All Agencies Great and Small: Part 1

By Richard Curtis

I'm not sure that authors understand the structures of literary agencies much better than they understand those of publishing companies. For those of you who are shopping for an agent or thinking of switching agencies, or who are simply interested in organizational dynamics, it might be interesting to compare agencies of different sizes and structures and to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of each type.

First, but not least, is the one-man or one-woman agency. And when I say one man or woman I don't mean one man or woman plus a secretary, for, as we shall soon see, the presence of a second person can radically alter an agent's style, service, and clout. Most such agents start out either as editors of publishing companies or as staff members of large agencies; a few join our profession from the legal and other related fields. To agenting they bring their special knowledge and experience, and those are always big pluses for prospective clients. They can also be handicaps, however. The lawyer who becomes a literary agent will soon discover that publishing law is so vastly different in theory and practice from any other kind of law as to render his training and experience virtually useless. Agents who leave big agencies to set up their own don't always make good agents, as they may be unused to operating outside the context of a supporting organization. Editors who become agents may know a great deal about publishing procedures, but that knowledge doesn't necessarily make them good deal-makers.

The sole practitioner must do everything by and for himself, and from an author's viewpoint there are many desirable aspects of such a setup. Chief among them is accessibility. Phone answering machines or services notwithstanding, you know that when you call your agent, you will get him or her. That means you can maximize your input, communications, and control, which is great unless your input, communications, and control happen to be lousy. Remember that you hired an agent in the first place because you need someone who understands the publishing business better than you, someone who is more experienced and skillful in negotiations, is more objective, and remains calm when push comes to shove. If you take advantage of your agent's accessibility, then all you are doing is manipulating him like a puppet, programming into him the very same emotional shortcomings that you most desperately need to be defended from.

For the sole practitioner, the credit for success belongs exclusively to him or her, and deservedly so. But so, deservedly, does the blame for mistakes. Because there is no insulation between author and agent, both positive and negative emotions tend to run stronger than they might if the author were not so intimate with everything having to do with the handling of his business. Indeed, the author represented by a sole practitioner is all too often quite intimate with the business of his agent's other clients, too, and among the emotions that run strongly in these cases, therefore, is jealousy.

In short, you cannot ask for more personalized service than you get when you engage a one-man or one-woman agency, and if the relationship is solid and harmonious it can be like owning a custom-made automobile. But custom-made automobiles tend to react oversensitively to every bump in the road. And their owners tend to tinker with them.

From the viewpoint of one who has been a sole practitioner, the biggest disadvantage is that the one-person company cannot utilize what businesspeople refer to as a "devil," someone to blame.
It is essential for the new agent to cultivate and ingratiate himself with the influential editors in the business. Needless to say, this agent will be loath to alienate those editors by being overly tough and demanding in negotiations. If an agent starting out in business gets a reputation for being unreasonable, he may lose business. He can of course blame his intransigence on his clients, but in most cases the editors will know it's not the author who's the troublemaker, but his agent. Besides, one of the things authors hire agents for is to take the fire for hard decisions in order to allow their clients to maintain pleasant working relationships with editors. If only there were someone working for your agent with whom he could play Good Guy-Bad Guy, he could have some leeway when it comes to playing hardball. His associate might sometimes serve as the devil, taking tough positions in negotiations. Then, just when it looked as if a deal were going to fall through, his boss would intervene and offer a compromise that mitigated his employee's inflexibility. In other cases the assistant could be the good guy who wishes he could be more lenient but, well, his boss is a tough bird who simply will not yield.

This may be the commonest game played by businessmen and women, but it requires two to each side, and the sole practitioner is one shy of that minimum. Exposed as he or she is, the one-man or one-woman agent must, almost by definition, be a courageous individual.

With the introduction of a second person into the agency - even a secretary with no discretionary power - the dynamics of the firm usually alter sharply. In my next installment I'll explain how.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.

Richard Curtis is president of Richard Curtis Associates, Inc., a leading New York literary agency and founder of E-Reads, a leading e-book publisher dedicated to bringing out-of-print books back into electronic and printed forms as well as publishing new titles. He is an author, as well as an author advocate and writes a blog on the future of publishing, Richard Curtis on Publishing in the 21st Century.

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