Sterling Lord shares insight, memories
Without Sterling Lord, there would be no Jack Kerouac — not Kerouac as we know him, anyway, the writer who introduced the Beat Generation. Lord was a former magazine editor and fledgling literary agent working in a basement apartment in New York when Kerouac walked in, handsome and scruffy, “On the Road” manuscript stuffed in his backpack.
It took Lord four years and canny magazine placements to land Kerouac a book deal, but he persevered, even ignoring Kerouac’s pleas to give up.
“When I read the manuscript, I knew this was a very interesting voice and very interesting writer, and he should be heard,” Lord says from his home in Manhattan.
That’s right — Jack Kerouac’s agent is still around; at 92, he’s as sharp as someone a fraction of his age.
What’s more, he’s equally forward-thinking: His memoir — “Lord of Publishing” — was released by Open Road Integrated Media last week in just two formats: as a paperback and an e-book ($16.99 each).
As agent for the rich backlist titles of bestselling authors like Jimmy Breslin and novelist Terry Southern, Lord did business with Open Road and liked its innovative business model. Run by Jane Friedman, former head of HarperCollins, Open Road acquires e-book rights for older books and puts its resources behind getting the word out about their availability. The company follows the same model for new books, like Lord’s.
“Lord of Publishing” is a frank and generous look at the inside workings of the publishing industry, from one of the most legendary and nimble players of the 20th century. Lord’s eclectic list of clients at his agency Sterling Lord Literistic includes politicians, beatniks, athletes and a family of cartoon bears.
In the memoir, he shares personal anecdotes: Kerouac argued over commas; Jimmy Breslin liked to push buttons; Peter Gent, author of “North Dallas Forty,” was not just a pro football player but a natural-born writer; Stan and Jan Berenstain worked tirelessly on their Berenstain Bears children’s books.
After his success with Kerouac, hopeful authors flocked to Lord. “I had writers who got into cars and drove across the country to give me their manuscripts,” he says. “They were lousy manuscripts.”
Those aspiring bohemians might have been surprised by the man himself: knotted tie, the grip of a tennis champion, heavy-framed glasses, and a stern gaze. He didn’t look like the kind of guy who’d have an ear for writing from the subculture; he looked like someone from a small town in Iowa, which is exactly what he was.
“The nice guy from Iowa had lived in Europe,” Lord explains. “It broadened my interests.” The Army sent him to Europe near the end of World War II; when the war was over he transferred to the Armed Forces’ newspaper, Stars and Stripes, and eventually tried his hand as an editor in Germany and France. He returned to America with little more than his first wife, a Frenchwoman, and worked as a magazine editor before deciding to become an agent.
Lord saw an opportunity to connect great magazine writers with publishing and make money along the way. He’d match up one of his writers with a famous person with a good story to tell — sportswriter Rowland Barber and boxer Rocky Graziano — and presto, “Somebody Up There Likes Me,” a 1955 bestseller, and later a film.
He leveraged his clients’ co-writing success into solo deals; Barber’s next book was the novel “The Night They Raided Minsky’s.” Both titles were made into films, starring Paul Newman and Jason Robards, respectively — Lord negotiated those deals too.
Conversely, when he had a manuscript in hand, Lord sold excerpts to magazines — either before scheduled publication, or to foment interest from publishing houses. That was instrumental in the publication of Kerouac’s “On the Road.”
Indirectly, Kerouac brought Lord another significant client: Ken Kesey, the bestselling author and proto-hippie whose lysergic acid diethylamide-fueled high jinks were memorably chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
Kesey’s publisher had sent “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to Lord, hoping for a line of praise from Kerouac for the cover. While Kesey gained an agent (Lord), he never got that Kerouac quote.
“Kerouac and Kesey met only once, in Manhattan in June 1964, at the end of the Merry Pranksters’ cross-country trip,” Lord writes. At an antic party, Kerouac, 12 years older, kept apart. “There was absolutely no serious or colorful discussion between Kesey and Kerouac.... An hour after [Kerouac] arrived, he left. He was uncomfortable with Kesey’s overwhelming display of exuberance.”
Over the years, Lord managed one bestselling writer after another, including Nicholas Pileggi and his book “Wise Guy” (which became the movie “Goodfellas”), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, sportswriter Dick Schaap, ‘60s student activist James Simon Kunen, and Kennedy White House Press Secretary Pierre Salinger, for whom he turned a $35,000 offer into a $149,000 book deal.
In his memoir, Lord shares some of the step-by-step details of his dealmaking alongside affectionate anecdotes about his authors. He’s not didactic, but lessons for agents shine through: be loyal, read widely, make money for your authors, be creative and don’t slow down.
“To be effective as a literary agent, you have to constantly hope; you have to generate the optimism to believe that you will make every deal,” Lord writes. “Whether a spectacular sale or a client’s departure is a triumph or a disaster, you have about 10 minutes to deal with it emotionally. After that, you must move on to other business.” Like, for example, publishing an e-book at 92.
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