The Blagger's Guide To...Literary Agents

Wet nurse, guide – or a fox in the henhouse?
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The Independent Culture

*In a move akin to killing off some of the most popular characters in the last Harry Potter book, JK Rowling has departed from her long-standing agent, Christopher Little.

Rowling found Little in 1995 by going to her local library and looking up literary agents; she thought that his name sounded like a character in a children's book (she didn't know at that point that he also looks like Father Christmas). Sixteen years and millions of pounds later (he reportedly took a standard 15 per cent of Rowling's gross earnings), she has moved to a new agency, run by Little's former business partner, Neil Blair. Rowling has called it a "painful" decision, while Little's spokesman says that it "came out of the blue" and that "he is considering his options".

*A good literary agent, as described by the legendary New York agent George T Bye (1887-1957), is a combination of "guide, philosopher and wet nurse". A bad literary agent will charge reading fees and then recommend a vanity press.

*A good literary agent, like a good estate agent, is ruthlessly fierce on behalf of clients, and doesn't care who knows it. Andrew "The Jackal" Wylie is known for his tenacity – he poached Martin Amis from his agent of 22 years, Pat Kavanagh, causing a rift between Amis and his friend Julian Barnes, Kavanagh's husband. Wylie once wrote a book of sexually explicit poetry called Yellow Flowers, which is now sadly out of print, but rumours that he tried to buy up all of the copies are apparently untrue. "I would never invest so badly," he said. Wylie caused controversy in the publishing industry last year when he founded Odyssey Editions, which will bypass publishers and bring out ebook versions of books by the 700 authors and estates on his list, exclusively through Amazon. Publishers who own, or believe that they own, the rights to these books are, just like Mr Little, considering their options.

*Ed Victor, aka "the flamboyant, leonine, über-agent Ed Victor", recently adapted the Wylie model and launched Bedford Square Books, an ebook and print-on-demand publishing imprint that will initially offer out-of-print works by his authors, including Edna O'Brien and Harold Evans. The venture has already lasted almost as long as the short-lived countercultural newspaper Ink, which Victor founded in 1970 with Felix Dennis and Richard Neville. Victor can be found at all the most glamorous literary London parties, and was named second on Tatler's 2003 list of the "most invited" party guests in London (after Elton John). He was once asked by a budding author at the Hay festival: "How do I get my manuscript to you if I don't go to that kind of party?" He replied: "You don't." His clients range from Lord Adonis to Michael Winner, via the likes of Alastair Campbell, Frederick Forsyth, Kathy Lette, David Nicholls, Roman Polanski and Keith Richards, but he still found time to write his own book, The Obvious Diet, in 2001.

*Last month, at the Publishers Launch London conference, agents who publish books were likened to foxes in henhouses. Most agents are members of the Association of Authors' Agents which, among other roles, discusses with publishers how best to deal with new technologies in the industry.

Aspiring authors (other than Elton John) can find a literary agent in books such as the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook (A&C Black) or The Writer's Handbook (Macmillan).