Agents: heroes no more? was the title of John Saddler’s recent Masterclass at Kingston University. I couldn’t say it any better. Cool and humorous, Saddler came to Kingston, in his own words, to ‘illuminate dark corners’ of the work of a literary agent and to discuss the role of agents in today’s changing publishing landscape.
Saddler has worked in the publishing industry for more than 20 years, including stints as a senior editor, editorial director and publisher for Black Swan, Flamingo and Anchor. He acquired authors such as Martin Amis, Tim Pears, Terry Macmillan, Frank McCourt and Kingsley Amis. In 2001, he founded his own literary agency, the Saddler Literary Agency and Consultancy.
In an engaging talk, Saddler treated the audience of MA Publishing students and creative writers to a fast guide on literary agents:
What does a literary agent do?
- Represents authors when dealing with editors and publishers
- Helps authors manage their career
- Advises authors and guides them on publication issues, such as marketing, co-editions, covers and jackets
- Negotiates deals that are profitable for both the author and the publisher
- Handles contracts and helps authors understand them
- Deals with rights and subsidiary rights (translation rights, international rights, film rights and marketing rights, for example)
How much money does a literary agent make?
Just from dealing with the book issues and its publication, agents usually get from 10 to 15 per cent of the royalties the author receives. Since there are now fewer sales of paper books, and more of ebooks (at lower ‘cover’ prices), agents are tending to look for more profitable alternatives.
Apart from dealing with the editor on behalf of the author, literary agencies now offer services which can help the author decide whether they actually need an agent, write their proposal to a publisher and make their work more appealing. Saddler himself offers services such as reading and assessing a partial typescript, assessing the whole manuscript or giving either phone or personal consultations.
The changing role of the agent
‘Who do you think are the most important people in the publishing process?’, Saddler asked his attentive audience. ‘The author and the reader, of course’. He went on to summarise the relationship between authors and their readers across the centuries. From the early 17th century to the late 19th century, various new roles were introduced, leading to a lengthy chain of author / agent / publisher / printer / wholesaler / retailer / reader.
Agents appeared in this chain at the end of the 19th century, representing a major change in the way authors approached publishers. The agent became a sort of ‘hero’, preventing authors from being exploited by publishers, helping them to protect their copyrights and receive appropriate royalties, dealing with contracts and talking to publishers on their behalf. Ultimately these heroes acted as the buffer between authors and editors whenever there was a conflict.
However, the role of the agent is in question in today’s era, where authors have the technology and resources to once again reach readers directly. Perhaps the role of the hero is no longer needed; like many other positions in the publishing industry, agents must adapt if they want to survive.
The future of the agent
There’s no doubt that the role of the agent has changed. Many are delivering consultancy services like Saddler, some are venturing into self-publishing, others have launched speaking and publishing services. But there are also concerns that agents who act as publishers are wading into murky ethical waters. In a recent piece for Publishing Perspectives, fellow literary agent Jason Allen Ashlock points out that just because things are possible in the digital age, it doesn’t mean they’re beneficial. He calls for agents to retain their heroic role, which is to protect authors, in whatever world they are in. As John Saddler himself said, ‘I think there is hope as much as there are things to worry about’.