Agent provocateur • 31 January 2007 • The SnowBlog

Agent provocateur


So, being a worrier, I worry about things, like whether I'm getting enough vitamins, and when will the heating be fixed (nice timing, no?) and whether we're building a company that actually has some inherent value rather than just being a collection of project managers that organise other people. And because I worry about it, we're probably ok, because we've gone to great lengths to actually do the things that publishers are meant to do, like sales and marketing, and cover design, and layout, and reading manuscripts, and editing, and bibliographic data management, and everything - which sounds odd if you're reading this from a vantage point outside of publishing, because you'd think 'of course they do - that's publishing'. But a lot of publishers outsource all that stuff, which is a perfectly viable strategy - it just means that your company is a bit of a shell; a hub rather than a place of craftsmanship and skills. 

So hopefully we'll be ok when the revolution comes - we'll have skills to fall back on and people will feel that we add value to the supply chain (see unimaginitive picture, above. Do you see what I've done? Supply chain? See how I've used a chain, there? Oh, never mind.*) Because you have to make damn sure that if you're in the bits between the red dots - all the stuff that goes on between the author and the reader - you're doing something that matters, otherwise big, or agile, or both, non-book-trade companies or groups of people, who know lots about computers and internets and the like, will swoop down in the not too distant future and do what you're doing, only better. Maybe. Probably.

And that brings me - finally - to the point of this post, which concerns another group of other players in the supply chain: agents. This is going to sound like some awful, xenophobic, Celebrity-Big-Brother cliche, but here we go... Don't get me wrong, some of my best friends are agents. Well, they're not, actually, but there are some really nice ones out there. The problem is that I'm just not convinced that they have thought through their business model. What, exactly, do they do? Or more precisely, what is it they do that is safe from being replaced in the new, connected, digitised era that beckons? 

See, agents are responsible for sourcing talent and making it available to publishers - to narrow the selection for them. Then they are responsible for negotiating a good deal on behalf of the author. Maybe some of the better ones also take it upon themselves to manage the author's expectations; to garner publicity using their contacts; to sell translation rights. Thing is, there's nothing there that is particularly unique. 

Take sourcing talent. I'm not convinced that agents have a particular talent for spotting brilliant writing. I'm even less convinced - borne out by experience - that they have an eye for spotting writing that will sell in any quantity. And in the light of initiatives like, I can really see the filtering process moving to a situation where readers - good god, the customer! - peer review prospective authors. Surely that would be more useful to the publisher - to know that 100 people read and enjoyed the book, rather than one agent who, to be blunt, is in it for the money, as are we all. 

That point about not being able to spot what will sell in quantity: agents are not retailers. They don't have a sense of passion about retail; the theatre of the store, the pride that comes from constructing a balanced, easy to shop range,  the enjoyment to be had by talking to customers, feeling that you've made a difference to their experience, that they've gone away happy and will come back for more. No, agents like Soho. They like being part of the literary world; they like discovering authors and reading great writing but it is not their priority, in their heart of hearts, to get that writing out to the masses. If it was they'd have gone into retail. 

Now take negotiating contracts. How many agents are trained lawyers? If I was going to give away 10% of my earnings I'd rather pay an experienced, insured lawyer, or consult an independent body like the Society of Authors who vet a contract for you for free. 

I think that some agents are invaluable, and that the higher up the celebrity spectrum you go the more sense it makes. Famous people can usually afford to have a staff to manage their affairs, and their contracts may involve complicated cross-media clauses that need an expert eye. Mind you, isn't an expert eye a lawyer, not an agent? Still, they can afford to have someone act on their behalf, so that's fine. 

But down the non-celebrity, middle market and debut author market, I feel that agents compound the problems of books being a closed-off world; a near impossible world to break into unless you have good contacts; a world of elitism and, dare I say it, snobbery. Publishers are getting really good at embracing the digital age - and sourcing manuscripts for less money has got to be a huge cost saving win for them. 

I've gone through this whole post so far without mentioning any of the anecdotal things that have happened to us when using agents. We've had an agent who has sold a book to us, only to retract it and sell it to someone else when a better deal came along. We've had an agent who promised that they would do loads of marketing for us, but then just emailed through a list of literary editors - uh, yes, we know who Boyd Tonkin and Jane Mays are - and suggested we phone them. We've heard of an agent who told an author that they need to find a really good accountant as they'd be so wealthy with their book they would have to manage their taxes really well. They never sold the book. 

What do you think? Do you think agents will survive into the future? Do they add sufficient value? What are your experiences? 

* In fact, why is it a straight line? Why isn't there a loopy bit going back from the reader to the author? Authors get so little feedback. Maybe it's why the industry pumps out thousands more books a year than the reading population can ever get through - because we have no idea what readers want so we just throw whatever we can at them until we get lucky and something sticks. 


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