Being a literary agent

 29 May 2012

Antony Harwood runs his own literary agency from Oxford. Among his clients are Booker Prize-winning novelist Alan Hollinghurst, Ethan Coen and George Monbiot.

Antony Harwood runs his own literary agency from offices in Oxford.
Antony Harwood runs his own literary agency from offices in Oxford.

Starting out as a literary agent

Antony’s career path began, conventionally enough, in publishing. He joined Chatto & Windus in 1978, and worked there for six years.

"If I were hiring, I’d be looking for someone who at least knew what was on the bestseller lists."

Beginning as junior production clerk (a job that came with the enviable bonus of 15p luncheon vouchers), he was eventually promoted to editor by Carmen Callil, working with some of the most distinguished writers of fiction on Chatto’s roster: Iris Murdoch, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter.

Deciding that a spot of mobility would do no harm, Antony approached the agent Gillon Aitken, who was then in the process of setting up what would become one of London’s foremost agencies, to see whether he happened to know of any publishing jobs going. Aitken persuaded him to come on board instead.

"He gave me a desk with a telephone and a typewriter," Harwood recalls, "but I didn’t inherit any work from anyone else."

By trawling publishers’ catalogues for those works that still advertised world rights as being available (in other words, those that hadn’t been sold through agents), he began to bring in new writers. After a stint on the board of a rival agent ("big mistake," he shudders), he returned to Aitken.

The move to an independent operation took place in 2000, with the further bold decision to move out of the hothouse of literary London three years later. Antony Harwood Ltd is now a team of three, representing more than 50 authors.

Getting into a literary agency

The best move towards a career in agency is, "Reading. Immerse yourself in what’s going on, with regard to both authors and publishers.

"If I were hiring, I’d be looking for someone who had done that kind of work, and at least knew what was on the bestseller lists, even if they hadn’t read much of it."

This might sound like obvious advice. But even now there are those who try to get into the industry by relying on nothing more than a quantity of enforced reading at undergraduate level.

As is only to be expected, a large part of the job involves combing through the hundreds of manuscripts an agency can expect to receive every week.

Although many hopeful authors imagine that nobody has read their work (the industry term for author submissions is the ‘slush-pile’), no agent can afford to ignore it.

"We do look at everything," Harwood says, "just in case... But it’s possible to tell within a page or two, very often even from the covering letter."

Dealing with authors and publishers

A literary agent’s job isn’t the same task as an actor’s agent (to procure a steady stream of work for the client). However, the move of publishers towards more a obviously corporate direction – driven by balance-sheets and hard accounting – has brought agents closer to their writers.

"I really do still arrive at the office thinking, 'Today, something could change my life.'"

Agents will often take on an editorial function, for which commissioning editors in the publishing houses barely have time.

They can often advise writers on what might work (i.e. 'Nobody’s ever done a book on…'), as well as fulfilling the time-honoured role of convincing the publisher that their client's book is a winner.

The relationship with publishers themselves that probably demands the greatest professional scruple. To a certain extent, a successful writer can create his or her own market. But guessing what publishers might want is as inexact a science as ever.

Maintaining relations with editors at the social level – lunches, drinks – helps when it comes to matching a writer and a publisher. But only very rarely do editors ask an agent to put somebody forward for a project.

Antony senses a certain restlessness at the moment. "Publishers could afford to be more adventurous during the era of the Net Book Agreement [the now defunct trade arrangement that ensured books sold for a minimum price]. But now, discounted supermarket book sales have narrowed the range of what gets out there."

"It’s true you can help create a market through advertising perhaps, but nobody has the money to do that now.

"When an agent does the job well, you can achieve a buzz, but the book proposal itself still has to strike you in a certain way. The best you can say is 'if I love it, someone else will love it too.'

"The most rewarding part of the job is not knowing what might land on your desk. I really do still arrive at the office thinking, 'Today, something could change my life.'"

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