Richard Charkin in the United Kingdom: Dear Literary Agent

In Feature Articles, Opinion & Commentary by Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin offers ‘a heartfelt apology,’ writing that he now finds literary agents ‘trusted go-betweens and understanding partners.’

On the Strand in London. Image – Getty iStockphoto: Ablokhin

By Richard Charkin | @RCharkin

‘The Agent Is a Blessing’
Friends and colleagues, I may sometimes have given the impression that I hold literary agents in lower esteem than they feel they deserve.

Indeed, I’ve sometimes lumped together all professions with agency in their names as 10-percenters and slightly below the salt. Think of travel agents, estate agents—realtors in the United States sounds better—talent agents, football agents, all of whom seem to cream off money from unwary individuals and add very little.

Richard Charkin

Indeed, when I was at Oxford University Press, we were once asked by a distinguished literary agent if he could come to Oxford to meet the editors of the various disciplines in order to offer them choice manuscripts by his authors. We agreed on the condition that he paid us £1,000 [US$1,222] for access to our very busy editors, who had plenty of authors without the intercession of a literary agent. He declined.

On another occasion, one of our editors successfully persuaded an academic to contribute to a textbook series in which each title carried an advance of £3,000 against future royalties [US$3,666]. We issued a draft contract which he passed to his very distinguished agent to finalize. The agent replied with a string of questions and a demand for a higher advance. Our response was to write direct to the author with a copy to the agent saying we were perfectly happy for him to have an agent but that the additional burdensome overhead was such that we would be obliged to reduce the advance to £2,000 [US$2,443]. The author decided he didn’t need an agent. The agent was understandably furious, but forgave me somehow and we became friends (sort of).

“Whether an author feels the agent has earned her or his commission, from my point of view the agent is a blessing who may have helped me with contractual issues, editorial disagreements, lowering author expectations, and practically helping with production and publicity.”Richard Charkin

And then there’s a regular meeting between the Publishers Association and the Association of Authors Agents in London every year. This at times has been a fractious event, particularly in the days when attendees partook of alcohol during the meeting and before we introduced competition lawyers to ensure we didn’t inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, cross any legal lines. On one occasion, there was an item on the agenda from the agents’ association, something like “ethics in publishing.” What this meant was that agents felt that publishers should not have a good idea for a book and approach an author directly. “What else are editors for?” I think I remarked.

However, since I’ve branched out with my own publishing company, I’ve discovered how helpful literary agents can be, both to their author clients and to publishers.

I assumed no agent would be interested in working with Mensch Publishing because the standard terms I offer are anathema to them—world rights in all languages, a net-receipts royalty based on actual income received, and so on.

I was wrong–most probably because these are desperate times for non-bestselling authors, and agents will park their authors in any port in a storm, but also, I like to think, because they want their authors to find the right homes for their books.

Half the books I’ve published have authors represented by agents and in nearly every case the agent has been a facilitator, a trusted go-between, and an understanding partner in the hugely difficult task of publishing a book successfully, culturally and economically. Whether an author feels the agent has earned her or his commission, from my point of view the agent is a blessing who may have helped me with contractual issues, editorial disagreements, lowering author expectations, and practically helping with production and publicity.

So this is a heartfelt apology.

But …

All, however, is not strawberries and cream. Some agents, though not all, are wedded to what we sometimes call “old Spanish customs”—no offense to my friends in Spain, of course—or idees fixes the elimination of which would improve relationships with publishers still further. Here are a few:

  • Royalties linked to published price do not protect the author. Royalties linked to a publisher’s net receipts do, and are more readily understood and audited.
  • High advances do not make a publisher sell more copies, they just make that publisher less likely to stick with an author if he or she has suffered from an unearned advance. Publishers put their efforts where they get the most bang for their bucks, not what the accounts department advances list says.
  • Reversion clauses are utterly antediluvian in their construct, as all books are effectively “in print” forever through  print-on-demand and electronic delivery technologies. In addition, in 99.9 percent of cases transfer of rights to another publish after reversion never happens or doesn’t measurably improve the author’s lot. However, if there’s a good reason, then few if any publishers will resist a legitimate request.

Rather than lobby for trivial improvements in the typical author contract, perhaps literary agencies should push for things that really matter, such as frequency of royalty statements and access to real-time sales data—or as nearly real-time as possible—and progress on publicity and marketing.

And finally, if I were a best-selling novelist worldwide, I’d want my brand to be protected not just by copyright but also by trademark legislation. A literary agency is a natural place to support authors by creating visual branding for its clients, registering that brand and policing it internationally. Think of the power, for example, of Enid Blyton’s autograph or Danielle Steel’s logo.

Titles by Enid Blyton with the iconic autograph

And titles by Daniel Steel, with another familiar logo

And once again, I send apologies and thanks to all those literary agents who had to put with me over the last 50 years. Mea culpa.

Join us monthly for Richard Charkin’s latest column. More coverage of his work from Publishing Perspectives is here. Richard Charkin’s views are his own and may not reflect those of Publishing Perspectives or its staff.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here.

About the Author

Richard Charkin

Richard Charkin is a former president of the International Publishers Association and the United Kingdom’s Publishers Association. For 11 years, he was executive director of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc. He has held many senior posts at major publishing houses, including Macmillan, Oxford University Press, Current Science Group, and Reed Elsevier. He is a former president of the Book Society and non-executive director of the Institute of Physics Publishing. He is currently a board member of Bloomsbury China’s Beijing joint venture with China Youth Press, a member of the international advisory board of Frankfurter Buchmesse, and is a senior adviser to and Shimmr AI. He is a non-executive director of Liverpool University Press, and Cricket Properties Ltd., and has founded his own business, Mensch Publishing. He lectures on the publishing courses at London College of Communications, City University, and University College London. Charkin has an MA in natural sciences from Trinity College, Cambridge; was a supernumerary fellow of Green College, Oxford; attended the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; and is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London. He is the author, with Tom Campbell, of ‘My Back Pages; An Undeniably Personal History of Publishing 1972-2022.’