Sometimes, my non-publishing friends stumble on how to express what I do. They can’t get their heads round the fact I don’t “publish” anything… what is it I do with books again? With authors? I explain to them that the agent’s verb is: to represent. I represent a list of authors; I represent their interests. And the same root word also forms our nouns. What I offer is representation. What I am is my clients’ representative.
My clients are all very different – in personality, in style, and in their work. Obviously there are overlaps – each one of them has the ability to express their feelings and imaginings wonderfully in writing; they have all at some point chosen the same solitary, often unrewarding, occasionally intensely gratifying job. And, well, I suppose they also all chose me. But each of us humans ‘presents’ ourselves differently, is different. So how can all of these different humans be ‘represented’ effectively by one person?
One obvious conclusion is that my clients don’t want me to present myself on their behalfs the way they present themselves; or to be much like them at all. When I was younger, there were a couple of years in which I seemed to represent only travel literature and books about fashion. You could never have met a less fashionable, well-travelled person. When I went to Vogue House to meet a client one day, wearing my usual garb at the time of floor length cardigan and Green Flash trainers, she greeted me in a Pucci dress with the screech: “What the fuck is this: Dress Down Friday??” She didn’t mind really, she would have hated me to have been as fashionable as her.
I was thinking about this question of how to represent someone well again this week, as I accompanied an author on a foreign press trip. The last time I travelled with her, I managed to smash her publisher’s iPad, and also hurt my foot so badly I had to walk with only one shoe on for two days. This time I lost something important and non-valuable, and her publishers were too courteous to leave me to it, so they bustled around on mopeds tracking it down – they were so sweet, so kind, the unavoidable conclusion was that I was being a pain in the neck. This all just days after I hurt my face so badly in an accident, I had to wear a face full of scabs to another client’s launch party. I looked as though something wildly infectious was rampaging across my chin. “That’s my agent….she fell off her bike,” I heard my author explaining hastily to guests at the door, generously saving me the bother. Come to think of it, I don’t know who is representing whom sometimes. What about that awkward time a few years ago when I dropped the C bomb at a party. “I don’t think they were expecting that, darling,” my author whispered, as she dragged me across the room to the bar, having saved the moment with a well-timed bit of diversionary chat. This Spanish weekend, my author has been making sure I don’t miss appointments, or get lost (“You’ve got a great sense of direction!” I complimented her – “It’s all relative,” she muttered; Good grief, as I type this she is buckling me into my fucking plane seat. “Wtf is this?” “It’s your belt.” “It doesn’t go in.” “Yes, it does…” *clunk*)
The sort of representation I offer is specifically tailored to my clients’ work as writers – the fact that I’m only human doesn’t get much in the way of doing that well, fortunately. My old boss Ed Victor used to explain in letters to writers to whom he couldn’t offer representation, that his main role was to “promote, protect and defend” the interests of his existing clients (as opposed to spending his time seeking new ones). That’s a good checklist for me too. I am very focussed on the fact that my clients are writers, who need to be able to just get on and write; who need someone to safeguard their right to earn a living from that work; to strategise for them, to hold the line and make sure they are well paid; to have awkward conversations so they don’t have to; to reassure them when they’re beset with doubt and to hold the bar high and formulate a vision for their career; to advise them on the market and how to make the very most of their place in it; to act as their champion and their good mediator in their relationships with the publishing industry.
And the important but non-valuable thing I lost in Barcelona was my charging device, for the two phones and one ipad which I use to make sure I’m always representing them in this way and am rarely offline.
But, as I write this blog, I’m starting to wonder whether what I’m offering my authors is something more reciprocal than I’d ever realised. Maybe, when an author chooses an agent, they look for what they can add to the agent’s life and work – reputation – as much as what the agent can add to theirs? Some of my longest-standing, most successful relationships with novelists do feel like conversations that have extended over many years; and, like all conversations, they are two-sided. I could never expect a client to talk to me about the difficult emotional content of their novels unless I was willing to indicate I knew the emotions of which they spoke. And my life is enriched by their insights, their jokes, their company, their beautiful stories.
Although I instinctively modify my approach to fit what each author needs from me, I think what they must all want from me is the very opposite of altering myself to suit their different personalities. I suspect what they want to know is that I will always remain unchangingly the same. Their editors may leave; their books may rule the bestseller lists or fail to sell; they may switch genre, or publisher, or even pseudonymous name – it is such a fickle industry, after all. But I’ll always be the same old me – whatever they think I am – because one thing I’m truly crap at is being anyone else. And they know they can trust me, because I’m also a bad liar. Hopefully my honest love and support (my promotion, protection and defence of them and their work) can be a beacon.
That’s why it’s so important to choose the right agent in the first place – to make it someone you like talking to, in whose opinion you have faith. If I compete to represent an author and lose to a peer, I don’t mind much. If I’m not the right person for that author, then it’s probably for the best… in fact, if I meet an author and find out I’m the only agent they are meeting, I usually urge them to meet some other agents. We’ve all got strengths and flaws; we all represent authors in our own unique ways.
One thing is certain; when you’re choosing your representative, make sure you read their blog before you make any final decision.