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Penelope Lively on the problems facing new writers and the rise of the agent.

8 May 2001

Penelope Lively, commenting in Boyd Tonkin's section in The Independent on the problems facing new writers and the rise of the agent.

'Thirty years of proximity has rather sharpened my vision of publishers, but there's no question that the new writer is still at their mercy. Publishers have changed, but they still crack the whip. And what is different? The short answer would be - conglomerates, and the waning power of the editor. Back then, the independent house was still strong; today, five conglomerates dominate the field. Hence the fight for star authors, the big advances, the emphasis on instant sales and a zooming track record...

'Parallel with the decline of the editor has come the rise of the literary agent. When I wrote my first book, I had never heard of literary agents. I fetched up with Murray PollingerAgents for the negotiation of all rights in fiction, general non-fiction, children's fiction and picture books, plays, film and TV scripts (home 15%, USA/translation 20%, scripts 10%). Represented in all foreign markets. Preliminary letter and return postage. All adult submissions should be typed with double line spacing on one side only of A4 paper and pages should be numbered. Be sure to include a covering letter; a full plot synopsis of the proposed book; the first two or three chapters of the book; a CV and a stamped addressed envelope. Founded 1935 by good luck rather than good management - an association that lasted until he retired on me, and has been the abiding professional friendship (editors move around as they never used to).

'Agents can now call the shots, nurture a new writer, and have publishers knocking on their door. They have ceased to be middlemen and become major players. Today's new writer will be hoping above all to find a sympathetic agent, and will be advised to turn a blind eye on all that subversive stuff about Lottery-sized advances.'