There is an argument that because some publishers are getting bigger, agents should follow suit. I am sure that there will be further mergers among agencies and some fits will be better than others: the United Agents/A P Watt merger strikes me as an excellent example of combining two agencies’ largely different strengths. But I would argue that for a UK-based agency, size isn’t everything.
While publishers still need expensive infrastructure, there are precious few economies of scale for an agency. Nor do agents face a monopolistic customer who questions their value in the same way that publishers do. It’s true that some publishers like to tease agents by questioning their role, but it’s noticeable that successful authors who may be unsure what traditional publishing is doing for them rarely question their need for a literary agent. Indeed, when self-published authors weigh up the pros and cons of how best to reach readers, while they may not be sure if they need a publisher any more, most continue to want an agent.
In fact, there’s a danger that agents who identify their only customers as corporate publishers have forgotten not only a growing independent publishing sector, but also that authors are their customers too—and authors are free to choose what sort of representation they want. While corporate publishers become larger, and their search for the latest phenomena encourages many to think only in the short term, then surely more than ever agents should be the ones who promise long-term loyalty to their clients. Someone needs to listen to what authors want, and respond. Someone needs to help them navigate a complex and challenging publishing landscape. So I would argue that agents need to be more bespoke, and not less, in a world where there are more ways than ever to help an author to find readers. Agents need to remain relevant for the authors they represent not only in the corporate publishing space, but in any way that their authors might require.
At Aitken Alexander we have taken the Darwinian view that in challenging times, diversity is the best defence. Certainly that has meant some growth in the UK to encourage a wider range of tastes by bringing in a few additional agents with different sensibilities, as well as enhancing our translation and film and TV departments, and developing new digital and contractual skills. But it has not involved having large numbers of UK agents competing with one another. For us it seemed at least as important to look outside the UK, not only because at the moment the UK could be said to be a uniquely troubled market, but also because there are large and growing English language markets elsewhere.
I would contend that agents need to be just big enough to be fit for purpose in a changing publishing landscape, but that their offices should remain human scale. There needs to be enough people to provide the skills an author might reasonably require from their agent, which would include at the minimum the ability to exploit publication rights in other English language markets, as well as in other languages and formats, to effectively negotiate a range of agreements, to deal with monies due swiftly and efficiently, and to provide career guidance that might range from editorial advice to self-publishing support. So with a growing range of necessary skills, I would agree that it’s a tough time to be small.
But it seems to me that agents who believe their bargaining power with publishers will be enhanced simply by getting larger are misguided. The truth is that the clout of an agency is not about the number of agents gathered together under one roof: it is only as great as the value publishers place on their most valuable clients.
Clare Alexander is an agent at Aitken Alexander Associates