Crossing the lines

<p>Picture the scene in the boardroom at the Haymarket offices of Curtis Brown. Jonny Geller and Jonathan 'J Llo' Lloyd and other senior CB'ites are in conference. It is the middle half of 2010 and things have not been going well. Revenue has been down month after month after month. Publishers just aren't paying out the big advances any more. Certain types of bread and butter projects &ndash; serious non-fiction for instance &ndash; are impossible to get off the ground and even relatively well established novelists with a good commercial track record are struggling to maintain advances let alone increase them.<br />
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The industry has gone into paralysis with publishers whimpering between the Scylla of recession and the charybdis of e-books. Agency's like CB, with a massive payroll and one or two expensive lifestyles to maintain are facing the squeeze like never before. How can they find new business in this crazy new world where both authors and retailers are becoming publishers and where the old rules no longer apply?<br />
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Ideas are examined and rejected. The atmosphere is tense. The notion of going into electronic publishing is firmly squashed &ndash; look what they did to Wylie! And if that avenue is closed then that really only leaves one direction to go&hellip; The cry goes up, 'Let's screw the authors!'<br />
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In fact it is hard not to have sympathy for Curtis Brown. What they are offering has real value: both Anna Davis and Jake Arnott are serious and reputable figures. And if Faber can get away with it why can't they? And of course, nobody should ever feel pity for an agent. <br />
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But that holds true of publishers too and it is rather astonishing that Faber &ndash; that august entity can get away with dirtying its hands while nakedly commercial literary agents CB are somehow defiling the sacred pool. How about a little equal opportunity excoriation.<br />
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The fact is it is wrong for publishers and agents to get authors to pay for their services. You either believe you can make money for &ndash; and out of &ndash; an author or you don't. Curtis Brown (and Faber) have put themselves in the same boat as any number of dubious agencies and vanity presses who ask for reading fees. And lets face it, if it's a question of actually making a living as a writer Curtis Brown are a far better bet.<br />
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The damage to their reputation aside, all sorts of other conflicts are thrown up: will CB pay back writers who do the course and go on and get a great deal? They might be wise to offer to do that because how will those writers who have paid to become a CB client feel about other new authors who are taken on without the rigmarole of doing the writers' course &ndash; and who get extensive editorial input for free? Are existing clients going to feel they get an inferior service because they have not paid for it? They have instituted a double tier system for their clients and for a business where trust is paramount that seems rash.<br />
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One might have expected big publishers to take a greedy and short sighted stance over e-book royalties but at a point when the industry is at a truly historic crossroads and when authors have great legitimate doubts about the value of both publishers and agents the UK's biggest literary agency decision to charge writers for its services makes it is clear that the only real response to this crisis is the depressing determination that shit should roll down hill. In a topsy turvy world that is a risky strategy.<br />
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