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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
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
"When you get to the hotel, go to the desk and tell
the lady you're there to recover our jewelry. Then say the
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,
Read Chapters 1 and 2
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