Obituary: Scott Meredith
Friday 19 February 1993
PUBLISHERS had reason to dislike (at least the idea of) the American literary agent Scott Meredith. He is credited with having initiated the book auction, whereby an idea for a book or a finished manuscript is submitted simultaneously to a number of publishers in the hope that they will bid against one another, and that thus the book will be bought for more than it is worth. It would be pleasant to record that Meredith knew what he was doing when he conducted the first book auction, and that he dreamed up the concept as a strategic device. The truth is probably otherwise. Although no one seems to remember the title or author of the first book, it is recorded that the momentous event took place in 1952.
The author in question was, by all accounts, more hard up even than authors usually are, and begged Meredith quickly to find him a publisher with some money. In the days when books were, as a matter of course, submitted to publishers in turn, there was no compulsion upon editors to reach decisions other than in the most leisurely way, and the process could take months as publisher after publisher regretfully declined. Meredith realised that if he offered his impoverished client's manuscript to, say, a dozen publishers at least one of them might respond quickly.
Thus the world of American publishing was changed, although it was years before the auctioning of big books became almost de rigueur in the British market. There is a substantial school of thought, or prejudice, which blames the auction process, nowadays regarded by reputable agents as a sophisticated weapon in their armoury of tricks, as responsible for many of the ills of today's book trade, of publishers protesting that they are being held to financial ransom by rapacious agents.
Meredith started his literary agency in 1946, aged 23, with his brother Sidney, after being demobbed from the US Air Force. Although he wanted to be a pilot, poor eyesight forced him to spend the war on the staff of the Air Force magazine.
An early client was PG Wodehouse, but most of his first authors, and many of the late, were infinitely more mundane writers. He was frequently asked by the publishers of sports magazines, and of publications such as Redbook and Bluebook, to fill whole issues, and he invariably used his own clients or those he used soon thereafter became his clients. Not to put too fine a point upon it, he was renowned for persuading authors to leave their agents for him by providing them with large amounts of dollars which would be recouped from subsequent sales.
He specialised in the, at the time, burgeoning world of science fiction and represented the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Scheckley, Robert Silverberg, Harry Harrison, Philip K. Dick and Barry Maltzberg as well as the three musketeers of British SF, Brian W. Aldiss, JG Ballard and Michael Moorcock. Moorcock remembers the downtown New York offices of Meredith as resembling a sweatshop with the staff crammed together, dwarfed by piles of typescript. Only the boss had his own inner sanctum at the back of the office. No one, at least none of his British authors, even seemed to meet their agent. He rarely signed his letters, his staff using a rubber stamp of his signature, which inspired the SF writer Judith Merrill invariably to reply 'Dear Scotts'. Like Dickensian characters, other of his clients, such as Thomas C. Disch and Norman Spinrad, were employed in his factory when the commissions were not flowing free from publishers.
Later clients included Evan Hunter, Margaret Truman, Judith Campbell Exner, Spiro T. Agnew and, most famously, Norman Mailer who, upon his death said 'Scott Meredith was my agent for 30 years, and in that period he became one of my best friends . . . He was a wonderfully intelligent man, lucid in his analyses of publishing situations, fiercely loyal to his clients, and wise and warm in his relation to 100 other matters.' One of his most eminent British ex-authors regarded his death with roars of laughter, and another said 'Good'.
Scott Meredith was a man of many friends and enemies. He published several books himself, including Writing to Sell (1950), a handbook for authors, which remains in print.
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