'It's a terrible mess': Robert Harris leads authors' revolt against top literary agency

The bestselling writer leaves PFD following appointment of Caroline Michel as chief executive
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Writers may be goldmines for literary agencies – but some of world's most successful authors have reacted with fury to being treated, as they see it, like economic resources. Robert Harris, the bestselling novelist, announced yesterday he is leaving the firm that has represented him for the past two decades.

Harris, who will be joined by fellow author Maureen Freely, is the first of an expected exodus of writers from the literary agency PFD, which he condemned as "a terrible mess" that treats authors like anonymous assets.

More than a dozen agentsare thought to have handed or be handing in their notice at the agency – which currently represents the cream of Britain's artistic talent in authors such as Julian Barnes, Joanna Trollope and Alan Bennett and actors and performers such as Keira Knightley, Ricky Gervais and Kate Winslet.

There are now concerns that these authors and actors will follow agents including Pat Kavanagh and Anthony Jones – who have represented Harris for decades – to set up a rival agency. Last week Caroline Michel, a successful and charismatic force in entertainment and publishing, was appointed chief executive of PFD. Directors at the firm had been trying to push through a £4m management buy-out after it was bought by CSS Stellar in 2001. But the appointment of Ms Michel was taken as a sign that this sale is no longer possible.

Now that a tranche of agents has resigned, authors are beginning to express their doubts about the changes at PFD.

Robert Harris, author of Fatherland and Enigma, said his loyalties lie with long-standing relationships rather than a new management. "I have been close to Pat Kavanagh for more than 25 years, and in this sort of business, your relationship is a personal one. We are not employees: the agency works for us.

"They seem to think they can transfer us like an asset, but writers resist that kind of treatment. The agents who represent me, Pat Kavanagh and Anthony Jones, are definitely going, and I will go with them."

He said: "The basic building block of the business is the man or woman sitting in solitary, working – that is where the product comes from. Therefore, dealing with the writers is the absolute core of the business. I don't think the people who run the business know who we are or how we do it."

Ms Kavanagh, who is married to the author Julian Barnes and has been with PFD since it was founded, confirmed that she was leaving: "I resigned some time ago. I think that David Buchler [chairman of CSS] and Caroline Michel have some sort of vision that I don't share."

Others authors such as Andrew Martin and John Mortimer are less concerned. Mortimer said: "I don't think it matters very much who is running it. They don't tell you what to write – they just name the money."

Ms Michel told Publishing News last week: "It's true to say that a number of resignation letters were written during the MBO discussions, but everybody is still here. I want to persuade everyone to stay, and it's my great hope and wish that they will."