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

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 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?

React Now

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

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Year 4 Teacher required for 2 terms

£21500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

Accounts Assistant - Sales Ledger, Sage Line 50 - St Albans

£20000 - £22000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful and w...

EBD Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a quailed Teacher ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An Ottawa police officer runs with his weapon drawn outside Parliament Hill in Ottawa  

Ottawa shooting: Canada’s innocence is not lost — unless we want it to be

Jake Heller

Daily catch-up: Hislop the Younger, by-election polling and all about the olden days

John Rentoul
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?