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.

Literary agents, or authors’ representatives, as they are also called, exist to handle publishing business for writers. The types of details that agents handle for authors can include negotiating the sales of works, making contracts, managing relationships with publishers and their departmental personnel (editors, rights and permissions directors, art directors, publicists, marketers, sales staff, etc.), helping with networking and with garnering blurbs, booking speaking engagements, receiving advances and royalty payments on behalf of the author, arranging reprints, and moving titles from one publisher to another. Agents may also provide editorial and career or personal advice. Most agents, like most writers, editors, publishers, and booksellers, come to the work for love. They’re readers, deeply touched early on by something they read and afterward inspired to follow that connection into a literary vocation.

That said, the publishing world is rough-and-tumble. The challenges are considerable. More than one literary aspirant has passed from romantic idealism to pragmatism to cynicism. Go stand in a bookstore and observe potential book buyers sampling the wares and note how quickly choices are made based simply on personal taste or on a line or two. Study the comments posted on Amazon about classic works and note the contradictory nature of readers’ views and, in many cases, the impatient inanities and harshness of expression. For example, a woman reader reviewing Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own opined nonsensically, “No wonder this woman took her own life. She was a nut! And talk about analyzing every living moment, she could have used a lot of it herself.” In Woolf’s lifetime, most of her works did not garner big sales or earn big sums, yet today she stands among the immortals, and Hogarth Press, the publishing company that she and her husband Leonard established to bring out her works, is now an imprint of Random House.

Eudora Welty, a writer influenced by Woolf, did not immediately find acceptance, because, as Chekhov noted, what the public loves in art is that to which they are already accustomed, and Welty presented an original vision in storytelling. Her gifts were first recognized by an agent, Diarmuid Russell, who connected her to the great New Yorker editor William Maxwell, who appreciated her work and brought it forward. And these key connections between Welty and her advocates persisted for a lifetime. Up until the late middle of the twentieth century, aspiring authors could reasonably hope to establish a devoted relationship with an agent, an editor, and a publisher, if not for a lifetime then at least for long years, but today, while the ideal of enduring connections in publishing is not impossible, the corporate consolidation of many publishers into a few major entities, along with the technological revolution in business models, has created a carousel effect, in which players are much more rapidly on the move from post to post than they were in past generations. Today’s authors may find themselves orphaned or placed in the hands of strangers who have inherited authors from departing colleagues, or, the authors, like their publishing business counterparts seeking to improve their lot or in some cases merely survive by changing posts, may need to make successive moves from one agent or publisher to another. The relationship between author and agent is a business contract, not a marriage. Some other things that the author-agent connection does not necessarily entail: an anointment, a guarantee of literary or financial success, friendship, sympathy, kindness, emotional support, good editorial advice, a clear understanding of your work. Any or all of these elements may be part of an author’s ongoing transactions with an agent, but it’s best not to assume or take for granted that having an agent answers all needs and desires. A safer assumption is that no one will be as interested in and dedicated to your business as you are, and if business thinking and dealing are not your métier, you can at least go into the market with open eyes.

An agent’s job is to know the market, or portions of it (e.g., mainstream adult, children’s books, romance, mystery, finance, etc.) and to provide a network of practical, effective connections and strategies for the author. For this expertise, agents charge a percentage of income earned—currently the average fee is 15 percent, a not inconsiderable amount. Ideally, money aside, the agent is devoted to your work and works for you with a belief and dedication as great as your own; however, unless your works are minting money or you’re the agent’s single client, the agent’s viability depends on handling the varied concerns of numerous clients, whose earnings are paid by publishers, which is to say that agents have, of necessity, their primary relationships with publishers. The writer may be living, for instance, in Lowland, Colorado, completing a new book every three to five years, or writing a handful of shorter works each year, and perhaps making a periodic visit—once a year? Every few years?—to New York to network. Meanwhile, the agent, editors, and publishers are in close, often daily contact, concerning other authors, other deals. And even the writer living in or near to Manhattan or traveling there frequently and privy to all the personalities, news, events, occasions, and gossip will at times experience insecurity and a sense of disorientation or displacement from knowing too little or too much while trying to get the writing done with the buzz of commerce and of reputations rising and falling all around. There is a natural, and ever changing, and not entirely reliable or just hierarchy of perceived quality, interest, and value accorded to authors and their works.

Not all writers use, or need to use, agents, and not all writers who use agents use them in the same way. When Doctorow was a publisher at Dial Press, agents complained that they couldn’t reach him because he was closed up in his office doing his own writing. Later, when he left publishing, his knowledge of the business was thorough, and he employed his agent more as factotum than manager. A publisher’s contract for a Doctorow work would be thickly marked up by the author himself, ensuring his terms. Likewise, Norman Mailer’s agent took direction from and followed strategies laid out by Mailer. Some authors rely on their agents to handle lucrative book deals but go their own way on magazine work, saving themselves the 15 percent they would otherwise have to pay the agent for these less complicated negotiations. These authors tend to be ones who have established relationships with magazine editors and do not need an agent to place their work for them. And some authors, as a matter of bond or fidelity, include their agents in all sales, whether or not agent assistance was needed to make the sale. There are writers who simply do what their agents direct. In the early 1980s, Richard Price’s agent, the venerable Georges Borchardt, whose client list included Samuel Beckett and Jane Fonda, encouraged Price to focus on fiction rather than screen writing. For a time, Price heeded his agent, but eventually as a matter of making the most of his gifts and of livelihood, Price thrived in TV and film work and continued to write remarkable novels.

Agents’ ideas, opinions, and advice are not infallible, and from an editor’s point of view, the picks and predictions of agents are on the whole not more reliable than anyone else’s opinions—the aggregate of submissions from agents to periodicals, for instance, is more or less of the same worth in substance as unsolicited submissions, though the agented submissions will usually display more technical accomplishment. Agents, however, are specifically well positioned to interact with the market.

Trade publishing, like many other retail businesses, tends to run on fashion. Publishers, editors, and agents watch each other and the zeitgeist, trying to discern what to believe in, what to buy and sell. Trends come and go—West Coast hip culture in the 1960s, Vietnam stories in the 1970s, a short story renaissance and new age material and a vogue for memoir in the 1980s and, more recently, Alzheimer stories and ones about diversity and women’s quest stories, for example. Relatively few are the agents and, for that matter, the editors and publishers whose discernment is so keen and original that they need not follow the herd but lead it. Not from them flows the varied conventional wisdom that seems to define should and should not for the literary aspirant: You must produce and sell a short story collection before a novel, or vice versa; a story collection must have a unifying theme, place, or other organizing principle that connects and makes sense of the stories; omniscience is an outmoded use of point of view, and no one uses it or is interested in it today; a writer should not use colons or semicolons; and so on. The wise author turns away from these sorts of admonitions and from those who offer them and instead draws knowledge and sound conclusions from practical observation of available phenomena, past and present. Careful study can be applied in business and art, and finally in art, excellence is all, and the rest will follow.      —Tom Jenks