FROM THE PULPIT
J EREMY L EWIS
another, the agent had become the one fixed point in an author’s life; and the agent of today is as much a manager as a quasi-accountant, involving himself in editorial labours,
W HEN I STARTED out in publishing, nearly forty years ago, the book trade was more elderly than it is today. ‘Billy’ Collins and ‘Jamie’ Hamilton were in their late sixties; ‘Fred’ Warburg and Victor Gollancz were even older, and Sir Stanley Unwin, with his white goatee beard, looked as old as the hills. Longevity has become less prized in the intervening years. George Weidenfeld is still active in his eighties, and Ernest Hecht of the Souvenir Press is as effervescent as ever: but very few of my contemporaries have survived the course. Red-faced men in chalk-striped suits have been elbowed aside by high-powered lady publishers; long, boozy lunches at the Garrick are tolerated, just, for the few survivors of the ancien régime. Literary agents, on the other hand, seem exempt from the cult of youth. Many of the top agents of today – Michael Sissons, Pat Kavanagh, Deborah Rogers, Gillon Aitken, Bruce Hunter – were the top agents of my youth, and show no signs of slowing down or jumping ship. Nor is there any good reason for them ever to retire. Successful agents are said to earn more than all but a few bestselling authors, far outstripping publishers and booksellers; and because they embody their businesses, they are the masters of their fates to a far greater extent than most publishers can ever hope to be. Whereas publishing houses consist of warehouses full of books, workin-progress and contracts as well as the people who work there, agencies are, in essence, no more and no less than the accumulated experience, shrewdness and rapacity of the agents themselves. Back in the Seventies and Eighties many independent publishers sold out to the conglomerates, and found themselves, often to their surprise, being shown the door by their new owners; but agents who sell out will be begged to stay on, since without them and their authors agencies dissolve into thin air. Publishers come and go, it seems, but agents go on for ever. Not surprisingly, many people who, in earlier times, might have become editors now aspire to be agents instead – so much so that every time I open The Bookseller I expect to read how yet another eminent publisher has hopped over the fence. Back in the Seventies, Ed Victor and Gillon Aitken set the pattern, and were followed in due course by David Godwin; recent apostates include Peter Straus, late of Picador, Caroline Michel from HarperCollins, Clare Alexander from Macmillan and the ebullient Patrick Janson-Smith of Transworld – whose father, Peter, represented Ian Fleming, Eric Ambler and Gavin Maxwell back in the Fifties, and has recently set up shop once more. Publishing, they tell us, has become intolerably corporate and bureaucratic, too dominated by salesmen and accountants. In the Nineties we were told that, with editors always on the move from one firm to
advising on publicity and jackets, and advancing his clients’ careers in film and television as well as the printed word. But since agents are essentially businessfolk, all this reflects realpolitik as well as the desire to be more closely involved with their authors’ work. In the old days, publishers ruled the literary roost, for good or for bad, but towards the end of the Eighties they ceded power to the new bookselling chains and to the literary agents: with the result that the great publishing conglomerates tend to combine massivity with powerlessness. Agents seem, by comparison, enviably free spirits; and whereas a publisher’s mistakes are invariably expensive, with money tied up in unearned advances and unsold stock, an agent’s dead duck represents little more than time wasted and a blow to the morale. Setting up and running a publishing house is a hugely expensive business; working on a commission basis, agents are recipients rather than investors, and the fact that starting up an agency is relatively cheap makes it an attractive option for editors who have recently been sacked or want to cast corporate shackles aside. This Gadarene rush into literary agency has come at a curious time. As the publishing conglomerates become ever larger, swallowing up one firm after another (the few remaining independents include Bloomsbury, Faber, Granta, Profile, Duckworth and Constable), the number of outlets to whom agents can sell their wares is bound to diminish. This coincides with a widening gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the literary world, with publishers concentrating their firepower – in the form of advances and publicity budgets – on a few hoped-for bestsellers, often ghostwritten for celebrities and sportsmen. The ‘midlist’ – those worthy books which get large reviews, sell in modest quantities, are more productive of réclame than profit, and are of no great interest to chains and supermarkets – has been under siege for as long as I can remember, with doomsters predicting its imminent demise; judging by the threadbare look of some publishers’ autumn catalogues, the moment of truth may be upon us. There is always a great gulf set between what an author needs to write a book and what a publisher should sensibly pay for it, and whereas agents both prompted and profited from the inflated advances paid over the last twenty years even for modest-selling books, there are signs that, for midlist titles at least, advances are tumbling down. Bestsellers are, by definition, few and far between; the rewards of the midlist are not what they were; what, one wonders, will all these agents be up to in five or ten years’ time? A job in publishing, perhaps?
LITERARY REVIEW July 2006