News & Politics

DC Literary Agent Howard Yoon on His First Time Rejecting a Book That Went On to a Big-Money Deal

FOMO is a thing in the publishing world, too.

Photograph by Kip Dawkins.

“In 1995, I had only been working a couple of years. At the time, I thought I wanted to represent fiction in the world of publishing. You get a lot of bad fiction, so it’s a really tough road. I was a literary assistant working for Gail Ross at her agency, and one of my duties included looking through the slush pile—the unsolicited things from people who don’t have any relationship with the agency. Some is good, but 95 percent is bad. Every once in a while, though, you find something actually worth selling.

“I got this manuscript by a first-time author named Bill Fitzhugh—a comic thriller called Pest Control, about an exterminator who wanted an environmentally friendly way of taking care of pests. Even though I loved the story line, I thought the plot could use some work. I ended up rejecting the guy even though I wanted to see what could happen with it. A month later, I read that he sold the movie rights for over a million dollars. This was when Hollywood was paying seven figures for movie rights. A lot of people lost a lot of money. If you write a novel, you usually hold onto the movie rights and sell them separately. Back then, people were selling them before they sold the book. In some ways, the movie deal would help them get a publishing deal.

“In publishing, one dominant emotion has been true for many years: FOMO. Fear of missing out on the next big bestseller. When I saw that the book sold for over a million, I was like, I read that and turned it down! But even though he sold the movie rights, he didn’t get a North American publisher. He ended up getting published overseas.

“Did I read the published book? Of course not! I was done—sour grapes. Most people in publishing have FOMO, but, like me, they just want to walk away and don’t ever want to be a part of it again. Actually, I don’t think it ever became a movie. I’m not surprised, because maybe only one in five manuscripts that were auctioned for seven figures actually got made into a movie. There could have been so many reasons why.

“That experience taught me to stick to the things I know how to do, which are nonfiction books. That was my first time turning something big down, and I’m sure it won’t be my last.”