On good and bad literary agents

My friend is in a bad relationship. She has been with her other half for more years than she cares to remember but she has been unhappy for some time. Once each of them had hopes for the other but somewhere along the line those hopes have turned to ashes, leaving disappointment and sourness in their place. For some time, my friend has felt herself to be a burden on her other half. She has occasionally thought of infidelity (encouraged by me) but in the end she feels safer in the cold haven of the relationship she knows. So she continues unhappily on a treadmill of frustration, hurt and occasional, short-lived reconciliation. She can be something of a bore on the subject.

The other half, by the way, is not her husband; it is her literary agent.

When two or three professional authors get together, the subject of their bitching and boasting will not be their publishers but their agents. When new writers are preparing to launch their careers, their eldorado is to find an agent. When publishing editors or publicists dream of moving to a new level of personal and professional satisfaction, independence and remuneration, they have but one thought: they will become an agent. It is an odd fact that the focus of modern literary life is not the person who writes books nor the one who publishes them but the intermediary who brings the two sides together.

The job is more difficult than it looks. Agents need to be good at money and like making it, yet also be interested in words. They should understand the publishing establishment, but not be part of it. Judgement is important, both literary and commercial. They have to remain sympathetic but firm – not easy at the best of times, but particularly onerous when dealing on a daily basis with a profession of egotists, paranoiacs and hysterics (and authors are sometimes not much better).

Yet we need them. A few authors bravely represent themselves, arguing with some justification that it is easier to take setbacks at first hand than to have someone in the middle adding new levels of insecurity and insult, but most writers would feel naked and afraid without an accredited representative working, however ineffectively, on their behalf.

For those gazing helplessly for the first time at the Agents section in The Writer’s Handbook or, like my unhappy friend, dreaming of a new agenting relationship, a few basic guidelines may be of some use.

A good agent is an instinctive outsider. She spends much of her professional life with publishers, and is good at pretending to be part of their world. They buy her lunch and gossip with her. Her real loyalty, though, is not to them but to the poor saps sitting at home, hunched over a writing-pad or tapping at a computer. These people may not buy her lunch or flatter her but they are her clients and their interests come first.

A bad agent talks tough on behalf of her clients but she knows (and the publisher knows) that it is all show. She has decided that her survival and success as an agent depends not on some puny, here-today-gone-tomorrow author but on a small number of large publishing corporations. The admission is never made, even when agent and editor are going through a subtle minuet of deception in order to reassure the author, but when there is a serious disagreement between her client and the publisher, she will follow the money.

The good agent does the boring stuff. In a world of careless publishers who are happy to use increasingly complex royalty structures to their own advantage, and financially incompetent authors who are as delighted as puppies to receive any money at all, an agent’s unshowy acts of housekeeping – chasing up money, noticing dodgy accounting – are worth any number of warm words.

The bad agent is quickly bored by detail. He has decided that negotiations which descend into tedious complexity, or author complaints which require time-wasting investigation, are unglamorous, dull and, worst of all, unprofitable. Like an estate agent, he wants quick, easy turnover with the minimum of fuss.

The good agent is not an agony aunt. She understands that writing can be difficult and emotionally scouring but she also knows that it is a business. It is not her job to listen to blubbing, needy authors at all times of the day and night. She is sympathetic but maintains a discreet professional coolness at all times.

The bad agent drops names and boasts about the huge advances she has negotiated for her other clients. It is an embarrassing fact that between an author and his representative, the illusion that she has no other clients of remotely comparable importance, should be politely maintained at all times. Both sides know that it is nonsense but it is one which helps the author along in some strange way. The agent who chortles smugly while recounting the achievements of her bigger, richer, better-looking writers is engaged in an act of passive aggression.

The good agent is aware that writing can take an author in odd directions. He may see that his client might make more money writing books which echo earlier successes but, having pointed out the fact, will accept that the author will follow his own enthusiasm.

The bad agent becomes over-excited by a project and over-hypes it in a way that invites rejection. He will believe that this kind of hucksterism is part of being an agent and, if it goes horribly wrong, will quickly move on, leaving his author’s career beached on the sands of his misjudgement.

The good agent rings her authors on a regular basis.

The bad agent promotes himself before his authors.

The good agent treats writers like grown-ups.

The bad agent takes up a young writer’s novel, then drops him after three rejections.

There are many more bad agents than good ones.

Winter 2009