I’ve been dogged by poor health for a few weeks now – a cough that won’t shift, some sort of virus hanging around me, poor sleep – and a few of my friends, clients and colleagues have started up a loving interference. ‘What time did you go to bed last night?’ they enquire nosily. ‘You should eat more,’ one ordered, poking me hard in the ribs in her lovingly cruel and intimate way. Go to the doctor, eat more protein (‘Of course you’re sick, you’re a vegetarian,’ bossed one), take Vitamin C, try this online insomnia course… the friends of mine with the most advice – those who are most critical of my lifestyle choices, the most persistently interfering – I know they are the ones who love me the best. When we interfere in something which isn’t strictly our business (‘You are my business!’ one is berating me now, in my head) we are generating work for ourselves, busying ourselves with someone else’s To Do list, Taking Over when we think our friends are failing to do a good enough job on their own. Our love for them shows itself in how clear a vision we have developed of What They Should Be, What They Need: we have thought hard about them, and have reached some pretty clear conclusions.
And if I had to put my finger on exactly what it is I do most of every day when I sit at my desk, this is what I’d choose: I interfere. I’m one of Those agents, a Meddler. Ah, you knew that…
You see, I have thought hard already about each of my authors and reached some pretty clear conclusions about What They Should Be, What They Need. They and I have spent real time before every deal, at the start of every book, wondering where she or he fits into the marketplace. We have already identified why we think publishers and then readers should buy this book and not another; what is special about what this author does; what is the irresistible hook of this book which needs highlighting; why the title works. And, later, I can use that strategic thinking and creative energy to help publishers with full lists and multiple challenges to publish my author with particular focus and intent.
What you need to make a book is an author and a publisher. What some don’t think you need is a middle person, third wheel, outsider, interested party, someone neither creatively nor operationally essential; a fifteen percenter. I disagree; I’m exactly what my clients need and have asked for, paid for, sought out. And what they have asked me to do is to look over their shoulder at all times, to intrude into their business, to intervene on their behalfs, to get involved. And so I embrace The Interference.
How to interfere effectively, and on what subjects to trespass, varies with each publisher – each imprint benefits from input from an agent on some things; resists or doesn’t require input on other things. I had lunch with a publisher with whom I have never had a book the other day. We discussed The Interference and I confessed that I didn’t know in what way I’d Interfere in their business, because I don’t know yet what they tend to want…or to forget.
Here are some of the things in which I interfere: editorial notes; title; scheduling; jacket blurb; shoutline; jacket; jacket; jacket; press release; marketing strategy; metadata; use of digital assets; pricing; journalistic ideas; format; publicity plans; target market; backlist promotions; special sales; sales sales….is there anything missing? It should be a list of: everything. I use the knowledge I have of what other publishers are doing with my other authors’ books to provoke new strategy. And of course all this gatecrashing pisses publishers off sometimes. But of course they forgive me (right? right??). Why? Because sometimes I’m right. And because everyone needs a middle person, a third wheel, an outside view, an interested party: someone neither creatively nor operationally essential but fucking useful.
Sometimes it’s difficult to gauge the impact of my loving interference. No agent can conjure large marketing budgets when none exist; agents can’t force Tesco’s hand; or stop an editor from leaving; we can’t usually guarantee newspaper reviews. But I have had a couple of occasions recently to be reassured that I’m making a big difference for most of my authors; that the little things I do are adding up to a lot; that the list of questions I ask of my clients’ publishers is generating new answers; that my nagging is reaping rewards. I’m glad. I care about those questions; just as my friends care about me, so I care about this… I care a lot.
And yes I’ll take the Vitamin C. Thanks for The Interference.
N.B. This week’s illustration is ‘Words’ (c) Agnes Martin1961 and currently on display at Tate Modern.