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Should Agents Be Blamed for Stealing Authors, Switching Houses?

With so much insecurity in the business, who can afford to maintain a running blacklist?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Today’s feature story profiles Stockholm’s Salomonsson Agency. The company is known for its high profile crime writers, including Jo Nesbø, and for fueling the global craze for Scandinavian authors among publishers.

But the agency has also run into trouble. Several years ago, Sweden’s main book trade publication, Svensk Bokhandel, accused the agency of several unethical practices, including moving authors from house to house without warning. The accusations eventually prompted a lawsuit — the details of which can be found in Sarah Weinman’s excellent profile of agency founder Niclas Salomonsson from The Daily last year. Salomonsson lost.

Such profiteering would seem to be the very purpose of a literary agent. Finding the “best home” for an author, even when that may be determined largely by the extent of financial support on offer, is the most important reason a writer has an agent in the first place.

Yet, the practice of moving an author from one house to another, has been generally frowned up. Of course, this is only the case when the author is successful. It is generally viewed as unethical to take an author one house has invested time, money and effort in developing, only to see that author leave for a bigger paycheck across town — be it with a different agent or a different publisher.

One immediately thinks of the famous story of Andrew Wiley who in 1994, convinced Martin Amis to leave his then agent Pat Kavanaugh, after which Wiley secured Amis a £500,000 advance (unheard of at the time) for The Information.

Of course, this was — in publishing terms — eons ago. Wiley still has his reputation as a “jackal,” and there are several more aggressive agents who are less fond of the media who behave much the same way. But agents who don’t have a roster of heavy hitters are in a much more vulnerable position. They must deal with the same publishers time and time again, likely negotiating on much more modest terms, and deliberately moving one successful author from one house to another might have long-term consequences.

But should agents really blamed for acting on their very nature? Is this is this the case of the scorpion and the frog?

Yes, there was a time when publishing was considered a “gentleman’s business” but that time seems to have largely passed. There is so much insecurity in the industry, with editors moving from house to house, editors becoming agents, and vice-versa. Who can really maintain a running black list?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted July 16, 2012 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    An agent’s first concern should be her client, i.e. the author, who pays her wages, not the publisher. If she can get the author a better deal, then that is what she should do. Surely it is unethical not to?

  2. Vincent
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    The author pays the wages of the Agent!! So it says below. So the agent should be subserviant to the writer then!! But the reader, who buy the books fund the publisher that prints the books, that pay the writer that let the Agent take his commission.
    The logic flows that the writer should praise the reader and be gratful!!!

    How about the shift in logic – An open house: let the writer talk directly to the publisher, the agent would be the legal and financial council. Based on the writers readership a deal would be struck that is fair for all. The agent would take on the roll of PR and money matters and become part of the team.

    Is this logic? Or is like so much of the news today, a rehash of human nature. Huge amounts of money being spread ever thinner!!

  3. Laura Resnick
    Posted July 16, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Vincent wrote: “…let the writer talk directly to the publisher, the agent would be the legal and financial council….”

    The flaw in that plan is that literary agents aren’t qualified to be legal -or- fiscal counsel. They have no training, education, licensing, or qualifications in law, legal language, contracts, fiscal management, or money handling.

    Which, unfortunately, doesn’t prevent writers now, in the past, and in future from turning over their contractual negotiations and MONEY to their literary agents.

    Vincent is absolutely that the author pays the agent. A too-large percentage of agents, however, behave exactly as if they were being paid by the publisher. Moreover, the industry-wide practice whereby the publisher sends all the money to the -agent-, who extracts his commission and THEN forwards the rest of the money to the author, no doubt substantially contributes to the impression many agents seem to have (based on their actions and behavior) that publishers, rather than writers, pay them. How different this might be if the publisher paid the WRITER for the book and then the writer distributed commission to the agent…

  4. Posted July 17, 2012 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    This is so totally absurd.

    How often do employees change companies because they’ve received a better offer from another organization, either in terms of a higher salary or better benefits? Is that considered ungentlemanly? Is that frowned upon?

    Books are a business, and authors will go where their needs are best met. If one publisher has more to offer, then the author should be free to accept…no frowning involved.

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