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

Share
Related Topics

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 Lulu.com 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?





t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Learning Support Assistant

£65 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Cardiff: Due to the continual growth and...

AX Developer With EPOS Experience

£450 - £500 per day: Progressive Recruitment: Dynamics AX / Developer / AX2012...

Senior Analyst - ALM Data - Banking - Halifax

£350 - £400 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Analyst, ALM Data, Halifax, ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz