Life As An Agent
Life As An Agent
Derek Johns (Managing Director - AP Watt Literary Agency) gives expert video advice on: How did you become a literary agent?; What would you say to people who think literary agents are parasites?; What is the most exciting aspect of being an agent? and more...
How did you become a literary agent?
Well like a lot of literary agents, I was publisher. In fact, in my case I was a book seller and an editor before becoming an agent. And about 15 years ago I felt that literary agencing would be more interesting than publishing, publishing had consolidated and narrowed and there were a lot of meetings and so on, and I just felt it would be more interesting to be closer to the source, the author.
What would you say to people who think literary agents are parasites?
To anyone who says that literary agents are parasites, nowadays, I would say well of course they aren't. They are an essential buffer between authors and publishers; without whom, publishers would exploit authors mercilessly. At a time of increasing media complexity their expertise is vital to authors.
What is the most exciting aspect of being an agent?
The most exciting aspect of working as a literary agent is working with writing, with writing on the page, I've always loved writing. And it's the sense that one is there at very beginning really, one is close to the source, this mysterious source of literary creation.
What is the hardest part of being an agent?
Well, I suppose the hardest part of being an agent is working with authors. If I say that the most exciting part is working with writing, well the hardest part is working with the people who actually create the writing because they are very complicated and often very needy people, and literary agents really serve a wide range of purposes. We don't simply negotiate contracts. We are editors, we are financial advisors, we are shrinks, and sometimes dealing with these very complicated human beings can be quite wearing.
Is appetite for books increasing or decreasing?
The market for books at the moment is fairly static. Within that, there are best selling books that are selling far more copies than ever, as a result of things like Richard and Judy and the book apprise, television exposure generally. The overall market however is very static and everyone is wondering exactly what the effects of the new media, of the digital revolution will be.
How much of your day do you spend reading?
Well, almost none of my day is spent reading work. My evenings and my weekends are spent reading work. It's one of the burdens that come with the job. People imagine that literary agents sit in their offices reading manuscripts all day. Well actually that's the last thing I do. I deal with contracts, with authors, and the myriad of things that go on. Reading is done at home.
How does an agent-publisher relationship work?
Literary agents of course have to make it their business to know everyone in publishing. But like in any profession they have their favorites and there are great benefits to working with publishers you know very well and have worked with in the past. But we simply know each other very well, we're all in this small world together, we see each other all the time, we have lunch, we go to parties together, we hang out together. And we know each other very well and we know the strengths and weaknesses of each publishing house and each editor.
Do different publishers look for different kinds of books?
The large publishing houses of course range very widely if you take 'Random House' or 'Penguin.' Then you will see that on many different imprints they publish all kinds of books. In the, what we call the general publishing area, there are also academic, technical and professional publishers with whom we don't generally deal. Then there are specialist publishers, again with who we don't generally deal. We are principally dealing with fiction, biography, history, current affairs, and the large publishers all publish those books.
What excites you in a book?
Well, I personally respond to style and use of language in a book as much as anything else. A great many of my clients are novelists, and it's the writing on the page, it's the use of language that particularly appeals to me. Others are more interested in a book's story and plot, but for me it's the sentences, I think.
Which is harder being a writer or an agent?
Being a writer is much harder than being an agent because you are there in your own world, in the world that you've created and it's entirely your responsibility and it's one world. As an agent I have probably 60 active clients, so I'm inhabiting many different worlds and if some of them aren't very congenial then I can always go into others. As a writer you are stuck inside your own head.
What kind of books do you like?
By the time I came into the book trade I had already read a lot of books. I think that I was drawn to books that were adventurous in their subject matter and their use of language. I think I'd have to say that after all these years, I'm still drawn to books that are adventurous in some way or another.
What kind of person works in publishing?
People who work in publishing have to reconcile two quite contradictory things, which is their love of writing and the world of commerce, and to be a successful literary agent or publisher, you simply have to have some taste, a nose for good writing, but you also have to have business acumen, and finding these qualities in the same person is not always easy.