Likeable People

John Sutherland

  • Book Society by Graham Watson
    Deutsch, 164 pp, £6.50, April 1980, ISBN 0 233 97160 2
  • The Publishers Association Annual Report 1979-80
    73 pp
  • Private Presses and Publishing in England since 1945 by H.E. Bellamy
    Clive Bingley, 168 pp, £15.00, March 1980, ISBN 0 85157 297 9

James Hepburn opens his history of literary agency – The Author’s Empty Purse, published in l968 – with the same quotation that Graham Watson uses to conclude his reminiscences of a lifetime spent in the profession:

This is the age of the middleman. He is generally a parasite. He always flourishes. I have been forced to give him some little attention lately in my particular business. In it he calls himself the literary agent.

William Heinemann’s sarcasm at the booktrade parasite, uttered in 1893, is recurrent in the ninety or so years that the odious ‘middleman’ has been a fixture on the Anglo-American literary scene. There are many versions of the story about the young author, indignant at a paltry £100 advance, demanding to know what his agent will do about it and receiving a bill for £10 commission by the next morning’s post by way of answer. Agency, as the latest shop to set up in the book trade, automatically attracts sneers – sneers, of course, once directed at the ‘tradesman’ publisher. Watson relates a Johnsonian anecdote about his dealings with Gerald Nabarro which catches the ambiguous social status of the agent as he emerged into professional respectability:

I climbed up a flight of narrow stairs into a small partitioned outer office. The girl sitting there announced my arrival. Loud and clear over the telephone, as well as through the thin partition, came the booming reply, ‘Tell the bugger to cool his heels.’ If it hadn’t been for the fact that I was professionally hungry, and rather young, I would have left. But I waited.

There have been weightier objections to literary agents than that they are merely low and intrusive. In his Irving to Irving (1974), Charles Madison credits them with a major part of the responsibility for the present fallen state of the American publishing industry. (Madison’s book traces a completed cycle from Washington Irving, who helped his publisher with money in an emergency, to Clifford Irving, who embezzled his publisher out of a million dollars. The cases are symptomatic.) In Madison’s analysis, agency destroys the sodality which flourished in the golden age between author and publisher. We are told that Scott Meredith, the most dynamic of contemporary American agents, will put a ‘hot’ book out for auction to thirty or forty publishers simultaneously. Partners thus brought together are unlikely to love or even trust one another. In this way, it is argued, agents have inevitably ruptured those systems of friendly patronage and authorial loyalty by which the book trade used to be run. Yet even Madison would admit that agents are a necessary evil in the big business of modern Anglo-American publishing. Who but an agent could have negotiated the reported contract for Peter Benchley’s Island: $1.5 m. for movie rights, 5 per cent of royalties for the theme music, $75,000 if selected by the Book of the Month Club, $25,000 for every week the novel made the New York Times best-seller list, plus all the foreign and subsidiary rights income. Nor is it just the author’s manifold interests that the agent serves. He also acts as gatekeeper for the commercial publisher, keeping his corridors clear of unwanted petitioners. Simon and Schuster (motto: ‘there’s no such thing as a good book that doesn’t sell’) offer the following typical disincentive to intending authors:

All unsolicited manuscripts will be returned. Only manuscripts submitted by agents or recommended to us by friends or actively solicited will be considered.

Watson’s good-natured memoirs don’t apologise directly for his profession. But his picture of literary society suavely refutes the view that agency means managerial revolution and the destruction of community in the book trade. The indecent 10 per cent nexus is draped by an insistence that it was friendship, mutual respect and even love that bound author and agent together:

Authors, in my experience, are a likeable lot ... Yes, it is one’s authors which keep one an agent. Dear, demanding, lovable, impossible clients ... When John [Steinbeck] died in 1969 Elaine gave Dorothy and me a little statue of Don Quixote ... I treasure Don Quixote but I need no such reminder to keep my love for John alive.

The agent-publisher relationship was, apparently, if less amorous, no less benign: ‘When I look back on the riches I have received from these [i.e. Cape, Knopf, Chatto, Hamilton, Houghton Mifflin, Hutchinson] and other publishing friends I can see that Martin Secker was quite right to demand a fee for joining his firm. To have that much fun and get paid in addition is more than one has a right to expect.’

Watson’s book, for all its apparent naiveté, performs the complex English trick by which social, economic and business relationships are made to melt into a single tone of easy-going affability. And the affability rests securely on the assumption of equality in ‘book society’ of gentlemen authors, gentlemen publishers and gentlemen agents. (The ex-NCO Nabarro was not, of course, a real gentleman, for all his whiskers, fortune, Toryism and title.)

The code of gentlemanly professionalism doesn’t encourage the telling of good stories and Watson’s book begins with ominous disclaimers either to factual accuracy or the spitefulness which gives savour to literary anecdote:

I have never kept a diary nor any records. Occasionally I have saved an odd letter or two which seemed of interest but this book has been written from memory ... My life has been spent, on the whole, in the company of likeable people. Only exceptionally have I written about those I disliked. My aim is to give pleasure, not to settle old scores.

There will never be a comprehensive or detailed history of Curtis Brown Ltd because the firm, like most discreet literary agencies, doesn’t preserve its records – at least not for the historian. All the more reason that one might hope for some first-hand testimony from Watson. What he provides us is, largely, trivia: such things as his first experience of West Side Story (in New York!), and the good food served on the post-war Queen Elizabeth (porridge, kedgeree and kippers for breakfast, a cup of bouillon at 11, tea, crumpets and cakes at four). The vignettes of the famous he has dealt with combine the fluttering adulation of the literary groupy with remembered episodes of quite stunning inconsequence:

Gore [Vidal] is one of the most engaging men I have known. He frightens me to death. I have only met one other who combined his startling good looks with his massive creative intelligence and devastating wit, and that was Noel Coward. In the presence of both I suffer, or suffered, from a raging feeling of inadequacy. My inferiority was not helped in the case of my first meeting with Noel Coward by being invited by him in his suite in the Savoy Hotel to sit in a chair which immediately collapsed. Coward was his charming, urbane self in helping me to my feet, but the incident did not help to restore my self-confidence. I have never been flat on the floor in front of Gore but I have often felt that the happening was imminent.

Who, one wonders, is expected to pay £6.50 for the information that Gore Vidal is good-looking and intelligent, that Noel Coward was devastatingly witty and urbane, and that the agent-author visits the Savoy Hotel (a fact which comes up more than once in Book Society)? One suspects that Watson doesn’t really intend to tell us anything: he merely wants to demonstrate that he, and his profession, are no longer buggers cooling their heels in the outer rooms of book society. They even get to sit down in the company of genius.

According to James Hepburn, ‘the question of literary agency has been answered by history.’ To judge by the Publishers Association’s 1979-80 Annual Report, there are other, more urgent matters awaiting history’s verdict. Are the much publicised troubles at Penguin and Collins early warning that the ‘everlasting boom’ of post-war British publishing is coming to an end (the PA takes a cheerful view on this, in contrast to alarmist newspaper reports)? Can the British book trade hold onto its export sales after the abolition of the Traditional Markets Agreement and with the handicap of a strong pound? Will the Net Book Agreement go the way of the recently abolished French prix conseillé? How will the industry cope with new technologies, like tele-ordering, new EEC copyright complications and piracy both in the Middle East and (as we all guiltily know) in every xerox room in the British Isles?

One thing that most commentators seem agreed on is that the British printer is doing more to Americanise the British book trade than ever the literary agent did. With a Daniel-like display of courage, Tom Rosenthal, managing director of Secker and Warburg, actually told printers this to their conference face in early March:

If we do a literary first novel in a printing of 2,000 copies with 256 pages, demy, if it’s American and manufactured over there, it will cost us about a pound. If it’s English and we originate here it will cost us nearly two pounds. This, in turn, means that the retail price should be about £10, which means that the public will buy no copies at all and the libraries will buy only a few, which means we won’t even sell our 2,000, and so the vicious merry-go-round whirls on.

Rosenthal’s speech has filled the correspondence columns of the Bookseller over the last few weeks, and the longest of many angry letters was from ‘Ken Eastwood: Print Worker’, who began by suggesting that the managing director of Secker’s might transfer his talents to the TV programme The Comedians and concluded with the instruction: ‘Stop your authors rewriting the book at the author’s proof stage. Corrections cost money and it is a general opinion in the industry that two-thirds of a compositor’s time is taken up doing author’s corrections.’ It’s a pleasant speculation to wonder what would have happened if Sylvia Beach had taken Ulysses to a printer of Ken Eastwood’s thrifty disposition. The agreement for Joyce’s novel allowed him as many proofs as he wanted, and his appetite for them was insatiable. Five sets, apparently, was his normal requirement and composing on the proofs (‘adorned with Joycean rockets and myriads of stars guiding the printers to words and phrases all around the margins’) increased the length of Ulysses by a third.

In his interesting survey and history of Private Presses and Publishing in England since 1945, H.E. Bellamy records that today’s uncommercial printer/publishers have thrown off their ‘arts and craft’ heritage more readily than the printing industry its Luddite and Guild traditions. Little presses like ‘Lunatic Fringe Publications’, using new technology (typewriters and offset-litho machines), can undertake to produce an edition of 1,000 novels to sell at £1 each retail, and presumably again supply Joycean luxuries of correction. Mr Rosenthal should look into it.