What are some upcoming trends for the next year?
Trends are tough, as publishing moves slowly, and, by the time a trend becomes clear, it’s generally too late to try to chase it. But I hope that the recent trend of books exploring feminist issues/angles will be more than a phase. I’m thrilled to see books like Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger,Emily Chang’s Brotopia: Breaking Up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley,and Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion getting the attention they rightly deserve. And it’s a good thing that our political climate and the reverberations of #MeToo have resulted in a re-examination of gendered power dynamics, as it’s important to look at not only who and what is published, but also how those stories are told. (For what it’s worth, I think everyone in publishing should read Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s brilliant Writing a Woman’s Life.)
What’s your focus as an agent?
I mainly represent a broad swath of nonfiction: biography, memoir, history, business and economics, sociology, science, “big idea” books, pop culture, cultural criticism, and narrative nonfiction.
I have a particular soft spot for projects stemming from a strong and/or quirky journalistic, academic, or personal obsession. For example, I edited Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy,a brilliant microhistory of the sex toy that tells the story of changing sexual mores, and I’m thrilled to be representing her next book, about the history of the gigolo and what that tells us about sex and power. I also edited follicle expert Kurt Stenn’s Hair: A Human History,a Kurlansky-esque look at the biological, evolutionary, social, and cultural history of hair, and Wild Moms: Motherhood in the Animal Kingdom,a science book about motherhood in the animal kingdom by ecologist and mother of four Dr. Carin Bondar.
My fiction list is smaller, but I am seeking upmarket mysteries, thrillers, and crime fiction as well as literary fiction with a strong hook. In particular, I’m a sucker for stories that take place in compressed time periods or enclosed settings, novels about coming home again, and new twists on classic tales.
What book/genre/topic would you like to see cross your transom?
I love that definition from Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch that a great piece of art “works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel….It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.” I look for books that alter how I see myself and the rest of the world—sometimes in unexpected ways.
Recent favorites that have done this include Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit,which uses the story of one man’s 27-year self-imposed exile in the woods of Maine to open the door to a meditation on solitude, and Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts: A Memoir, a book about Nelson’s experience attending the trial of the man accused of murdering her aunt decades earlier that is a bit like Making a Murderer as told by Joan Didion in its nuanced look at memory, the fallibility of forensics, the grieving process, the justice system, and much more. One of my all-time favorite books is Walter Kirn’s Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade,a memoir about Kirn’s friendship with the con artist who posed as Clark Rockefeller that unfolds into a rumination on identity and class.
But it’s not just memoirs and narrative nonfiction that can have that perspective-shifting result. Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking made us reconsider the introvert. Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder,Caroline Fraser’s biography, revealed a beloved childhood author in a stark new light. I want books that open the door to a greater understanding of something or shed a light on something we thought we knew well.
What topic don’t you ever want to see again?
I try to stay open-minded, as truly great writing can be incredibly persuasive. That said, I think I’ll be just fine if I don’t see another book with “Girl” in the title for a while.
What do you want to change about publishing?
I join the chorus of so many in stressing how important it is to diversify. I mean not just racial diversity, but also in terms of socio-economic background, geography, sexual orientation, and gender identification. And this won’t truly change if we only change who we publish—we must also change who is doing the publishing. Access and economics strongly dictate the kind of person entering the publishing world, as it’s simply not a financial reality to live on an assistant’s meager salary. Bumping up entry-level salaries and improving possibilities for advancement are both essential in changing the makeup of the industry.
What makes you unique as an agent?
In my career, I’ve worn many hats. I’ve worked in editorial, marketing, and publicity. I’ve done consulting and ghostwriting. I’ve worked for publishers large and small, independent and corporate, both in-house and out-of-house. Those varied experiences give me a really unique perspective on the industry. I also think that my background means that I understand not just what makes a good book, but also how to identify the audience for that book and how to find a path to reach those readers. Agenting is a natural culmination of all of my previous experience, as I bring together the skills I’ve amassed to be the best possible advocate for my authors in all aspects of their careers.
Iris Blasi is an agent at the Carol Mann Agency, based in Manhattan. She was most recently marketing director and senior editor at Pegasus Books, and she held previous positions at Random House, Union Square Press/Sterling Publishing, Open Road Media, the literary PR firm Hilsinger-Mendelson, and the consulting firm The Idea Logical Company. She graduated from Princeton University with a B.A. in English and a double concentration in American studies and gender studies and earned her master’s degree from New York University in humanities and social thought, with a thesis on the life and legacy of American writer Dawn Powell.