Back in Ye Olde Days, when the pickings were rich for agents (and authors) and six-figure advances were commonplace, publishers used regularly to complain that agents had too much power. Uber-agents strode the publishing landscape filled with a sense of their own importance. When they rang, junior editors stood up to take their calls. Even the senior ones sat up a little bit straighter.
How the mighty have fallen. These same colossi have been royally humbled by the events of the last five years, and the twin squeeze of recession and structural change. Books—and authors—they would once have waltzed into deals for significant sums of money, they are now struggling to sell at all (I say “they”; I mean “we”). Those they do sell are, on the whole, sold for greatly reduced advances.
As the balance of power has shifted, so standards of behaviour have shifted. It was once important for editors to stay on the good side of agents (or else they wouldn’t send you their best stuff); now calls go unreturned, submissions languish unread. It isn’t just a question of the move from a seller’s market to a buyer’s market, there is also more than a whiff of the boot being on the other foot now. Or should that be neck?
To paraphrase P G Wodehouse, it isn’t hard to distinguish between an agent with a grievance and a ray of sunshine, and to a very large degree one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the thought of agents with trembling lower lips because the nasty publisher wasn’t nice to them.
Except for one thing. Agents are merely proxies for authors: and authors do matter. So while we all understand that times are tough, here is my list of suggestions for editors:
- Just say no. If you’ve had something for a month and you can’t make up your mind, that is a no: put the poor author out of their misery and say so. The best, most successful and most senior editors say no quickly—they are on top of their reading and they know their own minds.
- Be efficient. The number of examples I have of editors rejecting the same thing twice is depressing. I have one priceless instance of an editor buying a project they had rejected six months earlier, without any memory of having done so.
- Be honest. If you don’t like something, say so. But if you do, and are getting reads, there’s no harm in letting us know. We know you are a cog in the acquisition process and, believe it or not, we are sympathetic.
- Don’t ask for a meeting unless you mean it. Dragging authors from the depths for “a coffee” means a day off work they can’t afford, a train ticket they can’t afford, and agonies of hope and expectation. It may not be a big thing for you, but it really is for them.
- Learn to distinguish between your taste and good and bad writing. It’s fine not to like something; it is not the same as saying it is badly written.
In other words, respect the process. Respect writers.Of course, if this is a question of publishing relishing the opportunity to put the boot in after a long period when agents had too much power, I suppose the people I should blame are the uber-agents who strutted about, saying that if any of their authors actually earned royalties it meant they had failed to get them a big enough advance.
That really was a stupid idea.
Agent Orange is a UK-based agent who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org