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Agencies as big businesses

22 December 2003

A recent extraordinary interview with New York agent Andrew Wylie, known without affection as the 'the Jackal' has focused attention again on the way in which agents are developing a more predatory approach to other agents' clients. Wylie is one of a kind, as exemplified by a recent interview, in which he admitted that he's like a sponge: 'If I were to characterise it, I would say that I have an aspect of my personality which is that I have no personality. That's why I work as an agent. I have the assumed personality of the people I represent. I am like a sponge. When I came here and was working with Gillon Aitken, I had a certain kind of handwriting. After a couple of years, my wife looked at my signature and said, "What's that?" I said, it's my signature. She said, "That's not your signature." And it had changed. I'd taken over his signature.'

Wylie currently stands accused of trying to entice clients away from London agent David Godwin. Some would say unsympathetically that it is a case of the biter bit. The agent community contains its share of predators and eccentrics, but most agents, including these two, work hard and do a professional job for their clients. The very nature of the relationship means that it is much more personal than most business relationships, which can lead to a terrible sense of betrayal when authors move on, particularly when it is to a bigger agency.

Once noticeable thing about the greater commercialisation of the agency world is that the bigger US agencies are starting to open up their own offices in London. Janklow and Nesbit did this two years ago; ICM have recently taken the same course. The London agency PFDRepresents authors of fiction and non-fiction, children's writers, screenwriters, playwrights, documentary makers, technicians, presenters and public speakers throughout the world. Has 85 years of international experience in all media. PDF now have a POD section. Some good advice for those seeking a representative. have recently done the same in New York. London agent Ed Victor, whose agency sells direct in the States, says "No one can represent a project as effectively, passionately, or knowledgeably as the original, primary agent. All too often, sub-agents deal with incoming books from other agents as 'product' - sausages in a sausage machine. It makes much more sense for the initiating agent to learn the other market and use that knowledge to sell their clients' books in it."

None of this necessarily makes it any easier for an unpublished writer to find an agent to take them on. In fact the 'big business' aspect of the agency world (just like the increasing conglomeratisation of publishers) makes it hard to for authors to get their foot in the agencies' doors with anything other than a big commercial project. But in this the agencies are only faithfully representing the market they sell to, for publishers feel they can no longer take on or sell the midlist authors who used to be the staple of their lists.