As often happens during your average week, something I see on the Wonderful Worldwide Web rattles my cage. This week, it was this: Why We Love Literary Agents – NOT
Let me set out my stall from the start. I’m an indie publisher. No agent, no publishing house, no reason to be defending the system. I have an agent for translation rights because that is a field beyond my ken
Authors love a good bout of agent bashing, and in some aspects, I understand why the frustrations at scaling the wall of recognition results in bitterness and bile. But there’s another side to the story. I write The Agent’s View column for Words with JAM magazine. I’ve interviewed, met, collaborated with and learned from many of these snaggle-toothed demons, and with one notable exception (not quoted below), found passion, energy, commitment, expertise and love. Yes, love. A real love for terrific stories and wonderful storytellers.
And here are a selection of quotes to show why I love good literary agents.
How would you describe the author-agent relationship?
I think the author-agent relationship has to be somewhat intimate. My authors are also my friends, I like them! The agent is the one consistent person in the life and career of an author when editors move on and change houses. I fulfil several roles: editor, business adviser, friend, agony aunt (occasionally) and increasingly, I find myself involved in marketing and publicity.
Hannah Westland (Previously RCW, now editor at Serpent’s Tail)
Why do writers need an agent? Why not work directly with a publisher?
Some small publishers prefer that. But I would say that an agent will put your interests first, by trying to sell your rights all over the world, getting you the best deal across various media. Whereas a publisher will put their own interests above yours.
Christian Dittus http://www.fritzagency.com/en/
The world of books is changing fast – what elements depress you and which make you optimistic?
Editorial savvy and instinct are increasingly being replaced by marketing considerations; it’s become rare that an editor acquires a book because he or she thinks that it’s a great book, or an important book, or both. And the imbalance between production (publishing) and distribution (bookselling) continues in the digital marketplace, where publishers – the providers of “content” – seem to be on the same fateful road as they were in the bricks-and-mortar trade, by giving e-booksellers (internet platforms; formerly: bookstore chains) ever more power, and an ever bigger piece of the revenue pie in the form of disproportionate discounts. With this practice they give away the very ground they stand on, they make it hard if not impossible for smaller publishers to compete, and they leave next to nothing to the authors.
On the other hand, new impulses and fresh ideas often come from small, independent houses, and fortunately there seems to be no end of start-up publishers with a vision; true, they often have more idealism than money, but that’s where innovation comes from. And every day a great book is being written or published, and every day hungry readers are out to discover great writing.
Laura Longrigg http://www.mbalit.co.uk/content/laura-longrigg
Do authors sometimes have unrealistic expectations of an agent’s role? How do you see the agent/author relationship?
Some authors think that once they have an agent, the job is done, they now will get a publisher. That sadly isn’t always the case, however much you as the agent may be passionate about the author’s work, it is no use if you don’t find an editor who shares that passion and can actually persuade their colleagues to let them publish it.
Often the agent makes no money for months if not years in the early stages of a relationship with an author, so we can be working for nothing until a book gets sold and that means an agent has to be really passionate about an author’s work and can clearly see that the author has publishing potential, not just for one book but several, and not just in the UK but internationally. The relationship is therefore to my mind based on trust, shared hard work, and belief in the author’s work.
Svetlana Pironko http://www.authorrightsagency.com/
The world of books is changing fast – what elements get you down and which make you optimistic?
What gets me down is the general depreciation of intellectual property. How can we blame readers for forgetting that writing and publishing a book requires talent and represents a huge amount of work, often years of it?
I am all in favour of e-books, and it would be stupid to try to go against the tide anyway. But I hope that both publishers and readers will keep in mind that content is much more important than the support and will pay for it, pay writers for their work.
What makes me optimistic? There will always be writers and there will always be readers. At least, I hope so. Isn’t it part of what makes us human?
Jane Gregory http://www.gregoryandcompany.co.uk/
How will the role of agents change, do you think?
The role of the agent has been subtly changing for some time. We are there to represent and protect our authors, our role has changed in that we probably are needed more than ever to guide and manage an author’s career.
Jonny Geller http://www.curtisbrown.co.uk/jonny-geller/
Are agents now doing the job of editors and editors doing the work of marketers?
That’s too simplistic. Agents have been moving towards the editorial side for over ten years. And in today’s climate, you can’t sell a book that isn’t at least 80% there. So the agent works with the author to get it to that stage. In the old days, agents had lunch with publishers, pitched an idea they were excited about and by mid afternoon, a deal was on the table. Now, months of work precede that pitch, including putting a marketing plan in place. After a sale, it’s the agent who continually lobbies to raise the author’s profile, organises the blurb, gets quotes for the jacket and so on. Put it this way, it’s like walking someone home. It used to be that the agent would take the author all the way to the gate. Now they have to come inside the house with you.
Nathan Bransford http://nathanbransford.com/
Has the standard of editing declined?
No, I don’t believe so. I think there’s a bit of mythology surrounding past golden eras of books, that look shinier in retrospect because all the duds are out of print. Editors still edit.
Pete Morin (author) on his agent Christine Witthohn http://www.bookcentsliteraryagency.com/
I stumbled upon a literary agent who not only understood the changes that were coming, but embraced them, and encouraged me and several other of her authors to self-publish. Dumb luck.
Julia Churchill http://www.amheath.com/about-us
How do you feel when you sign a new client?
Every agent knows the feeling and you can read it on our faces. An agent who’s just signed up someone extraordinary looks a bit different to the one who hasn’t got their new project. They’ll look like they’ve just come back from a spa-break or honeymoon – shoulders down, brow smooth and filled with trust in the world and the promise of great things to come. You know when you meet a friend you haven’t seen for a while – and you can tell in a second that they’re in love? It’s just like that.
And my all-time favourite agent for common sense, market savvy and generosity of spirit, Andrew Lownie http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/
You’ve set up Thistle Publishing, your own imprint. How come?
Many agencies were dipping their toes in the market pushing reverted backlist titles or filling territorial gaps where books had not sold such as in America. I decided to be more ambitious and was influenced by your very own writers’ conference in Zurich last October where it was clear changes in the industry were being driven by authors, and agents would be left behind if they didn’t embrace the revolution taking place.
Andrew regularly shares articles on his website explaining what editors are seeking. Inside info that authors need to know. http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/articles
So yes, I love literary agents, because they champion great stories and fight for their authors. And what better-trained eyes to find a diamond in the ash?