Revealed -- the secret world of a literary agent
To get your book in print, you need the help of a go-between, but what exactly do these people do, asks Alison Walsh
The recent meltdown at the esteemed literary agency Peters, Fraser and Dunlop has all the ingredients of a lurid novel. The two main characters in the unfolding drama are glamorous publisher-turned-agent Caroline Michel, parachuted in allegedly to stymie a management buyout, and her unlikely nemesis, the Mrs Tiggywinkle figure of literary agent Caroline Dawnay, who has led an exodus of no fewer than 85 disgruntled agents from the agency.
This spat would normally be mere fodder for the literary gossips, a little spice added to what is still a fairly civilised profession, were it not for the fact that a large number of writers represented by these agents have become unwittingly involved in the soap opera. In today's lean, mean, media world, agents have become increasingly important to authors, required to do a lot more than take publishers out to long lunches, to secure gazillion-dollar contracts for their clients, and promptly retire to the Garrick gentleman's club to tell indiscreet stories. Now, agents are required to mastermind an author's entire career.
Why are agents so important nowadays and what exactly do they do? Faith O'Grady, a literary agent with the Lisa Richards Agency, says, "The most basic thing is that we sell writers' work on a commission basis."
But this only begins to describe the expanded role of the literary agent, as O'Grady goes on to explain: "We act as a filter for publishers -- we see if we can find really good material for publishers, because, nowadays, particularly in the UK, they don't take unagented work. It has become such a big business that they don't have time. In Ireland it is still possible to go direct to certain publishers, not all of them. But it is changing, as more UK publishers enter the Irish market."
Thus, with publishing houses and editors under increasing pressure, and authors unable to submit directly to them, the dreaded "slush pile" has grown exponentially in recent years for literary agents.
Jonathan Williams has run his own literary agency for many years and is an established figure on the Irish literary scene. He admits: "They can wear you out -- there are cascades of them coming out of the letter box . It is a problem for all agents, but it is part and parcel of the job." And, he is keen to point out, "out of that you will find material". Faith O'Grady concurs. "We are still accepting unsolicited manuscripts because we have found very interesting work -- we don't want to close the door, I don't think that's right." She cites crime writer Arlene Hunt and women's fiction writer Anna McPartlin as examples of gold mined from the seam of the slush pile, although she admits that recommendation has become increasingly important nowadays. "We have a lot of personal recommendation, word of mouth, or established, but unagented, authors approaching us."
Marianne Gunn-O'Connor runs her own agency in Dublin, and numbers Cecelia Ahern, Pat McCabe and Claudia Carroll among her clients. She is candid about the way things are nowadays: "The way things happen is by recommendation -- we want to find new authors but everyone thinks they can write a book, that everyone has a story, that being a writer is utterly amazing, and you can earn millions of dollars." She counsels that, "Writers should be more discerning -- look at people's lists and see what they are interested in." The moral is, don't waste your PhD thesis on the lives of ninth-century Cistercian monks on agents who deal only in crime novels.
So, agents separate the literary wheat from the chaff, but they are clearly not in the business of providing a reading service for time-pressed, marketing-driven publishers. They want to sell their clients' work to them, and won't give up until they do. Jonathan Williams, who has a reputation as a skilled editor, says, "I spend a fair bit of time, maybe too much, working with authors on manuscripts before they submit them. I'm not pre-empting the editor, but the amount of editing in publishing houses is not what it was. Marketing is ruling the roost, and editors don't have time, so they want manuscripts to come in as close to perfect as possible."
Faith O'Grady has a slightly different perspective: "We are putting packages together, as you have to be proactive as an agent these days." As an example, she cites Arthur Mathews' and Declan Lynch's Book of Poor Oul Fellas. "With Declan and Arthur, we put them together and went to the publisher with the whole package -- more and more you have to do this. Author and agent have to really polish the proposals, because publishers are inundated."
Once the work has been submitted, agents are, if they are any good, like a dog with a bone in search of a deal for their clients. As Jonathan Williams says, "I want to be able to sell it for the writer. I don't give up, having committed myself to it, I go as far as I can." Marianne Gunn-O'Connor agrees: "I wouldn't represent anyone unless I really believed in them, really connected with their work. It is such a difficult market. I ask myself, if everyone is going to reject this work, will I still feel enthusiastic about it in some way. If I love it, I ask myself, what if nobody else likes it? Will I still feel passionate about it?"
And when that publishing match is made, agents put on yet another hat, harrying and chivvying busy publishers to do their best for their client. For Jonathan Williams, the process is simple: "I see the text, the book, the material, as the first thing. I lay great store by knowing publishers and by trying to keep abreast of changes in publishing houses, and who has been appointed and their tastes -- unless you do, it is like throwing darts in a dark room. You know the strengths and weaknesses of publisher's contracts, and if you get that right, it ought to be an easier job -- you put them in the hands of a good publisher."
However, Faith O'Grady adds that, in the brave new world of media cross-pollination, agents must see the bigger picture. "It has become more and more important that writers utilise different parts of their talent. It's not just books. There are more TV ideas, and I work with a client to maximise the potential of a writer, particularly in tricky times." She cites as an example her client Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's successful new play The Last Days of the Celtic Tiger, which is out at the same time as his latest book, and Anna McPartlin, who is currently developing an original idea for TV3.
Marianne Gunn-O'Connor's client Cecelia Ahern has certainly got potential in this area, with her new comedy Samantha Who debuting at the No 1 slot on TV in the US. Gunn-O'Connor says, "Some authors are very talented with ideas -- sometimes they can go into film, or have other ideas that can be a TV series." But she is realistic. "Not everybody can do this -- only exceptional people. TV is incredibly difficult at the moment, because of internet and downloading material. There is so much competition." Crucially, she feels that sometimes this whole process just takes time, and she feels that "agents should always have time for long lunches with editors, or producers or somebody from a movie studio, simply because of that human connection, it's something that is very important." Jonathan Williams could concur with this point of view, having recently secured a film option for his clients Liz Walsh and Rita O'Reilly's book, The People Vs Catherine Nevin, seven years after its publication.
But underneath all the razzmatazz, and the talks of million-dollar deals, a lot of what agents do is hard graft. As Marianne Gunn-O'Connor says, "It's not an easy role; it's very solitary -- it does compare to that of the author in some ways. It's tough to get rejections -- then have to tell the author about it. Because of a bond, you also feel the pain for them."
She is also keen to point out that, "People think that it's very lucrative, but it is a very hard way of earning money. Only big deals are reported -- [that] everyone who is a writer is making that kind of money is so far from the truth." She hits the nail on the head when she suggests, "It's almost like a vocation. I love the creativity, the passion and because it drives you -- not because it will make loads of money. Something that really moves you. That is why we do the books."