Friday, Nov. 6, 2009 | Journalists like to use superlatives when they talk about Del Mar literary agent Sandra Dijkstra. The Los Angeles Times, for one, called her an “über-agent” and “the most powerful literary agent on the West Coast.”
And no wonder. Dijkstra represents a slew of high-profile authors, including best-selling novelists like Amy Tan, Lisa See and Diane Mott Davidson. But an impressive client list hasn’t isolated Dijkstra from the ill winds afflicting the book industry: publishers, bookstores and authors are all struggling.
In an interview, Dijkstra talked about San Diego’s literary reputation (mixed), the trouble with Wal-Mart (big) and how she speaks (bluntly).
The publishing industry is centered in New York City. Does San Diego have any sort of reputation there?
They really don’t think of San Diego. We are not at all on their map. We are part of something that they would describe as “out there” — which is largely California or any place west of the Hudson.
If they think of California, they think of it as L.A. and San Francisco. San Diego is not on the map in any way.
But we do have our share of authors based here. Have many of them developed major reputations?
In absolutely the opposite end of the political spectrum, we’re on the map because Mike Davis lives here. (Davis is one of Dijkstra’s clients.) Any time of the given day, there will be an Italian, Brazilian or German reporter coming in to interview him. But he’s not as celebrated in his home town as he is internationally. Mike Davis is famous for his analysis of the way in which cities — not just American but international — have become dystopias, how they have eaten themselves, destroyed themselves. He’s looking at both the corrosive power of capitalism and of climate change.
The book world is undergoing a lot of transition, with electronic books becoming more popular and big bookstores like Borders struggling to stay afloat.
It’s a time of transition, and a scary time for the industry when three big entities like Wal-Mart, Amazon and Target team up and take the 10 bestsellers and make them into a commodity to be sold at the cheapest price possible. (The companies are selling the books online for about $10.)
That really hurts independent booksellers, and that hurts the chains too. The industry is still modeled after that $30 bestselling book that might get sold for $15, but never for $9.99. That’s the same problem that the Kindle poses.
It’s hard to know how that is going to shake out, but it will mean profound changes for the industry. Today, we got a notice from a publisher that says you’ll be able to buy their books online — they’ll create their own e-versions. I don’t want to live in a world where there’s not a bookstore to go to, but that’s where we’re heading.
Where does that leave authors?
Since I’ve been in the industry, we’ve been going through crisis. That’s approaching almost 25 years. There’s always a crisis, but it’s just getting tougher and tougher.
Publishers have always been trying to buy bestsellers, there’s nothing new about that, but they’re being more rigorous. They’re cutting their lists and being more crass about what will sell and what will not.
One wonders if an Alice Walker would survive in this environment. It took 12 books for her to get to “The Color Purple.” That’s the question.
What advice do you have for people who want to get published?
They have to have the talent and a good story to tell, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. And they have to work with a freelance editor before they come to an agent if they want to make it, unless they really have something that’s there on the page. They also have to have tenacity and learn a little bit about the industry.
The thing that differs between fiction and nonfiction is that with fiction, it’s all about your ability to tell a good story. With nonfiction, you need to have a platform: do you have national outreach?
A big part of your job is making deals for the authors you represent. What have you learned about the art of negotiating?
What I’ve learned, and it’s a cliché, is that you want both sides to come out feeling like they’ve won. In the most successful negotiations, everybody feels like they were fairly treated and they had a chance.
You must have to be tough at times, though.
I’ve been told that I’m very tough, but I think I’m a pussycat, I think I’m much too nice.
It tends to be the case that the boys in the industry get into the language. You know, curse words. Boys can do that with impunity, but it’s always looked at as being not so nice when a girl uses them.
What about you?
My husband keeps telling me I’ve got to stop using those words, but it’s impossible. It’s irrepressible. When I get really angry, they come up.
Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. Contact him directly at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor