The 'poaching' of star authors by publishers from their rivals--the book industry's most notorious open secret

<p>Arguably the only thing that Martin Amis, Lionel Shriver and Nicholas Evans have in common--apart from the fact that they are all high-profile, literary novelists--is that they have all been poached, in one of the shady activity's multifarious guises. Shriver has recently been pinched by HarperCollins from alma mater Serpent's Tail; Evans has relocated to Time Warner from Transworld to pursue a "fresh direction" (more on that later); and Amis was the most famous acquisition of "The Jackal"--US uber-agent Andrew Wylie, affectionately described by a sparring partner as "the greatest poacher of all time".</p><p>Poaching is the cloak and dagger side of the publishing world, a fact of life in "a tough, bloody business where everyone has to keep their head above water", according to self-confessed former poacher Patrick Janson-Smith, who left Transworld last September to turn gamekeeper at Christopher Little Literary Agency. Although the Association of Authors' Agents frowns upon the practice--the AAA states that "no member shall knowingly, recklessly or maliciously injure the professional reputation or practice of another member"--such behind the scenes manoeuvres remain a slightly shameful open secret.</p><p>Janson-Smith defends the poacher's charter through an insistence that stealing writers from other publishers is "all about author care"--he claims that his motivation for making poaching approaches was to rescue writers languishing in under-published limbo. He says: "I care very deeply about my authors, and if I love an author and see them being undersold, then I feel it is my duty to ruffle a few feathers."</p><p>One writer Janson-Smith pleads guilty to poaching is Carl Hiaasen, whom he felt was not reaching his potential at Macmillan: Hiaasen had published nine or 10 novels there, all with "fabulous reviews", but his sales had failed to take off. Hiaasen's move to Transworld with Skinny Dip changed all that: Janson-Smith reports with obvious pleasure that "it was a good move for Carl"--he doubled the US writer's sales, both in the UK and overseas.</p><p>Back in his active poaching days, Janson-Smith made a (rebuffed) attempt to lure Ian Rankin away from Orion, and approached Bill Bryson's agent (in a pre-Notes From a Small Island world) about the possibility of Bryson's moving if he ever became unhappy. In this instance, Janson-Smith stresses the "subtle distinction" between going poaching and making a tentative approach "should anything ever happen". As he explains: "That is the interesting thing [about poaching]: is it poaching, or to what extent are the authors keen to move?"</p><p>Just like starting over</p><p>Back to Nicholas Evans: the most recent example of the flip side of poaching, which is self-poaching, or author moves that are initiated by authors in cahoots with their agents. In this instance, Evans and his agent, Caradoc King of A P Wyatt, felt that, with four books set in Montana and published by Transworld under his belt, it was time for Evans to "go in a fresh direction". "And fresh directions for authors," as King spells out, "tend to mean a change of publisher." Particularly when the previous publisher, in this case Transworld's Bill Scott-Kerr, "saw things differently in terms of the commercial worth of [the books]".</p><p>David Godwin is another agent who has moved an author for a fresh start. Jim Crace, with 10 books and numerous literary awards to his name, jumped ship from Viking to Picador for publication of his forthcoming novel, The Pesthouse, after reaching an amicable agreement with Penguin that his interests would be better served elsewhere. Godwin says: "Sometimes people know that they can refresh authors and books in a way that others perhaps haven't, and sometimes it is better that the writer moves to another publisher for that reinvention."</p><p>But if authors repositioning themselves is the reverse of the classic poaching situation, when a publisher offers a golden hello for taking a valuable commodity on board (witness Shriver's six-figure deal with HarperCollins), then the poaching world also has a dark side: publishers letting authors go. "I would say that there is more dropping than poaching at the moment," says Clare Alexander, agent at Gillon Aitken Associates. "Many publishers have started off authors and then dropped the ball because they weren't an immediate success." </p><p>Never let me go</p><p>Publishers letting authors go, to use the trade's stock euphemism, is part of a worrying trend in an industry where publishers often prefer to pay over the odds for an exciting young d&eacute;but author than stick out the wait for a signed author's break-out book--which can take until book seven to materialise. Pete Ayrton, publisher at Serpent's Tail, which picked up Lionel Shriver after she was dropped by Flamingo, Faber and HarperCollins, says: "It is becoming more and more difficult for writers to get a break, because publishers don't have the time to nurture slow burners. There is a finite number of names, like football players, that trade at inflated advances; my hunch is that this will rise and rise."</p><p>Publishers claim that the introduction of BookScan in 1998 has made it so easy to see if a writer is underperforming that it is impossible to justify to retailers why book X will be the break-out book when past sales histories indicate otherwise. "BookScan makes the need to perform even more obvious," Scott-Kerr says. "We don't like to let authors go, but if we feel that we have gone as far as we can with an author and the sales still haven't taken off, then you have to take stock and evaluate the situation." </p><p>The issue that floats to the top of the poaching pond's murky waters is "that much-bandied word, 'loyalty'", in Alexander's words; it seems that a successful publishing run hinges on the all-important relationship between author and editor. Sometimes, this bond can be so strong that authors will follow a favourite editor when the editor moves company: an additional element to Nicholas Evans' move was his desire to rejoin publisher Ursula Mackenzie, who was the first person in the world to read the manuscript of The Horse Whisperer. According to Evans, it was Mackenzie's passion for the book at the 1994 Frankfurt Book Fair that "sparked the fire".</p><p>Mackenzie, who worked on the hardback of Evans' second novel, The Loop, at Transworld before leaving to become publisher at Time Warner, says: "It is very important to have a relationship of mutual trust and respect so that author and publisher can work together to make the book successful. Clear and open communication from the publisher to the author and agent is crucial."</p><p>But authors must also look beyond their camaraderie with editors to forge a relationship with the publishing house as a whole--something that is equally important for publishers if they are to retain their star authors in an increasingly conservative market. At Transworld, which is proud of its long-standing relationships with Sophie Kinsella, Jilly Cooper and Frederick Forsyth, among others, any author can ring anyone in the company so that they feel properly supported.</p><p>"Increasingly, publishing companies act as units, and this is good," Godwin says. "When a publisher believes that a writer is important for their lists, they will mobilise all their resources to make sure that the book is successful: the right marketing, design, publicity and price point all stem from faith in a writer."</p><p>More cynically, Ayrton points to the power of the pound as a way of motivating a company's sales team to "pull out all the stops"; the bigger the advance, the more seriously the sales force takes its promotional responsibilities, in his opinion. However, Ayrton also appreciates the significance of a more nebulous factor, the synergy between imprint and author: dark, edgy Serpent's Tail was a perfect match for Shriver's We Need To Talk About Kevin, meaning that the novel was published with a suitably ominous cover design, and reviewers knew to receive the book as a serious literary work.</p><p>When all the elements of a harmonious working partnership are in place--when agent, author and publisher are all "singing from the same hymn book", as Godwin puts it--industry figures advocate erring on the side of continuity to give authors time for creative gestation. Janson-Smith warns that "it can be fatal to an author's career to move too many times", while Scott-Kerr maintains that "there is an awful lot to be said for longevity of relationships". He says: "With the market becoming more and more conservative, it is important to maintain one's representation of an author to the trade as forcefully and passionately on book 10 as on book one."</p><p>Alexander prefers not to move authors at all, unless there is "a very compelling argument to do so", such as the publisher no longer treating the author as a priority, or the author becoming too large a fish in too small a pond. The reason for her hesitation is the importance of backlists: if authors jump ship, they often leave their backlists behind, meaning that they can no longer be promoted alongside new books.</p><p>Fortunately, in the case of one author whom Alexander did move recently--teen bestseller Louise Rennison, who moved from small independent Piccadilly Press to HarperCollins--HarperCollins subsequently bought Rennison's backlist, assuring continuity. Nicholas Evans benefited from similar largesse: Transworld agreed that it was "sensible" for Evans' backlist to move with him to Time Warner; Transworld also, unusually, allowed Time Warner to take over the paperback publication of The Divide.</p><p>But as long as a sure-fire formula for books that sell in their tens, hundreds and even thousands of thousands remains uncracked--the fate of an author can be determined as much by the caprice of a Tesco buyer as by the hard graft of a like-minded publisher/author team--authors will continue to drop and be dropped in the search for the elusive "break-out book".</p><p>Given this unpredictability, Godwin feels that the industry's belief that loyalty should be taken for granted is misplaced; although he describes losing authors as "a blow to the stomach", he "absolutely" defends their right to move. Ayrton is similarly sanguine about Shriver's recent departure: he says that HarperCollins' generous golden hello was "just reward for 20 years of labour".</p>