This Genteel Racket

Can't sell your book? Maybe your agent hasn't even read it—and never will

Every working writer has a trunkful of humiliating stories about their first attempts to get published, so here's one of mine. Years ago, back when I'd never sold a word, my new agent called me one morning with great news—an editor at a certain large Manhattan publishing house was intrigued by the book I was working on. Yes!I thought. Success at last!

Mere hours later, a thick manila envelope thudded through the mail slot of my San Francisco flat. And, lo, the return address was for this very same publisher. My, they were eager. Impressed by their lightning speed, I tore it open and pulled out a sheaf of battered papers. It took a moment until I realized that I was looking at the proposal for my own book—only, in an extraordinary coincidence, it was one I had sent into their slush pile, un-agented and unsolicited, a full 18 months earlier. This proposal was accompanied by a brief but stunning handwritten note from their submissions reader: She could not ever see my book being published. Not by them—and not, for that matter, by anyone else.

I stood in my hallway, dazed with disbelief. I'd never gotten anything other than photocopied rejection slips before. But here's what was really strange: This proposal was identical to the one that their acquisitions editor, unknown to the lowly submissions reader, was now praising. The only difference was an agent's cover sheet.

One of the hardest things in art, outside of creating it, is to be that very first person who looks at an unknown and his or her work and says: I like it. Any idiot can second the motion. But to look at an unknown and say, "You, yes you, you are worthy"—that is different. That means taking a risk, to say yes where probably dozens have already said no. It is also what changes the course of an art form. And this is why I sometimes nurse the suspicion that the real gatekeeper of American literature is not the publisher, not the critic, and not Jack Warner's fabled "schmucks with Underwoods"—i.e., writers. No, it is the schmuck with a Rolodex: the literary agent.

And they are schmucks, right? Publishers, reports The New York Times, are "not overfond" of the wheelings and dealings of agents: "They say he has been of advantage to the few writers of the first class, having made their work much more expensive, while he has been the ruin of all the smaller fry. The steady, old-fashioned relationship between publisher and author no longer exists." True, true: Things are (sigh) so much less gentlemanly now, and what with all those obscene advances for celebrities and blockbusters, these are hard days for midlist writers.

But the days in question are in 1899 . . . which is when that Times article ran. The Living Agehad already proclaimed that "the literary agent destroys small authors and small publishers by creating fictitious prices for the favorites," while the New Century Review decried the "nefarious work" of agents under the headline "Bookselling a Decaying Industry." What happened to create this fuss?

What happened was money. In the 1890s, new copyright laws meant that authors could no longer be ripped off with impunity. Authors now possessed intellectual property—and wherever there is property, agents are sure to follow. Publishers now faced dealing not with reclusive and impractical artistes easily put off with vague numbers and legal language, but with negotiators as ruthless as themselves. And as author William Alden tartly observed in 1898, "a publisher never approves of anything that puts money in the pockets of the author."

British publishers even considered boycotting authors represented by this new species of land shark, most famously embodied in super-agent Alexander Watt. "Mr. Watt is said to hold all English authors within the hollow of his hand," The New York Timesreported in 1899, "that they neither eat, sleep, drink, nor write without consulting him." But publishers could still make more money working with A.P. Watt than by not working with him. So did publishers stick with the high-flown boycott rhetoric about smaller authors and publishers, or did they cash in?

(Ahem.)

Well, A.P. Watt's agency is still doing business.

Still, in an industry that could be numerically defined by how much it rejects, the first agency in Manhattan was itself a flop. In the 1870s, famed stage actress and author Olive Logan began an agency with her author husband, William Wirt Sikes—but it failed because the manuscripts were terrible. Logan and Sikes were less gatekeepers than a representation service, and publishers had no great use for that. Logan, Manhattan's first modern literary agent, died in an asylum, destitute and demented—thus setting a time-honored pattern for all her other authors to follow.

To be fair, Logan and Sikes had no business model to follow. Nobody imagined publishers ceding their role of screening unsolicited manuscripts to commission-skimming interlopers. Instead, publishers relied on the sort of interns for whom reading stacks of desperate stuffed envelopes remains a hazing into the industry. But now many publishers will not even look at this manila-enveloped tide of humanity: They happily leave that drudgery to agents. Publishers, to their great relief, no longer have to be the first to say: I like it.

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