Mr (or Mrs) 15 per cent

The best agents are unobtrusive and make sure attention is focused on their writers


This article is taken from the July 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

“Best Seller” has some claims to being the funniest short story that P.G. Wodehouse ever wrote. In it a girl named Evangeline Pembury, greatly to her own surprise and that of her fiancé Egbert Mulliner, produces a best-selling novel entitled Parted Ways.

On the strength of this she acquires a suave and Byronic-looking literary agent named Jno. Henderson Banks, who addresses her as “Dear lady” and fixes up a string of lucrative commissions which it is beyond her ability to fulfil. Asked by an increasingly disgruntled Egbert who the man he saw her with the previous night was, Evangeline replies, “That wasn’t a man. That was my literary agent.”

The Secret Author was reminded of this withering exchange about half-way through a fascinating sit-down with Richard Charkin’s My Back Pages, subtitled “An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022”, written with the help of Tom Campbell and published by Marble Hill.

Richard Charkin and Tom Campbell

Mr Charkin, formerly of the Oxford University Press, Reed, Macmillan and Bloomsbury and now at the helm of Mensch, knows his onions, tells a good story and remembers where the bodies are buried. At the same time, his autobiography is rife with a quality that sometimes goes missing from the publishing memoir: a high degree of commercial astuteness.

One of My Back Pages’ more intriguing aspects is the faint note of hostility extended towards literary agents. For the first twenty years of his career, Charkin tells us, down at the sharp end of scientific and academic publishing, he barely knew that such an entity existed. “But what then did agents do? For a long time, it was something of a mystery. To some extent it still is.”

Amongst other failings, Charkin seems to think that a 15 per cent commission is stretching it — barristers’ clerks used to get five. He also blames various titans of the 1980s and 1990s trade for making hay with inexperienced editors and pocketing more money for the works of Amis junior, Rushdie and co. than their far from best-selling clients deserved.

No long-term inhabitant of the Valley of the Shadow of Books, to use Gissing’s immortal phrase, will lack his or her agents’ cautionary tale. The Secret Author’s own favourite involves the wily operator who, in the course of negotiating a fee for a multi-volume book deal back in the 1990s, faxed over a hand-written demand for the sum of £500,000.

Mis-reading the figure, but determined to secure the books, the editor with whom he was dealing faxed back a message to the effect that, yes, £900,000 would be fine. And that, extraordinarily enough, was that.

The great complaint is not that no one will publish their work, but that no one will even front it up

What are we to think of the descendants of Jno. Henderson Banks a century after Wodehouse created him? There are certainly too many of them, but then there are too many authors and too many publishing firms.

To blame them for extracting more money than their clients merit from naïve publishers is futile: it takes two to negotiate, and it would have been perfectly possible, back at the end of the last century, for literary London’s principal movers and shakers to have drawn the claws of such legendary high-earners as Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie and Michael Sissons by simply declining to deal with them.

One drawback, alas, from the author’s point of view, is the difficulty of getting by without them. Most publishers refuse to take un-agented submissions; most agents are highly selective in their approach to potential clients; the great complaint amongst aspiring novelists is not that no one will publish their work, but that no one will even front it up.

One of the significant developments of the past 20 years, consequently, has been the rise of the sub-agent or literary consultant who talent-spots out on the amateur fringe, has connections with a major agency and takes a commission on anyone she (and mostly it is a she) gets into print.

As for that 15 per cent, many an author can be found lamenting the fact that agents only take a serious interest when their career is on the up, which is rather like expressing surprise at the discovery of bear excrement in the Saskatchewan woods. Agents exist to sell saleable material, and the best ones, unsurprisingly, are very good at it.

What kind of agent should you have if you can get one? Here the Secret Author’s advice, born of dealings with at least four ornaments of the trade, is to go for somebody unobtrusive.

Is your man, or woman, constantly being interviewed in the Bookseller, appearing on panels at trade fairs, or taking to social media to debate the question of what makes a good book or how the industry is faring? Well, find somebody else.

The best agents beaver quietly away in the background, don’t draw attention to themselves and make sure that the media concentrate on their writers. Jno. Henderson Banks may have looked like Byron, but, as Wodehouse reminds us, he was singularly unable to sustain Evangeline Pembury’s career.

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