Kings of the jungle In the ecosystem of publishing, the literary agent is a comparatively new phenomenon. Printers, booksellers, editors and publishers: all can trace their roots to Caxton. Agents, by contrast, are seen as interlopers, half man, half beast, whose place at the water-hole has, historically, not been greeted with universal approbation. Only 100 years ago, the first literary agent, JB Pinker, who represented Wilde, Conrad, Wells and James, was regarded by London's publishers with fear and suspicion. What right, they asked, had this impostor to interfere with the sacred author-publisher relationship How dare Mr Pinker presume to negotiate terms on behalf of 'their' authors Pinker, a pioneer, was a symptom as much as a cause.
As the marketplace for new writing expanded in the aftermath of the 1870 Education Act, a new class of professional writer (Conan Doyle, JM Barrie, Arnold Bennett) was emerging who needed a representative to look after their interests. Pinker was followed by Messrs AP Watt, Curtis Brown and AD Peters, names that survive, more or less unchanged, to the present. Something else didn't change much, either. At least until the 1970's, publishers continued to regard agents with contempt.
Some of them actually refused to consider a book if it arrived via an agent. The book trade was dominated by a generation of senior publishers, well-lunched men and women in their fifties and sixties, who considered agents to be little better than stick-up merchants in flashy clothes. Slowly, the role of the agent became respectable. Occasionally, publisher's editors, disillusioned with, or rejected by, the business, would swap game keeping for poaching and set up as independent agents before retiring into obscurity. Until recently, this migration lacked any larger significance. But deep in the book jungle, there were new stirrings.
During the 1980's, as publishing reorganised itself into to corporate megaliths the smarter literary agencies began to follow suit. AD Peters merged with theatrical agents Fraser and Dunlop to become PFD. A crucial new alliance established Rogers, Coleridge & White; Curtis Brown absorbed John Farquhar son. And so on.
Now, if you were a writer represented by one of these companies, you could have an agent who, having sold book rights in English (and half-a-dozen foreign languages) could simply walk the property down the corridor to an office fully equipped to exploit its potential in magazine, theatrical, film and TV markets. During the Thatcher years, the headlines were often dominated by Andrew 'the Jackal' Wylie and his anglicise d London counterpart, Ed Victor, but the really significant action was going on in the corridors of PFD, Curtis Brown and RC&W, the big agencies with the big clients. Within the book trade, this represented a shift in the balance of power. Historically, the publisher, disdaining the agent, had treated the writer with a near feudal superiority. The Oxford historian GM Young captured this age perfectly when he remarked that: 'Being published by the Oxford University Press is rather like being married to a duchess: the honour is almost greater than the pleasure.
' Suddenly, the honours were even. Now, backed by powerful agencies, the writers began to bite back. The corporate megaliths, hungry for new material, were forced to compete against each other in auctions orchestrated by the big agencies. Advances soared.
The more they went up, the more the next generation of new writers flocked to join the new agents, who at first behaved like latter day alchemists, turning dross into gold. The more powerful they became, the more demands they made on the writers they represented and the more they began to play a quasi-editorial role. The Nineties was the decade in which publishing editors lost their place at the top of the pecking order. Last week saw the logical conclusion of this process, as Peter Straus, the editor-in-chief of Picador (the paperback imprint of the giant Macmillan group), quit his job, not to launch a new imprint, or to emigrate to Hollywood, or to retire to Scotland (traditional escape routes for publishers weary of the Groucho Club) but to join RC&W, one of the most-respected and successful agencies in town. Next to Rommel driving his jeep into the operational headquarters of the Eighth Army, a more startling development could hardly be imagined. What its impact will be is anyone's guess.
Some people say it's 'the end of Macmillan'; others that Mr Straus is 'out of his depth'. We shall see. One thing is certain: the literary a genting business is now where the real action is in the lawless jungle of the book world. 32 e.