All Agencies Great and Small: Part 2

By Richard Curtis

In the first installment of this piece we discussed the advantages and disadvantages of sole practitioner literary agencies.

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. The agent can if he chooses make himself less accessible, a state that is often tactically desirable. He at last has somebody to blame, perhaps not for negotiating and other serious mistakes, but at least for some of the clerical screwups that bedevil all business enterprises. On the other hand, the operation of the business should become more efficient, a fair tradeoff for the agent's withdrawal from the firing line. If the employee is anything more than a warm body occupying a desk, he or she can create some important opportunities for strategic games, can serve as a reader, rendering a second viewpoint on the salability of manuscripts, or as a sounding board for marketing, negotiating, and other decisions. And if that person is interested in and good at certain specialized tasks—handling movie, television, magazine, or foreign rights, for example—or has a good grasp of certain markets that the boss has no interest in or feel for, or if he or she is good at handling certain clients, then you have the makings of a potent team and the foundation for a successful agency.

From that point on it becomes a matter of adding new staff members and deploying them according to the organization that best suits the agent's style - a style that may transmute as the agent gains experience. As a rule, the smaller the agency the less specialized are the tasks performed by its staff: in other words, everybody handles everything. As the firm grows, a structure usually emerges along lines of staff specialization. One structure might be described as vertical, with the agent at the pinnacle handling the clients, supported by a staff that services the clients' properties but does not necessarily have contact with the clients themselves. One staff member might handle foreign rights, another movie, another serial, another bookkeeping, another filing, and so on.

The advantage of a vertical system, generally, is excellent service, for every aspect of the client's needs; every facet of the property will be taken care of by a specialist. The disadvantage is that the client list must be kept relatively small- no larger than the capacity of the head of the company to handle his clients' work and needs comfortably. Another disadvantage is the vulnerability of the agency in the event of the death or disability of its owner, for there will be no one with deep experience at handling clients to take his or her place. If the agent should go out of town for an extended trip or vacation, the agency may be reduced to a maintenance capacity and not be capable of dealing forcefully with the sorts of emergencies that always seem to attack writers the moment their agents board an airplane.

As an agent becomes successful, he or she will be solicited by many authors seeking representation. Many are excellent writers with good track records who need the guidance and assistance of a good agency. A combination of profit motive and compassion will compel the agent to offer representation to them. But how can agents fit them into their stables without curtailing the time, attention, and service he is now able to lavish on the rest of his clients?

Some agents resist this temptation, harden their hearts, and shut their doors to newcomers. Others resort to hiring employees to handle the overflow of clients. An agency engaging a roster of agents might be described as horizontal, and obviously there is no limit to the number of clients such a firm can take on, for, as soon as it reaches capacity, it can always add a new agent to take on the excess. The boss will still be the boss, and there will still be a staff of specialists to handle subsidiary rights and clerical and administrative functions. But on the middle level will be those other agents, replicating what their boss does. They may be generalists, handling the gamut of literature from genre to mainstream, or they may deal in such specialties as juveniles, nonfiction, or science fiction. I would say that most middle-sized and large agencies fit this horizontal pattern; in fact, it's hard to imagine how an agency can become large unless it does expand horizontally.

From the writer's viewpoint, an agency of this type is attractive for several reasons. First, it enables him to locate within the organization the individual agent best suited to his work and style. Second, if the organization is well run, he will enjoy the benefit of a team approach under the supervision of the principal agent. And third, if one's agent is out of town or on vacation, or is so thoughtless as to die, there is a good likelihood that he will find a replacement in the ranks of the other agents at the same firm. In other words, the bumpy ups and downs you often experience with a one-person agency will be absorbed by a larger organization, and that is a secure feeling. But there's also a catch.

Most clients of middle-sized and large agencies are content to be represented by an agent who is not the head man or woman, as long as there is a sense that the chief is at least overseeing the work of the subordinate agents and making sure that all of the agency's authors are being properly serviced. Inherent in the very nature of large organizations, however, is a degree of insulation between the head of the company and the activities of those clients he or she does not directly represent. If an author begins to feel that the agent handling his work is not doing an adequate job, he may conclude that the head of the company has more important concerns than the scribblings of a fifteen-thousand-dollar-a-year midlist writer. Thus is created what might be described as the "A-List/B-List Syndrome," meaning that the agency has two client lists: the Grade A clients handled by the boss, and the Grade B ones handled by the secondary agents. When that sort of suspicion begins to gnaw at a client, he may eventually decide he must either move up or move out and seek an agency where he will receive more personal attention from the top agent.

It is therefore incumbent on the heads of agencies to make sure that the subordinate agents keep in very close touch with him and with each other. At many agencies, that is precisely what happens. In others, the boss has administrative and client demands that make supervision of the other agents' activities difficult. Now, it can certainly be assumed that some of those agents are ambitious, and so an atmosphere is created in which a subordinate agent, operating with little supervision, begins to wonder just what he needs a boss for anyway. He may be making a good salary and even collecting commissions, but as so much of the revenue he generates must go to paying overhead and a profit to the firm he works for, as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow the idea will occur to him that he could do better on his own. For many of his clients, the notion of joining this agent when he starts his own agency is extremely appealing, for in a stroke those clients will be transformed from B-Listers to A-Listers. Things don't always turn out to be as satisfying as that fantasy, though, for the agent may discover that he does not, on his own, enjoy the same success he did when he was a member of a large and influential organization. It is extremely hard and perhaps impossible for the client of a larger agency to sort out just what is the true source of his agent's power and success. Does the person handling you consult with the head of the company or is he handling your account strictly on his own? Is his effectiveness due in good measure to the influence, reputation, and support of his organization, or are these incidental to his performance? Some authors discover the answers to these questions by leaving; others, by staying on.

At the summit are the giant agencies, representing many illustrious authors, extremely well connected in the movie and television area, and moving tremendous amounts of properties, rights, and money. These firms are often broken down into departments, and you the author will be handled by someone in the literary department. These departments usually have senior and junior staff members and operate as potent fiefdoms in a great bicoastal kingdom. Because the overhead of these firms is stupendous, the clients they take on must be pretty heavy hitters and often are authors whose work is highly adaptable to film and television. The disadvantage is the intimidating vastness of such organizations.

Somewhere in all this is a place for you, and in few businesses is it truer that what's great for one person may be awful for another. I doubt if many authors retain one agent for the span of their entire career. Indeed, for the sake of an author's personal growth, having the same agent from cradle to grave may be a very poor idea.

At least, that's what I tell myself whenever I lose a client.

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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