Recently it fell to me to update the bestseller list page of the AR&E website (http://bit.ly/1ifJpEZ). Turned out the longer I worked, the more it felt as if I were in a time warp.
The page is a simple who-represents-whom feature – here’s a list of current bestsellers in fiction and non-fiction with the addition of the name of the agent who sold the book. Admittedly, for most readers it’s why-should I-care information, and the short answer is you shouldn’t. For writers, however, it’s an always interesting and vital bit of business knowledge. As for how we got started providing it, AR&E was begun by Bill Martin in the 1990’s, and back then publishing was a different world. The Internet was in its infancy, there were maybe two hundred literary agents worth having, and authors seeking new representation (or a first agent) were operating entirely in the dark. Tidbits of hard info based on first class research were nuggets of pure gold.
Nowadays? Not so much.
That being the case, the bestseller page isn’t updated as frequently as it should be. But a short while ago I had an attack of housekeeper’s remorse and decided to devote a couple of hours to cleaning it up.
I soon felt as if I’d gotten into my DeLorean and floored it.
Book after book had been sold by an agent who’s been around the business forever. Binky Urban, Merilee Heifetz, Al Zuckerman, Stuart Krichevsky, Esther Newberg… Stellar names? Absolutely. But another of the many things that changed in publishing over the past few decades was the explosion of literary agents. A small, highly select (and selective) group had, by the turn of the millennium, become an army approaching four figures. And all of them entirely legitimate.
Brief digression: One of the absolute plusses the net has brought to writers is the demise of the scam agents. The information age pretty much killed off the parasites with no record of sales who once preyed on new writers, peddling upfront charges and odious contracts. Snake oil doesn’t sell when everyone knows about antibiotics.
Why then – using composite lists of hard covers, paperbacks, and e-books – was I having to hunt so hard for bestsellers sold by agents I’d call “middle-aged” in terms of length of time in the business? Much less the young and hungry.
My first thought was that the lists themselves were skewed. Only the long established writers were getting on them, and such writers had their agents since way back when. But I didn’t bother listing books written by Stephen King or James Patterson or others of their ilk. Everyone who is interested knows the agent history of such writers. I was deliberately choosing books by authors who breathe the same air as the rest of us. Talented folks with a healthy oeuvre and a lot of cred within their genres, but not necessarily supernovas. Nonetheless, the data kept throwing up the same agent names, and it was all back to the future in terms of who was selling the books that made the lists. Because I dug deep to create a more informative set of facts for visitors to the site, the newly refreshed Bestseller page is not as skewed to oldies but goodies as it might have been. But trust me, the phenomenon I’m reporting truly exists.
If I were plotting a novel I would expose the denouement about here. Ta Da! Here’s the explanation and aren’t you surprised? In this instance I can work no such magic. I have a couple of facts and a theory and I’ll share them, but I can’t claim any of it is definitive.
One fact is that in at least one case the data indicate an author started with one of the lesser known agents, and after achieving some success switched to someone with star power. That’s a story as old as the lists themselves and frequently replicated, so it doesn’t shed a lot of light. Another fact, one I think more enlightening, is that as publishing adjusts to a digital world, the profound upheaval and resultant shakeout has driven many of those newer agents into other work. We’re back to a smaller pool. Okay, but the same goes for mill workers. And everyone knows books are different…
Thinking about all this I’ve come up with a theory that is perhaps a bit more revelatory: The newer agents tended to come from publishing. A good many had been editors, maybe junior editors, and in the late 90’s, as the great downsizing of publishing staff took hold, many switched to the other side of the desk. They did not learn their trade from the older agents, but rather understood the labor of making a book, and hopefully a bestseller, from the publisher’s pov.
That could be seen as a strength, but I suspect it is not so from the pov of the writer. In the old days, the ones that gave rise to those long established agents I was so surprised to encounter in such numbers, literary representation was seen as essentially the job of providing support for talent. If the agent correctly evaluated the talent part, eventually the client would produce something that would make a living – possibly a good one – for both agent and author. Back then an author could count on the agent to do more than simply sell the book. The agent was the author’s confidante, not an extension of the publishing behemoth. Such an agent expected to run interference with a stroppy editor, discuss issues to do with work in progress, hand hold when necessary, and once in a while do lunch. (Not to mention always returning phone calls.) Moreover, the agent’s office could if necessary provide information about legal needs, suggest an accountant, give advice about media consultants, maybe even get involved in what to wear on a book tour.
Frankly, becoming that sort of agent requires a number of not common things: superb literary taste so you frequently guess right about the talent part, superior negotiating skills, infinite patience with fragile writing egos, and – maybe most difficult of all – sufficient capitalization to be able to run such an operation long enough to allow it to become profitable. In other words, the kind of deep pockets you acquire when you’ve been a star agent for a lot of years…
Once you get there, even the newer bestselling authors want you rather than anyone from their own generation in the business.