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The Double Agent: The Relationship Between Literary Agents and Writers

Conrad Williams

Conrad Williams is an author and a writer’s agent in the film department of a leading London literary Agency. Perfectly placed, then, to offer Writers & Artists a unique take on the complex undercurrents of the author/agent relationship.

If you think being a scriptwriter’s agent makes it easier to get a literary agent, I can correct you. Literary agents have a tendency to look askance at their professional colleagues. The consensus seems to be that agents should know better than to be writers themselves, particularly if the work in question is a literary novel. How could a coin-eating ten percenter have the class to write a novel, is the general suspicion, and where would he get the attention span? When the ‘author’ in question is that lowly thing, a scriptwriter’s agent, the prejudice is even greater. ‘Oh dear’, they smile. ‘Let’s have a look at his stuff, then. Let’s enjoy a good old swig of Schadenfreude.’

For this reason, and perhaps a few others, it took me a while to find a literary agent for my first novel. It now happens that I’m on my third, but that’s another story. What I wasn’t prepared for, when I landed the first one, was the other side of the relationship.

The newcomer to representation tends to idolise their agent. It’s a delectable vanity being taken on by a professional who not only says things you have been dying to hear but who specs overhead time on a bet they can sell your book. You can’t help loving this flattering new parent who understands your talent; this mighty she-lion whose frolicking cub you have become. I should have known better, but I had these transference feelings too. I couldn’t help myself. In reality, adulation for an agent is the feeling of total reliance on a person who has become critical in your working life. You have to believe. Too much is at stake not to. Of course your agent may be admirable, but you have to love them anyway.

The agent/client relationship, I discovered, has deep narcissistic undercurrents. It’s like a quasi-marriage in which the agent is supplied with a triple A-grade egg. The agent’s ability to fertilise this egg through translation and subsidiary deals yields so much more than commission. The deals are like a string of love-children, and they give an agent self-worth and a sense of potency. It follows that a really good deal generates a huge admiration bonanza between writer and agent, allowing each to bask in a halogen burst of two-way reflected glory.

Agents are notably less keen on reflected failure. They get a little bit distracted if a book tanks. This, I find, marks a subtle difference in the overall relation to creativity.

If you love a writer’s book, you seem to love their soul, everything that’s wonderful and clever about them. They’ll love you back for it, and nothing can take that away.  An agent’s love for a book only really holds if it sells. In other words, the agent’s identification with your talent as a writer isn’t quite the reverence of a satisfied reader. It depends on the agent extracting a personal result from the work; and it might be said that an agent’s true passion is not for gorgeous prose or great story-telling, but for the thrill of agency, whereby literary achievement is transmuted into kudos and cash.  

Our self-esteem naturally hangs in the balance until we deliver this, and often we don’t. This paradox confuses the author/agent bond and creates a subtle boundary. But even success feels different for agents and authors.

I can report that the satisfactions of being an agent seem less fundamental than the rewards of creativity, a fairly likely discovery perhaps. Agents of course know this in their hearts and often feel they are skating on the surface precisely because their clients are not. Being an agent is about flair and having a certain knack. When someone wants what you’ve got, the position of middleman grants power and power is something you learn to wield. Agents generally know better than to mistake this kind of structural leverage for innate personal majesty, but it is sometimes easy to forget. The power of writing, on the other hand, comes from the depths of an author’s talent and depends on nothing else. It can propel an author from obscurity to international fame and it outlasts the buzz of publishing deals. Agents are well versed in this truth, and so behind the tough negotiator and power networker there is often a person of surprising humility. Of course, the agent’s involvement in the worldly side of things gives them a sparkle and zing that leaves most writers looking like wallflowers. We are editors, salesmen, negotiators, contract drafters, networkers, diplomats, debt collectors and often writers manqués with considerable artistic judgement. That our protean vitality engages a quite functional layer of reality is the whole point. It is the worldly realm we manage in the interests of the deeper levels reached by fiction.

What fascinates me as a writer is the subtle symbiosis of the relationship between agents and writers. It is a Janus-faced alliance joined in the author’s work but facing opposite directions: towards the creative process and the depths of human psychology on the one hand, and towards the world with all its opportunities, casual cruelties and enjoyable gossip on the other.

The relationship forms a strand in my novel UNFINISHED BUSINESS and it was through writing the novel that I came to appreciate the existential gulf between creators and non-creators in the cultural industry. All experience is valuable to a writer and everything can be used, and writing is always a reward in itself.  Every sorrow can be made to fuel a creative transcendence. But for the agent there is never any transcendence. There is only taking it on the chin and keeping on. However well agents serve the culture by mediating talent, their greatest achievement – the monster deal - comes from a fusion of luck and sheer nerve, which is an unsettling premise for a life’s work.

Unfinished Business by Conrad WilliamsAs a novelist I find the agent a more sympathetic kind of character. There is something so human about the middleman, whose fortunes are contingent on others, whose success depends too much on luck and timing. In the end, it is the agent’s renouncing of personal authenticity as he/she aligns with the mainstream that makes for a subtle tension in the soul, and for such an interesting subject. The agent would like to serve only their own taste and claim the integrity of an author. But often the things we love go for nothing and we survive by disengaging our passion. This makes us modern in the most ironic way. So where has the real passion gone? That is the subject matter of UNFINISHED BUSINESS.

Conrad Williams was born in Winnipeg and lives in Willesden Green. Educated at Bedales School and Trinity College, Cambridge, he qualified as a barrister before becoming a literary agent and author. As an agent, he represents screenwriters, directors and playwrights, and works closely with book agents. He is the author of three highly acclaimed novels, Sex & Genius, The Concert Pianist, and Unfinished Business, all published by Bloomsbury.  He is a keen amateur pianist and chamber musician. His short stories have been broadcast on Radio 4 and published in You Magazine, and he has written on musical matters for Pianist Magazine. He is married with two daughters. 

Read a recent Q&A session with Conrad here, or find out more about him on his website. You can follow him on Twitter @ConradRWilliams