Ten Per Cent of Your Life
It is inevitable that RAYMOND CHANDLER,who has written pungently for the Atlantic on many subjects, would have some lively opinions on the function of the literary agent. Journalist, screen writer, and novelist, Mr. Chandler speaks from long professional experience. He is widely known as the creator of Philip Marlowe, the indestructible hero of The Big Sleep, Farewell, My Lovely, and countless radio programs, and he is one of the most accomplished dialogue writers of the films.
by RAYMOND CHANDLER
AMONG all those quasi-professional businesses which like to refer to their customers as clients the business of literary agenting is probably the most enduring and tin; most adhesive. Technically, you can fire your agent; it is a sticky operation, but a determined man can achieve it. It really ends nothing. Years after you speak to him you will, if you are a writer for publication, be finding mud tracks across the carpet. He will have been there in the night doing what he calls “representing” you, and you will wake up in the morning with that tired feeling as if a Doberman pinscher had been sleeping on your chest. It was probably only a little old foreign book royalty that he nibbled at, a trivial matter in dollars and cents. But the nibbling goes on forever. Long after your agent, has been gathered to his fathers, you may be paying commissions to his estate on some transaction with which he had hardly any contact, something purely automatic that arose out of something else long before.
There is nothing wrong with this. It is the way the agent gets his pay. But writers as a class are apt to be a cantankerous and not particularly lovable set of people; they have the egotism of actors without either the good looks or the charm. However much they are paid, they never think they are paid enough. They resent it that other people make money out of the work they, the writers, do alone and unaided. The agent creates for himself a vested interest in a writer’s entire professional career. However much you pay him, he is never paid off. He may collect a very large amount of money for what is essentially a very routine service. And of course you forget all that he does for which he receives no payment at all. What really galls you on the raw is not how much commission the agent collects, but that the account is never closed. The agent never receipts his bill, puts his hat on and bows himself out. He stays around forever, not only for as long as you can write anything that anyone will buy, but as long as anyone will buy any portion of any right to anything that you over did write. He just takes ten per cent of your life.
Perhaps the sensible thing is to get it over with and admit that throughout the history of commercial life nobody has ever quite liked the commission man. His function is too vague, his presence always seems one too many, his profit looks too easy, and even when you admit that he has a necessary function, you feel that this function is, as it were, a personification of something that in an ethical society would not need to exist. If people could deal with one another honestly, they would not need agents. The agent creates nothing, he manufactures nothing, he distributes nothing. All he does is cut himself a slice off the top. Possibly there are agents who dislike the commission method of payment as much as the most contentious writer, and would gladly change it into something else, if there were anything else to change it into. The writing profession itself is far too speculative and uncertain to permit of any system of fixed fees for the selling of its products. The struggling writer simply wouldn’t have the money to pay the bill, and the successful one would very rapidly become aware that what he was charged was more nearly determined by the size of his income than by the amount of time and effort that went into the service rendered to him. That, is obviously true of professions much more strictly administered than agency. Furthermore, the agent did not invent the percentage method of payment, nor does he monopolize it. He has a lot of company, including various taxing authorities and including the writer himself if he is a writer of books, since royalties are merely commissions by another name.
Perhaps the three most valuable attributes of an agent are his emotional detachment from a very emotional profession, his ability to organize the bargaining power of his clients, and his management of the business side of a writer’s career. As to the first of these, I do not suggest that the agent is callous or hard-boiled, but merely that he is, and has to be, realistic in a thoroughly commercial sense. If you do a bad job, he will not tell you it is good; he will merely suggest its badness in the nicest possible way.
Next, the agent creates and maintains a competitive atmosphere without which the prices paid for literary material would be a mere fraction of what they are today. In Hollywood, where this is carried to its extreme limits, literary material is offered simultaneously to the entire market, and an offer received from one prospective purchaser is immediately used as a basis for needling all the others. The New York literary agent has not carried the system this far; the book and magazine publishers still insist that what is offered to them for sale, while they consider it, shall for the time being be offered to no one else. The rule is not absolute; there are various genteel ways of evading it without causing too much acrimony. The more powerful the magazine, the more rigidly it can enforce the rule. But however rigidly it is enforced, the editor considering material submitted by an agent is aware that the agent knows the going price; the editor’s offer must come within trading distance of this, or the material will be withdrawn. The agent knows how to say no without slamming the door. He can take risks, because his risks are averaged. And if, as I suppose occasionally happens, he loses a sale by pressing too hard, the client will never know why he lost it. There will always be another reason.
THE truly commanding reason for any writer to deal through an agent nowadays is the enormous complexity of the literary business. A writer operating alone, even with the assistance of a secretary, would be so snowed under by correspondence and paper work, filing and digesting contracts, so confused by the ramifications of copyright, that either he wouldn’t know where he stood or he wouldn’t have any time left for writing. Many very successful writers have only the foggiest notion of what, legally and contractually speaking, has happened to the products of their brains. They don’t know the elements of the financial side of their business. They don’t know what they own, what they have sold, whom they have sold it to, nor on what terms, nor when the payments are due, nor whether in fact payments that are past due have been received. They trust their agents to look after all that and take what their agents send them without scrutiny or mistrust.
Such people would be very easy to swindle, and it is a high tribute to the agency profession that with so many suckers to deal with, so few agents have ever been caught doing anything dishonest. If the ethical standards of agency are declining, and I think they are, and I think it is inevitable that they should, it is remarkable that their dollars-andcents honesty in dealing with their clients has so seldom been attacked. The decline I mentioned is not a question of individuals stealing money, but of something in the nature of a personal service profession turning into a hard-boiled business, and a pretty big business at that.
The old-line literary agent still exists, but he is slipping. He was a pretty useful fellow. In addition to his obvious functions of knowing markets and prices and having the tenacity to go through a long list of them before giving up, he acted as a clearing house for information. He was a postoffice, and he was a buffer. He guarded the writer in many matters of detail in connection with contracts and the sale of subsidiary rights. He gave fairly sound business advice. In those somewhat rare cases where he had the ability to recognize quality beyond mere salability, he encouraged and helped the writer to improve himself in his profession. If he made mistakes, they were usually not too costly, because his operations, taken one at a time, were rather modest. As a Hollywood operator of my acquaintance put it, “Those boys bring their lunch.” The literary agent collected money, forwarded royalty reports, and kept the writer’s affairs in some kind of order. Most writers were quite satisfied with this service.
This kind of agent, if I may say so without rancor, had inevitable faults, some of which were the price of his virtues. He was always persuading his writers to adapt themselves to the big smooth-paper magazines in which a few genuine talents have survived but far more have perished. The reason was not discreditable, since the agent had no security of tenure and demanded no contract for a term of years. If he wished to make money out of you, he would naturally try to channel your talents into the most immediately lucrative field. It would have been unfair to expect him to realize that this was not in the long run the most lucrative field for every writer. If he did realize this, the agent had no guarantee that he would be around when the long run paid off. He read himself half blind in a search for salable material and for talent which he might with good luck build into a. money-making capacity; at which point some Hollywood agent would be very apt to steal it from him.
Another of his faults was that he took in rather too much territory. He demanded the right to represent you in fields which he did not understand and could not properly cover: motion picture, radio, television, the stage, and the lecture platform. In these he would make split-commission deals with specialists where he had to, but he would rather not, because he needed the money. When he did make split-commission deals, he was apt to select a second-rate practitioner not powerful enough to steal his client. This could, and did, result in serious mishandling of his client’s interest. But against his faults must be set one commanding virtue: he spent a large part of his time and effort in the service of unknowns whose aggregate commissions would not pay his office rent. And he did so in the sure and certain knowledge that if and when they became known and successful, they were quite likely to slam the door in his face without so much as a thank you.
This type of agent has gradually been driven towards the fringes of his profession because of the same complexities which forced the working writer to have an agent, in the first place. If the agent has the resource and ability to avoid this fate, he will be forced into a much more elaborate organization, and into a system of alliances with the high pressure specialists who operate in the other media to which writers contribute either directly or by the adaptation of their material to other forms. To stay even with these boys, the agent has to spend money and look as if he had it to spend. He has to have competent help and adequate space in a good office building. His life becomes expensive. His long distance telephone bills cost him as much as his entire overhead used to cost. And as his overhead rises, his availability to new or unknown writers decreases. He can still recognize talent without a name, but it takes an awful lot of it to convince him that he can afford the slow, expensive toil of a build-up. He will still, for sound reasons, handle a prestige writer who isn’t making much money. But if you are just a promising beginner scratching a meager living from the tired soil, he will send you a polite note of regret. He can afford to wait until you have made a name, because when you do you will have to come to him anyway.
So, whether he likes it or not, the beginner will be forced to accept the services of a small agent as unsure and almost as uninformed as himself. Or he may even fall into the clutches of one of those racketeers of hope, calling themselves agents, whose real income is from reading fees and from such charges as they can impose on their “clients" for editing and revising work which any reputable commission man would know in the beginning to be hopeless.
The point about the small agent who is genuinely an agent is precisely that he is small. You take him only because you cannot get someone bigger and better. You know it, and he knows it. You will stay with him only as long as you cannot do better, and he will keep you as a client only as long as you are unimportant. There is no loyalty because there is no permanence. From the first, your relationship with him will be ambiguous. And yet in later years, if you are what is known as successful, you may look back on this small agent with a touch of nostalgia. He was a simple fellow, insecure like yourself. A twenty dollar commission meant a lot to him, because he needed the money, and he couldn’t, afford to take chances. That story he sold to a pulp magazine might, with a little careful polishing, have made Cosmopolitan or Red Book. But the big market was a gamble, and here was a pulp magazine with money in its hand, and the agent’s secretary bothering him for something on account of her overdue salary.
You didn’t blame him and wouldn’t have, even if you had known what was in his mind. You needed the money too. Besides, you rather liked the guy. More often than not he typed his own letters, just as you had to, and they were nice warm encouraging letters. In a simpler world you and he might have been good friends. But of course he could never have got you that deal with MGM.
THIS brings me, not too eagerly, to the orchid of the profession — the Hollywood agent — a sharper, shrewder, and a good deal less scrupulous practitioner. Here is a guy who really makes with the personality. He dresses well and drives a Cadillac — or someone drives it for him. He has an estate in Beverly Hills or Bel-Air. He has been known to own a yacht, and by yacht I don’t mean a cabin cruiser. On the surface he has a good deal of charm, because he needs it in his business. Underneath he has a heart as big as an olive pit. He deals with large sums of money. His expenses are tremendous. He will buy you a meal at Romanoff’s or Chasen’s with no more hesitation than is necessary for him to tot up the commissions he has made out of you in the last six months. He controls expensive talent, since with rare exceptions he is not exclusively an agent for writers. This gives him prestige in dealing with people who are starved for talent in spite of having a great deal of money to buy it with.
He is rough and tough and he doesn’t care who knows it. He may think up an entirely new kind of deal and put it over in the face of great opposition. He will seldom make a bad deal for fear of not making any deal at all. His prestige as a negotiator is at stake, and he is not moved by the consideration of earning a commission to the extent that he will allow himself to be beaten in a trade. He operates in a hard world.
The Hollywood agent pays a big price for his ability and toughness as a trader. He is a huckster of talent, but talent as such he seldom respects or even understands. He is concerned solely with its market value. Quality does not interest him, only the price tag. Even within the narrow limits of his own activities, he cannot tell the good from the bad, merely the expensive from the cheap. He scurries around the studios and the restaurants and the night clubs, his ears reaching for gossip and his eyes always restlessly seeking some new or important face. It is a part of his business to know what is going on, since many of his most successful operations have depended on a piece of inside information which was in effect nothing more than back-stairs gossip. If a studio wants to buy something, he must know why and for what purpose and on whose instructions, and whether the front office negotiator has a blank check or has been ordered not to purchase unless purchase is cheap.
No writer operating in his own interest could deal with this situation, even if the structure of the motion picture industry would allow him to, which it will not, because in Hollywood deals are made by word of mouth even though the elaborate contracts which embody them may take weeks to write. When made they must be final, although legally either party can withdraw up to the moment the contract is signed. To achieve finality the reputation and word of an agent must be involved. In the lush days of Hollywood there is no question but that many agents made far too much money. Ten per cent on the sale of a piece of literary property might be fair enough, but ten per cent of the salary earned during a seven-year employment contract came pretty close to larceny.
Since the same hard-boiled way of doing things prevailed in radio and prevails now in television, it was only natural that the once personal, kindly, and intimate relationship between an author and his commission man became a question of dealing more or less at arm’s length with someone you never entirely trusted and often did not trust at all. The fat profits to be made in Hollywood and in radio brought a new kind of operator into the business— a sharpshooter with few scruples, whose activities spread over the whole field of entertainment. The law allowed him to incorporate, which, in my opinion, was a fatal mistake. It destroyed all semblance of the professional attitude and 1 ho professional responsibility to the individual client. It permitted a variety of subtle maneuvers whereby the agent could make a great deal more money after taxes, and it allowed him to slide, almost unobserved, into businesses which had nothing to do with agency. he could create packaging corporations which delivered complete shows to the networks or the advertising agencies, and he loaded them with talent which, sometimes under another corporate name, he represented as an agent. He took his commission for getting you a job, and then he sold the job itself for an additional profit. Sometimes you knew about this, sometimes you didn’t. In any case the essential point was that this operator was no longer an agent except in name. His clients and their work became the raw material of a speculative business. He wasn’t working for you, you were working for him. Sometimes he even became your employer and paid you a salary which he called an advance on future commissions. The agency part of his operations was still the basic ingredient, since without control of talent, he had no bricks to build his wall, but the individual meant nothing to him. The individual was just merchandise, and the “representing” of the individual was little more than a department of an entertainment trust — a congeries of powerful organizations which existed solely to exploit the commercial value of talent in every possible direction and with the utmost possible disregard for artistic or intellectual values.
Such trusts, and it is fair to call them that regardless of whether they meet an exact legal definition, cover the whole field of entertainment. Their clients include actors, singers, dancers, mouth organ players, trainers of chimpanzees and performing dogs, people who ride horses over cliffs or jump out of burning buildings, motion picture directors and producers, musical composers, and writers in every medium including those quaint oldfashioned productions known as books. These organizations maintain publicity departments, travel bureaus, hotel reservation facilities, and for a small additional commission (or perhaps for none if you are important enough to them) they will manage your private business affairs, keep your books, make out your income tax returns, and get you your next divorce. Of course you don’t have to become their client, but the inducements are glittering. And if they reduce you to a robot, as eventually they will, they will usually be very pleasant about it, because they can always afford to employ well-dressed young men who smile and smile.
Old-line New York literary agents can hardly look forward with pleasure to the prospect of becoming department managers in some big, impersonal industry whose only motivating force is the fast buck. They have been for the most part serious and reputable people. Nevertheless, they have to eat, and preferably high on the joint where the meat is tasty. To do this, they must deal with the entertainment industry and with the talent trusts that feed it. And you can’t deal with sharpers without becoming a little of a sharper yourself. The more distinguished practitioners may be able to keep their independence for a time; they may still deal scrupulously with their clients as individuals; they may still be the spark of successful and even distinguished literary careers. But the talent trusts are snapping at their heels in greed for commissions and in their desire for the control and manipulation of every ingredient that the increasingly vast entertainment industry must use. Where the money is, there will the jackals gather, and where the jackals gather something usually dies.
Probably the literary agents do not agree with my gloom. Having dealt in the past on fairly level terms with the big publishing combines and with the predatory but always uncertain and bewildered moguls of Hollywood, they think they can still deal on level terms with any and all concentrations of power. Naturally, I hope the agents are right. I pray they may be right. Any working writer who does otherwise is either an imbecile or already corrupted beyond repair.