Wanted: world domination (and no more lunches)

Literary agents, once declasse middlemen, have a new profile as global players, transmedial deal-makers. How did it happen? Nicolette Jones investigates the guardians of world copyright

Literary agents are on the move. Their businesses, once as stable as law firms, are all changing. Expansion and displacement, career moves and transatlantic negotiations are all rife. Murray and Gina Pollinger, who have cherished their 309 authors for 27 years, are now passing them over to the care of other hands in the David Higham agency in London's Golden Square. Giles Gordon, once at the very heart of London literary life, defected to set up an agency of his own in Edinburgh, amid a lot of very public conflict with his parent company, Sheil Land, over the ethics of taking his authors with him. Curtis Brown, one of the country's most venerable agenting institutions, has just exchanged its American counterpart for a smaller agency which, they say, offers more personal attention. Meanwhile, the trend continues of editors leaving publishing houses to set up as agents. In the wake of such former publishers as David Godwin, who set up as an independent agent, and Julia MacRae and Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson, who have pooled their years of publishing experience to set up an editorial service, now Georgia Garrett, formerly of Picador, is taking charge of the London operation of American literary agent Andrew Wylie.

What does all this turmoil signify in a supposedly staid industry? It says a lot about the changing character of the publishing business. These days, literary agents are the cut-and-thrust guardians of worldwide intellectual property. They operate internationally; they strike big deals with Hollywood; they outsmart corporate lawyers; they deal in electronic rights for computer games and CD-Roms; they get invited to the best parties; and the biggest have big cars, big egos and Big Ideas. Just as, a decade or two ago, publishers transmuted from some 40 largely independent concerns to half a dozen international conglomerates, so agencies are becoming jeux sans frontieres. On his own eastbound crusade, the high-flying Andrew Nurnberg is opening offices in former Iron Curtain countries, and bringing Jack Higgins and Iris Murdoch to readers that once only had a diet of physics textbooks and official histories. Nurnberg has new offices in Moscow and Prague, with branches to be set up in Warsaw, Bucharest, Sofia and Budapest before the end of the year. He is even considering opening a new front line in Croatia.

Andrew Wylie's style may be a symptom of the changing nature of literary agents. When he split up from his British business partner Gillon Aitken earlier this year, it meant the demise of an odd couple that one of their clients compared to "Jeeves and Johnny Rotten". Aitken was gentlemanly, upright, an Empire-line Brit of the old school; Wylie hung out with the Beats and used to do drugs.

All sorts of gossip surrounded their separation: everyone wanted it to be a drama. Some said they fell out because Martin Amis was Wylie's client and Eric Jacobs, whose serialised diaries badmouthed the late Kingsley, was Aitken's. But both parties say that had nothing to do with it. Some said they squabbled over Wylie's unpopular intervention in the sale of Amis's novel The Information. In fact Aitken helped Wylie throughout the negotiation - though he does go so far as to describe the episode as "unedifying". Some surmised a more Shakespearean scenario, that the once-unclouded Aitken had his heart turned to stone by the tenebrous partner with whom he made millions, and that their rift was the inevitable tragic downfall. (Wylie's habit of wearing black suits with black shirts feeds this fantasy of him as villainous, even diabolic.)

But Aitken was wiser than this implies, and those who know say that, of the two, Wylie is really the softie. Others declared that their parting was characterised by unseemly snatching of clients: actually all their authors simply stayed with the agent they first worked with, often expressing polite regret at the loss of the other. Some said Wylie complained of authors being owed money by Aitken: others that Aitken had reached the point of not answering Wylie's phone calls. But both Aitken and Wylie insist their partnership ended perfectly amicably.

So what was the truth? They had, it seems, different views of the future. As one client put it, "Gillon is into tending his garden; Andrew still sees horizons, he is still heading for the frontier." Aitken gives this explanation: that, unlike himself, Wylie is pursuing nothing less than "global domination".

Such ambition seems a little overweening for a mere pen-pushing middle- man, a haggler over contracts in the sadly old-fashioned world of books. But not in the new high- powered world of agenting. As Aitken himself expressed it: "Now it is not just a question of smoking a cigar, reading a good book and sending it to a publisher."

Wylie's first step to global domination is the opening this August of a new office in London. Why this news may make British agents quake, with fear or rage, is Wylie's habit of chasing clients by calling them up and saying he'd like to work for them. In the British agenting tradition, this has not been the way things are done. The constitution of the Authors' Agents Association states that: "No member shall knowingly represent an author who is a client of another agency, without the agreement of such agency... failure to enquire into an author's agency relationship shall be considered negligence and a violation of this rule." It doesn't quite say you can't call up a writer who is agented by someone else and tell them, as Wylie does (and declares his intention of continuing to do), how much you admire his work. But, among others, Michael Sissons, literary broker for cabinet ministers and stalwart of the old guard, clearly thinks it is cheating to take "ready-made authors off someone else's shelf".

This tactic, though, may be more necessary than it used to be. Once there weren't so many agencies out there. Most authors would happily take on the first agent that sweet-talked them. Now, sought-after authors interview a dozen agents before deciding where to grant their favours. And what they are looking for is a global, multimedia, five-star service.

Mark Le Fanu of the Society of Authors says that the bigger agencies have more clout to defend authors, especially in the wake of the Net Book Agreement, now that booksellers can sell books cheaper than the publisher's recommended price, and demand bigger discounts from publishers. Publishers get tempted to take these discounts out on authors, cutting their royalties. The big agents are best equipped to hold out for their own terms, and insist, as Caroline Dawnay of the muscular big-time agency Peters, Fraser and Dunlop does, that authors shouldn't suffer because "the battle over discounts is not of their making. Small may be beautiful in authors' eyes, in terms of personal attention, but size is strength."

Size matters internationally, too. Translation rights deals are worth a lot of money. And other media are more likely to make authors' fortunes than mere book sales. Caradoc King at A P Watt, for instance, has brought a life of luxury to his thriller writer Philip Kerr, with three film deals each worth over $1m, and he says the market for books as material for films is healthier than ever before, while the multi-media market is "much more active than it was seven or eight years ago".

Michael Sissons agrees: "If you are marketing the work of an author in English you are de facto operating in a global and multimedia market. It is a delusion to pretend otherwise." Moreover, chummy lunches between a localised coterie are no longer the centre of things. "The business is no longer dominated by relationships with publishers. The non-publishing side of our agency has grown a lot in recent years."

Agents aren't just getting broader, they are also getting grander. Murray Pollinger says that when he started 27 years ago, "publishers were snobs and agents counted for nothing". There were no agent members of the Garrick club. The late David Higham unsuccessfully applied five times for membership. Now literary agents are a mainstay.

There is another side, though, to this empire-building. Giles Gordon, whose defection to Edinburgh demonstrates that London cliquishness counts for less these days, says that emphasis on the publishing side has shifted back to small matters. Book sales don't justify huge advances, and agents are increasingly concerning themselves again with "pounds 30 sales of short stories to magazines that will give an author prestige". You may have a global view; but you have to be good with small print.

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