Morton L. Janklow, Andrew Wylie, Marie Brown … These names might sound familiar: they are all well-known American literary agents who represent famous authors such as Danielle Steele, Salman Rushdie or Susan Taylor.
But aren’t publishers and editors enough to bring books to life? What are literary agents for?
What is a literary agent?
According to John B. Thompson, agents are supposed to manage the long-term careers of the writers they represent. It includes working with authors on their manuscripts and proposals, helping them build an audience (their ‘platform’), presenting manuscripts to the right editors and publishers, managing the sales, the contracts, the rights … and, ideally, enabling authors to write for a living.1
They charge a commission for these services, usually between 10% and 20% of the author’s advance and royalties.2 Consequently, there seems to be no initial risk for the author, as literary agents get paid only if they sell the writer’s work.
Nevertheless, it is essential for agents and writers to be on the same wavelength to work together effectively, so that authors shouldn’t throw themselves into the arms of the first person who shows an interest in their manuscript – accounts of disappointed writers are dreadfully common.3
Moreover, it is not always easy to identify reliable agents since the profession is not regulated. Most agents have gained experience in publishing houses and/or climbed the ladder in literary agencies before building their own client list: the publishing industry is very much, as John B. Thompson puts it, ‘an apprentice-based industry.’4
At a time when anybody can claim to be an agent, word of mouth and directories such as the British Association of Authors’ Agents, the American Association of Authors’ Representatives or the Francophone Alliance des Agents Littéraires Français can be helpful starting points to find one’s way in the world of literary agents.
Literary agents in the US, the UK and Ireland
Although unagented English-speaking authors can get published, being represented by an agent is a strong asset, it is even essential in some cases. According to the publishing consultant Jane Friedman, around 80% of the books released by New York-based publishers are sold by agents, the major houses attaching more importance to them than smaller, specialised publishing companies.5
Numerous publishers appreciate not having to go through the traditional slush pile; they value agents as intermediaries who have a thorough knowledge of the industry, polish the author’s text, lend credibility to manuscripts by supporting them and deal with the negotiations. Editors and publishers can thus focus on the creative side of things with their authors.6
Most publishing houses now only accept submissions from agents or strongly encourage writers to be represented (for example Bloomsbury, Hot Key Books, Lee and Low Books or Simon & Schuster), but many Irish presses such as Little Island still accept submissions from unagented authors.
Indeed, despite a lack of precise data, the number of agents in the UK and the US seems to have significantly risen7 while Irish agents are still hard to find. To give an order of magnitude, over five hundred US-based and four hundred UK-based literary agents are listed on Jericho Writers.8 On the other hand, Harry Bingham asserted in 2013 that there were ‘only about half a dozen literary agents active in Ireland’9 .
Irish authors should not despair, though, as UK-based agents are, more often than not, happy to represent talented writers regardless of their country of origin9 (not forgetting that Great Britain and Ireland are not that far away from each other!)
Some of Little Island’s authors prove it: Patricia Forde is represented by Anne Clarke from Cambridge while the London-based agent Sophie Hicks counts Eoin Colfer, Paula Leyden, Oisín McGann and Siobhán Parkinson on her list.
Overall, around half of the authors published by Little Island are agented, which is much more than most French presses can say.
Literary agents in France
A survey on the relationships between authors and their editors/publishers released in March 2018 revealed that only 3.4% of French authors are represented by an agent, a figure that has grown from 2% in 2015.10
The relationship between authors and their editors is almost sacred in France, where they traditionally developed a very close and special bond in family-owned publishing houses. For instance, the emblematic French publisher and founder of P.O.L Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens wanted ‘no intermediary between the authors and [him],’ considering that agents brought no added value to writers’ intellectual work.11
However, the number of agented authors is increasing, which may result from a change in the landscape of French publishing. According to the journalist Sabine Audrerie, the bond between authors and their editors/publishers tends to weaken11 as the industry becomes increasingly concentrated, with fewer and fewer corporations recording the large majority of the field’s turnover, especially since the 1980s12 – it started earlier in English-speaking countries, from the 1960s onwards.13
As editors are more likely to change houses following mergers and acquisitions, as writers are negotiating with powerful companies that also handle digital and adaptation rights, authors are more prone to turn to agents who will defend their interests and provide them with a certain stability.14
In this context, Samantha Bailly, French author and chair of the Ligue des auteurs professionnels (‘League of professional authors’), regards agents as helpful intermediaries who, far from being detrimental to the writer-editor bond, avoid tensions by taking charge of the legal and commercial aspects of publishing.15
This slow change of mindset is already perceptible: while France used to be ‘the country with two agents’ (François Samuelson and Susanna Lea),16 the French Literary Agents Alliance now counts over twenty agencies. Agents are thus gaining visibility even though several of them specialise in foreign rights rather than representing French authors to French publishers, who are more used to working with foreign writers’ agents.15
Another sign of this development is the invitation of agents as guest lecturers in universities: for example, Nicolas Grivel and Charlotte Larat (both specialised in the sale of rights) have met the students of Strasbourg’s Master’s in Publishing to introduce them to their profession and share their experience. Over time, agents representing French authors in France might also become more mainstream and, why not, be part of college curricula.
What about children’s books?
According to the American agent Elizabeth Harding, children’s and young adult (YA) publishing is now much more recognised than it used to be. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult for writers to get directly in touch with publishers, so that agents are gaining importance in this particular field.17
On the other side of the Atlantic, Samantha Bailly also explains that French publishers are particularly unaccustomed to agents when it comes to youth literature, where royalties tend to be lower than in adult publishing, but things are starting to change.15
Added to this is the importance of illustrations in many children’s books: Harding asserts that representing illustrators is particularly complicated since agents have to showcase the artist’s style, rather than a manuscript.17
In light of the particularities of youth literature, several agents have chosen to specialise in books for children and teenagers, like Mary Cummings, Alice Williams or Kendra Marcus, Minju Chang and Karyn Fischer from the BookStop Literary Agency.
No matter the country or the artists’ origins, the growth of literary agents might contribute to enriching the children’s and YA literary scene, which is already teeming with talent. Through fruitful cooperation, authors, illustrators, agents, editors and publishers could combine their strengths and knowledge to do what they do best: bring beautiful and meaningful books to young (and older) readers.
Of course, each situation is unique, and there are as many different scenarios as there are artists and publishing houses.
At Little Island, for our part, we are always delighted to help talented authors and illustrators develop their potential and reach their audience, whether they are agented or not!
1 Thompson, J. B. (2012) Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Plume, p. 86-100.
2 Bingham, H. (2019) Literary agent fees (what you need to know). JerichoWriters. 24 December. Available from: https://jerichowriters.com/hub/get-agent/literary-agent-fees/ [Accessed 26 March 2020].
Servenay, D. (2016) Rentrée littéraire : l’agent, le joker des écrivains ? L’Obs avec Rue89 [online], 4 November. Available from: https://www.nouvelobs.com/rue89/rue89-economie/20080909.RUE5706/rentree-litteraire-l-agent-le-joker-des-ecrivains.html [Accessed 26 March 2020].
3 Thompson, J. B., op. cit., p. 384-391.
4 Ibid., p. 78.
5 Friedman, F. (2017) How to find a literary agent for your book. Jane Friedman. 5 December. Available from: https://www.janefriedman.com/find-literary-agent/ [Accessed 26 March 2020].
6 Thompson, J. B., op. cit., p. 74-76.
7 Ibid., p. 71-72.
8 Jericho Writers (2020) US literary agents listings. Oxford: Jericho Writers. Available from: https://jerichowriters.com/hub/us-literary-agents-listings/ [Accessed 26 March 2020].
Jericho Writers (2020) Your complete list of UK literary agents. Oxford: Jericho Writers. Available from: https://jerichowriters.com/hub/uk-literary-agents/ [Accessed 26 March 2020].
9 Bingham, H. (2013) How to find a UK agent. Writing.ie. 21 March. Available from: https://www.writing.ie/resources/how-to-find-a-uk-agent/ [Accessed 26 March 2020].
10 Société civile des auteurs multimedia et Société des gens de lettres (2018) 7e baromètre des relations auteurs/éditeurs : un monde perfectible. Paris : Scam et SGDL, p. 3. Available from: http://www.scam.fr/Portals/0/Contenus/documents/Dossiers/2018/Barometre2018.pdf?ver=2018-03-12-093512-397 [Accessed 30 March 2020].
11 Audrerie, S. (2016) Enquête sur les agents littéraires. La Croix [online], 13 October, updated 19 October. Available from: https://www.la-croix.com/Culture/Livres-et-idees/Enquete-agents-litteraires-2016-10-13-1200795930 [Accessed 30 March 2020].
12 Piault, F. (2019) Classement 2019 : les 200 premiers éditeurs français. Livres Hebdo, 21 juin, p. 24-35, p. 24.
Robin, C. (2016) Les livres dans l’univers numérique. 2nd ed. Paris: La Documentation française, p. 18.
13 Thompson, J. B., op. cit., p. 103.
14 Soulié, F. (2013) Les agents littéraires, des acteurs bientôt incontournables ? La Revue des médias. Updated 6 February 2019. Available from: https://larevuedesmedias.ina.fr/les-agents-litteraires-des-acteurs-bientot-incontournables [Accessed 30 March 2020].
15 Bailly, S. (2017) Pourquoi je suis représentée par un agent littéraire ? Samantha Bailly. 5 May. Available from: http://www.samantha-bailly.com/350/pourquoi- je-suis-representee-par-un-agent-litteraire [Accessed 30 March 2020].
16 Nicolas, V. (2013) Agent littéraire, les dessous d’un métier polémique. Europe 1 [online], 6 June, updated 20 June. Available from: https://www.europe1.fr/evenements/Agent-litteraire-les-dessous-d-un-metier-polemique-542028 [Accessed 30 March 2020].
17 Peterson, V. (2019) A literary agent’s advice to children’s and YA authors. The Balance Careers. 25 June. Available from: https://www.thebalancecareers.com/a-literary-agent-s-advice-to-children-s-and-ya-authors-2800178 [Accessed 26 March 2020].