Why do writers need agents? To keep track of the rejections

A few weeks after the sudden death of my agent, Deborah Rogers, nel 2014 the colleague deputed to take me on phoned. “I’ve found something in Deborah’s desk.”

“Yes?"

“A letter from you. To you.”

“Ah.”

“It looks like she’d read it. Remember it?"

Of course I remembered it. Frustrated after months of trying to get a response to a novel, I had written a letter to myself, enclosed a self-addressed envelope, and asked her to tick the appropriate response: “Novel read”, “novel needs work”, “novel submitted”, “novel sold for a: £1,000, b: £10,000, c: £100,000”. Petty-minded and, given her support and encouragement over the years, unforgivable. Ma, being Deborah, she took it well.

The phone rang the morning she received it.

“Hello.” Deborah rarely announced herself when calling.

“Hello.”

"Bene, I was so ashamed. When I read the letter I stuffed it into my drawer. We need to talk. What are you doing tomorrow?"

The following day, we talked over lunch and she sold the manuscript for a decent sum. E, like those that preceded and followed it, it earned a few decent reviews and a few sales.

Writers need agents more than agents need writers. They have needed them since the late 19th century, when an increasingly literate public fed by the magazines and single-volume prints made possible by the invention of Linotype printing created a lucrative industry. Until then, authors operated on a “half profits” system with publishers, in which they shared earnings 50/50 once the publishers had deducted their expenses (and when they got round to sending the cheque). The new breed of agents empowered authors by leasing their copyrights to publishers in return for royalties and an advance on those royalties. Nowadays, conversations with fellow writers at some point usually address the thorny question of sales: “Have you earned out?"

"No. You?"

“No.”

I don’t know many writers who routinely “earn out”, ie clear their advance. I suspect few writers do.

AP Watt is the man usually credited with establishing many of the business practices of the agent. Henry James, one of his clients, wrote to his brother William: “He takes 10% of what he gets for me, but I am advised that his favourable action on one’s market and business generally more than makes up for this.”

Being an effective business middleman like Watt, though, is less interesting than the more complex roles the literary agent played and still plays. The French TV hit Call My Agent! focuses on the ego-massaging and competing demands made by the film and TV industries on the staff of a Paris talent agency; the writers could equally have found material in the relationship between literary agent James Brand Pinker and Joseph Conrad, which is chronicled in more than 1,000 letters. Pinker was Conrad’s confidant, travel agent and shoulder to cry on. It wasn’t until the publication of Chance, late in Conrad’s life, that his reputation was established and his books began to sell, but by then he was gout-ridden and suffering from recurring bouts of malaria during which he would wake up and speak in his native Polish. Pinker supported him by sending him a cheque each week and essentially running the family’s affairs.

Modern-day versions of Pinker regularly cite being called to take on extracurricular responsibilities. Uno, with a long list of established clients, takes a toolbox each time he visits a particular author’s house (she doesn’t come into the office) because she saves up odd jobs for his visits. Another longstanding agent routinely sends reams of paper to one of her clients because he claims to be too poor to afford enough to complete his works in progress.

I have had five agents in a long writing career: three literary and two film. Another I was about to sign on with, but pulled out at the last moment when I discovered he was notorious for having two mobile numbers – one for his mega-sellers, the other for the rest; he would only ever answer one of his lines. I have been thinking about them all over the past couple of years as I’ve been editing my sporadic journals into what has now become a book. As its title, A Very Nice Rejection Letter, suggests, my career has been untroubled by huge success, but it also points towards another key role played by those who take 10% (plus VAT) of your earnings: the bad-news spinner. My former film agent devised a cunning strategy: instead of reporting each rejection as it came in, she would save up the “nicest” of them and deliver them when pestered for updates. When I was clearing out my archive (seven slightly damp box files transferred from loft to loft over several house moves) I discovered I had kept many of my rejection letters, but not the scripts and stories. The most damning one came from BBC Light Entertainment: “Forgive me, but this isn’t within sight of being an acceptable script. On this evidence I can’t envisage that you can win over the hundreds of professional authors who devote full-time to writing. It would be hypocritical – and unhelpful – if I said otherwise.”

Despite the inevitable knockbacks, once you have become enslaved to what Truman Capote describes as the “noble but merciless master”, you’ve had it. You’re addicted. Worse, as he went on to suggest: “When God hands you a gift, he also hands you a whip and that whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” Writers are good at self-flagellation. It makes the hurt delivered by others easier to bear.

The British version of Call My Agent! has begun shooting. I assume they are sticking close to the brightly lit glamour of film and TV rather than the sepia-tinted world of book publishing. When re-reading my 2007 diary I discovered a number of entries recording my monthly attendance at a group of mid-list novelists (publishing rule No 6 – there is no such thing as a low-list novelist) in a chilly upstairs room in a West End pub. Among us were some well-known if senior names. I went anticipating sparkling conversation and often came away depressed by the whingeing over the impossibility of getting decent typewriter ribbons nowadays, the lack of interest from the TV and film industries and, a perennial one, the impossibility of getting a response from your agent.

I bumped into one of the members the other day. He told me he had recently canned his agent for that very reason. The distraught agent responded (having presumably gone through 12 months of email traffic) by citing an occasion (the only occasion, according to my friend) in which he had responded on the same day.

The saddest thing to witness at these gatherings was the way in which these impoverished individuals scuttled to the bar on their way in, careful not to meet anybody’s eye, then affected to notice the group only after they had bought their glass of house red wine, which they would then nurse for the next three hours so they didn’t have to revisit the bar and buy a round. Any who did find success tended to come once more to boast about it and then disappear. One writer – with whom I had shared an early low-flying career trajectory – reported getting a call from a Hollywood mogul one evening. She answered the phone to be informed: “I’m going to make you a very rich woman.” And I think he did. The call was from Harvey Weinstein.

Despite the responses, I persisted in writing and persisted in part because many of the early rejections came from an eccentric BBC radio producer, Mitch Raper. I worked for the BBC then as a Radio 4 producer and would encounter him shuffling along the corridors of Broadcasting House, box of tissues perched precariously alongside his coffee and stopwatch on his script. His output was prolific and he also took the time to respond to every story he was sent. Mitch didn’t commission a story from me but his gentle assurances that I was a capable writer and should continue to learn my trade stayed with me. Rookie writers need validation. Many owe their careers to Mitch.

I was taken on by Deborah Rogers when a BBC colleague read a novel I had written (the rejections put paid to my radio- and TV-play-writing career) and offered to show it to a friend. Several months later, I was waiting in the reception area of a literary agency in north London. Deborah opened the door to her office and ushered me in, pointing to the only place on the low sofas not cluttered with manuscripts. One of her many strengths was that she didn’t differentiate between her prize winners and mid-listers. Nothing in my writing career will ever match the moment Deborah greeted me in the reception, my latest manuscript under her arm, with the announcement: “I can sell this.” Three weeks later she did, to Jonathan Cape, which went on to publish seven of my novels.

The agent who inherited me after Deborah’s death also died suddenly, much too young, and I’ve recently been taken on by another one. We get on well, credo, although he did admit he read the latest manuscript from behind the sofa because the later journal entries in what has become the new book are about the process of him selling the book to Constable and Robinson. I think this is what is meant by “meta”.

I haven’t so far sent him a multiple-choice letter to respond to the latest novel. I’m sure he’ll be back to me soon. I don’t have a film agent now but perhaps I’ll start casting round for one when the inevitable frenzy begins to snap up the film rights to the meanderings of this mid-list novelist. But I know I’m not alone. Saul Bellow recognised that rejections are not necessarily a bad thing. It is within your power to choose whether they signal the beginning or the end of a career. As he wrote: “They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts: ‘To hell with you.’”

A Very Nice Rejection Letter: Diary of a Novelist by Chris Paling is published by Constable on 17 giugno.

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