During the last ten years the literary agent has come to play an increasingly prominent part in the affairs of the book trade. It used to be the case that a wellestablished novelist, or playwright, or biographer, used a literary agent to act as intermediary to arrange favourable contracts and collect advances and royalties, simply because these financial transactions took up too much of his time. There was also a problem of mistrust. The literary agent, claiming always to take the author's side, has never been the object of the deep, sometimes uncontrollable suspicions which the creative artist reserves for those who purvey his work — the publishers.
The first literary agent, A. P. Watt. began in 1875 by handling the literary affairs of Walter Besant (who founded the Society of Authors), and went on to re
present most of the celebrated authors of the day — Kipling, Chesterton and Maugham among others — partly because there was little competition. Nowadays the situation is sharply different. There are over seventy literary agents, and they represent not only established authors. For instance, it seems to be widely accepted that an aspiring novelist can by-pass the normal approach to a publisher — that is, sending in his MS to be considered by an anonymous publisher's reader along with a host of others — by having his work accepted by a literary agent who will carefully select an appropriate publisher and send the MS addressed personally to a friendly editor in the company, along with a letter of persuasive eloquence.
There are a number of flaws in this. First of all, there are no short cuts to publication. Any publishing house of substance will look carefully at a manuscript which comes in direct from the writer, as they will at a manuscript sent in by a literary agent. Secondly, publisher's readers are a thing of the past. Most pub lishers can't afford them. The assistant editors, editors and directors who look at the new MS are the same people who are approached by literary agents, and 'readers' are now outside experts from whom a second opinion is required. Finally, as any literary agent would be the first to admit, the choice of the ' right ' editor in the 'right' publishing house is usually a matter of whom he last had lunch with and mourned the scarcity of good new novels/popular histories/ cookery books.
Whether a novelist sends his first MS to an agent or to a publisher makes little difference, therefore. Once the book has been accepted, he is generally in a position to know whether the publisher is able and willing to negotiate domestic subsidiary rights for him, or whether it is wiser to employ a literary agent to negotiate these rights in the future and take his 10 per cent commission. For writers of non-fiction the situation is more complicated and some effort will be made to describe it, next week.