Book Chief: A Sit Down With Literary Agent Deborah Schneider

“She’s a literary agent,” a friend said at a Hudson Valley Writers’ Center book party, pointing toward a woman at the refreshment table. I turned, expecting I might see a fast-talking, Prada-wearing, Botoxed bottle-blonde working the room and gesturing wildly. Instead, I saw a petite brunette quietly helping herself to some veggies. Deborah Schneider, it turned out, won my heart when, after a few minutes of chatting about the struggles and successes of the book business, she looked suitably horrified when I mentioned that my landlord considered my stacks of saved magazines to be disposable clutter.

Schneider’s friend and fellow agent Gail Hochman, president of the Association of Authors’ Representatives, confirms that Schneider is far from the stereotypical agent. “She’s very classy in the work she represents and how she represents it,” Hochman says. “If you have a personal issue, you might call her and say, ‘I don’t know what to do about this; what do you think?’ If you have a business issue, she’s got very strong opinions, but can listen to yours. She’s somebody who’s very good to have in your life.”  
When I ask to interview Schneider, who grew up in suburban Chicago, she invites me to her tastefully decorated and beautifully appointed home in Bedford where she lives with her second husband, Jim Tilley, along with a rescue greyhound and a beagle.

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Schneider, whose office is on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, works from her home on Wednesdays, which she began doing when her children, Olivia, now 30, and Charlie, 25, were little, because, she says, “It would break up the week for them, so I could be gone two days, home, gone two days, home. It was such a nice pattern that, even when they were long off into their lives, I continued.” Olivia is a TV producer who recently worked on the NBC game show The Million Second Quiz, and Charlie teaches English in Santiago, Chile. The family also includes Tilley’s two grown children, Brad, 30, and Jack, 26.

“Very few people say, ‘I want to be a literary agent when I grow up,’” Schneider says. “Most people haven’t heard of them. I majored in philosophy, a wonderful way to be exposed to thinking and learning and reading and knowledge, but it didn’t prepare you for a job any more then than it does now. I had no clue what I wanted to do.” Schneider lived in Switzerland and France for a year, worked as an au pair, came back to Chicago, and worked as a cocktail waitress for a few months. “In 1976,” she recalls, “a bunch of my friends from college said, ‘We’re in San Francisco’—the city I always wanted to live in—‘and we’re starting a small-press literary magazine, and we think you should join us,’ and I said, ‘I’m there!’”

Schneider packed up her car and drove cross-country, “got a job tending bar on Union Street, started Sea of Storms Press, and this magazine, Nicotine Soup, and it was like the Mickey-and-Judy ‘let’s put on a musical’ kind of thing. It was so wonderful. And I got the bug. I said, ‘I need to move to New York and get a job in publishing.’”

Her first jobs when she moved to New York in 1978 turned out to be for movie studios and producers. “All the big studios had story departments in New York,” she says. “You read all the books that were about to be published so you could recommend something for a movie. It was a high-pressure job that taught me everything about the lay of the land of New York publishing. I found out who the editors were, who the publishers were, I found out about literary agents. I had about six of those jobs in three years, because every time there’s a new production executive, they fired whoever was there, and put in their own people. I decided I needed to be able to answer to myself. If it works, it’s under my own steam, and if it doesn’t work, it’s under my own steam.”

She founded her own agency in 1992 with business partner Jane Gelfman. “We both love the work, the clients, and the publishing world, and the agency flourished,” Gelfman says. “I wouldn’t say we have similar personalities, but we work well together. Deborah and I are proud to say we’ve never had a fight in over 30 years. Which isn’t to say we always think the same thing; we just talk disagreements out. We both have our complicated family lives—doesn’t everyone over a 30-year period?—but the office is a kind of safe harbor.”

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Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents has three agents total, and Schneider estimates she represents between 100 and 150 clients. She’s represented such well-known authors as Jeffery Deaver, who’s had three books, including The Bone Collector, which have made it to the screen; Tracy Chevalier, whose Girl With a Pearl Earring was also a movie; David Rabe, the Tony Award-winning playwright; and Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada. “The competition for clients who are both talented and successful is fierce,” says Schneider. “And the pressure to have successful-selling franchises, blockbusters, and name brands is enormous. Critical acclaim and talent aren’t enough. Publishers want and need hits.” She says agents call competition for clients “beauty contests,” but says there’s no hostility. “All’s fair in love and business. We support each other, celebrate each other’s successes, and never, never poach each other’s clients.”  

One author following her advice, despite the fact that he isn’t going to have much difficulty finding an agent, is her husband, Jim Tilley, who retired from a successful career with Morgan Stanley and is now a poet and novelist. His second book of poetry is due out in April. Although he began writing before they met, he credits his wife with pushing him to achieve more. He’s also written some nonfiction, and he tells me about one piece, published in award-winning literary magazine Ploughshares, about his relationship with his father. Both are math geeks. “The real challenge,” Tilley says, “was to take something I wanted to tell, and tell it in a way that people who don’t know anything about mathematics or science could appreciate. It took her beating on me and beating on the piece for a while for me to understand what the piece needed to do and what it definitely shouldn’t do.”

The couple met nine years ago on “I had two major considerations when I was dating,” says Schneider. “One was you had to be divorced at least a year, because I didn’t want to go through the process with anybody, having been through it myself, and the other was, I’m a diehard Democrat. So those were my parameters: divorced and Democrat. And he was neither—he was separated. But a friend of mine had pointed out his profile to me and I read it, and I thought, ‘This sounds like someone I want to know.’”

After an exchange of emails, Schneider agreed to meet Tilley at a restaurant near her home, which was then in Croton. They began to discuss the organizations they were members of, and what their interests were. “He started pulling out his Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA cards, and then his library card, and then his Academy of American Poets card, and I had all the same cards, so we literally were pulling our membership cards out—and talk about putting your cards on the table!” She laughs, and clearly takes pleasure in revealing that, when the couple married a year later and made a fresh start by moving to their current home, he registered to vote as a Democrat.

What writer wouldn’t wish for an agent like Schneider? Well, with as many as 50 submissions sent to her each day, Schneider points out that even if the work is good, she can’t say yes to everyone. Her tips if you want to try: “Speak English—don’t make grammatical errors or spelling errors—and get my name right! Don’t start your letter, ‘Dear Mr. Schneider!’”

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