Sixty rejections. Three-and-a-half years. Enter Susan Ramer ’83–the perceptive agent with the keen eye and understanding to accept Kathryn Stockett’s manuscript and sell it to a publisher in less than a week.
“The humor won me over from the start,” says Ramer, who has been an agent for 25 years with Don Congdon Associates in New York City. “It’s not often that a manuscript can make me laugh out loud and cry, and this one did.”
Now a bestseller with a movie released this month, The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s first novel. Ramer, who did not know the background on how long Stockett had been trying to get it published, said what first caught her attention was the query letter.
“What lead me to ask her to send me the manuscript was her description of the novel,” says Ramer. “She described a story I’d never read before. So many novels – including some excellent ones – cover familiar ground, and this was different…from those opening pages the voice grabbed me immediately and never let me go.”
The Help, originally published in 2009 and the movie released in August, tells the story of three women during the formative years of the civil rights movement in Mississippi, where it was dangerous to be outspoken in opposition to segregation for both blacks and whites. Through the characters, readers are provided with a penetrating view into the complicated perspectives of the black maids working as domestic help in white households, the white families for whom they worked, and a young white College graduate who becomes ostracized as an “integrationist.”
Ramer says that the book sold quickly. She sent it to a few editors, and Amy Einhorn made an offer within less than a week. “She had recently started her own imprint at Putnam and this was her first fiction buy.”
Although Ramer knew that the book had potential for success, she says she never could have imagined the extraordinary response it received. “No agent or publisher can predict something like this. Word of mouth is not something you can manufacture, and that has been a huge part of The Help’s success. It has taken on a life of its own. It’s amazing to see happen, and certainly for the first time in my publishing career.”
“There is nothing better than selling an author’s first book,” says Ramer. “It’s incredibly satisfying to find a new writer I’m excited about and then play a role in starting off their career.”
Ramer says she gets many manuscripts that she doesn’t like enough to finish, so when she reads one that she can’t put down, it makes a big impression. In regard to Stockett’s, she says, “Every character was so human, so fully developed. In less able hands, this could have been a much less nuanced story of right and wrong, but Stockett has an incredible ability to get inside her characters and show them to us from all sides.”
An English graduate, Ramer has always had an interest in reading and writing and although not a creative writer herself, she says she has an enormous appreciation for those who are.
While at Lafayette, she interned with the Easton Express and learned that she was not “cut out for the fast pace of newspapers and that being a writer myself was probably not the career I wanted.” During the summer before her senior year, she did some part-time research with Don Miller, MacCracken Professor of History. “In a conversation about what to do post-college, he suggested I look into book publishing,” recalls Ramer. “A light bulb immediately went off. It had never occurred to me before. He started me down this road.”
Before joining Congdon Associates where Ramer represents both fiction and nonfiction writers, she worked on rights and contracts for Warner Books (now Grand Central Publishing). That experience gave her the knowledge for the selling and negotiating side of being an agent, a career she moved into because she wanted to work directly with writers. “I like being involved in the whole process, from finding writers and working with them editorially, to finding the right buyers, to negotiating the deals,” she says.