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'Storm in an agency teacup'

24 September 2007

In a week when the Sunday Telegraph has announced with horror that the latest book by topless model Katie Price (aka Jordan) was outselling the entire Booker shortlist (which will not surprise those familiar with the bestseller lists), London literati have been transfixed by an extraordinary saga involving one of the oldest literary agencies in the world.

Peters, Fraser and Dunlop, which started life when A D Peters set up as one of the new-fangled literary agents in London's Adelphi in 1924, has long since become part of big business. It had already merged with scripts agency Fraser & Dunlop when in 1999 the entire agency was bought for £12m ($24.29m) by CSS Stellar, an international sports and entertainment agency. Cynics in the book world have not been altogether surprised by the fact that the expected synergies between the two agencies have failed to materialise.

The literary agents at 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 not been happy with CSS's management, and in February of this year they proposed that they should buy back the literary agency business in a management buyout. They had the finance to do this in place, but in the meantime there were other interested parties with deeper pockets.

Then CSS Stellar itself faced a move on its shares and David Buchler, a specialist in restructuring companies, acquired this shareholding and became chairman. Buchler's plans did not include allowing the PFD buyout to go ahead, so he brought in Caroline Michel as MD of PFD to rally the troops. For the irate agents this was probably the last straw. The glamorous Michel is a publishing veteran and known for her skills at handling authors, but she had only been an agent for two years, having been brought in by the big New York agency William Morris to head up its London offshoot.

By then the agents were getting decidedly restless. Amongst their number are top names such as Pat Kavanagh and Caroline Dawnay and their roll of authors includes Ruth Rendell, Nick Hornby and Julian Barnes, alongside many other successful writers. The upshot is that a number of them have now resigned and they are setting up a new agency.

An author's working relationship is with the individual agent rather than the agency of which they are a part, so there is little doubt that many of the authors represented by the departing agents will go with them. However the contracts negotiated by these agents whilst they were at PFD will stay with the agency, and the revenue generated by their backlist will not flow through the new agency. Authors are not bound to their agents, but their backlists are. This will be a problem both for the new agency and for the authors involved.

You may wonder what this storm in an agency teacup has to do with authors. But this story neatly illustrates the way in which agents have in many cases been taken over by big business, setting up a conflict with the personal nature of the author/agent relationship. What is essentially a service provided to authors has become another commodity to be bought and sold. This saga illustrates why this approach does not work, and demonstrates some of the advantages of having an independent agent to handle your work.