Anyone can be an agent. You can be an agent today. All you have to do is to write ‘literary agent’ after your name and go get yourself some clients. There is no professional body to which you must belong, there are no qualifications which will put letters after your name; there is no limit to the number or type of practitioners the industry will accommodate.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not recommending you do it. You won’t know what the fk you’re doing – what are you thinking? You have to be able to do more than read, and argue, you know? You’re setting yourself up as a business manager; someone who holds other people’s careers and fortunes in their hands. What you need is to serve an unofficial apprenticeship. You should be an agent’s assistant. You need a mentor.
I love finding out who mentored whom in the world of publishing. It’s an industry in which wheels run along tracks laid down by precedent because experience has taught them to; half our knowledge is inherited, learned by heart, received. (The other half is the new riff each talented individual puts on the first half: no new riff, no talent.) When you meet an editor or agent for the first time, as I did plenty of times in Frankfurt last week, and you ask them a little about their background, the first thing they tell you is who they worked for when, not what books they published or represented or championed. In telling you who they worked for, they’re taking a little of the golden shine of that mentor and letting it rub off on them; they’re saying – hey, this person taught me stuff, so now you know the kind of stuff I know, the experience and personality that shaped me in my publishing career. It’s the same with rights, sales and publicity executives.
Because each mentor leaves a little mark on their mentee; some fingerprint. I saw my first mentor in Hall 6.0 on Wednesday: “My mentor!” I greeted the old wolf, Ed Victor. “My mentee!” he exclaimed, heartily. How proud I am that we take such pleasure in the other’s success, enough to want to claim one another, even though it is eleven years since I last listened to one of Ed’s phonecalls silently, the mute anonymous third wheel on the conference call I set up for him. (“Get me Gail Rebuck!” he would cry, on his march to The Ivy for lunch. “Get me Scott Rudin!” “Get me Nigella!” “Get me Eric!”)
What fingerprints did Ed leave on me? Well, he taught me: Don’t get into this business if you want to be liked. He taught me to talk about money and ask for it without embarrassment. So I guess he taught me how to value my clients’ work, how to value my work too. He taught me when to say yes as well as when to say no. He taught me to show my clients my working – to demonstrate my work for them. He taught me all the ways to get what I want. Trust me: seven years of listening to Ed on the phone, and writing his letters? You learn how to get what you want, how to massage events. He taught me to love my job, to relish it, to adore publishing, to get high off agenting. Perhaps, most importantly, he taught me to love my clients. Love: the real thing, no pretending. He holds his dearest clients close to his heart and he uses that love as the passionate fuel in his every act on their behalf. Josephine Hart, how Ed loved you. How we all did.
Of course Ed taught me more, much more than that. When he invited me to work for him, he said: “Work for me for a year, and I will teach you everything I know about agenting. And then you’ll have to move on, because mine is a boutique agency and we don’t have room for another agent.” The two chief things we learned that first year? 1. Ed can’t teach everything he knows about agenting in twelve months. 2. He had room for another agent after all. Oh what fun we had for years, helping one another endlessly.
So yes, Ed was my mentor. He’d had a mentor too, as a young publisher – George Weidenfeld – and he was aware of his role and its importance as he carried it out. Recently I asked him what he thought made a good mentor. “Well, keep your door open. And take the young person seriously,” he said, seriously, before reminding me of how, after an argument (our relationship was excellent, but not in the slightest peaceful) I once threw at him, insanely: “I gave you my youth!!”: an extraordinary thing for me to have claimed, not only because clearly I’m still young now (shut up) but also in its tone of dramatic injury. Clearly, I had acquired a good taste for drama as well as for fiction from my beloved mentor, the man who declined to take an ambulance to the hospital when he stood literally at death’s door, insisting instead on a limo.
When I moved to David Higham, I graduated into a new school: the school of Bruce Hunter and of Anthony Goff. So culturally different was DHA from EVL, for the first two years I felt like a brown Jersey cow in a field of black and white Friesians – we were all cattle, for sure, but. Bruce – a man with a ridiculous sense of humour – had an attitude to his work of unparalleled seriousness and so of course he took me seriously: Seriously, we get the best terms. Seriously, we expect the best deals. Seriously, we are the strongest, most loyal, most committed, quietest, deadliest of weapons. Seriously: we don’t need long letters, or phone calls. Seriously: we have been profitable in London for eighty years for every serious good reason. His obligation to his clients was moral, his energy less romantic, more monastic.
I have Anthony Goff’s cleverness to inspire me now – his lateral thinking, his intellectual agility. And there are other brilliant friends and colleagues who teach me, every day.
In my first couple of years working for Ed, I used to watch him and despair – how could I ever expect to be a successful agent when I was so very different to him? Ed had adopted a maxim from another of his mentors, Swifty Lazar: Why stay in when you can go out? Privately, I felt the opposite, I hated parties. I knew I’d never meet my best clients at celebrity dinners, or be able to quote endlessly and widely from works of literature as Ed could (the books and poetry I have loved are in my bones, but not on the tip of my tongue). Of course this was a nonsense anxiety – I have found success precisely because I learned from great mentors but am no one but myself – what I offer is uniquely my own. It’s the same for us all, for all of us publishing humans. As I wrote above: no riff, no talent.
Everyone who knows me, knows that I act mentor now, to Harriet Moore, best editor in town at twenty-five, Most Talented Individual, Most Likely To Succeed, the tenderest heart, the widest reader, she who is beloved of all authors. Except, recently we went to a party together and bumped into an Important Fellow Agent. “How long have you two worked together?” he asked, after a few minutes of chat. We looked at each other, laughed. Harriet first landed at DHA aged sixteen, for a couple of weeks work experience, and hasn’t really left since, although she managed to earn a first-class degree along the way. “Nine years, off and on,” we said. “That explains it,” he answered, smiling. “You look at her to check, before you say anything.” No, he wasn’t talking to H. He was talking to me, he said I check in with Harriet. And so my mentee is also my mentor, which seems to me to be an exceptionally fortunate situation for us both.
A recent Bookslut interview with author Maggie Nelson unearthed this gem of an Italian word from poet Eileen Myles: affidamentos, a term Italian feminists use to describe “a relationship of trust between two women”. My most important mentors so far have all been men, but I have a passionate interest in the crucial relationships women in publishing must foster between one another, in order to ensure that our gender progresses in this industry, right into the boardroom. As Nelson says: “the transmission of (knowledge, experience, wisdom, power) between women matters — and not in some kind of back-alley, segregated prayer space kind of a way, but in a central way.” Women in publishing, let’s learn from one another, mentor one another.
If you don’t have a mentor, find one. If you aren’t a mentor, become one. Let’s draw strength and experience from one another, hail one another’s success, write our mentors’ names large in our histories. Let’s hold to best practice, let’s learn passionate advocacy, let’s understand good business. Let’s get fingerprinted while we leave our mark.