A very brief history of literary agents’ powersharing with writers
Once upon a time there were no literary agents. In the beginnings of literature as we know it today, printers were publishers. Next publishers became intermediaries between writers and printers, and to justify their cut, which was about the same as that of the writer, provided editorial services, which come down to taste and experience. Publishers grew bigger, the balance of power shifted, the printer became a technician, the few writers became many, and some publishers misused their power to rip off wriiters. The term Grub Street arose. “Now, Barabbas was a publisher,” said the poet Keats of the publisher John Murray.
At this point, already well into the twentieth century, the literary representative or literary agent enters the story to fill a need to protect the writer against the more rapacious publishers. This person was often an ex-editor with the trust of a bestselling writer, someone with taste and skill, more like the genteel agents depicted in The Sound of Bow Bells (look up the allusion in the title) by Jerome Weidman than the Hollywood flacks of What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg. My first agent, when I was 13, “Swifty” Lazar, was a cross between them; nothing wrong with Mr Lazar’s cultural judgement, nothing wrong with Mr Lazar as a nutcutter dealmaker; a lawyer by profession, he’d been an agent since when Hoover was President. Note the description: representative, agent. These people, regardless of how powerful they became in publishing or films, knew they were not principals. They didn’t tell writers, they revered the creators and treated them with respect.
At this point even the large publishing houses were still run by gentlemen but over the next couple of decades some of them grew very big, and the bigger the publishers grew, the more the writers needed the literary agents to protect them, the more the power of the best agents grew, and with it their arrogance. One a single day in 1978 I fired, to one’s face, and by phone to the other one, the most prestigious agents in London and New York, one for telling me not to say “fuck” in his office and adding that he wasn’t telling the leading literary publisher that unless they quadrupled their offer, I was out of the door and across the square to their competitors, the other one for mistaking himself for a principal rather than an agent, thereby proving he either hadn’t read his contract with me or that his judgement was faulty. From the first agent’s reception I called another firm of authors’ representatives and later that afternoon watched their boss tell my publisher how much he would pay, and the publisher agreeing without any fuss, proving me right. I was very happy with him for several years, until he left agenting to become my publisher and as his first act gave me a rolling three-book commission (a “commission” is a book for which advances are paid before you write it). What I’m describing here is an author knowing more than the agents I fired, because he’d done his homework, and he was a businessman, not a posturing “artiste”. Also, this is the high water mark of the literary representative as representative, sometime around a quarter century ago, say one whole generation of writers into the past. It is however a period in which the relationships are worth studying because we are in the process of returning to them.
Next, about 1990 and going forward, the conglomerate publishers, what by then was already identifiably the Big Six, fell into the hands of accountants who, like indie writers, thought publishing was an easy road to riches, anyone could do it. Accountants didn’t see why some star editors needed to be paid star salaries when some dollybird fresh from the reception desk at Mills & Boon could “do the same job” for ten per cent of the pay. (It wasn’t quite that bad, but some of the new people were of very poor quality. I made one of them drunk at lunch and got her to sign back all my rights to me, and kept the advances too, and the publisher nearly lost his job for it when the conglomerate’s owner in California discovered later that afternoon what I had done.) So many experienced editors fell that the various massacres became knowns as the Nights of the Long Knives, plural. A few of them became agents, good ones in the literary sense; more, who had already turned themselves into dealmakers, became financially effective agents. This marks the point at which it became almost impossible for a new writer to put a manuscript in front of an editor without the intermediation of an agent.
It also marks the point at which some agents set themselves up as high priests, because only they could give writers access to the sacraments on the altar of publishing. The literary agent was no longer a representative of the author, he was the arbiter of what the writer could write and offer. The accountant-led conglomerate publishers used agents as a filter not of literary merit but of what would sell. The agent no longer needed any literary judgement; his stock in trade was the lowest common denominator. (In a special file I keep a collection of semi-literate letters from agents asking if I perhaps have a pop book or better still a series for them, or would I like to write or package, i.e. commission from other writers and supervise, a series they have thought up…) Because, as Donald Maass trenchantly pointed out, he was out of luck if fewer than ten houses declined his client’s manuscript, and the writers were at least legion, and more likely a plague of locusts, the agent slid seamlessly from being the writer’s representative to being the publisher’s representative. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t malicious, it was just a logical extension of the way conglomerate publishing has worked since about 1990.
Then came Apple’s iPad and iPhone, which are the artefacts of Apple’s plan to tie a market permanently to them through the various iStores, which is where the real money is rather than in the devices, and copycatting Apple’s dream of a tied market, Amazon, in whose armoury KDP (as it is now called) was the enabling device for most indies, whom Amazon saw as an army of feudal retainers to drive book prices down and thereby establish the Kindle as the dominant tablet. This Amazon plan failed (and from an indie viewpoint, a d*mn good thing too, because if it succeeded your royalty, with Amazon dominance licensing its rapaciousness, might now be 1%) but one of its side benefits was to liberate the writer from his bondage to the very few agents who could get through to the men with yes-power at the fewer than a double handful of publishers ever likely to publish a particular book, no matter how good it is.
Smart agents, and my experience of a lifetime in the arts, the applied arts, and the related business structures is that, as the rat is the paradigm (Tom Sharpe), so the literary agent who survives is the smartest kid on the creative block (run, Sammy, run!), understand that the opportunities of indie publishing bring with them a power shift, the balance returning to the writers. Most indies still regard agents with the same awe as in the last quarter-century only because they are so poorly educated or thoughtless that they axiomatically presume the status quo to be eternal; a little, a very little thought (Maynard Keynes) and reading about the profession they presume to enter will demonstrate that the Hegelian state of flux I describe is the only eternal truth: change as the only constant. Of course the smarter agents already understand that the hybrid writer, one who indulges in both trad and indie publishing, or even top professionals concentrating on indie publishing for its freedoms, will soon be the norm among the professional writers. (I can easily see and justify, though this isn’t the place, a day when smart writers will use trad publishing to establish themselves and then deliberately leave it to go indie and pocket all the takings. That is essentially what I did when I walked out of conglomerate publishing and turned myself into a packager long before Amazon arrived to make it easy. The agent will then become a subsidiary rights manager, a specialist.) The very smartest agents are already using indie publishing as a slushpile (1) to find tomorrow’s breadwinners to put the jam on the agent’s bread.
No one with common sense travels in a strange country without a map. The writing profession is a very strange country indeed, but the maps are not secret or even obscure. You can find them if you make the effort, in many cases simply by asking. The knowledge could be worth money, and in most cases will be worth the difference between at least a modest career and the disappointment now felt by the grim-visaged “authors” who haunt the public fora.
One more thing. I’ve always had fun in the company of my agents. If yours aren’t amusing, trade them in for agents who smile. Why be a writer, which is hard work for less money than you can get for applying the same skills and energy in another profession, if you aren’t having fun? Why associate with auxiliaries (agents, publishers, reviewers, publicists, designers) who aren’t fun? Behave like the creator everyone else depends on, the principal, and people will treat you with more respect.
(1) I used the indie-publishing-as-slushpile concept to determine what percentage of indies had been, in their words, “unfairly denied publication” under the trad publishing system, and to determine what percentage of indies had any literary quality, i.e. were worth publishing for any reason except their desire to be published. See Slush pile 1: From vanity publishers to independents
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