A World of Speculation

“Publishers, reports The New York Times, are ‘not overfond’ of the wheelings and dealings of agents: ‘They say he has been of advantage to the few writers of the first class, having made their work much more expensive, while he has been the ruin of all the smaller fry. The steady, old-fashioned relationship between publisher and author no longer exists.’ True, true: Things are (sigh) so much less gentlemanly now, and what with all those obscene advances for celebrities and blockbusters, these are hard days for midlist writers.”

Thus writes Paul Collins in his Village Voice history of the institution of the literary agent. In the next paragraph, he reveals that that observation was written in 1899.

The literary agent arrived after the 1890s, when new copyright laws acknowledged intellectual property (thanks, Congress!), and writing became a commodity:

What happened was money. In the 1890s, new copyright laws meant that authors could no longer be ripped off with impunity. Authors now possessed intellectual property—and wherever there is property, agents are sure to follow. Publishers now faced dealing not with reclusive and impractical artistes easily put off with vague numbers and legal language, but with negotiators as ruthless as themselves. And as author William Alden tartly observed in 1898, “a publisher never approves of anything that puts money in the pockets of the author.”

Collins recounts how agents became the publishers’ gatekeepers. He opens with his own classic story of a manuscript being rejected from the slush pile while an editor is drooling over the same manuscript, submitted by an agent. He also recounts the Deering agency scam, illustrating the truism that a good agent is worth every penny, but a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

The column is sprightly written and entertaining as well as informative. It makes me wish there had been literary agents when Jane Austen was writing.