Agents: The Business of Writing

That winter I had been most successful at the poetry trade. At least five percent of the verse I sent out failed to come back. In three months I had made twenty pounds out of my poems.

—Patrick Kavanagh, The Green Fool         

Not far north of us here in San Francisco, Jack London’s ranch in Glen Ellen has a display case of his rejections slips. There are a lot of them. After he became successful, publishers who’d rejected his stuff wrote asking him for work, and he sent out previously rejected manuscripts, which were then accepted, because he was, after all, successful. In his writing and in his life and business affairs, London was something of a buccaneer, a self-determined individualist, a force of nature. For a time as a young man he raided other men’s oyster beds in the San Francisco Bay and sold his plunder. He famously noted, “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” True to his credo, he vitally expended himself, dying at forty, leaving behind more than twenty novels and as many short story collections, as well as works of poetry, nonfiction, and drama. Once, responding to a letter from a twenty-year-old writer looking for his big break, London wrote, “If you are going to write for success and money, you must deliver to the market marketable goods.” London made a lot of money, yet his expenditures typically outran his income, giving him powerful financial motivation to produce more work. How savvy was he? Some years ago, when I asked E. L. Doctorow about his efforts to establish a TV channel offering programs about books, he shrugged and noted that writers seem to get business ideas almost right, and he cited London’s short-lived attempt to start a grape juice company in Glenn Ellen. Others in the region would later create fortunes from turning their grapes to wine.

Art is art, business is business. The gift for each is seldom equally present in an individual. For most of those dedicated to literary work—writers, agents, editors, publishers, publicists, marketers, booksellers, reviewers, critics, academics—one of the two gifts is infinitely more interesting than the other. Of the tension between art and livelihood, Yeats observed:

A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow-bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather;
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
And Auden, memorializing Yeats’s death, echoed:
But in the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.
Art touches the soul and moves life in ways that commerce cannot, yet commerce is necessary to purveying art. One of my earliest mentors, Peter Taylor, advised against writing for the market: “I’ve never written anything for money.” Another Taylor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, put it this way: “Never pursue literature as a trade.” It’s good advice, but high-mindedness doesn’t necessarily pay the bills or produce an audience. Peter Taylor had the advantage of a substantial inheritance. His concern wasn’t with having money enough to afford time enough to write but with seeing his work well published and recognized for its merit. The money was secondary to critical and popular appreciation, but for most artists the variables of money and time demand ongoing efforts at solution. This is where agents come in.
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