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April 2006

Richard Curtis on
Publishing in the 21st Century

Mastering the Business of Publishing

by Richard Curtis

Originally published by E-Reads



ARE LITERARY AGENTS friendly with each other? Are they mutually suspicious or hostile? Do they steal authors from each other at every opportunity? Do they cooperate with one another? Do they have a code of behavior? Are they too competitive to act collectively?
To the extent that the book publishing business is a pie to be sliced into just so many pieces, and the number of profitable authors is a finite one, I suppose it can be argued that agents are rivals. Yet I don't think most agents feel that way. Unlike some other businesses we can think of, where the survival of one firm is achieved only at the expense of another, there appears to be enough business in the publishing field to enable all literary agents who stay in the game long enough and run their businesses prudently to earn a living and to be gracious toward each other while doing so. Though we have seen bad times in our industry, they have never been so bad that no publisher was buying books. Nor has the pool of potential clients ever shrunk to the degree that a resourceful agent could not find authors to make money with. In short, I don't believe agents lose too much sleep worrying that the supply of or the demand for their products and services is going to dry up.

What agents do worry about is maximizing the earning power of their clients, helping their authors realize the full measure of their talents, and exploiting every bit of financial potential in their work: to put it plainly, making them rich and famous. Obviously, the agent whose clients become rich and famous will become rich and famous too. And, just as obviously, a dissatisfied author will eventually seek new representation.

And it is here that agents sometimes start throwing elbows.

Antagonism between agents flares up over the interpretation of just how loudly, sweetly, and aggressively an agent sings his firm's praises to an author represented by another agent. You might think of it as the Smoking Gun theory of client-stealing: if the author walks in the door of another agency in a state of uncertainty but walks out clutching a signed agreement with his new agent, it can be inferred that something considerably more than a soft-sell occurred behind that door. At least, most of the time such an inference is justified. But not always. Many an author not comfortable with his agent has visited another agency and, with little persuasion, realized from a brief chat and a look around and a sniff of the atmosphere that he has actually been quite miserable with his old agent, but could not admit it until that moment.

However that may be so, the author's old agent is going to strongly suspect that the other agent gave a snow job to his former client. Because I treasure the friendships of (most of) my colleagues, I call them when I become the beneficiary of a former client of theirs to reassure them that I did not actively solicit that client, and to pave the way for cooperation on old business concerning that author. And I have always appreciated it when my colleagues did the same for me. In some cases, when the parting is friendly and by mutual consent, agents will refer authors to other agents.

Most agents have had the experience of having their colleagues refer clients to them. In point of fact, agents work with each other to a much greater degree than they work against each other. I know of a few suspicious, curmudgeonly types who jealously guard their flocks as if their colleagues were wolves poised to pounce on helpless clients and carry them off to their lairs. On the whole, though, agents enjoy each other's company, help each other, are anxious to remain on one another's good side, and to a degree act collectively on matters that affect their community of interest.

Agents call each other frequently seeking advice on all manner of problems: Who do you know at Random House? How do you phrase your option clause? Who's buying westerns? How did you conduct that auction? How did you get that terrific price? What should I do about this problem client?

On occasion, agents cooperate on deals. For instance, if an author leaving Agent A wishes Agent B to handle subsidiary rights to his old books—a situation fraught with the potential for mean-spirited behavior—the two agents might work things out so that they split a commission. Agent A will be satisfied because he doesn't have to do all that much work to earn his share of the commission, and Agent B will be satisfied because he didn't have to sell the books originally.

In other cases, such as collaborations, there may be two agents for two authors and the agents work out the division of labor and commissions. I may have a client with a fantastic story to tell who can't write, but I don't represent quite the right author to team up with him. And my buddy Agent X may have just the right author. After exploring the questions of our clients' compatibility and the division of work and money, Agent X and I discuss just how we're going to cooperate. Am I going to be the principal agent in making a deal with the publisher? If so, am I to take my commission off the top—off the total advance, that is—or do I take my commission only on that portion of the advance allocated to my client? Who is going to handle the subsidiary rights, Agent X or my agency? You can see that unless there is a solid friendship and abundant goodwill between agents, there is going to be friction, and in potentially fatal doses. Many a lucrative deal has gone down the tubes because two agents couldn't reach agreement on such matters.


What I Have Done
for You Lately

ONE DAY, I got a phone call from an agitated editor. His voice was trembling and he could scarcely contain his emotion. The emotion was fear.

It seems that a hotheaded client of mine had gotten so upset over some editorial work done on his book that he'd threatened in a loud voice, during a visit to the editor's office, to pulp his face. Some of his colleagues had interceded and ushered the distraught author out of the building. Of course, beating up your editor is a time-honored writer's fantasy, but my client had taken it further than most authors do. Pulping an editor's face is a serious breach of etiquette. "What can I do to help?" I offered.

"Restrain him," the editor said.

"You mean, physically?"

"Yes, if need be."

I could not suppress an ill-timed laugh.

"What the hell is so funny?" he demanded.

"Well," I said, "I've done everything else, I might as well be a bodyguard for an editor, too."

After settling the dispute by eliciting promises of good behavior from my client and assurances of more thoughtful blue-pencilling from the editor, I reflected on some of the unusual things that agents are called upon to do in the course of their careers. I am often asked to speak to groups of aspiring writers and to explain just what literary agents do. I wonder how the audience would react if I told them that among other things, literary agents babysit for their clients' kids, paint their clients' houses, and bail their clients out of jail. They even fall in love with their clients and marry them. In fact, I have done all these things and more.

Years ago, before it merged with another agents' organization to form the Association of Authors' Representatives, the Society of Authors' Representatives issued a brochure describing some functions that authors should not expect their agents to perform. Most of my colleagues would lose half their clients overnight if they took these guidelines seriously, however. For instance, the brochure advised that you shouldn't expect your agent to edit your book. But most agents I know would consider themselves remiss if they did not do some light, and sometimes heavy, editing to improve a book's chances of acceptance, help the author modify a manuscript for magazine serialization, or simply make it the best book it can be.
Here are some other things the brochure mentioned:

  • The agent cannot solve authors' personal problems. As a writer myself, and a friend or agent of many writers, I can testify to how tightly interconnected the personal, financial, and creative elements of an author's life are. Trouble in one area almost invariably indicates trouble in the others. The agent who turns his back on an author's personal problems may well be diminishing that author's earning power. So for reasons of self-interest if not compassion, an agent may find himself playing psychiatrist to a client, sticking his nose into an author's marital disputes, or taking a depressed author to a baseball game.
  • The agent cannot lend authors money. Ha! In this age of glacial cash flow, agents are being asked more and more frequently to play banker. I'm not sure authors always appreciate that the agent who advances them money lends it interest-free, or that the agent's total advances to clients at any given time may come to tens of thousands of dollars. But I don't know too many agents who can gaze unflinchingly into the eyes of a desperate client and say, "If you need a loan, go to a bank."
  • The agent cannot be available outside office hours except by appointment. Many business and personal crises arise for authors at times that, inconveniently, do not correspond to regular business hours. Book negotiations can carry over into the evening, and global time differentials put Hollywood three hours behind New York, New York at least five hours behind Europe, and Japan half a day away. An agent's day is not the same as a civil servant's.
    Many of my clients have my home phone number. I only ask them to use it sparingly.
  • The agent cannot be a press agent, social secretary, or travel agent. A lot of agents I know take on these functions to supplement the author's or publisher's efforts. Literary agenting is a service business, and anything within reason that an agent can do to free a client from care should be given thoughtful consideration. Rare is the agent who has not driven clients to the airport or booked them into hotels, arranged business or social appointments, or helped them secure tickets to a hot Broadway show.

Like my colleagues I have a large quiver full of sales techniques ranging from sweet talk to harangues. But I wonder how many agents have donned costumes and performed burlesque routines to sell books? It happened. Some clients of mine had written a satire of the best-selling book The One Minute Manager. Theirs was called The One Minute Relationship, demonstrating how you could meet, fall in love, marry, and divorce within sixty seconds of the first heartthrob. It was to be published by Pinnacle, but about a week before Pinnacle's sales conference, the editor-in-chief called me. "I'm thinking of something different for presenting this book to the sales staff. Could your clients cook up a cute skit?"

I promised to see what I could do, and called my clients. They came to my home and we brainstormed a skit over take-out Chinese food. The shtick we came up with featured an Indian swami who has developed the One Minute Technique. He has to wear a white robe and a turban with a jewel in it. The "jewel" in this case was a thick slice of kosher salami, and we called it the Star of Deli. My clients and I fell on the floor laughing. Then they suggested that since I had the robe, the turban, and the salami, and did a passing fair imitation of a Hindu fakir, I should perform the starring role in front of the Pinnacle salespeople. It took several bottles of Chinese beer to make me agree, but at length I went along, reasoning that these days, whatever it takes to sell books is okay by me. The skit went over well, climaxed of course by my gleefully stuffing the Star of Deli into my mouth. Pinnacle loved it so much they took our show on the road, videotaping our performance and featuring it at the American Booksellers Association convention.

Agents are not the tight-lipped stiffs that some have made us out to be. Like Shylock, we bleed if you prick us and laugh if you tickle us. I have cried with and for my authors when misfortune strikes, and rejoiced with them at their weddings and the births of their children.

I have also had some great laughs, not a few at the expense of clients and colleagues, for I am an inveterate practical joker. A client and good friend bought himself a telephone answering machine, and was so anxious about missing important calls that whenever he was away for any length of time he called home every fifteen minutes to get his messages by means of a remote control signal. He worried that machine to death. If he returned to find no messages, he would examine the phone and the answering machine for malfunctions.

One day, I decided to indulge his worst paranoid fantasy, and left the following message on his answering machine: ". . . Studios. If you don't return my call by five P.M. we will assume you're not interested and we will withdraw our offer." The poor fellow spent an hour phoning movie studio executives on both coasts explaining that his phone machine had malfunctioned in the middle of a message, and asking if they happened to be the people who left an offer on his machine that day.

Most people do not think of literary agents as leading adventurous lives, and that is largely true. Most of the time our conduct is as tightly circumscribed as that of businesspeople in any other profession. Our greatest thrill is grappling in close combat with an editor during a six-figure negotiation, or stalking a check through the treacherous thickets of a publisher's bookkeeping system. Accounts of such adventures make for exciting listening only if you happen to be another literary agent, but somehow they don't carry the same weight as the tales of mountainous seas and mutinous tribes, challenging mountains and charging rhinos, that you can routinely hear at any meeting of the Explorers Club.

Nevertheless, because our profession brings us into contact with unusual characters, we do occasionally find ourselves carried far from the stereotypical role of submitting manuscripts in the morning, collecting checks in the afternoon, and going to lunch for three hours in between.

In 1966 I was in London setting up the English office of Scott Meredith's literary agency. Novelist Evan Hunter and his wife were passing through London on their way to the Cotswolds, and we spent a delightful afternoon dining al fresco at my boss's expense. I bade them good-bye and wished them a pleasant journey, and figured that was that. About a week later, however, I got a call from Evan in Southampton. They were about to embark on a ship for America when his wife realized she had left her jewelry in a safe in the Ligon Arms Hotel in the Cotswold town of Broadway. "I'm going to ask an important favor of you," Evan said. "I want you to take a train out there and get the jewels back. Bring them to London and we'll arrange for them to be shipped home."
At that time I was in my twenties and, beyond getting stuck in an elevator for two hours and having my tonsils taken out, I had never been at hazard in many "real life situations." This sounded like an opportunity to experience the kind of peril that confronted the Burtons, Spekes, and Hilarys through whom I'd lived vicariously.

"They're not just going to hand the jewels over to me," I protested.

"Of course not," said Evan. "There'll be a password."

"A password?"

"When you get to the hotel, go to the desk and tell the lady you're there to recover our jewelry. Then say the password."

A password! This was a scheme worthy of Evan Hunter, who under the pen name of Ed McBain had created my favorite police procedural series, "The 87th Precinct."

"And what is the password?" I asked.

There was a long pause and I sensed that Evan was looking furtively around for eavesdroppers. He uttered a phrase in a voce so sotto I had to ask him to say it again. "'Phoenix Rising'," he said. "Repeat it."

"'Phoenix Rising'," I said. "Heavy!"

That afternoon I caught a British Railways train to Evesham, the station closest to Broadway. The taxi driver I hired to take me to Broadway looked like Central Casting's notion of a Dickensian cutpurse, including addressing me as "Guv'nor." When he asked me, just being friendly, my business in Broadway, I told him, "Just touring." He arched an eyebrow. I wore a three-piece English-cut suit and a tense smile and didn't look remotely like a tourist. I looked like a man trying not to look like a man who was soon to bear tens of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry on his person.

The Ligon Arms Hotel had been built in an era when Englishmen were four feet tall, as I quickly discovered when I grazed my skull on a lintel. I wobbled to the desk and found a diminutive woman peering at me who looked as if she would crumble into powder if I spoke too loudly. I cleared my throat and murmured, "Phoenix Rising." She gazed owlishly at me and my heart sank. Something had gone wrong. Evan had not told her the password. He had told her the wrong password. She had not heard it correctly. She had stolen the jewels.

"Phoenix Rising. Phoenix Rising," she muttered, searching at least ninety years of memory for an association with this mysterious phrase. Then the light of recognition kindled in her eyes. Her hand leaped to her mouth. "Phoenix Rising! You're Phoenix Rising! EVERYONE, IT'S PHOENIX RISING! HE'S HERE, HE'S HERE!" Whereupon bellhops, maids, cooks, and guests poured into the lobby to see The Bearer of the Password. I doubt if anything quite like this had happened here since the Norman Invasion.

We crowded around the safe as the jewels, rolled in a pocketed length of embroidered velvet, were set before me. Delicately, my friend untied a drawstring, making certain not to touch the jewelry itself. I stared at a handsome collection of baubles. There was a hurried conference when we realized I had no inventory of what was supposed to be there, and I was required to sign a receipt itemizing each piece. The staff gathered at the entrance to bid adieu to Alias Phoenix Rising. "Quick tour, Guv'nor," my driver observed as I stepped back into the taxi. "Saw what I came to see," I replied tersely, clutching the pouch in a death grip.
Obviously, these days authors don't merely ask their agents what they've done for them lately, but rather, what else they've done for them lately, and I guess just about anything goes.

All the best,

Richard Curtis

Read Chapters 1 and 2 of this Series | Discuss

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