By Richard Curtis
One day, I got a phone call from an agitated editor. His voice was trembling and he could scarcely contain his emotion. The emotion was fear.
It seems that a hotheaded client of mine had gotten so upset over some editorial work done on his book that he'd threatened in a loud voice, during a visit to the editor's office, to pulp his face. Some of his colleagues had interceded and ushered the distraught author out of the building. Of course, beating up your editor is a time-honored writer's fantasy, but my client had taken it further than most authors do. Pulping an editor's face is a serious breach of etiquette.
"What can I do to help?" I offered.
"Restrain him," the editor said.
"You mean, physically?"
"Yes, if need be."
I could not suppress an ill-timed laugh.
"What the hell is so funny?" he demanded.
"Well," I said, "I've done everything else, I might as well be a bodyguard for an editor, too."
After settling the dispute by eliciting promises of good behavior from my client in exchange for assurances of more thoughtful blue-penciling from the editor, I reflected on some of the unusual things that agents are called upon to do in the course of their careers. I am often asked to speak to groups of aspiring writers and to explain just what literary agents do. I wonder how the audience would react if I told them that among other things, literary agents babysit for their clients' kids, paint their clients' houses, and bail their clients out of jail. They even fall in love with their clients and marry them. In fact, I have done all these things and more.
Years ago, before it merged with another agents' organization to form the Association of Authors' Representatives, the Society of Authors' Representatives issued a brochure describing some functions that authors should not expect their agents to perform. Most of my colleagues would lose half their clients overnight if they took these guidelines seriously. For instance, the brochure advised that you shouldn't expect your agent to edit your book. But most agents I know would consider themselves remiss if they did not do some light, and sometimes heavy, editing to improve a book's chances of acceptance.
Here are some other things the brochure mentioned:
* The agent cannot solve authors' personal problems. As a writer myself, and a friend or agent of many writers, I can testify to how tightly interconnected the personal, financial, and creative elements of an author's life are. Trouble in one area almost invariably indicates trouble in the others. The agent who turns his back on an author's personal problems may well be diminishing that author's earning power. So for reasons of self-interest if not compassion, agents may find themselves playing psychiatrist to clients, sticking their noses into authors' marital disputes or taking depressed clients to baseball games.
* The agent cannot lend authors money. Ha! In this age of glacial cash flow, agents are being asked more and more frequently to play banker. I'm not sure authors always appreciate that the agent who advances them money lends it interest-free, or that the agent's total loans to clients at any given time may come to tens of thousands of dollars. But I don't know too many agents who can gaze unflinchingly into the eyes of a desperate client and say, "If you need a loan, go to a bank."
* The agent cannot be available outside office hours except by appointment. Double ha! with a cherry on top. Many business and personal crises arise for authors at times that, inconveniently, do not correspond to regular business hours. Book negotiations can carry over into the evening, and global time differentials put Hollywood three hours behind New York, New York at least five hours behind Europe, and Japan or Australia half a day away. An agent's day is not the same as a civil servant's. Many of my clients have my home phone number. I only ask them to use it sparingly.
*The agent cannot be a press agent, social secretary, or travel agent. A lot of agents I know take on these functions to supplement the author's or publisher's efforts. Literary agenting is a service business, and anything within reason that an agent can do to free a client from care should be given thoughtful consideration. Rare is the agent who has not driven clients to the airport or booked them into hotels, arranged business or social appointments, or helped them secure tickets to a hot Broadway show. We stop at procuring intimate companions, but many of us have made love matches and a few have had babies named after them. The roles of agents have shifted in the last decade from mere dealmakers to business managers.
Like my colleagues I have a large quiver full of sales techniques ranging from sweet talk to harangues. But I wonder how many agents have donned costumes and performed burlesque routines to sell books? It happened. Some clients of mine had written a satire of the best-selling book The One Minute Manager. Theirs was called The One Minute Relationship, demonstrating how you could meet, fall in love, marry, and divorce within sixty seconds of the first heartthrob. It was to be published by Pinnacle, but about a week before Pinnacle's sales conference, the editor-in-chief called me. "I'm thinking of something different for presenting this book to the sales staff. Could your clients cook up a cute skit?"
I promised to see what I could do, and called my clients. They came to my home and we brainstormed a skit over take-out Chinese food. The shtick we came up with featured an Indian swami who has developed the One Minute Technique. He has to wear a white robe and a turban with a jewel in it. The "jewel" in this case was a thick slice of kosher salami, and we called it the Star of Deli. My clients and I fell on the floor laughing. Then they suggested that since I had the robe, the turban, and the salami, and did a passing fair imitation of a Hindu fakir, I should perform the starring role in front of the Pinnacle salespeople. It took several bottles of Chinese beer to make me agree, but at length I went along, reasoning that these days, whatever it takes to sell books is okay by me. The skit went over well, climaxed of course by my gleefully stuffing the Star of Deli into my mouth. Pinnacle loved it so much they took our show on the road, videotaping our performance and featuring it at the American Booksellers Association convention. Last time I looked, The One Minute Manager was ranked #6,150,172 on Amazon.com.
Agents are not the tight-lipped stiffs that some have made us out to be. Like Shylock, we bleed if you prick us and laugh if you tickle us. I have cried with and for my authors when misfortune strikes, and rejoiced with them at their weddings and the births of their children.
I have also had some great laughs, not a few at the expense of clients and colleagues, for I am an inveterate practical joker. A client and good friend who'd bought himself a telephone answering machine (long before voicemail) was so anxious about missing important calls that whenever he was away for any length of time he called home every fifteen minutes to get his messages by means of a remote control signal. He worried that machine to death. If he returned to find no messages, he would examine the phone and the answering machine for malfunctions.
One day, I decided to indulge his worst paranoid fantasy, and left the following message on his answering machine: ". . . Studios. If you don't return my call by five P.M. we will assume you're not interested and we will withdraw our offer." The poor fellow spent an hour phoning movie studio executives on both coasts explaining that his phone machine had malfunctioned in the middle of a message, and asking if they happened to be the studio that left an offer on his machine that day.
Most people do not think of literary agents as leading adventurous lives, and that is largely true. Most of the time our conduct is as tightly circumscribed as that of business people in any other profession. Our greatest thrill is grappling in close combat with an editor during a six-figure negotiation, or stalking a check through the treacherous thickets of a publisher's bookkeeping system. Accounts of such adventures make for exciting listening only if you happen to be another literary agent, but somehow they don't carry the same weight as the tales of mountainous seas and mutinous tribes, challenging mountains and charging rhinos, that you can routinely hear at any meeting of the Explorers Club.
Nevertheless, because our profession brings us into contact with unusual characters, we do occasionally find ourselves carried far from the stereotypical role of submitting manuscripts in the morning, collecting checks in the afternoon, and going to lunch for three hours in between.
Early in my careerI was in London setting up the English office of Scott Meredith's literary agency. Novelist Evan Hunter (since passed on to his well deserved reward) and his wife were passing through London on their way to the Cotswolds, and we spent a delightful afternoon dining al fresco at my boss's expense. I bade them goodbye and wished them a pleasant journey, and figured that was that. About a week later, however, I got a call from Evan in Southampton. They were about to embark on a ship for America when his wife realized she had left her jewelry in a safe in the Ligon Arms Hotel in the Cotswold town of Broadway. "I'm going to ask an important favor of you," Evan said. "I want you to take a train out there and get the jewels back. Bring them to London and we'll arrange for them to be shipped home."
At that time I was in my twenties and, beyond getting stuck in an elevator for two hours and having my tonsils taken out, I had never been at hazard in many "real life situations." This sounded like an opportunity to experience the kind of peril that confronted the Burtons, Spekes, and Hilarys through whom I'd lived vicariously.
"They're not just going to hand the jewels over to me," I protested.
"Of course not," said Evan. "There'll be a password."
"When you get to the hotel, go to the desk and tell the lady you're there to recover our jewelry. Then say the password."
A password! This was a scheme worthy of Evan Hunter, who under the pen name of Ed McBain had created my favorite police procedural series, "The 87th Precinct."
"And what is the password?" I asked.
There was a long pause and I sensed that Evan was looking furtively around for eavesdroppers. He uttered a phrase in voce so sotto I had to ask him to say it again. "'Phoenix Rising'," he said. "Repeat it."
"'Phoenix Rising'," I said. "Heavy!"
That afternoon I caught a British Railways train to Evesham, the station closest to Broadway. The taxi driver I hired to take me to Broadway looked like Central Casting's notion of a Dickensian cutpurse, including addressing me as "Guv'nor." When he asked me, just being friendly, my business in Broadway, I told him, "Just touring." He arched an eyebrow. I wore a three-piece English-cut suit and a tense smile and didn't look remotely like a tourist. I looked like a man trying not to look like a man who was soon to bear tens of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry on his person.
The Ligon Arms Hotel had been built in an era when Englishmen were four feet tall, as I quickly discovered when I grazed my skull on a lintel. I wobbled to the desk and found a diminutive woman peering at me who looked as if she would crumble into powder if I spoke too loudly. I cleared my throat and murmured, "Phoenix Rising." She gazed owlishly at me and my heart sank. Something had gone wrong. Evan had not told her the password. He had told her the wrong password. She had not heard it correctly. She had stolen the jewels.
"Phoenix Rising. Phoenix Rising," she muttered, searching at least ninety years of memory for an association with this mysterious phrase. Then the light of recognition kindled in her eyes. Her hand leaped to her mouth. "Phoenix Rising! You're Phoenix Rising! EVERYONE, IT'S PHOENIX RISING! HE'S HEAH, HE'S HEAH!" Whereupon bellhops, maids, cooks, and guests poured into the lobby to see The Bearer of the Password. I doubt if anything quite like this had happened here since the Norman Invasion.
We crowded around the safe as the jewels, rolled in a pocketed length of embroidered velvet, were set before me. Delicately, my friend untied a drawstring, making certain not to touch the jewelry itself. I stared at a handsome collection of baubles. There was a hurried conference when we realized I had no inventory of what was supposed to be there, and I was required to sign a receipt itemizing each piece. The staff gathered at the entrance to bid adieu to Alias Phoenix Rising. "Quick tour, Guv'nor," my driver observed as I stepped back into the taxi. "Saw what I came to see," I replied tersely, clutching the pouch in a death grip.
Obviously, these days authors don't merely ask their agents what they've done for them lately, but rather, what else they've done for them lately, and I guess just about anything goes.
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.