A conversation with Ed Victor about his 40 years in the publishing industry is like an agenting masterclass sprinkled with stellar names and entertainingly frank anecdotes.
Fresh from his latest headline- grabbing deal—the world rights sale of former prime minister David Cameron’s memoir to HarperCollins—Victor may now be known for his high-profile clients and fondness for glamorous literary parties, but when he first became an agent all those decades ago, the role was thought of as an “inferior” one, he says. He thought “long and hard” before making the move from publishing, deciding he could change how agenting worked and perceptions of it in the industry.
“I think agents mediate and enhance and improve the publishing process,” he explains, ensconced in the elegant surroundings of his office in Bedford Square. “There are many publishers out there who are wise enough to know that having an agent there makes it a better experience for them than not; that authors are very insecure, they can be very mercurial, they can be very difficult. I regard my role as being independent, I will say to an author, ‘No, no, the publisher is right in this case.’ It is not my job to blindly support the author. I think you support them better by telling them what you regard as the truth.”
But when you are at odds with a publisher, it is important, he says, to know when to lose the battle in order to win the war. “May I show you the worst title I’ve ever seen?” he asks.
He pulls out the US edition of John Banville’s forthcoming book, writing as Benjamin Black. In the UK it is titled Prague Nights, but in the US edition (from Henry Holt), it is the rather obscure Wolf on a String, apparently drawn from a phrase deep in the book, a murder mystery set in the court of Rudolf the Second.
“I fought and fought, and John fought and fought, but in the end we thought, ‘The publisher really, really wants it. And you can’t stop him.’” When a publisher wants a jacket or title Victor hates, he “goes into a yogic trance”, he says. “In that trance I truly believe they know something I don’t. They must have their reasons for this.”
Certain lines cannot be crossed, if it involves editorial interference. “[US publisher] Peter Mayer, who is a great friend and who I’ve done a lot of business with, came up with this brilliant idea for Robert Littell, who is a spy writer. ‘Why don’t you write a book that will do for the CIA what Mario Puzo did for the Mafia?’ One-line idea, a brilliant idea. Bob agreed to do it. I counselled him about doing it. I said: ‘This publisher has given you this idea, so he’s going to be on your case, he’s probably writing the book in his head.’ Nevertheless he persisted, and when he handed in the first chunk, Peter said: ‘There are too many heroes in here, it needs to be one person.’ Robert said: ‘It can’t be one person, I’m not writing it that way’. So I called Peter and said: ‘I’m giving you a choice—either shut up and leave him alone and we’ll send the book to you when it’s done, or I, Ed, will write you a cheque for the signature advance and we’ll be out of it.’To his credit, he just said: ‘I’ll shut up.’ Bob handed in this brilliant book [The Company], a very big bestseller and also a TV series for which I was executive producer.”
Victor thinks his role is really about getting the publisher to focus on his clients’ books. Too many publishers are on autopilot, he says, and “it’s not totally their fault because people publish too many books”. Nor does a high advance guarantee good publishing: “I have seen a lot of books for which publishers paid a lot but they didn’t take care of them properly. And sometimes buyer’s remorse sets in: things go wrong and it’s, ‘Oh God, we wasted our money, let’s not throw more money at it’.”
An example of good agenting intervention, says Victor, was when he sold Max Brookes’ début The Zombie Survival Guide to Crown in the US in 2002. “I called a meeting. Max walked in with 10 sheets of paper, handed them out to everybody, and said: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, there are millions of kids in this country who live in their mothers’ basements and believe in zombies. These websites are where they hang out—just get to these places.’ No one had ever heard about social media marketing [in 2002], and the book went from a 15,000-copy print run to selling over two million.”
The general state of play between authors and publishers is “pretty decent”, he thinks. There are points of difference: “I do think 25% of net [on e-book sales] is not right…And I see no reason why e-books are different from p-books in not having a sliding scale.” But he thinks a lot of publishers are doing a good job with author care.
He dislikes giving publishers global rights—“I say with no false modesty, this agency is better at selling rights than any publishing house, because it’s our life blood”—but he has to by the nature of his client list. “I am forced to because I handle a certain level of client: they want that big number [the advance]. And I don’t blame them. Eric Clapton [whose memoir Victor sold in 2005 for a rumoured $4m] is not going to do another book, Keith Richards is not going to do another book. David Cameron’s not going to do another book—probably. Although I hope he does, because he writes very well. But basically, you have one shot and you may as well hit the money, and [global rights] is where the money piles up.”
Terms of engagement
Victor’s eclectic list results from him having “the brain of a grasshopper”. He has three criteria for taking on an author, he says: personality, the quality of the book and its money-making potential. Any one of those three will swing it.
“If there is a person I really like and want to be close to, whose work is OK but doesn’t make very much money, I’ll do it. If there is another, one who isn’t a very nice person but who has written an extraordinary book, [even if ] it won’t make a lot of money I’ll do it, because I love books. If you find something great, you want to disseminate it and bring it to the world. And if there is a book by someone who [he laughs] is not wonderful, and the book is not particularly good, but it is going to make a lot of money, I owe it to my company to do it. I have to feed its hungry maw.”
Asked to cite his most rewarding creative relationships, he names Iris Murdoch and Douglas Adams, “two extraordinary people, who are dead, alas, who I found so extraordinary as to use the word genius. Very different. It was a pleasure and privilege to work with them. Iris would go months or years without writing to me, and then she’d call up and say: ‘Ed, I’ve written a novel.’ And Douglas would call up every day, sometimes three times a day: ‘I’m on the corner of Well Street and Oxford Street, which way should I turn?’ I loved that contact.”
In these straitened times, a lot of authors are having to “take haircuts”— Victor’s among them—hence consolidation among literary agencies as their earnings decrease with their authors’. But Ed Victor Ltd will always be independent. “People have come and flirted with me over the years but I just feel I am breathing pure oxygen by being independent. And when I see my publishing pals sometimes getting caught up in the machinery of corporate life, I feel sorry for them. Because corporations are not grateful, they just use your labour and move on. I think it’s been one of the very best aspects of my life that I own my own professional life. No one tells me what to do.”
After the departure of former colleagues Sophie Hicks and Charlie Campbell in 2014 to set up their own agenting ventures, the agency is at a “good fighting weight”, and he will “work till he drops”, Victor says. There is no succession plan, “although I have this really bright young man working here, Charlie Brotherstone, who is terrific and young and will prosper.”
He explains: “I feel agents are a very personal choice for authors. Obviously my career will come to an end because I will come to an end, but these [authors] are substantial people. They’ll figure it out from there.”