Timothy Seldes, who had a long career as an editor and literary agent in New York and whose clients included such well-regarded writers as Peter Taylor, Anne Tyler and Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, died Dec. 5 at his home in Washington. He was 88.
He had complications from pneumonia, said his stepdaughter, Elizabeth Shreve.
Mr. Seldes (pronounced SELL-dess) came from a distinguished literary and artistic family and began his six-decade career as a bookstore clerk before working as an editor at several publishing houses.
In 1972, he bought one of New York’s most prestigious literary agencies, Russell & Volkening, which was founded in 1940 by Diarmuid Russell and Henry Volkening.
Over the next 40 years, Mr. Seldes kept the agency’s original name, even though he was its principal agent and sole owner. He specialized in high-end fiction and literary nonfiction, acquiring many books that became bestsellers and canonical works of literature.
Among the writers Mr. Seldes inherited from Russell and Volkening were novelists Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud and Eudora Welty, historian Barbara Tuchman and journalist George Plimpton.
His other clients included Gordimer, the South African writer who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991; Taylor, whose 1986 novel “A Summons to Memphis” won the Pulitzer Prize; Tyler, the Baltimore novelist who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for “Breathing Lessons”; Annie Dillard, whose 1974 book about nature in southwestern Virginia, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction; and newscaster Jim Lehrer, the author of more than 20 novels and other books.
In many ways, Mr. Seldes embodied the tweedy, gentlemanly traditions of the literary life. He worked from a book-lined brownstone in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, cultivating his clientele through long lunches at private clubs and his almost curatorial way of matching writers to editors.
“Everybody responded to Tim’s manner, his warmth, his generosity,” Stephen Goodwin, a novelist and George Mason University professor who had worked with Mr. Seldes since 1972, said in an interview. “He did care enormously about making the right connections. I think he thought of them not just as literary connections but as personal connections.”
Mr. Seldes knew that writers were often uncomfortable with the business end of publishing. When it came time to negotiate contracts, Goodwin recalled, Mr. Seldes would say with a flourish, “And now, we extract the cash.”
Timothy Seldes was born Dec. 16, 1926, in New York. His father, Gilbert Seldes, was a writer and literary critic whose 1924 book, “The 7 Lively Arts,” was one of the first critical studies praising jazz, cartoons and other forms of popular culture. An uncle, George Seldes, was a muckraking journalist and commentator.
Mr. Seldes’s sister, Tony Award-winning actress Marian Seldes, died in 2014.
After graduating in 1944 from the private Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Mr. Seldes served in the Navy during World War II. He was a 1951 graduate of the University of California at Los Angeles.
His first job in publishing came as a clerk at the old Doubleday bookstore in Manhattan. He then became an editor at Doubleday, Macmillan and Harcourt Brace and edited several books by best-selling science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov.
Before becoming a literary agent, Mr. Seldes was briefly an assistant publisher of the New York Post newspaper but was fired by its owner — his aunt, Dorothy Schiff.
Mr. Seldes settled in Washington in 1987, the year he married one of his clients, novelist Susan Richards Shreve. He continued to commute each week to New York for the next 25 years.
His first wife, Karen Rye Seldes, died in 1957. His second marriage, to the former Aileen “Lee” Patterson, ended in divorce.
In addition to his wife, survivors include two children from his second marriage, Gilbert Seldes of New York and Elisabeth Seldes of Los Angeles; four stepchildren, Porter Shreve of Albany, Calif., and Elizabeth Shreve, Caleb Shreve and Kate Shreve, all of Washington; and 10 grandchildren.
Mr. Seldes operated his literary agency until 2012, when he sold it to Lippincott Massie McQuilkin.
Aspiring writers often asked Mr. Seldes how to go about finding an agent.
“Call up the publisher of an author you resonate with and ask for the agent’s name,” he told the Solares Hill newspaper of Key West, Fla., in 2006.
But what if the publisher won’t reveal the information?
“Say you want to buy the movie rights,” Mr. Seldes said, “and they’ll tell you.”