What is it about this business that makes us so allergic to the idea of competitive selling?
When I first became an agent, I was shocked to discover that “respectable” agents did not compete against each other for business. In fact, I initially avoided joining the Association of Authors’ Agents for precisely that reason: it’s only in recent years that they’ve relaxed their position on members competing for other members’ clients.
I can think of no end of talented authors who are today poorly or even negligently represented…Even now, any agent who overtly prospects for business is widely considered to be, well, wide. “Be wary of an agent who solicits you,” cautions the queen of literary scam-busters Victoria Strauss. “Good agents don’t need to advertise—or to solicit. Questionable agents, on the other hand, often derive much of their clientele from solicitation.” No wonder poor old Andrew Wylie is called the Jackal. Clearly the likes of Roth, Bellow, Mailer and Rushdie didn’t realize that Andrew was “questionable” when he enthusiastically chased after their business. Your fellow agents may hate you, Andrew, but I bet your clients love you. And so do I, for making our business a bit less pompous.
Even outside the cloistered and ultimately rather petty agents’ demi-monde, the situation is oddly similar. You would think that, in a declining market, all the major publishers would constantly be at each others’ throats in a never-ending, blood-drenched struggle to woo blue-chip authors away from rival houses. In fact, this kind of competition is surprisingly infrequent (tellingly, no publisher that I’m aware of has the equivalent of a dedicated new business unit) and when it happens, sporadically, it inevitably boils down to a cash bidding war between houses. How unimaginative.
In my old industry—advertising—the pitch was a reality of everyday existence. Far from being a scurrilous activity, the art of effective pitching was celebrated, rewarded and actively developed as an essential skill. Beyond that, it is obviously in the client’s best interests.
I can think of no end of talented authors who are today poorly or even negligently represented. Is it fair to deny them the possibility of better representation simply because the more atherosclerotic parts of our industry consider competition to be ungentlemanly?
The lifeblood of business is competition. Other industries thrive on it: we can too. I’m calling for a major rethink of our attitude to this subject—and an appreciation that fair competition can only benefit authors. Until that happens, we’re not really in business at all—we’re just dilettantes.
This column first appeared in The Bookseller on the 23rd April 2010