Published in The Bookseller 24 June 2004
The dead hand of safe bets
In my colleague Caroline Dawnay’s office sits a rather magnificent double-sided desk. It was once the property of Mr A D Peters, who founded his agency in 1924. I often ruminate about the contracts and manuscripts that have crossed this huge, battered but historical piece of furniture, and the people who have sat on the “visitor side”. In Mr Peters’ day it would have been Hilaire Belloc, C S Forester, Nancy Mitford, J B Priestley, Evelyn Waugh and Rebecca West. Today, Caroline’s visitors include Nick Hornby, Alain de Botton and Ann Widdecombe.
There may be almost 80 years between these two groups of authors, but they all come in search of the same things from their agents: a critical sounding board, good advice, strong business acumen and a friend who can arrange a long-term literary marriage with a publisher who wants to nurture their career, build them into a bestseller–and keep them there.
Being an agent used, on one level, to be more straightforward: a matter of talent-spotting and matchmaking with a likely editor. Businesses have to evolve to keep pace with change, but now, selling a book can be a Machiavellian task of huge frustration, not just for agents but for editors too.
When I joined the publishing world a decade ago, I got a strong sense that we worked in an editorially led business, where sharp minds and idiosyncratic individuals championed authors and forged careers. We are now working in an environment where the editor’s role has been devalued to, at times, that of “product manager”, and where collective acquisitioning results in bland trend-following rather than exciting trend-setting. This has to change or we are all going to hell in a handcart.
Assessing a book’s financial potential is crucial. Yet, if we are not careful, publishing will become completely over-run by sales and marketing departments, and we may as well start sending our projects direct to them. One exasperated leading publisher told me the other day: “I don’t know why we bother asking the sales department’s opinion–they are either cautious or wrong.” When I put this to a marketing director in New York, the reply was swift: “Leaving decision making to the editorial board would make the business even more unprofitable than it is already.”
Our job as agent is to safeguard the author’s interests in the middle of these clashing Titans and ensure that talented writers are not crushed by internal power plays.
The barriers to publication for an author have never been higher. The complexities which are supposed to ensure that acquisitions are driven by enthusiasm are now conspiring to stop projects getting out there at all. The overheads at most conglomerates are so crippling that sales projections have to be extremely high for a book to be deemed worthy of an offer. Eats, Shoots & Leaves would not, I imagine, have had a particularly healthy costing at a conglomerate, but the same figures at Profile made it happen.
As the publishing world continues to eat itself, the crucial diversity of publishers’ lists will suffer, and the next generation of editors will lose interest and wander off to better paid jobs elsewhere.
Making a splash
There is two-fold pressure on young editors to pursue only the big ticket projects: firstly, because anything less won’t compute; and secondly because there are fewer books being acquired so that, to earn their spurs, upwardly mobile editors need to make a splash.
You are not going to do that by buying a quiet book for £5,000. One sometimes feels an editor would rather end up with £70,000 unearned on a £100,000 advance than with a book bought for a modest sum, published to some pleasing reviews, selling 3,000 in trade paperback and 7,000 in A format, earning out and paving the way for a step-up with book two. Going simply for the potential bestseller every time is the quickest route to publishing oblivion for many authors, condemning us all to reinventing the wheel every time.
There is a game I often play. It’s called “Name the Second Book”. The rules are simple: you look at the pre-Frankfurt Bookseller of a few years ago, read the announcement of the “Six-figure pre-empt for début author” and try to remember what happened next. The game doesn’t take long, because 90% of the time you can’t remember the author’s first book, let alone their second.
There are, of course, publishers out there who will buy a project for strategic reasons and are happy to overpay, skewing the market; and there are, of course, agents who take a short-term view and go just for the big advances. But the responsible agent will think long term about what is best for their author. Putting an unearnable price tag on a book will often result in a career cut short after just one or two books. This is truly pointless.
Looking for safe bets
Publishers are too anxious to opt for big, safe bets rather than boxing clever with smaller projects that may bear fruit. Much of this cautiousness is down to the message a small advance sends out internally: to marketing and sales, it says that there are better candidates for in-store promotions and that a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” publishing plan will suffice. Much of publishing works on self-fulfilling prophecy. Small books, with a few exceptions, usually remain small.
Agents do care about the long term. It is sad when talented authors are cut off in their prime, and it concerns me that there are many young authors starting out today who will never get the chance to write their great breakout novel. If their first two haven’t set the world on fire then a third novel is unlikely to be commissioned at all. Moreover, in today’s climate, unless your book is chosen for a promotion, the likelihood of failure is even greater.
Publishers will point out that they are running businesses, not creative-writing schools. But balance is crucial. The publishing world needs to get back to its roots and reinvest the role of editor with some of the power it used to have. Publishing by committee has its merits, but from an agent’s point of view we understand the value of individual passion–the passion that burns in the creative mind of an author, the matching passion of their agent. All too often the passion we find in an individual editor is stamped on by a Kafkaesque conglomerate culture.
The publishing world has been built on the reputations of great editors supporting great authors represented by passionate agents. To remove the editor so completely from this equation could leave us with a crumbling empire devoid of the innovation and renewal crucial to the creative culture we live and work in.
Simon Trewin is a literary agent at PFD and former secretary of the Association of Authors’ Agents. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, www.pfd.co.uk.