Literature for Sale: The Agent Speaks
IT has taken me twenty-five years to learn what I know about being a literary agent, for when I started there was no one to whom I could go for advice, no school of apprenticeship I could serve; so most of my knowledge was acquired through the trial-and-error method. Fortunately the casualties were few, for in those days the literary world was governed by simpler rules and regulations. To do a proper job of agenting in 1941 one must have a knowledge of contract and libel law; one must be an expert on copyright technicalities, an authority on tax law, with its constant changes, a public accountant — as well as a guide, philosopher, and friend to authors and publishers alike.
I had spent two years on the editorial staff of Everybody’s Magazine in the halcyon days of Lawson’s ‘frenzied finance’ and Lincoln Steffens. It was soon after the merger of Everybody’s with the Butterick trio: the Delineator, the Designer, and the New Idea. Erman Ridgway, John O’Hara Cosgrave, Theodore Dreiser, Charles Hanson Towne, Gilman Hall, and George Wilder were my bosses — and grand bosses they were. From more than one I got an intensive training in fiction values and the business of magazine making, from the buying of the story to the actual putting to bed of the issue.
These editors took their jobs seriously; they made a sincere effort to give their publics the kind of mental food they sought — readers who ranged from the simplest home-cooking housewife and mother to the more politically minded readers of Everybody’s. Reading for these magazines, a group soon to be augmented by the addition of Adventure magazine, under the editorship of Trumbull White, each representing a cross section of American thought and feeling, was the apprenticeship I served.
In the United States at that time there were the Atlantic Monthly, the old Century Magazine, Harper’s, with its stepchild Harper’s Bazaar, and Scribner’s. Aside from these there were the Hearst group, the Metropolitan Magazine, McClure’s, the Crowell and the Curtis publications, with the large and impressive Street & Smith and Munsey publications covering both the pulp and the slick market. Outstanding among them all was the Smart Set under George Jean Nathan and Henry Mencken. There was not a writer of the period who would not willingly sacrifice the larger prices paid by the other magazines for the prestige brought him by publication in this distinguished journal.
Those were the days when a story was sold outright. There was no authorconsciousness of subsidiary rights. I assure you it did not require a $50-a-week bookkeeper to enter the figures in the three columns ruled on a large sheet of white paper. Fewer writers made possible a closer personal relationship between the editor and the author, and there existed an almost standard rate of payment, with a gentleman’s agreement — I use the word advisedly — to keep out of the other fellows’ territory. It was thus that Frances Hodgson Burnett, along with Edith Wharton and Margaret Deland, could be found in the pages of Harper’s, Century, Scribner’s, the Atlantic, and so forth, with other types of writers gravitating to their own accepted magazine mediums.
Among American authors, book contracts for the most part were made directly with the publishers. Legal records will give ample evidence of rights which in certain cases had no existence at the time the contract was made and which were subject to later negotiations and occasional lawsuits.
Those were the days when the attitude of the publisher toward the agent was one of antagonism. He felt that as simple a transaction as the publication of a book needed no intrusion of a third party. As a matter of fact there were three steps in book publishing: the trade edition, printed in about the same numbers as now, but retailing at the standard price of $1.50; a dress-up and gala edition, illustrated by such men as Maxfield Parrish, Charles Dana Gibson, and Howard Chandler Christy; and the reprint, which sold at fifty cents a copy, published by Grossett and Dunlap, who leased the plates and paid the publisher ten cents a copy. After the war and through the early twenties until the lending libraries became widely established, the reprint edition was a source of considerable revenue to both author and publisher.
It was about this time that E. L. Burlingame, who from its inception had been the editor of Scribner’s, warned his son, who was seeking to establish himself as an author, to have nothing to do with a literary agent under any circumstances. Roger wasn’t a very obedient son, for some years later he married one and has since been heard to say that he has only one complaint — the frequency with which he is hailed as ‘Mister Watkins.’ Had Mr. Burlingame, Senior lived longer, he would have been the first to recognize the necessity for an agent if the fiction writer is to survive. Like many of the old school who were brought up on the tradition of the past, he was reluctant to see the old order pass.
Then came the lush twenties and the beginning of big prices, increased circulation, and heavy competition, with the advent of the motion picture, perhaps the chief influence in developing the importance of the agent. Overnight Hollywood was born. The days of the slapstick comedy and Buster Keaton, The Perils of Pauline, had passed; Marguerite Clark, Valentino, Marion Davies, the Gish sisters, Bill Hart, John Gilbert, with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks topping them all, were headliners. This was the day of Charlie Chaplin’s first important film, The Kid; the day that Sam Goldwyn made the first grandiose gesture to sign up important writers; and the day when English writers were for the first time lured by dazzling sums to cross the Atlantic and brave the new world of Hollywood.
From 1918 to 1921 they came. From New York and London they came: Mary Roberts Rinehart, Compton Mackenzie, and Fannie Hurst, Peter B. Kyne, Rupert Hughes, Gouverneur Morris — to receive, as the contracts read, ‘$5000 down and expenses’ and a percentage (I think it was 20 per cent) on further picture profits, giving the producer complete rights to any and all material they wrote during the period of their contract.
There were a few more cautious people: Somerset Maugham, Rita Weiman, Sir Gilbert Parker, Gertrude Atherton, who refused to jump at the golden Goldwyn opportunity. And they got the first important money to come out of Hollywood, while the ‘Eminent Authors,’ as Mr. Goldwyn labeled them, returned to the East sadder but wiser people, for there were no further profits!
At that time there was no agent in the East who actually knew anything about movies. As in radio today, an offer of $50 for the picture rights of a story was considered generous, the attitude of the movie companies being ‘Look what a helluva lot of good advertising and publicity we give you.’ Like Squeers in Nicholas Nickleby, who said that the way to learn to spell ‘window’ was to wash it, I decided to trek West and see for myself how the wheels went round.
No Klondike gold rush was ever more spectacular than those early Hollywood days: Nazimova — whose contract included a bungalow, and who promptly bought the bungalow in Hollywood and received rental for it in her regular weekly pay envelope; Fatty Arbuckle — whose solid silver automobile license plate, reissued every year, flashed the numbers ‘600’ as he came tearing down Wilshire Boulevard; Maurice Maeterlinck — arriving to do The Life of the Bee in celluloid.
A Russian, whose sensational novel on life in the ghetto had been bought for a picture, was summoned. Arriving in Hollywood, she was conducted to the royal suite in the big new hostelry. Unable to adjust herself to its magnificence, and completely overawed by its gold-leaf bathroom, she was thrown into a tailspin, wherein she couldn’t eat, sleep, or, what was worse, write — until, even in this city whose streets were paved with gold, she discovered a ghetto where she could buy an inexpensive tin substitute for the gold-leaf bathtub.
Overnight, authorship, in addition to being a profession, had become a business. Quality, ethics, tradition, were obsolete words; profit, exploitation, commercialism, took their place. There was no protection for an author save in copyright, and, while I honestly think the important people in the companies in that day were not guilty of theft, the organization was so young, still so unorganized, that it was almost certain some ambitious young assistant or supersecretary would be unable to resist the temptation to take what pleased him from an uncopyrighted manuscript. Not infrequently a so-called ‘original’ would be presented and sold to the boss, a yarn containing not only the characters, the outstanding situations, but indeed the entire plot of another man’s novel.
After one or two near-disasters of this kind, I conceived the idea of synopsizing the unpublished and therefore uncopyrighted material that came to me for picture sale. The novels of Oppenheim, Walpole, Lewis, and others I systematically synopsized and distributed in printed form which made it possible to secure pre-publication copyright.
In all the years that I have sold to the movies, there has been no change in the technique they employ. Today, as in 1920, the telephone rings in my New York office. One of the New York executives of a picture company is on the wire. I am greeted cordially, if not, indeed, affectionately, and invited to stop in sometime when I am in his neighborhood. ‘There is one of the younger directors on the lot who for some reason, God knows why, has read a story in the current issue of one of the magazines.’ (My friend is always a little uncertain as to what magazine or the author’s name and invariably gets the title twisted.) We spend five minutes in pleasant conversation about the weather, the latest Walter Winchell gossip — anything, in fact, but the story in which the younger director has so impertinently expressed an interest.
It happens that I’m not in my friend’s neighborhood for several days. Presently a second telephone call comes — this time from his secretary, who is in many cases, it may be said, his alter ego. An even more casual conversation ensues, in which I am asked if I remember that her boss wants to see me. By this time it has become evident that the gentleman in question, who takes his orders from the head office in Hollywood, has had a second more insistent wire asking for a report. In the meantime I’ve learned from my Hollywood spies that the company is keen to get the story for Norma Shearer, Margaret Sullavan, Claudette Colbert, or another star of equal brilliance. This means a high price, for the companies budget their productions according to box-office value of their stars. When I finally ‘drop in,’ it is to be told that his company might be willing to gamble ‘a coupla thousand berries,’ perhaps, for something that would undoubtedly be a Grade B, C, or E picture — but they aren’t particularly interested in it anyway. I thank him, tell him he’s looking well, and leave. The game is on!
If a competitive interest develops, there is no price in or out of reason that I may not ask — and get. If only the single company is interested, it becomes a matter of horse trading. For let there be no doubt that through the grapevine method my prospective purchaser knows as much about the attitude of his competitors as I do. More than once I have sat in a producer’s office and heard a telephone conversation ending with ‘All right, Bill, we’ll withdraw from the bidding if your crowd want the story as much as that. But remember, the next time this kinda deal comes up you guys’ll do the same for us.’
Three things govern picture prices: the author’s reputation, the number of copies of the book sold, and the success the agent has in working up a competitive interest on the part of the picture people. There is, in addition, a very human element that cannot be disregarded and that sometimes completely upsets all one’s calculations — the author’s need of money. (And was there ever an author who didn’t need money?) For there comes a time in the negotiations for a picture sale, as on an auction block, when the bid should be accepted and the gavel brought down or the sale may be lost. And so many factors must enter into one’s judgment as to when this point is reached that to analyze it is impossible.
The confidence of an author in an agent’s ability to get the most that the traffic will stand in the selling of his wares is of prime importance.
Indeed, it is only when I have an author’s complete faith that I can do my best work for him, for the relation of author and agent must be a close personal partnership. To judge fairly of an author’s work, one must know his mind, his personal life, his domestic ups and downs, his financial setup, with its everchanging conditions, its periods of good and bad — all of which are reflected in his creative work. There are days or even weeks when to get the best results I’ve had to use the big stick, when I’ve been ruthless and unrelenting in my criticism, only to recognize the necessity of a ‘There, there, little boy,’ as he weeps on my shoulder the following day.
Being an author’s representative has been fun for me — always. The human part of it — the probing into the hearts and souls and minds of my people, and my small part in the direction of their destinies — has been its fascination.
In the beginning my office was in my hat, or rather a hat that was represented by desk space at ten dollars a month, with telephone privileges. To this desk came the few good boys and girls who had known me in my editorial capacity and with whom I had talked over my plan of going in for myself. They were not important writers then, with the exception of one or two. Inexperienced as I was, all I had to offer was youth and energy and a great enthusiasm, with a kind of vitality that invariably wore down the other fellow’s resistance. But after all I had worked behind the scenes and knew how the editorial wheels went round! And so the partnership started.
It was not long before the nearmahogany-top desk (it had to be that) was moved into a small office, with a secretary for good measure. Since then I have moved twice. Today I find myself guiding a high-powered machine, with the able assistance of a most proficient group of young engineers. We have a system in the office by which no single one of us can become indispensable. All incoming and — through an extra set of carbons — all outgoing mail is read carefully and checked by the entire staff each morning. All of us know what goes on; any one of us can pick up the telephone and give a reasonably intelligent answer to any question.
There is no departmentalization. We work as a team, and toward a single goal, and semi-annually there is a bonus based upon net profits in ratio to the period of service and salaries. After a particularly large sale is made I have my hands full keeping order, for the very natural tendency is for everybody to declare a legal holiday and go out to celebrate. It is true, however, that there are certain key people on the staff whose activities are directed toward special branches of the work, although at no time can there be a clear line drawn between any of their activities. My young vice president’s particular interest happens to be in the book end. She also handles with great success our English list in its various ramifications. But there is an inevitable overlapping into the serial field, the picture and play end of it, as well.
As a unit, therefore, we function on a single property, each bringing to it his or her special knowledge. For we think in terms of properties, and are thus able to play the long game, building each property into its greatest values. For example, within the last two months one of the big European correspondents returned to this country for the first time in five years, during which he had been completely out of touch with the American markets. It was almost like the General Staff mapping a campaign — not the smallest part of which was to determine how he could best capitalize on the vast amount of important material waiting to be written — before we felt justified in tackling the job. Was the magazine market primed and ripe for material such as the story he had to tell? Had anyone beaten him to the gun in a book of the kind he could write? Or was the correspondents’ field of published memoirs too flooded? No time was to be lost. This was deadline stuff. We had to work fast. We did. Within two days the returns began to come in: insistent luncheon invitations resulting in assignments from the publishers of the Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, and other high-paying magazines.
Where I have known a story was good I have refused to be discouraged by rejections. Faith in my own judgment has increased as the years have passed, but actually one has only to get two diametrically opposed editorial opinions on a manuscript to know that one editor’s judgment is as good or as bad as the next. Without boasting, I may say I have never failed to make a sale of any property in which I had complete faith, although sometimes it requires a long time and more than once a manuscript has had to be filed away until here or there a new editor is appointed.
Early in my experience I handled a beautiful story of a difficult length, being neither a short story nor divisible into short serial form, and it went the rounds. Thirty-six magazines turned it down — to several it had gone twice, each time to a different member of the staff. Temporarily I gave up. Much later I pulled it out and reread it, finding it to be even better than I had first thought. I gave it a new title, and when I asked Tom Wells, the editor in chief of Harper’s Magazine, to tea one afternoon he arrived to find me buried under freshly typed pages of the manuscript. I hardly saw him come in. When he spoke I said, ‘Ssssh! Wait. I’m reading the most exciting yarn that’s ever come into the office!’
It was obvious that Tom was in a state. He fumed and fretted and finally grabbed the manuscript literally from my hands. I sold it to Mr. Wells on its third submission to his magazine, which broke all precedent and ran it as a twoparter. The author still has the framed record of its rejections.
I was a cub agent in those days. Since then much of the red tape has been cut. The important thing is to know the personal likes and dislikes of the editor, almost without regard for the magazine policy, for there is no rule that hasn’t its exceptions, no precedent which may not be broken. And I knew Tom Wells well enough to realize that once I succeeded in getting him personally to read the story he would agree with me as to its value for Harper’s.
But an agent’s service is not limited to the author. More and more as the years have passed publishers and editors have come to rely upon us not just for material in general but for the particular kind of material they need at the particular moment they need it. They recognize that the work of an agent saves them a vast amount of time in sifting through the run-of-the-mill stories, for they have come to rely upon our judgment, our sense of discrimination.
A young European explorer returned from three years in the Arctic. He was not a professional writer. But he had kept a diary of his experiences in the Arctic — written, however, in his native language. He was a photographer of sorts, it seemed. When I looked through his portfolio I saw that they were tremendous— those pictures. Did I think they would lend themselves to publication as a book, perhaps with captions? He was starting that night for Canada, thence home to Europe, and would leave the pictures with me to see what could be done. I saw what could be done, and what I saw was far more than a picture book. But I had at the most five hours in which to work, for apparently nothing could divert him from his schedule.
You have heard the phrase ‘editorial conference.’ You know, of course, the multitude of sins it covers, for the editorial conference supplies the average publisher with the alibi to end all alibis for postponed decisions, reversed judgments, and delays. And the possibility of delay which such a conference would necessitate eliminated most of the New York publishing group. Actually, there were only about three to whom I could talk who had the power to make a spot decision; who would give me an immediate yes or no on a possible book to be written around the diary and pictures — material which could only be talked by the explorer himself, in his broken English. We did it — over a lunch that lasted four hours, sealing the contract with sufficient money in advance of publication to keep him in America while the book was written. And the book, which had to be translated, edited, and arranged, was selected by the Book-ofthe-Month Club and hailed by critics as one of the great human documents of the year.
The 10 per cent? It’s been nice to have earned it. (And don’t let anyone tell you an agent doesn’t earn it!) But, as I look back, it has been the small achievements with the little people out of which I’ve had the greatest kick.
A boy whose father sold coats and suits in the Bronx had pleaded for a year’s grace to see if he could write, before going into his father’s business. Each night he had gone home to hear his father’s scoffing until eleven months had passed, and the first sale was made! It was only a little sale — $150. That was three years ago. Since then his father has had to take additional loft space to make room for the copies of the magazines he orders containing his son’s writings.
A girl who wanted to be a writer had come down from Canada literally starving. I put her on the payroll on a halftime job with just enough salary to give her a roof and the one essential meal a day. The book finally came through a year later — the book that was published as a Harpers’ ‘find.’ We closed at $40,000 for the picture rights two weeks after publication and I called her up at the Y. W. C. A. where she lived, to tell her I had some good news. When she was able to come up for air the next day, she took a taxi to Peck & Peck and, indicating a couple of dresses hanging on the rack, disappeared into the fitting room. The saleswoman found her a few moments later sitting stark naked on the chair, her clothes, including her shoes, in a little pile beside her. ‘Please send next door and have shoes brought in. Supply me with stockings and underwear, a hat—a complete wardrobe. For five years I’ve worn nothing except hand-me-downs — and take these out and burn them!’
To establish and build price is a thing which calls for a very particular knowledge of the markets, their fluctuations, sudden needs, and overnight openings, plus wide, friendly editorial contacts. Much of an agent’s business is done as the result of the cordial attitude of the editors and their knowledge that they can count on the agent’s cooperation and quick service in an emergency. For example: space in a magazine is being held for a ‘lead’ article which at the eleventh hour an author is unable to deliver. The agent is told of the need — and gets on the job. There have been days when my office routine has been completely thrown out of gear that I might have the time to follow up and produce the article to meet such an emergency deadline.
For many years George Horace Lorimer paid $500 for a first story for the Saturday Evening Post. His theory — and that of other editors since — was that a writer became valuable to his magazine in direct ratio to the frequency with which his stories appeared in its columns. In other words, the author built up his own public and created a demand for his work. In a general way Mr. Lorimer figured that $500 was a fair price for the first two or three stories, with an increase of $100 each on the next few until the price of $1000 had been reached. This method of standardized prices won loyalty and allegiance for Mr. Lorimer from many of his writers. This was, of course, in the good old days when the personal contact between author and editor ran smoothly along its hallowed path.
Then came the Blitzkrieg, in the new Hearst policy which took as its slogan ‘Big Names at Any Cost.’ Prices soared; the sky was the limit. Mr. Ray Long, editor of Cosmopolitan, was the little Napoleon of magazinedom, and the Klondike days of the Goldwyn era had spread to Publishers’ Row. In contrast to the early twentieth century, when $100 to $150 was the standard price paid by the quality magazines and $500 to $1000 represented the big-circulation magazine prices, it was not unusual now to receive $5000 to $6000 a story from the Cosmopolitan Magazine, and in one instance I know of a definite contract for an unwritten serial signed by one of the women’s magazines at $75,000!
There were a few of the old guard who remained faithful to Mr. Lorimer, and who can blame those who strayed, for gold has always glittered. But even the loyal few who clung to the older traditions of editors were victims of the tidal wave of commercialism of the postwar days, as witness the case history of one of my earliest clients.
Mr. Lorimer liked to deal directly with his authors. He felt, and rightly, that the minute an agent came into the picture the personal relationship was threatened, and being an astute and able business man, as well as a great editor, he resented the intrusion of this third person. He made this resentment very clear to his contributors.
I had been selling a red-headed young man’s first stories to Everybody’s Magazine and getting what was considered in those days a very high price for them. Then one day we ‘made’ the Saturday Evening Post. My young author soon became a favorite of Mr. Lorimer’s. He was a slow producer and did no more than ten stories a year — eight of which Mr. Lorimer purchased. At the end of the year my client said, ‘Look, Ann, “Uncle George” and I get along fine. We talk over my ideas together and I’d rather be with the Saturday Evening Post than any other magazine. What you made in commissions this year would buy me a motorboat.’ (He was a down-Easter and lived in Maine.) The next year the red-headed young man saved the price of his motorboat by the simple process of eliminating an agent. Fifteen years later, however, he came back and asked me why the Post was paying him so much less than certain other authors, for he was still getting only $1000 per story instead of the $2500 he would have been getting had competitive interest been built up.
There is a special rivalry among women’s magazines — a rivalry stemming frequently from the head of the circulation department, which in turn is working with the advertising department; for it is these two departments which govern and control the editorial policy of big-circulation women’s magazines. The heads of these departments are the real bosses —the people ‘higher up’ whose names are whispered by editors. Actually the blood stream of the women’s magazines is their departmental or ‘back of the book’ material: advice to the housewife on cooking, fashions, etiquette, babies, education, and the like — departments that are looked down on by the editors whose job it is to supply the ‘literary’ matter. The resultant conflict comes as close to hair-pulling as anything I know. The executive offices are well aware of the importance of the departmental material, and to keep things under control calls for a diplomacy and tact worthy of a Disraeli.
Though it is true that many writers have had their start in the pulp or adventure type of magazine, it is equally true that there is no such thing as writing down to an audience. To find a sustained market, an author’s work must represent the best he or she is capable of. While it is possible to take a story of adventure — a story of plot and action — and introduce into it the elements that lift it to a higher literary plane, it is virtually impossible to take the finely written so-called literary or ‘cerebral’ story that would find its natural market in one of the quality group of magazines and give it the plot structure and fast pacing demanded by the editors of the slicks.
One of the first decisions an agent has to make in taking over a new author is the market toward which that author’s work is most clearly directed. There are three prime questions: Are you dependent upon writing for a living? Have you the necessary patience and the industry? And, most important, have you the perception, the power of interpretation, the capacity for reflection, that are the basic requisites of authorship? Anyone can master technique, and style will develop in time, but few are sufficiently endowed with the fundamentals to qualify as professional writers. At best writing is a long, heartbreaking, uphill game.
The wisest of book publishers told me that it was his policy to let someone else take the headaches and risk on the first three novels, during which period of apprenticeship a writer would theoretically have learned his trade and gained in the process some understanding and appreciation of the publisher’s problems. Many of the younger publishers would do well to be guided by this advice, particularly those publishers who make a point of covering the magazines containing new writers’ names and automatically sending form letters of solicitation, an obviously unfair if not indeed silly practice, for it is my conviction that there are two or three best publishers for a certain type of book and to get on the wrong list is to start off under a handicap. That means not only no profit for the author but an actual loss for the publisher, with all the resultant headaches on both sides.
Perhaps the most conspicuous example of astute publishing in my experience was that of the Carl Sandburg books. Nearly twenty years ago Mr. Harcourt asked me what I thought the chances were of a magazine serial sale in Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years. He and Carl Sandburg had been long-time friends, and Mr. Harcourt had worked out a writing program that promised to keep Mr. Sandburg busy for life. The Prairie Years was a three-decker manuscript, some 300,000 words, and, to make matters about as difficult as possible, there were two other Lincoln biographies in the offing, with one appearing even then in magazine form. I knew that to present a manuscript of this bulk (it was before the days when books were valued by their poundage) by an author who until that time was recognized only as a poet was to invite certain rejection. So the author, the publisher, and I put our heads together and selected six chapters — those dealing with Lincoln’s relation to his mother, stepmother, and wife — and, thus armed, I paid a call upon that most courageous of editors, Arthur Vance.
Two weeks later Mr. Harcourt and I found ourselves seated at a long directors’ table facing Mr. Vance, his fiction editor, Helen Walker, and the business heads of Pictorial Review. Why should they be asked to pay $30,000 for the privilege of publishing 30,000 words of a poet’s life of Lincoln? It was a game of poker that we played that day, and for high stakes, but I had Mr. Harcourt’s complete support and backing. It was his answer to this challenge that won us the pot — the highest price ever paid up to that time by a magazine for a non-fiction feature. ‘It may be,’ he said, ‘the only thing your magazine will ever publish for which it will be remembered a generation later.’ The business office for once was wise enough to let its editors have their way, and Mr. Sandburg was shortly in possession of his first taste of economic freedom, while his publisher had succeeded in creating a ready-made market for his book.
We have come a long way from the early days of selling a story or a book outright. Today there are multiple markets which, before Hitler, extended all over Europe. There is a definite sequence— if one is to get the full possible revenue for an author — beginning with the sale of magazine or first serial rights. These first serial rights sometimes (as with the magazines that have wide Canadian distribution) cover both the United States and the Canadian market. With certain publishing groups the syndicate or newspaper rights — called ‘ second serial rights ‘ — are automatically a part of this initial sale. There is also the matter of English serial rights, which may or may not be included in the original purchase price.
These are all matters of agreement and clear understanding, together with the order of their release. There is not space here to go into the highly involved details of dramatic, radio, and television rights.
But there are and continue to be book rights, subject to a publisher’s contract packed with clauses having to do with subsidiary rights — including Canadian and British book rights, foreign and translation rights, right of entry into English-speaking countries, Book Club, reprint, popular edition, and often a percentage of dramatic and picture sales. Incidentally my attitude toward giving the publisher a percentage of picture sales has changed. With the increased costs of manufacture and the important part that book sales play in determining picture prices, it seems to me that a publisher is justified in expecting his share of picture money, all of which will go back into the book in promotion and advertising and, theoretically at least, increased sales for the book, which in turn profits the author.
So the career that I carved out for myself over a quarter of a century ago has taken on the proportions of complex and important business — with all the responsibilities it involves. The relationship of the agent to the author is one of financial trusteeship, of father confessor, in many instances of collaborator, of family lawyer and banker.
It is a profession in which the ethics, like the physicians’, demand that one may not advertise, may not charge advance or reading fees. From the first we gamble with the author, backed by no other judgment than our own on how great a gamble it may be.
Of the agency group, which has its annual mushroom spread, there have survived possibly half a dozen agents of sound financial integrity. The Authors’ League, the publishers, and the editors know these agents, and upon request will supply their names. In spite of this many a poor deluded and inexperienced youngster who writes a story goes to the first agent whose name he hits upon by an ‘Eeny, meeny, miny, mo’ method in the Classified Index of the telephone directory.
An author’s funds must be treated as trust funds, kept in a special account regularly audited. Those agents who have not done this (and there are some, unfortunately) have gone down — with the author’s money. One at least has landed in Sing Sing.
It is time that the agency business be recognized for what it is: an important adjunct of and supplement to the publishers’ world. New rules and regulations are urgently needed, and those of us who have come through with banners flying are the first to recognize these needs. Banking references should be required, credentials from publishers, and perhaps a bond should be posted. Bookkeepers are bonded; department stores demand references for the opening of a charge account; you can’t get a year’s lease on a $30-a-month flat without supplying them. And yet the sums involved in these matters are peanuts in comparison to the literally small fortunes which are entrusted to the care and bookkeeping of an author’s agent. There have been times when, in the absence of an author traveling abroad, we have had in our safe-keeping for months as much as $100,000 of his funds; for, mind you, all monies are paid to us, and by us handed over with an accounting to the author, less the agency fee of 10 per cent.
It must have been an instinctive recognition of the need of credentials which sent me, when I first put out my shingle, to George Horace Lorimer, George Doran, John O’Hara Cosgrave, George d’Utassy, Erman Ridgway, and others for sponsorship. And it was these names I used on the little folder I circulated to the list of contributors of Everybody’s Magazine, which was the nucleus of my business.
The day will come, and soon I hope, when agents will be licensed by the government. I trust I may live long enough to point with pride to a framed certificate—License Number One — which will hang, I promise you, in the most prominent place on my office wall.