Size doesn't matter

<p>Publishing has polarised between multinationals and independents, but agencies of almost every size and shape seem to continue to thrive in the UK. That's because the two businesses have different models. Agents do not have high back-office costs&mdash;they don't need warehouses, big buildings, a large staff or sales forces&mdash;so there is no particular benefit to being bigger. Although most of the big corporate publishers are important players on both sides of the Atlantic, there are still no agencies that have succeeded in being equally powerful in both English-language markets&mdash;other than those where a single individual spends their life jetting between the two.</p>
<p>Over the past few years, major American agencies have opened UK offices or grown their UK presence, often beginning to sell translation rights from their European office rather than from New York. But the heart of their identities remains American. Meanwhile, there has been no traffic the other way, and larger UK agencies have tended to diversify into &quot;talent&quot;, developing their film and television side rather than increasing their reach in international book publishing. Most English agencies use sub-agents into the American market, thus distancing themselves from the largest English-language market in the world, and splitting any commission they might make from America.</p>
<p>Why is it that big publishing has become multinational, while agenting remains so very national in identity? Could it be that the sort of entrepreneurial character who makes a perfect agent is not naturally collegial? While being a publisher's editor today requires extraordinary skills of advocacy, so that the whole team supports a book, being an agent is mostly a solitary occupation. Your judgement is the one that is always on the line when you work with an author and then take their book to market. If it goes wrong, there is nobody else to blame, no matter how many other agents work alongside you.</p>
<p>Publishing has been evolving apace over the past decade, while the world of the agent has remained largely unchanged. It is evident from recent events that this is unlikely to continue, and the agency world may need to change too if we are to continue to serve our authors well. Agents are having to learn to adapt, not only to changes in our market, but also in thinking about how to address other markets. This may prove important for the livelihood of our authors while the home market remains so difficult. But size may not be the thing that matters.</p>