Calling for Literary Agent Transparency in the UK

In Discussion by Guest Contributor

Agents Statistics

Too little information is available to aspiring writers in the UK regarding literary agents, argues Harry Bingham, so a movement has started to bring transparency.

Editorial by Harry Bingham

I’m Harry Bingham, a crime author who also runs the Writers’ Workshop, the UK’s largest consultancy for new writers.

Agent HunterAnd I couldn’t help but notice that our clients routinely felt baffled and thwarted by the literary agency industry. It wasn’t simply that the quality threshold was daunting. Rather, the issue was that agents seemed to reveal tremendously little about who they were, what work they were seeking, or whether they wanted new submissions at all. (The picture is different in the US, so these remarks apply only to the UK industry.)

We figured we could improve things, and created Agent Hunter, a database of British agents, agencies and publishers. It wasn’t simply a list of names and addresses – effectively all that had been available before – but an attempt to compile all publicly available information into one easily searchable form. So, for example, for any given agent, we’ll attempt to provide a photo, a biography, a list of genre preferences, data on favorite authors, and much more besides – including whether they wanted submissions at all.

We thought agents would love the tool because it would help them attract the writers who were right for them and deter those who really weren’t.

And some agents got it. They worked with us to build warm, discursive, invitational profiles that will result in better, more tailored slush piles. Other agents had plenty of useful public information already out there and, though they haven’t worked directly with us, we’ve been able to assemble really useful data there too.

But we hit a problem. Far, far too many British agents reveal virtually nothing about themselves. Over a quarter say nothing about their genre preferences, and many more say terribly little. Over a quarter won’t release a photo. Almost one fifth don’t release even a two-line professional biography. Some 35% of British agents don’t release photo + bio + client list, which we would regard as the absolute bare minimum of respectful disclosure.

So, we worked. We spoke to numerous agents and agencies about improving their disclosure standards, including many of the highest profile agencies in the country. Some really got it: they called us in, listened to us tell them why their website was useless, then went away and fixed it. That’s outstanding leadership.

Agency Hunter's TI Index

Other times, though, we met with blankness and even hostility. The fact is, over a year into this project, the culture wasn’t changing, or not nearly fast enough.

So we took action. We crunched our data to come up with the basic demographics. (The industry is 66% female: no surprise. 86% London: no surprise. But less than 3% black or Asian? In London? Not remotely good enough.)

We also released a new metric, our Transparency Index, which measures how much data agents release to the public realm. Our manifesto tells you much more and why we think this matters. We’ve been attacked, sharply, for our initiative. Sam Edenborough of the Association of Authors Agents tells me that, in his view, agents owe a duty to their clients, but owe nothing to the community of unpublished writers, because there is no contractual relationship present.

I regard that view as wholly unsustainable. Like JK Rowling, like Zadie Smith, like Hilary Mantel, like almost author who didn’t start with a media background of some sort, I entered the industry via the slush pile. If agents treat the slush pile with contempt, they treat us with contempt: our origins, our passions, our history. It’s time for that to change.

Agree? Disagree? Let us know what you think in the comments.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.