March 21, 2012

The role of the agent: an international view


There’s more fascinating commentary about changes in India’s booming publishing industry. MobyLives reported a few weeks ago on an influx of bogus literary agents preying on authors in the market, which up until recently was largely agent-free. Tanuj Khosla observed then that though the industry has been booming since 2000, 90% of authors still submit their work directly to publishers.

This recent Hindustan Times report sheds more light on the new mediation of the author/publisher relationship in the country, reading as an introduction of sorts to the figure of the agent. One of the most interesting things about the article is its first line:

Like all first-time novelists, Anees Salim mailed his manuscripts to every publisher in the country – and got no response.

It’s hard to know how seriously to take this — every publisher in the country, including STM, children’s, academic…? Even if the manuscript was sent only to publishers of contemporary novels, that’s still a sprawling category. Salim would no doubt have had more success if he’d sent out a targeted batch of manuscripts with cover letters tailored to relevant publishers. After all, the article mentions that some publishers in India prefer to work directly with authors, and that’s equally true outside of India, as noted in our last report. Given the volume of work received by most houses, though, it stands to reason that it’s important to tailor your submission to the house you’re sending it to. A blanket mail-out is unlikely to grab attention.

The Hindustan Times presents the rise of the agent in India as not only inevitable but desirable. That’s particularly interesting in the light of an article published yesterday by the Canadian writer Kate Pullinger. At a London talk by John B. Thompson, author of the excellent Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century, Pullinger asked Thompson why he thought many writers were so ignorant of their own industry (Pullinger’s words). Thompson’s answer — as reported by Pullinger — is worth quoting at length:

Thompson pounced on the question, saying that his next big research project will focus on this very thing – writers, and the world we inhabit.  Then he said a very interesting thing.  He said, ‘Writers outsource their relationship to the publishing industry to their agents’.

This struck me as a very simple way of stating a profound truth, and one that carries with it many layers of complexity.  Writers can’t survive in the industry without agents.  Agents act as our intermediaries – we let them get on with business while we write.  But, more than this, this statement reflects a cultural truth – writers aren’t supposed to be business people, we’re supposed to stay in our garrets and dream our beautiful dreams.  No publisher wants to have to deal directly with a writer over a contract.  And while writers outsource their relationship with the industry to agents (apart from, of course, the writer-editor relationship we all hold dear), publishers outsource the finding of new writers and new books to agents.

As I’ve already mentioned, not all publishers do outsource in this way: at Melville House we usually prefer to work directly with authors. But taking the industry more broadly, this cautionary tale bears some force, about the dangers to authors themselves of relying too heavily on agents. Indian authors negotiating the current changes to their market would do well to take note.



Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.