French Literary Agents Stage a Quiet Revolution

In Growth Markets by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije

PARIS:  Until very recently, literary agents have been viewed in France with suspicion and the very topic seen as taboo. Traditionally, authors would submit and sell books directly to publishers. Agents were viewed as mere interlopers, interfering with a privileged relationship between author and publisher and introducing a mercenary, Anglo-Saxon element into the closed publishing circuit. But things are changing.

Agent Pierre Astier

Agent Pierre Astier

The turning point came à tout jamais in 2006, when British agent Andrew Nurnberg sold American author Jonathan Littell’s French language novel Les Bienveillantes, (The Kindly Ones) to Gallimard, while retaining the author’s foreign rights. In France, where publishers have traditionally handled global rights for their authors, Nurnberg’s move was akin to the first shot in a revolution and the issue could no longer be ignored.

Littell, whose novel went on to win the Prix Goncourt and the Académie Française’s Grand Prix du Roman, remarked at the time in an interview with Le Monde des Livres: “In the Anglo-Saxon literary world if you want to publish a book, you look for an agent first. So I never thought to do anything else. This French notion of sending your manuscript direct to a publishing house is foreign to me. I do understand that it worries some people in France, where a delicate balancing act ensures that certain books are published which would never be elsewhere. That system has a cost. In France, barely any authors make a living; the entire chain profits from the book, except the writer.”

Of course literary agents had been operating in France before 2006 but they were few and far between. Today, there are only handful of major agents working here, each with a very different style.

The first to set up shop was François Samuelson with his agency Intertalent in 1988. Samuelson was, in a sense, a pioneer in an industry that was hostile to and unfamiliar with the role of an agent. “If publishers hadn’t tried to get rid of me 25 years ago I would probably have opened an authentic literary agency.” François Samuelson told Libération newspaper last year.

Samuelson instead branched out into the film business, becoming an agent for actors (Juliette Binoche and Mathieu Kassovitz, among others), screenwriters and filmmakers, so that writers now make up only 20% of Intertalent’s yearly revenue. He nevertheless represents close to 30 writers including heavyweights such as Tahar Ben Jelloun, Fred Vargas and the infamous Michel Houellebecq.

He is sometimes referred to as l’Americain, or “the American,” in reference to the time he spent in New York in the 1980s setting up the Bureau du Livre Français (The French Publishers’ Agency). It’s a rich irony as, of the agents working in Paris today, he is probably the least international, operating primarily on French territory and he does not handle foreign rights for his authors.

British-born Susanna Lea, who had previously worked in the international division at Robert Laffont, opened her agency, Susanna Lea Associates in 2000. Its motto is “Published in Europe, Read by the world”.  Lea’s authors write non-fiction and fiction and are for the most part commercial rather than literary.

Author Marc Lévy is generally cited as her biggest success story, having burst onto the scene with his first novel Et Si C’était Vrai (If Only It Were True), which was subsequently translated into 38 languages and optioned by Steven Spielberg for film. Other Susanna Lea authors include Ayaan Hirsi Ali, whose book Infidel was translated into 35 languages, David Servan-Schreiber, and Ingrid Betancourt.  Lea has since expanded overseas, opening an office in New York in 2004 and a branch in London last year.

Perhaps the happiest incarnation of the “new” French literary agency is Pierre Astier & Associés. Started by Pierre Astier, founder and former head of the publishing company Le Serpent à Plumes, and his partner Laure Pécher, also a publisher and a translator, the agency opened in 2006. It now represents a wide range of French and Francophone authors, including Haitian-Canadian writer Dany Laferrière, who won the prestigious 2009 Prix Médicis for his novel l’Enigme du Retour (The Enigma of Return), Algeria’s Yasmina Khadra, and US-based Cameroonian Patrice Nganang. The agency’s primary activity is selling foreign rights, including film and TV.

Because of their former lives as publishers and editors and emphasis on the literary over the commercial, Astier and Pécher have avoided being painted as predators.

“Things are moving very quickly,” said Laure Pécher in an interview with Publishing Perspectives. There’s less resistance to agents on the part of publishers. The new generation of editors has had more marketing experience and is not purely literary. Occasionally, big editors will threaten to drop authors who use agents, but at the same time they come see us for our authors, so there’s doublespeak.”

With the exception of a few editors such as Paul Otchakovsky-Laurens, director of Editions POL, who has publicly said that he will not consider a manuscript that has been submitted by an agent, most editors are grudgingly coming around to the fact that agents are here to stay. Even the influential French Syndicat de l’Edition, or the SNE (French Publisher’s Association), agrees and has stated that agents are now a reality in France, though it also hastened to add that editors do everything agents do and more—for free.

Still, writers understand that the times have changed and many of them are looking to do more with their rights than the routes publishers have typically pursued. The experience of author Leila Marouane is one good example of why French writers are beginning to turn towards agents. The Franco-Algerian author had published five novels with houses such as Seuil and Julliard before signing with Pierre Astier for her sixth novel, La Vie Sexuelle d’un Islamiste à Paris (The Sex Life of an Islamist in Paris), published by Albin Michel in 2007. Marouane had previously worked with a British publisher—who never paid for English language rights—and had trouble following-up rights sales conducted by her French publishers.

Although she had already negotiated with Albin Michel to keep her language rights before signing with Astier, Marouane said that her share of any rights sales is much better with the agent, who only takes a 20% fee, while the publisher would typically take 50%. “Above all, I’m relieved to have someone taking care of the administrative side of things and following up on foreign sales where my publishers hadn’t in the past,” she said.

Pierre Astier has time and time again said that in no way should agents and publishing houses be seen as rivals. Instead, he believes that when an agent does a good job, both the author and publisher are satisfied. It’s an idea that, until only recently, has been all but unheard of in France.

Now, it seems, agents are finding acceptance—at the very least, from authors. “We have five authors a day knocking at our door,” said Laure Pécher.

There is a risk, she adds, that the small number of agents in France means that French authors may turn to using British or American agents, much like French President Nicolas Sarkozy has done by using Andrew Wiley as his agent.

Still, there appears to have been a quiet revolution and things are changing for the better.

“It used to be that in France, if you had an agent you were viewed as suspicious, said Leila Marouane. “Then, when I would be abroad and mixing with Spanish or English authors, I was considered suspicious because I didn’t have agent. Thank god mentalities are changing.”

VISIT: Susanna Lea online.

CONTACT: Pierre Astier & Associates

INFO: On Francois Samuelson, who does not otherwise maintain a Web site.

BONUS: Are French Authors Better Off With or Without Agents?

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.