A few weeks after the sudden death of my agent, Deborah Rogers, in 2014, the colleague in charge of my care phoned me. “I found something on Deborah’s desk.”
“A letter from you. For you.”
“It seems that I had read it. Remember it?”
Of course he remembered. Frustrated after months of trying to get a response to a novel, he had written me a letter, I enclosed a self-addressed envelope and asked him to mark the appropriate response: “Novel read”, “Novel needs work”, “Novel sent” , “Novel sold for: £ 1,000, b: £ 10,000, c: £ 100,000.” Petty-minded and, given his support and encouragement over the years, unforgivable, but being Deborah, he took it well.
The phone rang the morning he received it.
“Hello.” Deborah rarely announced herself when she called.
“Well, I was so embarrassed. When I read the letter, I put it in my drawer. We need to talk. What are you going to do tomorrow?”
The next day we talked over lunch and he sold the manuscript for a decent sum. And, like those that preceded and followed it, it got some decent reviews and some sales.
Writers need agents more than agents need writers. They’ve needed them since the late 1800s, when an increasingly literate audience fueled by the magazines and single-volume prints made possible by the invention of the Linotype press created a lucrative industry. Until then, authors operated a “half-profit” system with publishers, in which they shared profits 50/50 once publishers had deducted their expenses (and when they came to send the check). The new generation of agents empowered authors by leasing their copyrights to publishers in exchange for royalties and an advance on those royalties. These days, conversations with other writers at some point often address the thorny question of sales: “Have you won?”
I don’t know many writers who routinely “win,” that is, clarify their progress. I suspect that few writers do.
AP Watt is the man generally credited with establishing many of the agent’s business practices. Henry James, one of his clients, wrote to his brother William: “He takes 10% of what he receives for me, but I am informed that his favorable action in the market and one’s business in general more than makes up for it.” .
However, being an effective business broker like Watt is less interesting than the more complex roles that the literary agent plays and continues to play. French television success Call my agent! focuses on ego massage and the competitive demands that the film and television industries make on the staff of a Paris talent agency; the writers may also have found material on the relationship between literary agent James Brand Pinker and Joseph Conrad, which is recounted in more than 1,000 letters. Pinker was Conrad’s confidant, travel agent, and shoulder to cry on. It wasn’t until Chance’s publication, at the end of Conrad’s life, that his reputation was established and his books began to sell, but by then he was plagued with gout and suffered from recurring bouts of malaria during which he would wake up and talk. in your native Polish. Pinker supported him by sending him a check every week and essentially handling the family’s affairs.
Modern versions of Pinker regularly cite being called in to take on extracurricular responsibilities. One, with a long list of established clients, picks up a toolbox every time she visits a particular author’s home (she doesn’t come into the office) because she saves odd jobs for her visits. Another veteran agent routinely sends reams of paper to one of his clients because he claims to be too poor to pay enough to complete his work-in-progress.
I have had five agents in a long career as a writer: three literary and two film. Another that I was about to sign up with, but withdrew at the last minute when I found out that he was known to have two mobile phone numbers: one for his mega-sellers and the other for the rest; he would only answer one of her lines. I have been thinking about them for the past two years while editing my sporadic journals in what has now become a book. As its title, A Very Nice Rejection Letter suggests, my career has not been affected by great success, but it also points to another key role played by those who take 10% (plus VAT) of their winnings: the roulette wheel of The bad news. My ex-filming agent came up with a cunning strategy: Instead of reporting each rejection as it came in, she kept the “prettiest” ones and handed them over when pestered for updates. When I was cleaning up my file (seven slightly damp box files transferred from one loft to another during several moves) I discovered that I had kept many of my rejection letters, but not the scripts and stories. The most damning came from BBC Light Entertainment: “Forgive me, but this is not in view of being an acceptable script. With this evidence, I can’t imagine you can win over the hundreds of professional authors who are writing full-time. It would be hypocritical, and useless, if I said otherwise. “
Despite the inevitable setbacks, once you’ve become a slave to what Truman Capote describes as the “noble but ruthless master,” you’ve had it. You are addicted. Worse still, as he went on to suggest, “When God gives you a gift, He also gives you a whip, and that whip is intended solely for self-flagellation.” Writers are good at self-flagellation. It makes the pain caused by others easier to bear.
The UK version of Call My Agent! has started shooting. I suppose they stick to the brightly lit glamor of film and television rather than the sepia-tinged world of book publishing. Rereading my journal from 2007, I discovered a series of entries that recorded my monthly attendance to a group of mid-list novelists (posting rule # 6: there is no such thing as a low-list novelist) in a cold room. above in a West End Pub. Among us were some well-known, albeit high-level names. He expected a sparkling conversation, and often left depressed by complaints about the impossibility of getting decent tapes for typewriters today, the lack of interest from the television and film industries, and a perennial impossibility of get a response from your agent.
I ran into one of the members the other day. He told me that he had recently packaged his agent for that very reason. The distraught agent responded (presumably after going through 12 months of email traffic) by citing an occasion (the only occasion, according to my friend) that he had responded on the same day.
The saddest thing to witness at these gatherings was the way these impoverished individuals ran to the bar upon entering, careful not to look anyone in the eye, and then pretended to notice the group only after they had bought their glass of red wine. of the house. that they would then breastfeed for the next three hours so they wouldn’t have to visit the bar again and buy a round. Anyone who was successful tended to come one more time to brag about himself and then disappear. One writer, with whom he had shared an early low-flying career path, reported that he received a call from a Hollywood mogul one night. She answered the phone to be informed: “I am going to make you a very rich woman.” And I think it 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. He was then working for the BBC as a Radio 4 producer and found him shuffling through the corridors of Broadcasting House, a box of tissues precariously placed next to his coffee and a stopwatch on his script. His production was prolific and he also took the time to respond to every story that was sent to him. Mitch didn’t commission a story from me, but his kind assurances that I was a capable writer and should continue to learn my craft stuck with me. Novice writers need validation. Many owe their careers to Mitch.
Deborah Rogers hired me when a colleague at the BBC read a novel I had written (the rejections ended my career as a radio and theater writer) and offered to show it to a friend. Several months later, he 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 one spot on the low couches that wasn’t cluttered with manuscripts. One of its many strengths was that it did not differentiate between its award winners and intermediaries. Nothing in my writing career will match the moment when Deborah greeted me at the front desk, my latest manuscript under her arm, with the announcement: “I can sell this.” Three weeks later it did, to Jonathan Cape, who went on to publish seven of my novels.
The agent who inherited me after Deborah’s death also died suddenly, too young, and recently I was hired by another. We hit it off, I think, although he admitted that he read the last manuscript from behind the couch because the latest journal entries in what has become the new book are about the process of selling the book to Constable and Robinson. I think this is what is meant by “goal”.
So far I have not sent you a multiple choice letter to answer the latest novel. I’m sure he will be back soon. I don’t have a movie agent right now, but maybe I’ll start looking for one when the inevitable frenzy begins to take over the movie rights to this middle-list novelist’s meanders. But I know I am not alone. Saul Bellow acknowledged that rejections are not necessarily a bad thing. It is up to you to choose whether they mark the beginning or the end of a career. As he wrote: “They teach a writer to trust his own judgment and to say in the bottom of his heart: ‘To hell with you.’
A very nice rejection letter: Chris Paling’s Diary of a Novelist was published by Constable on June 17th.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism