'Are there too many literary agencies?'

Image - iStockphoto: GoranDomeij
Image – iStockphoto: GoranDomeij

The question with which I’ve headlined this post comes from literary agent Jonny Geller. More:

I believe that the lack of changes in our industry will leave many authors exposed. I would say this, wouldn’t I? Well, I’m not actually criticising any one agent, or the notion of small agencies—but my industry as a whole.

Jonny Geller
Jonny Geller

Geller is sounding the alarm as one of the most easily recognized and widely regarded literary agents on the London scene today. The joint c.e.o. of Curtis Brown, his client list is a stunner for its depth and sheer gravitas. Here are William Boyd, Susanna Clarke, the Ian Fleming estate, Carl Hiassen, David Mitchell, the Mandela estate, David Nicholls, Howard Jacobson, Adele Parks, and one of my personal favourites, John le Carré. And there are more.

In addition, Geller is among many authors’ most respected agents for an opinion piece he posted here at The Bookseller in March 2012, An agent’s manifesto. In that memorable essay — published near the height of the independent-author movement’s collective anger — he used the unassailable fortress of his office (few agents might feel they can speak to the power of the industry this way) and took on not only publishers but also bookshops.

I’m exerpting here:

The author is not an object which a publisher has to step over in order to achieve a successful publication. If they [authors] have a problem with the cover, blurb, copy or format, then something isn’t right.


The author loves bookshops. Bookshops need to learn how to love authors again. We need to bring them back together.


We publishing professionals are the ones who bear the risk—agents with time; publishers with investment; retailers with space. Authors risk only their whole life, self-esteem and their babies.

Such bold, compelling lines make Geller a guy you don’t want to run at lightly. In fact, too head-on a tussle with this figure beloved both IRL and for his lively Twitter stream might get you a minor Dunkirk re-enactment on dry land, with many in publishing flocking eagerly to his defence.

And so it has been interesting to watch for reaction to his latest essay in The Bookseller’s paywall-free blog section.

In Joined agency, Geller takes on his own kin, the many smaller literary agencies that bob along beside such mighty ships as the house of Curtis Brown. In this piece, Geller tells us: “All other sectors of the industry have consolidated in response to digital disruption—publishers, booksellers, wholesalers and public relations agencies—and yet there are still more than 300 agencies listed in The Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook 2015.”

Two paragraphs in, Geller already is answering his own opening question: Yes, he has determined, there are too many literary agencies.

Any business analyst must look at our sector and scratch their head. So many agents in small operations with no direct facility to sell foreign rights, film/TV rights or produce anything, and yet they still represent some of this country’s most successful and popular writers?

Ed WilsonWhat he’s working up to may be more important than the technical fact of his pro-consolidation stance. Some of the reaction so far has tended to be snagged on that point.

For example, agent Ed Wilson of Johnson & Alcock writes in a tweet:

Some authors don’t want to be part of a corporate/360 degree/content-generation machine.

They want good representation, pure and simple.

Wilson is joined on Twitter by another agent, who picks up on his comments.

Becky ThomasBecky Thomas writes:

Insulting to authors to say they just want to be a big fish. Attention to rights/contracts/payments by their primary agent is to be valued. Not farming out admin to different overworked departments.

Indeed, the conventional wisdom among many authors has frequently been that a writer may well get more personal attention at a smaller agency than a large one. But this isn’t universally agreed.

In Publishing contracts: Three key things to watch out for, author and game designer Dave Morris is closer in his thinking to Geller’s::

My advice after thirty years in the business is sign with an agency of reasonable size. They have more contacts (increasingly essential to strike a good deal in modern publishing). And an agency can bring in experts as and when you need them, deploying resources unavailable to the Lincoln Lawyer agent.

Dave Morris
Dave Morris

As pointed out in our coverage here, Morris is referring, of course, to Mickey Haller, Michael Connelly’s “Lincoln Lawyer” who works from his car, a Lincoln. And he goes on to make another point akin to Geller’s about the widening array of potential ways to exploit a property profitably:

Increasingly, publishing deals draw on experience of other industries. Mine is in videogames, for example. Your agent won’t know as much as you may do about those new fields. Be ready to act as their consultant as much as they are yours.

It might be expected that the Gellerian model is likelier to include specialists in “those new fields” than a small agency can have on hand.

A commenter on the piece who identifies her- or himself as “Secret Agent” chastises Geller and writes, “If smaller agencies were to follow JG’s advice and do everyone a favour and, well, just . . . disappear, who is going to ‘pick up the slack’ and take on their clients?”

“JG” doesn’t, for the record, actually seem to recommend that smaller agencies “do everyone a favour and, well, just…disappear.”

And the most extensive resistance so far to Geller’s viewpoint comes from Sheil Land Associates agent Piers Blofeld.

Read More

By Porter Ander­son

The FutureBook: ‘Are there too many literary agencies?’

Read the full post at: TheBookseller.com/futurebook


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