Boyd Tonkin: Mixing stardust and printer's ink
The week in books
Friday 21 May 2010
You may know the old joke about the guy who cleans up after the elephants in the circus. Armed with bucket and shovel, he patiently scoops up the copious outcome of their presence week after week, year after year, without a hint of a grumble. How come you never complain? asks the clown one day. There's a downside to every job, answers the grizzled sweeper. But hey, after all - I'm in show business!
And so, it seems, are Britain's long-suffering authors. Many of them follow their own personal elephant with career-long devotion, seeking and receiving very little apart from modest advances (and the odd vat of elephant ordure distributed by disgruntled critics). Now, however, they often find that the agents who represent them belong in the big tent of "talent management" groups. Under these multi-media showbiz marquees, winsome boy-bands, motor-mouthed DJs, sullen tennis aces and simpering starlets don't merely count for more cash and kudos than the mere writers. They will in due course become the writers, their ghosted tomes adding fresh outposts to the empire of celebrity.
This week, Michael Foster – the big-cheese agent who represents Chris Evans and a mini-galaxy of familiar screen names from Davina McCall to Bear Grylls – took control of Peters Fraser & Dunlop when he merged his MF Management company with the literary agency. PFD, a divided house during the years of ownership by US sports-management group CSS Stellar, lost its pride of lions when the late Pat Kavanagh left in 2007 to found the rival United Agents. She took the bulk of her clients (from Robert Harris to Ruth Rendell and William Trevor) along with her. Incoming PFD chief Caroline Michel, with Andrew Neil (who has now left) as her business partner, found the cupboard almost bare. She has struggled to attract high-profile novelists, although the eclectic PFD non-fiction list surreally spans the chasm between Paddy Ashdown and Julie Burchill. Michel will stay, with the PR entrepreneur Matthew Freud as main outside investor.
Foster will not much like becoming the story; agents (with a very few large-looming exceptions) seldom do. However, his best-known client has already sketched him in bold colours. Chris Evans's enjoyably frank memoir It's Not What You Think has a riveting pair of chapters on the deal that the DJ and his agent struck with Richard Branson after Evans's BBC career imploded in 1997. Foster appears as "a very small Jewish man, as equally proud of his heritage as he is unphased by his lack of height". ("As equally"? "Unphased"? Clearly, Evans didn't hire a ghost.) He plays a hands-on part in near-farcical negotiations that involve a Concorde flight, lashings of Krug and even a walk-on role for the coalition's new propaganda tsar, Andy Coulson. Over the Atlantic, Foster prevents his "bleary-eyed" charge from signing who knows what (his soul?) away to the bearded mogul on a menu card. Will the PFD signature mean Champagne or Coke for its authors? This plot can only thicken.
Any barbarians-at-the-gate doomsayers should remember that PFD itself pioneered the integration of authors' agencies with mass-media representation. It was born when the venerable firm of AD Peters joined showbiz managers Fraser & Dunlop in 1989. This big-top approach to "talent" has been developing for decades, with mixed results. The name of the firm that Foster – formerly with management giant ICM and his own AR Group – will head tells its own tale about the reign of this cross-media model: The Rights House.
Does this sort of convergence achieve that much-hyped "synergy" between platforms? Or do the greedy celebs hog the trough, leaving starveling literati with the scraps? A multi-media strategy pays richer dividends to busy, versatile authors for whom film adaptations, TV slots, press columns and the like come easily. For focused literary types who simply want the best deal for their words, other agents still keep faith with books alone. Besides, in a digital domain of self-managed online careers, growing numbers of writers could do without agents – and even publishers – at all. Save for superstars, e-books will mean that 10 (or 15) per cent of not very much – the usual agent's bargain – becomes a fraction of next-to-nothing. But don't blame glitzy talent-managers for our reluctance to pay properly for culture in the age of "free".
Money talks, but history decides
When the BBC2 top brass commissioned a two-part adaptation of Martin Amis's Money as part of an "Eighties season" this spring, what did they expect would be happening just now? It could be that they – with many others – strongly suspected that the drama (which airs on Sunday with Nick Frost, right) would coincide with the brash first days of a triumphalist Tory regime, avid to get a Thatcher revival show on the road. Instead, a coalition Chancellor has just meekly signed up to hedge-fund controls in Brussels, while that not-quite-reconstructed banker-basher Vince Cable presides over the business world. History always writes the smartest plots.
Hail the spring awakening
Any bookseller who might be considering whether to order more copies of Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel, which last week took the Independent Foreign Fiction prize, should look at this week's charts. Astonishingly, translations currently account for 40 per cent of Britain's top-ten bestsellers. OK: Stieg Larsson's 'Millennium' trilogy occupies three slots, with the fourth taken by Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game. Mass-audience crowd-pleasers all - yet, not so long ago, conventional wisdom held that foreign authors stood an even slimmer chance of cracking the popular-fiction market here than they did with the literary niches. Whatever the books involved, this tally represents a singular event - and, who knows, even a precedent for a country with a half-Dutch, quarter-Russian, quarter-English Deputy PM? Against gloom-mongers at home and abroad who always cite the "3 per cent" figure for translations in the UK, we can now claim "40 per cent of the Top Ten" - even if it's only for one freak week in May.
Game of Thrones
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