From CFA to literary agency: Rubin Pfeffer

During his time at Carnegie Mellon, literary agent Rubin Pfeffer (CFA ’74) never imagined being immersed in the publishing world. But Pfeffer is now a partner at East West Literary Agency, an agency specializing in children’s and young adult literature, where he brokers deals for clients who want to publish their manuscripts.

Pfeffer’s career path did not unfold overnight. When he graduated with a degree in graphic design, he was hired by publishing house Harcourt Brace Jovanovich as a designer. Although he was engaged as an artist for Harcourt, he was attracted to the larger world of publishing. His fascination with the strategic role of design in the publishing business brought him into all aspects of the business — editing, sales, rights, and marketing.

Pfeffer eventually worked his way up to becoming the president of Harcourt. He spent close to 30 years there before working as chief creative officer for Pearson Education, a publisher of textbooks and trade books. In 2005, Pfeffer was hired by publisher Simon & Schuster to be senior vice president of the children’s books section. He stayed at Simon & Schuster for four years before becoming a consultant for various media groups and opening up the Boston office of the East West Literary Agency in 2010.

With a career of more than 35 years in the publishing industry, Pfeffer can now speak with authority on the qualities of good writing. “Great literature is one that stands the test of time,” he said.

The Napping House, a children’s picture book about a house full of sleeping animals and a granny, is still being read through the generations after Pfeffer first published it in 1984. The book was illustrated and written by Don and Audrey Wood, a husband and wife team, and is still in print.

“We are often given credit for helping to ‘raise the bar’ in children’s illustration, and Rubin definitely had his shoulder under one end of that bar,” Don Wood said via email. “The lesson Rubin taught me was now ingrained. Pull out all stops, go for it. There is no such thing as ‘just a children’s book.’ ”

Not every writer will be as successful as the Woods were, but there are principles all writers can adopt, Pfeffer said. “One thing that writers can learn is writing for different audiences,” he explained, citing late children’s author Maurice Sendak as an example. Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak’s seminal work, is memorable in its ability to explore complex, mature issues for young readers. This book still resonates with these same readers as adults, who in turn share the book with their own children.

To be a best-selling children’s book author, a writer must deliver content that resonates with readers emotionally. “Great children’s writing is innovative and fresh,” Pfeffer said. “It has memorable characters and tells an exciting story.”

One of Pfeffer’s responsibilities as a literary agent is providing his clients with information on the publishing industry. The purpose of the publishing industry is to sell books: It’s a business. Cover designs, reviews, and marketing tactics are all part of turning a profit, even on the children’s writing level, and agents must explain this to clients.

“Writing is very special and the process is personal to each writer,” Pfeffer said. “An agent must be straightforward with clients and deliver encouragement and feedback, even if it isn’t what the client wants to hear.” At East West, he brings his knowledge of publishing and his experience with high-profile clientele. In his career, he has worked with Alice Walker (The Color Purple) and Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose).

One of Pfeffer’s clients is Patricia MacLachlan, author of Sarah, Plain and Tall. The book tells the story of a family living on the American prairie, awaiting the arrival of the father’s new wife. The novel was adapted into a screenplay starring Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, and received a host of awards, including a Newbery Medal.

“The qualities of Rubin’s I most admire are these — he is incredibly ethical,” MacLachlan said via email. “He takes care of my business life in a very honest and straightforward manner. In truth, he takes care of my writing life in the same way, coupled with sensitivity to me as a writer dealing with the changing world of publishing. He knows me well, and very kindly points out the pieces of mine that don’t work as they are written. He is inspiring and supportive and has helped my career in huge ways. And on a more personal level, my entire family considers Rubin a close and trusted friend.”

Everything Pfeffer knows about the publishing industry came from experience. He recommends that students seeking experience in the publishing industry read voraciously and consider internships at publishing houses and literary agencies.

And for aspiring writers out there, Pfeffer said that writing from the heart is what matters most: “Write what you know and feel. If it’s a good story, it will connect with people and affect them.”