Joined agency

Are there are too many literary agencies?

All other sectors of the industry have consolidated in response to digital disruption—publishers, booksellers, wholesalers and public relations agencies—and yet there are still more than 300 agencies listed in The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2015.

Why? We are in a period of transition. Older agents are handing over to the next generation (or not, in some cases) and some mergers have occurred, such as Curtis Brown with Conville & Walsh, and United Agents with A P Watt. But any business analyst must look at our sector and scratch their head. So many agents in small operations with no direct facility to sell foreign rights, film/TV rights or produce anything, and yet they still represent some of this country’s most successful and popular writers? 

Some old-school agents have traditionally relied on the following factors to keep their clients:

● Fear. Authors have grown up with their agent and don’t know what else is out there, which leads to . . .
● Loyalty. If I sold X thousand copies with this agent, why fix what ain’t broke? It is better to be a . . .
● Big fish in a small pond than to be swallowed up by the large ocean of a big agency (besides, my agent is godmother to my child).

Exactly the wrong reasons to have an agent.

I believe that the lack of changes in our industry will leave many authors exposed. I would say this, wouldn’t I? Well, I’m not actually criticising any one agent, or the notion of small agencies—but my industry as a whole.

I have not yet met an agent who doesn’t feel that it is a privilege to be doing what we do. Agents, by and large, have the focus of a zealot and the drive of a speeding truck. There are some innovations coming from agencies of all sizes—e-book publishing programmes, in-house PR, speakers’ agencies, literary prizes, and offices opening in India and Africa. One agency, Lutyens & Rubenstein, owns a bookshop (fabulous, too). There are agents who have driven the success of their clients by sheer willpower and who exploit the rights with brilliance and passion.

Where I think our industry falls down is the fear of participation. We need to be part of the deal, not just negotiating it. We need to be in partnership with the talent we believe in and create opportunities in every media for them. This is not simply being on their side when we broker the complex relationships with publisher and producer, but driving the deal as a partner, a stakeholder in our clients’ success. There are many ways to structure a deal and many ways of being a literary agent. At Curtis Brown, we have developed a successful agency-run creative writing course, a book group, a digital publishing facility and a television and film production company (Cuba Pictures). 

Putting aside any quandaries about conflict of interest—there is rarely a conflict if the deal is fair and advantageous to the creator—our clients are more vulnerable if we can only sell them a set of relationships and industry practice. They need to be at the heart of production.

A writer of every kind deserves choice and the agent must provide this, either directly or indirectly. In other words, we either find them the right partner or directly provide the platform they require. Not every agency can have its own merchandising department or voiceover specialist, but we must sure as hell know someone who does.  

Fundamentally, the landscape of hundreds of small operations is not efficient for the author. For example, an agency with direct access to screenwriters, directors and actors can “package” a project for a broadcaster/studio. 

Packaging brings greater control and artistic freedom to the author from the moment of inception. Susanna Clarke was therefore able to license the rights that she was comfortable with and have a greater say in the selection of collaborators for the adaptation of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in her deal with Cuba Pictures than in her preceding deal, with production company Studio. (“Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” will be broadcast over seven hours on BBC1, this spring). 

The process at the moment is flawed. We negotiate options with a third-party production company which then comes back to us to hire the screenwriter or director. It then passes this package onto the broadcaster, which hopes the talent remains attached for the lengthy period of the option. Cuba was able to produce a time-sensitive original drama—”Coalition” (Channel 4, airing in March) about the five days of shuttle diplomacy involved in the formation of the Cameron/Clegg cabinet in May 2010—in no time at all, because we had access to the key components: the writer, director and broadcaster.

In the US, agencies have been packaging for years, separated by having agencies and management companies that take fees on every aspect of the process. In the UK, we are able to do it in one place—the agency—and therefore be more efficient.

Frankly, the agency business has not changed in a century: agent as broker, only as good as their clients and their reputation. Fine. But there is so much more to the business. Many small and large agencies are aware of this and are responding with new ways of adding value to their services. But not enough are exploring the notions of what a literary agent is. 

We have huge potential as an industry to build a global platform, but we need agencies that can bring together their talent to produce something commercially viable, while giving control to the creator. In order to do this we need more agents to think about the whole picture and come together in ways that will benefit authors and creative talent. 

We agents need to join forces to build the next generation of talent in this country. The authors deserve nothing less.


Jonny Geller is joint c.e.o. of Curtis Brown