Disjointed agency

Jonny Geller’s survey of the London literary agency scene is a splendidly comic piece of understated menace. Perhaps I am programmed to think this way, but it is hard not to imagine the man of destiny at the secret centre of his global empire as he sits back in his chair (one can almost hear him stroke his cat) and wonder – ‘why is everyone so fucking stupid?’

He raises some interesting points which demonstrate that there is a wide range of ways of understanding what it is that a literary agent is. Crucially for me though he conflates the role of a talent agent and literary agent.

The argument is undermined by two hugely revealing statements. The first is that it is fear ("Authors have grown up with their agent and don’t know what else is out there, which leads to . . .”) that leads authors to be loyal to their original agents. The second is that it is not only possible, but seemingly necessary, to put aside “any quandaries about conflict of interest” when it comes to the brave new world of agenting we all find ourselves in. 

These two statements raise alarm bells in my mind and in my view should raise alarm bells in the mind of any author.

First, and above all, the word, surely, is not fear, it is trust. So wide is this semantic gap one is tempted to wonder if all of Curtis Brown’s clients really have emerged, Athena-like, fully formed - for the rest of us who haven’t been so lucky, the business of being a literary agent, unlike a talent agent, is a process of engaging in creative relationships with clients that may take years before it reaches fruition.

While the business side is of crucial importance, the reason why there are so many big names out there with relatively small agencies is because their relationship with their agent is multi-dimensional and not easily replicated. At its best the author/agent relationship is a close and valuable creative relationship. Agents are sounding boards, creative confidants, story consultants, trusted first readers, editors, champions and finally negotiators and business partners. The business side is hugely important, but it is at the end of a long chain of collaboration – and value.

Second, those “conflicts of interest” are called that for a reason. It’s all very well saying that “there is rarely a conflict if the deal is fair and advantageous to the creator” but if the deal is more fair and more advantageous to others then there is a conflict of interest. Agents exist solely to protect the interests of their clients. The danger of the management route is that it opens up the possibility that the interests of the agency might be perceived as superceding the interests of authors. That is dangerous territory indeed.

In addition to all this, it is all too easy to reverse the wider arguments raised. The most powerful agencies in this country have by no means done such a terrific job over the last 30 years. Royalty rates – in real terms – have declined sharply in that period. 2014 was, amongst other things, notable for widespread dismay at the fact that author earnings have declined so sharply in recent years. It is lost ground which it may take another generation to claw back.

Equally, the literary landscape is littered with writers whose careers have been damaged because they heeded the siren call of agents who lured them away from their original agents, gave them two and a half minutes of their time, failed to shape their books in the right way, didn’t get a deal and dropped them.

In the end, it really isn’t about brands, it is a question of how well individual books work. Neither E L James' or J K Rowling’s careers were hampered by being represented by small agencies. Content is queen – and you take it for granted at your peril.