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[Reprinted from my blog Kissing the Blarney]

A very brief history of literary agents' powersharing with writers
by Andre Jute

Once upon a time there were no literary agents. In the beginnings of literature as we know it today, printers were publishers. Next publishers became intermediaries between writers and printers, and to justify their cut, which was about the same as that of the writer, provided editorial services, which come down to taste and experience. Publishers grew bigger, the balance of power shifted, the printer became a technician, the few writers became many, and some publishers misused their power to rip off wriiters. The term Grub Street arose. "Now, Barabbas was a publisher," said the poet Keats of the publisher John Murray.

At this point, already well into the twentieth century, the literary representative or literary agent enters the story to fill a need to protect the writer against the more rapacious publishers. This person was often an ex-editor with the trust of a bestselling writer, someone with taste and skill, more like the genteel agents depicted in The Sound of Bow Bells (look up the allusion in the title) by Jerome Weidman than the Hollywood flacks of What Makes Sammy Run by Budd Schulberg. My first agent, when I was 13, "Swifty" Lazar, was a cross between them; nothing wrong with Mr Lazar's cultural judgement, nothing wrong with Mr Lazar as a nutcutter dealmaker; a lawyer by profession, he'd been an agent since when Hoover was President. Note the description: representative, agent. These people, regardless of how powerful they became in publishing or films, knew they were not principals. They didn't tell writers, they revered the creators and treated them with respect.

At this point even the large publishing houses were still run by gentlemen but over the next couple of decades some of them grew very big, and the bigger the publishers grew, the more the writers needed the literary agents to protect them, the more the power of the best agents grew, and with it their arrogance. One a single day in 1978 I fired, to one's face, and by phone to the other one, the most prestigious agents in London and New York, one for telling me not to say "fuck" in his office and adding that he wasn't telling the leading literary publisher that unless they quadrupled their offer, I was out of the door and across the square to their competitors, the other one for mistaking himself for a principal rather than an agent, thereby proving he either hadn't read his contract with me or that his judgement was faulty. From the first agent's reception I called another firm of authors' representatives and later that afternoon watched their boss tell my publisher how much he would pay, and the publisher agreeing without any fuss, proving me right. I was very happy with him for several years, until he left agenting to become my publisher and as his first act gave me a rolling three-book commission (a "commission" is a book for which advances are paid before you write it). What I'm describing here is an author knowing more than the agents I fired, because he'd done his homework, and he was a businessman, not a posturing "artiste". Also, this is the high water mark of the literary representative as representative, sometime around a quarter century ago, say one whole generation of writers into the past. It is however a period in which the relationships are worth studying because we are in the process of returning to them.

Next, about 1990 and going forward, the conglomerate publishers, what by then was already identifiably the Big Six, fell into the hands of accountants who, like indie writers, thought publishing was an easy road to riches, anyone could do it. Accountants didn't see why some star editors needed to be paid star salaries when some dollybird fresh from the reception desk at Mills & Boon could "do the same job" for ten per cent of the pay. (It wasn't quite that bad, but some of the new people were of very poor quality. I made one of them drunk at lunch and got her to sign back all my rights to me, and kept the advances too, and the publisher nearly lost his job for it when the conglomerate's owner in California discovered later that afternoon what I had done.) So many experienced editors fell that the various massacres became knowns as the Nights of the Long Knives, plural. A few of them became agents, good ones in the literary sense; more, who had already turned themselves into dealmakers, became financially effective agents. This marks the point at which it became almost impossible for a new writer to put a manuscript in front of an editor without the intermediation of an agent.

It also marks the point at which some agents set themselves up as high priests, because only they could give writers access to the sacraments on the altar of publishing. The literary agent was no longer a representative of the author, he was the arbiter of what the writer could write and offer. The accountant-led conglomerate publishers used agents as a filter not of literary merit but of what would sell. The agent no longer needed any literary judgement; his stock in trade was the lowest common denominator. (In a special file I keep a collection of semi-literate letters from agents asking if I perhaps have a pop book or better still a series for them, or would I like to write or package, i.e. commission from other writers and supervise, a series they have thought up...) Because, as Donald Maass trenchantly pointed out, he was out of luck if fewer than ten houses declined his client's manuscript, and the writers were at least legion, and more likely a plague of locusts, the agent slid seamlessly from being the writer's representative to being the publisher's representative. It wasn't deliberate, and it wasn't malicious, it was just a logical extension of the way conglomerate publishing has worked since about 1990.

Then came Apple's iPad and iPhone, which are the artefacts of Apple's plan to tie a market permanently to them through the various iStores, which is where the real money is rather than in the devices, and copycatting Apple's dream of a tied market, Amazon, in whose armoury KDP (as it is now called) was the enabling device for most indies, whom Amazon saw as an army of feudal retainers to drive book prices down and thereby establish the Kindle as the dominant tablet. This Amazon plan failed (and from an indie viewpoint, a damn good thing too, because if it succeeded your royalty, with Amazon dominance licensing its rapaciousness, might now be 1%) but one of its side benefits was to liberate the writer from his bondage to the very few agents who could get through to the men with yes-power at the fewer than a double handful of publishers ever likely to publish a particular book, no matter how good it is.

Smart agents, and my experience of a lifetime in the arts, the applied arts, and the related business structures is that, as the rat is the paradigm (Tom Sharpe), so the literary agent who survives is the smartest kid on the creative block (run, Sammy, run!), understand that the opportunities of indie publishing bring with them a power shift, the balance returning to the writers. Most indies still regard agents with the same awe as in the last quarter-century only because they are so poorly educated or thoughtless that they axiomatically presume the status quo to be eternal; a little, a very little thought (Maynard Keynes) and reading about the profession they presume to enter will demonstrate that the Hegelian state of flux I describe is the only eternal truth: change as the only constant. Of course the smarter agents already understand that the hybrid writer, one who indulges in both trad and indie publishing, or even top professionals concentrating on indie publishing for its freedoms, will soon be the norm among the professional writers. (I can easily see and justify, though this isn't the place, a day when smart writers will use trad publishing to establish themselves and then deliberately leave it to go indie and pocket all the takings. That is essentially what I did when I walked out of conglomerate publishing and turned myself into a packager long before Amazon arrived to make it easy. The agent will then become a subsidiary rights manager, a specialist.) The very smartest agents are already using indie publishing as a slushpile (1) to find tomorrow's breadwinners to put the jam on the agent's bread.

No one with common sense travels in a strange country without a map. The writing profession is a very strange country indeed, but the maps are not secret or even obscure. You can find them if you make the effort, in many cases simply by asking. The knowledge could be worth money, and in most cases will be worth the difference between at least a modest career and the disappointment now felt by the grim-visaged "authors" who haunt the public fora.

One more thing. I've always had fun in the company of my agents. If yours aren't amusing, trade them in for agents who smile. Why be a writer, which is hard work for less money than you can get for applying the same skills and energy in another profession, if you aren't having fun? Why associate with auxiliaries (agents, publishers, reviewers, publicists, designers) who aren't fun? Behave like the creator everyone else depends on, the principal, and people will treat you with more respect.

(1) I used the indie-publishing-as-slushpile concept to determine what percentage of indies had been, in their words, "unfairly denied publication" under the trad publishing system, and to determine what percentage of indies had any literary quality, i.e. were worth publishing for any reason except their desire to be published. See Slush pile 1: From vanity publishers to independents

Copyright © 2013 Andre Jute. May be freely reproduced on not-for-profit sites as long as the article remains whole and this notice is included.
 

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Very interesting Post. I never met an agent who was really interested in my writing, who I ended up liking, or who was worth the powder necessary to blow him or her to Hell. In my experience they are mostly bitter and failed writers.

If anyone knows of a "good" agent, just point me towards it I like to see a curiosity. A "good" agent would be like an egg with hair.

Is my writing any good? Try one of my 24 KDP ebooks, and see for yourself.

"Jack the Ripper versus Sherlock Holmes" is popular now.
 

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The very small number of replies to the lengthy, very informative and overall excellent Post on Agents by Mr. Andre Jute, shows more clearly than anything else could, that Agents are no longer generally considered important.

Also among the hazards facing writers are those creatures who "teach" creative writing, and author's "critique" groups of beings who enjoy tearing your work to shreds.

Being an author is thornier than most people think. Famous and very successful author Ernest Hemingway said, "Writing is easy, all you do is sit at the typewriter and bleed." He capped an extremely successful career by eating his shotgun.

Due to the difficulties of and related to writing, just do it. A good Editor can be useful for awhile, but eventually it all rests on the author's shoulders., This is the case with all creative activity.

Just write, and write. And remember, many a flower blooms in the desert, where its beauty is seen only by bugs. Is the flower less beautiful for that? No, it isn't. And, though it's hard to believe, bugs are God's creatures too.

 

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Andre Jute said:
... I made one of them drunk at lunch and got her to sign back all my rights to me, and kept the advances too, and the publisher nearly lost his job for it when the conglomerate's owner in California discovered later that afternoon what I had done ...
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I liked that part best of all.
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The agent that can guarantee "discoverability" to any new author across any/all platforms will be able to collect all the writers they want. That new agent will come out of a smaller-company consumer products Marketing/Sales environment, not business-to-business relationships of the prior publishing systems.
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I was just breaking in and sending out subs when agents were raising their rates from 10 percent to 15 percent. I asked several times why and all I got was the mumbled "Our expenses are increasing" (as if everyone else's wasn't.)

The real truth was they did it because they could. And almost 100 percent of the time without fail, in a dispute between you and the publisher, the agent will side with the publisher- for whom they are basically a subcontractor.

Yes, there are good and even great agents out there. Equally true, most agents will be making most of their money in the next few years droning pompously away at writer conferences and those five-minute speed-dating sessions at paid workshops where the illusion of access is sold as privilege.
 

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scottnicholson said:
The real truth was they did it because they could. And almost 100 percent of the time without fail, in a dispute between you and the publisher, the agent will side with the publisher- for whom they are basically a subcontractor.
I don't think I'd use the term subcontractor there for an agent. Since by definition of subcontractor they are more a writer's subcontractor. Not doubting the results though (except maybe the 100%, there has to be at least 1% where the agent works on the author's side, doesn't there?)
 

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scottnicholson said:
Yes, there are good and even great agents out there. Equally true, most agents will be making most of their money in the next few years droning pompously away at writer conferences and those five-minute speed-dating sessions at paid workshops where the illusion of access is sold as privilege.
Actually, agents don't make money at conferences, unless they manage to sign someone and get that person a huge advance. Most conferences don't charge additionally for agent/editor meetings or if they do the monies go to the organization putting on the conference, not to the agents. Agents are however usually reimbursed for travel and hotel expenses to get there.
 

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the agent slid seamlessly from being the writer's representative to being the publisher's representative. It wasn't deliberate, and it wasn't malicious, it was just a logical extension of the way conglomerate publishing has worked since about 1990.
Yet another traditionally experienced author saying this is the case. A very interesting and dangerous dynamic.

Behave like the creator everyone else depends on, the principal, and people will treat you with more respect
I loved that line.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
phildukephd said:
I never met an agent who was really interested in my writing
Let's not confuse two functions.

An agent is not interested in the quality of your writing but in its marketability; the quality of the writing is a side issue, very often an irrelevance. The agent's function isn't to improve your writing but to extract the maximum revenue from it. The agent just doesn't have time to teach you to write, and for you it is a waste of a valuable connection to expect him to do it. This is aside from the question of whether the agent is capable of helping you. The ability to recognize saleable material is not the same same as the ability to recognize writing skill. Teaching, training and developing writing skill is another ability again, and very, very time-consuming.

The editor's function is often misrepresented as your writing, but, except in those once common but now very rare cases where a senior editor still does his own copy-editing, that's not how it works either. The senior editor is interested in the effect and affect of your book, the impact it makes, its structure, whether it has a beginning, a middle, an end, whether all actions are motivated, in short whether it makes sense and is exciting as a whole. Most editors today are acquisitions editors: they won't tell you if there is something wrong with your structure, they'll just tell the agent it doesn't hang right, sorry, no sale, next.

The person at an old-fashioned publisher who is/was interested in your writing, in the sentence by sentence and word by word sense, was the copy-editor, a flunky without any acquisitions or marketing power. In any event, note the qualification and the optional/tentative tense: they're mostly gone now, considered an unnecessary expense by the accountant-led conglomerate publishers, with the writer presumed to have done this job, or paid someone to undertake only its technical (spelling, grammar) aspect.

Writers who need help, which is most of them, are on their own. Aha, I see you said so later in the thread. I'll let the above stand, for the edification of new writers who haven't yet discovered the harsh topology of the landscape of literature.

phildukephd said:
Due to the difficulties of and related to writing, just do it. A good Editor can be useful for awhile, but eventually it all rests on the author's shoulders., This is the case with all creative activity.

Just write, and write.
 

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Someone told me of a quote about a man who shot his literary agent and another writer said, "Well that was a step in the right direction."  ;D
 

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Always interesting and thoughtful, Andre. Not to mention being a darn useful voice of  of reference.

My only thoughts... I guess I would talk to an agent if one decided to make contact. But hen, I even talked to a publisher who did the same, so I guess that's not much of a concession.  ;)

 
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