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Agents in trouble?

18 May 2009

Agents are badly hit by the recession. There's little hard evidence of this, but cutbacks in the number of books being published have had a serious impact on their ability to earn a reasonable living.

Until quite recently successful agents were seen as inhabiting one of the most glamorous parts of the publishing business. A wave of new agents coasted to success during the 80s' and 90s' expansion in publishing, some of them becoming nearly as famous as their clients. The activities of well-connected socialite agents such as Ed Victor and Andrew 'the Jackal' Wylie were well documented in the book trade press - and even in the newspapers. But there's also a generation of extremely successful but less famous agents who have built starry client lists over the years. Al Zuckerman and Mort Janklow in the States, and Carole Blake, Gill Coleridge, Darley Anderson, David Godwin and Luigi Bonomi in the UK, are names that spring to mind, but there are many others.

So, how are these stars of the agency world faring now? Mostly pretty well, as they have strong lists of ongoing clients and their ability to find the big new authors and negotiate mega-deals is what gave them their success in the first place. Life may be trickier than it used to be, and even they have their disappointments in terms of authors they cannot sell, or can no longer sell, but they are relatively well-placed.

Also still doing fairly well are the big agencies, where the legacy of the past continues to deliver a stream of cash. When authors move agency their backlist books do not go with them, as each book's contract has an agency clause ensuring that the agency's percentage for that book will continue to be paid until the end of the contract. This means that successful agencies can have a lot of padding in terms of ongoing royalties to help them weather hard times. Older-established agencies such as A P WattClick for AP Watt Ltd Agents References listing and Curtis BrownSee Curtis Brown listing also manage a number of estates and these can be quite lucrative with a bit of luck and some hard work.

PFDRepresents authors of fiction and non-fiction, children's writers, screenwriters, playwrights, documentary makers, technicians, presenters and public speakers throughout the world. Has 85 years of international experience in all media. PDF now have a POD section. Some good advice for those seeking a representative., which arose out of an amalgamation involving the long-established firm of A D Peters, has been much in the news because over eighty staff, virtually everyone on the payroll, left to establish a new agency, United Artists. This new venture has plenty of authors, but no backlist, although there has been talk of authors' challenging their contracts and trying to move their backlist titles to it. But PFD of course now has very little frontlist, as most of the authors have decamped with their agents. Both agencies are thus exposed, but in a recession United AgentsClick for United Agents Agents References listing may have more of a problem, not least because of their substantial payroll.

The agents who are most at risk are newer, smaller agents who do not have the income from past sales to sustain them through the downturn. For them this is proving really hard and something of a lottery too, as one or two big authors who hit the jackpot with giant deals can make a huge difference to a small agency's fortunes. For the rest, it's very hard to make a living.

These agencies are affected by the fact that many midlist authors - who may even have published quite a large number of books - are proving harder to find a home for, once their publisher decides not to continue with them. Many agents are only in business still because their overheads are small and they are reluctant to give up their investment of time and energy. But in the future we should expect to see more news of agencies closing down or amalgamating to cut their overheads.

Authors who have struggled to find an agent may not feel sympathetic to their plight, but this is the reason why it is so hard for unpublished writers to persuade an agent to take them on - the agents have to be convinced not only that the writers are producing good work but also that they can sell that work in an increasingly tough market.