Tom Sutcliffe: J K Rowling may not need one, but other writers do

Social Studies: The judicious, sympathetic and candid eye of a literary editor is increasingly supplied by an agent or no one
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The Independent Online

It's still not clear why JK Rowling deployed the Expelliarmus spell against her long-standing literary agent, Christopher Little – ending one of the most lucrative relationships in publishing after 16 years – but in the currently jittery and uncertain world of publishing there won't be any shortage of people filling the gap with guesswork.

Imagine you're living in one of those houses near a crumbling Norfolk cliff. When you moved in 40 years ago, the sea was half a mile away and a selling point. Now it's nibbling at the garden wall and every creak triggers a chilling question mark. Is this just a bit of harmless settling or is it the first sign of a terminal landslide? What's more, which bit of the building is going to go first? Should agents be getting clammy as they think about the foundations, or should it be publishers?

One caveat is important. You can't draw any general truths about the publishing industry from JK Rowling's experience of it because she is an industry in herself – a canny protector of the Potter brand and a brilliant exploiter of it – as her recent announcement of an exclusive website to sell e-book versions of the Potter novels confirmed. There just isn't a repeatable recipe for an unprecedented phenomenon. But her recent decisions do illuminate some shifts of power in publishing. E-book self-publishing is easy and can already claim its first million-selling author. And even creating a real book can be done by pretty much anyone now. A website like will take you through the process in a series of mouse clicks, complete with tools like Calculate Your Spine – not a test of entrepreneurial nerve, but a simple way working out how thick your volume is going to be. Bridging the gap between printer and reader is still tricky, of course, but with print-on-demand and online selling, even that needn't be as forbidding as it once was.

At the same time some of the functions of the agent can be procured, for a fraction of the cost, from specialists. Robert Bennett, an American lawyer, has done very nicely acting as "author's representative" for big-hitting biographies (including Bill Clinton's and Tony Blair's), charging an hourly rate, rather than 15 per cent. Even at $1,000 an hour, he's a snip.

The truth is, though, that publishers have far more to fear from recent developments than agents do. For one thing, although JK Rowling appears to relish running a business, most authors don't. They want to maximise the time they can spend in an invented world and minimise the time they spend negotiating the more boring elements of this one. For another thing there's one crucial service that no software can replicate – the judicious, sympathetic and candid eye of a literary editor, which increasingly is supplied by an agent or no one. And the cannier agents are surely going to notice soon that – with a bit of creativity and a bit of thought – they can do the things that they once left to others. How long, I wonder, before the other name on a spine or a title page is that of the agent and not the publisher?

It's the great taste of insurrection

As part of its continuing global commitment to dental caries Coca-Cola has produced an advert piggy-backing on the revolution in Egypt. It's a stirring affair in which suitably photogenic Cairenes use ladders and grappling hooks to pull holes in the gloomy overcast sky, letting sunshine flood through to the streets below. It concludes with a shot of Tahrir Square, filled with light and people – the implication being that the whole country has just benefited from the pause that refreshes. It is shamelessly exploitative and it would be telling to compare it with the equally upbeat presentation of life under President Mubarak that you would find in previous Egyptian Coke ads.

But it's still oddly potent. You don't often see propaganda for insurrection so professionally produced. And a tribute of sorts is buried in the corporate cynicism. To understand La Rochefoucauld's remark that "Hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue" all you have to do is watch this ad.

Wanted: a layman's guide to everything

I love Wikipedia and wander around it almost every day – with a wary eye out for the thistles of Wikivandalism. But there are occasions when it's too good to be useful. This was sharply focused for me the other day while recording programmes for this year's Round Britain Quiz. Looking up a mathematical term – so that I could offer clues without exposing my howling ignorance – I found the entry couched entirely in technical language, a problem that I've encountered before when trying to get a layman's introduction to a scientific or specialist topic. Attempting to understand elements of that technical language only led deeper into a briar patch of equations. If you knew enough maths to understand it, it seemed, you'd know enough maths not to need it.

What I wanted though – and this surely must sometimes also be true for advanced mathematicians wanting to get a thumbnail introduction to Symbolist poetry, say – was a Beginner's button, a link that would direct me to a short entry written in plain English. Stephen Maddock, who runs the City of Birmingham Symphony Opera came up with an excellent name for this much needed innovation – Thickopedia. And yes, its entries would necessarily be shallow from any expert perspective – but who learns to swim any more by being thrown in the deep end and left to thrash?