Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Agents, Writers and Editors: how does it work?

I’ve been working for and with writers almost all of my working life.

When I left university I worked in bookshops in Paris for a while, my happiest days spent in Shakespeare & Co on the left bank. I should say I spent more time reading the books in that shop than selling them.

While I was there, a number of writers came through the shop, some to stay a few days others just to browse or get out of the cold. I didn’t want to be a writer myself, somehow or other my literary imagination failed me, but I wanted to be around writers, and so I have been ever since.

I was an editor and publishing director in corporate publishing in London for 20 years. Now I’m a literary agent. The main difference in what I do now to what I did then is that as an editor my job was to promote the interests of the publishing house, now I promote the interests of the writer.

I’m still looking for the same qualities in the writers I take on as an agent as I was when I was an editor. I’m looking for a strong distinctive natural voice, the ability to conjure an image with a few words, I’m looking to be touched, moved, transported, to be made to cry, to think, perhaps even to laugh though that doesn’t often happen.

I’m not looking for perfection or a highly finished work, more an indication of that rare and, so it often seems to the searcher, elusive x factor – the alchemist’s gift of turning words into images in the reader’s head.

To be more prosaic, I’m looking for high quality fiction writers with a broad potential – writers who, one or two, or even ten books, down the line will be winning major prizes. I don’t care so much what they write as how they write.

I think most editors and agents will say that they are looking for integrity and seriousness, whatever the genre of the writer, whatever the specialism. A writer who takes his or her work seriously. Most of all, we’re just looking for talent, that’s what we respect and what we came into the business for.

I mentioned above that I think the main difference between the editor’s and the agent’s role in the publishing business is a simple one. The agent works for the writer, the editor for the publisher. Agents are often blamed by publishers for pushing up the cost of publishing by getting too much money for writers, increasing unearned advances and in a few cases even bankrupting publishing houses. In reality though, publishers prefer to work with agents than without them.

Agents act as a filter system, sifting through the acres of unsolicited manuscripts, finding the decent prospects and passing them on to publishers. That’s why publishers tell new writers that they only look at submissions that come from agents. Agents also help to keep the publishing ball rolling – they smooth over the cracks, put the writer’s case, put the publisher’s case too, help to keep the writer happy and their expectations reasonable.

In exchange agents should ensure that the writer is not, to be blunt, ripped off by the publisher. And yes, of course, without an agent a writer is very likely to be ripped off. Publishing is big business after all, and however romantic a notion they may have about writing when they start, all editors learn sooner or later about maximizing profit.

The agent is there to make sure profit isn’t maximized at the expense of the writer, letting the writer get on with doing what they do best: turning the base metal of our lives into art, or at least into entertainment.