Are Literary Agents Friends or Rivals?

Are literary agents friendly with each other? Are they
mutually suspicious or hostile? Do they steal authors from each other at every opportunity, or 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 cooperatively on matters that affect the author community.

The Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR), an amalgamation of two earlier literary agents' guilds, was formed in 1991 to better serve that community. I particularly commend to your attention the organization's Canon of Ethics.

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 good will 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.

An editor once told me about a meeting in her office of two agent heavyweights, one whose client possessed the essential source material for a book, the other representing a star author whose byline and talent guaranteed a bestseller. The discussions went swimmingly until the question of commissions was raised. "Since I brought this project to the publisher and made the deal," said the first agent, "I expect to get my commission off the top. You can take your commission out of your client's share, net after I have taken my commission."

"Uh-uh," said the second agent. "My client is critical to the success of this book. I want a commission off the top too."

The first agent glared at him for a moment, then rose and went to the phone on the editor's desk.

"Who are you calling?" the editor asked.

"My driver," said the agent. And that was the end of that

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.

Photo by Anthony S. Policastro - a Kenyan wood carving of two giraffes scratching each other's necks.

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