Michael Sissons: Agent of change

Michael Sissons: Agent of change

Veteran literary agent Michael Sissons was born to make paint. The Hull-based family firm Sissons Brothers & Co had been doing just that since the 18th century, at one point making "Hall's Distemper" once regarded as the best paint in the British Empire. The Second World War ended all that. His father, grandfather and cousin were killed in the conflict and the paint factory was destroyed during the blitz of Hull.

Instead of paint, Sissons fell "by accident" into ink in 1959 under the wing of the then formidable literary agent Augustus Dudley Peters, whose own son was killed in the last week of the war. In 1973 Sissons inherited the agency A D Peters & Co from its founder. "I knew from day one that it suited me down to the ground," he says. "I have never looked at the notion of another job since that day. I have never wished to do anything else, and I can still scarcely believe my luck."

Sissons has presided over the agency as partner, managing director, and chairman for the best part of 50 years, including a particularly eventful past 20. In 1988 it was renamed Peters, Fraser & Dunlop, following a merger with a rival agency. In 2001 PFD was sold to CSS Stellar in a deal it was hoped would broaden the agency's ability to represent its clients by finding synergies with CSS' main sports representation and events business. But CSS Stellar was an inadequate parent and following the defection of a number of agents in 2007 a second buyout followed in 2008, this time headed by chief executive Caroline Michel and backed by newspaperman Andrew Neil.

Sissons will not talk about the most recent events. In his speech at his party celebrating 50 years at the agency, held last month at the Groucho Club in London, he publicly thanked Michel and managing director Lesley Davey "for steering us so successfully out of what is perhaps most tactfully described as the single unhappy episode in the company's history".

Sissons, who now works three days a week as senior consultant, still espouses an "expansionist" strategy, despite the CSS failure. "Over my last 20 years, I have believed in the big rather than small agency approach, not for reasons of aggrandisement but because I could see the world in which we operate developing in a multimedia way and I've seen the people to whom we sell get bigger and bigger." Naming no names, he adds: "I am surprised there are still many people who take a different view, who yearn for a cosy world in which that is not the case."

It is scarcely possible now to imagine the world Sissons entered 50 years earlier. "Publishing regarded itself as an occupation for gentlemen," usually of the titled variety, whereas agents were "universally regarded by publishers as very bad news," he says. Sissons helped set up the Association of Authors' Agents in the 1970s, partly to help define what agents should be and how they should be regarded within the business. In contrast to publishers, he says: "I don't think we had a very clear view of what we were. We were definitely on the periphery of publishing activity and that irked me very much."

It could not be more different now, of course. "Circumstances played into our hands," he says. "The agent did not make himself indispensable to the author; things happened that we were there to pick up." Mostly, it would seem, at the expense of the publisher. "I was always convinced that the arrogance of publishing was misplaced. Publishers really did not want to see themselves as commercial and they largely didn't spot what was happening around them."

What was happening was that the hardback book was losing its primacy, with newspaper serialisation deals and television becoming an important source of income for authors (and their agents). Sissons says he could not allow publishers to have control over the new income streams. "I took the view very early on that publishers had no business acquiring those rights if they were not competent to market them."

But change did not come without a fight. Sissons says it took 15 years for the publishers it dealt with to accept a PFD contract that shifted the balance. "We were up against publishers who regarded themselves as a social and political layer rather than a business," he says.

Publishing is "unrecognisably more effective and competent" than it was, even if the fights continue, he says, highlighting an ongoing spat with Random House over print-on-demand. Unsurprisingly, he adds that he has never thought of leaping the fence, although he acknowledges (as in the case of Michel) that cross-over happens more frequently than it used to. "It depends on how you see yourself. The agent is both advocate and salesman. But the publisher is a manufacturer, and an advertising man, and anyone with any other view of publishing these days is in the wrong business."

As for the future of PFD, which celebrated its 85th anniversary in 2009, Sissons says that Neil is the "ideal chairman" though admits he is "tough and you've got to stand up to him".

Sissons is also positive about the future of the industry as a whole, believing that in the digital age demand for creative content will grow. "Publishing will occupy a slowly diminishing market share of a hugely expanding worldwide industry, and that's not a bad place to be," he argues—particularly with the agent at the centre.