a book. Tracking sales, royalties, subsidiary rights, tax forms, reversions. Anticipating and being open to the changing publishing conditions. And the many other tasks I am still learning.
Why is having an agent important?
I read an interview with a great agent stating one of his writers told him that he was the only person he had spoken with all day. An agent validates the writer. An agent is your wing man/person. The agent backs up the plan, comes up with other ideas, and opens up the discussion. An agent will/should tell you the truth. It is wonderful to hear from a writer, “Oh you get it!” For a minute or two I can be inside their head. It is a great experience.
Are you ever part of the editorial process of a book you are representing?
It depends on the book. I have been very lucky. Many of the writers I represent come in with an exquisite, clean draft, and clear intentions and ideas. It is wonderful to have a great editor take a superb manuscript to a higher level.
Many current agents are editors turned agents. And there are still more to come.
With more experience and time, I will work on [editing] nonfiction with an author. Sometimes I will recommend a freelance editor to work with the author to bring the manuscript closer to a sale. Fiction is more intuitive. It is more of a chemical reaction. I believe my function with fiction is to make the perfect match.
This is the question that I’m sure all the authors out there really want to know: How does a writer go about getting you to rep them?
First, present the manuscript in your query letter so it knocks me out of my chair. It should make me stop whatever I am doing and call you ASAP. If your letter does the trick, I will ask for the file so I can read it overnight. Call me old-fashioned, but a smart two to three paragraph query letter on buttery yellow paper makes me swoon to high heaven. The second is the promise, the manuscript should make me laugh and cry on the same page. Agents and writers at writers’ conferences will state that you should write about something you love, know or care about. Is the manuscript as clean, mean and lean as possible? Tell the truth. Make every sentence and paragraph count.
Two no-no’s, right off the bat:
1. Don’t use the phrase “Fiction novel.” Ever.
2. Don’t start a novel with this first sentence: “The natives were restless.”
Do you feel that the authors you represent have an aesthetic through-line? Is there a common-denominator with the writers you rep?
I do know that something has to hit me fair and square. Let’s say if I am reading a novel and I start comparing it to something else that is popular or I have read…then I know something vital has been washed away. Originality and quality is key.
What am I on the lookout for? Creative/hybrid nonfiction, literary historical/biographical fiction, memoirs about how one enters a particular profession. Please check us out.
This is a big question, but the publishing industry is changing at a rapid clip. Big publishing houses are merging, or trying to. Amazon is ascendant. Big box bookstores are closing. From your vantage, as an agent, where do you see the publishing industry heading? Smaller advances? The rise of indie publishers? What is your outlook on the future of the publishing world?
The sky is not falling on publishing. Yet, it is cyclical. There are trends. Readers will always find a way to read in old and new formats. I am closely watching big publishers taking over other publishers and agencies taking over other agencies. I am very interested in outfits like Open Road, all the book blogs, and using Kickstarter to fund new innovative ventures and programs. A shout out to some terrific women influencing the future of publishing, like Susie Bright at Audible Books. Please check out their sites: Debra DiBlasi, Mary Cummings, Erika Goldman, Amy Scholder, Danielle Dutton.
Okay, this is my Barbara Walter’s “if you were a tree question.” But is there a favorite author you wished you could have represented? Do you have an author from the past who you wished you could have repped?
I am not a tree. But I do know, in my past life, I was brindle boxer bitch named Casi.
John Fowles is a great writer. I would have loved to talk to him. The Collector and The Magus are two of my most favorite books. His writing is magical.
I think the world of Allan Gurganus and Jeanette Winterson. I have highlighted many passages in many of their books.
Is there any work/books that you are shepherding forward that we should be on the lookout for?
Yes! So many books, so little time!
Not all of them queer, maybe just a little….
Coming in the fall:
- Paperback editions of Kate Bornstein’s Queer and Pleasant Danger (Beacon) and Hello Gorgeous (HMH) by William J. Mann
- Machiavelli: A Renaissance Life (Prometheus) by Joe Markulin. Find out what kind of guy Machiavelli really was…
- Starfish (Greenpoint Press) by Patty Dann – a sequel to Mermaids (remember the Cher/Wynona Ryder movie?)
And into the future:
- William Mann’s Tinseltown, from HarperCollins
- Rick Whitaker’s Honest Ghost, and Elizabeth Early’s A Map of Everything, from Jaded Ibis Press
- Dan Callahan’s Vanessa, a biography of Vanessa Redgrave, from Pegasus Books
- Ray Coppinger’s first graphic novel Fishing Dogs, from Skyhorse Press
- Sandy Langer’s All or Nothing, a biography of Romaine Brooks, from University of Wisconsin Press, and works in progress by Marguerite Feitlowitz, Mary Cappello, Kate Bornstein, Barrie Jean Borich, and other writers that I have forgotten to mention!
And just one last question: How do you feel your gayness influences your literary sensibility?
Being gay is part of who I am. It informs my perspective…to a point. I get a ton of gay/lesbian/trans submissions. My gut tells me what I should go with. A million years ago a top editor rejected my author’s second novel because it wasn’t gay enough. It turned out that the publisher’s market/platform/sales force understood her first novel to be [lesbian content], so we were told to stay with the program. A lot has changed, but much remains the same. A writer follows the story he/she needs to tell.