Agents of Change: All About Literary Agents

What exactly does a literary agent do? How has the role changed in tandem with the brave new (digital) world of publishing? And do Australian authors really need agents? (The answer: not necessarily, but there are advantages … not all of them linked to advances.) Angie Andrewes investigates.

Image by Choo Cin Nian.

It was in the late 1800s in Britain that the literary agent first emerged. But the entrance of a middleman in the publishing game was not such a surprising development. After all, writers were focused on the more literary aspects of their craft, leaving many disinclined to broker deals. The man widely regarded as the first literary agent was A.P. Watt and Henry James was one of his clients. ‘[Watt] takes 10 percent of what he gets for me,’ James explained in an 1888 letter to his brother. ‘But I am advised that his favourable action on one’s market and business generally more than makes up for this.’

For more than a century, the role of agent remained more or less that of a bridge between publishers and writers; agents crunched numbers, did deals and presumably ensured the best outcome all round. That is … with the exception of shysters like Jacques Chambrun, a New York literary agent in the 1940s who notoriously pocketed cash from the sale of W. Somerset Maugham’s world rights and left Canadian short-story writer Mavis Gallant starving in Spain, unaware that two of her stories were in The New Yorker.

But the role of modern literary agents has evolved a lot since then, especially in recent years, as the industry goes through its most seismic shift since the invention of the printing press.

Alex Adsett

Alex Adsett

Alex Adsett is one of the industry’s most recent additions, last year teaming up with veteran bookseller Paul Landymore to create a literary agency under the banner of Adsett’s Brisbane-based consultancy business, Alex Adsett Publishing Services (AAPS).

Adsett started AAPS in 2008, drawing on her career in publishing, specialising in copyright and contract work. At first her consultancy focused mainly on business and contract advice, but Adsett always knew that when the right manuscript came along, she’d make the jump into working as a more traditional agent as well. With one of the agency’s clients, Alan Baxter, set to launch his book, Bound, next month with Harper Voyager, that has become a reality.

‘Now it’s a full-time job, just reading the manuscripts coming in, even though officially we’re closed to submissions,’ Adsett says. The plan is to give it a year, branching out into the UK and US markets, before deciding whether to separate the businesses and establish a fully-fledged agency.

At the other end of the spectrum of modern agents is Sophie Hamley, an established literary agent with the prestigious Cameron Creswell agency and president of the Australian Literary Agents’ Association. A literary agent since 2006, Hamley has worked as a bookseller, editor, writer and website producer. She also has a law degree. A good legal knowledge can hold an agent in good stead.

Sophie Hamley

Sophie Hamley

Both Adsett and Hamley agree that the role of agents is changing with the industry. Agents these days, says Hamley, are more managers than deal-makers. Adsett also says she is keen to set her venture apart from agents in the old style who prioritise deal-making, numbers games and author advances. These agents, she believes, are ‘part of the problem and are part of this monetising of the publishing industry, pushing up advances rather than looking at the quality of the work’. But, she is quick to stress, ‘I don’t think that most of the agents in Australia are like that.’ Hamley’s priority is to manage authors’ careers so that, as she puts it, ‘they not only get published, but stay published’.

Adsett sees the key practical aspects of the business as threefold: “Get the deal in the first place, negotiate the contract, and manage the career.” Her partner Landymore calls the role a ‘collaborative bridge between the author and the publisher ‘. For Landymore, part of the role is to educate writers who have little experience with the industry. ‘There is an aspect of care,’ he says.

Hamley agrees: ‘Many writers – even the self-published writers – like having to someone to talk to.’ And surprisingly, says Adsett, even some of those who know what they’re doing ‘still want the hand-holding!’

But Adsett also argues that not all authors need an agent. She estimates that in Australia, about 60% of published books never go through an agent at all, whereas ‘in the US and UK, 99% of what’s published has to go through an agent’. She adds, however, that ‘if you want someone in your corner, if you want someone to explain things and hand-hold and just be there for you, then those are the reasons to get an agent’.

But with the publishing industry in flux, is a career as a literary agent even viable? When AAPS was first launched, Landymore says, the idea raised a few eyebrows. ‘Some [people] commented that it seemed a strange time to set up a new agency, with all the options and facilities open to writers these days to self-publish, especially in digital.’

But he and Adsett are finding that publishers are still very keen to work with agents. ‘A majority of people…still hanker after the traditional publishing model.’ Hamley agrees that literary agent work can be risky, though ‘it always has been… Anyone who is looking to start an agency needs to manage their risk or accept the level of risk they’re taking on.’

One key to success in the business is flexibility. ‘I also teach yoga, so that helps!’ Hamley jokes. Passion is also key, Landymore says. ‘We do it because … we’re passionate about the stories and the people who write the stories.’ Hamley agrees: ‘If we believe that stories are important and storytellers are vital to our culture and communities – then there are opportunities open which make the risks feasible, if not worthwhile.’