ABSTRACT

Self-evidently, the book would not exist without authors. The food chain of publishing relies on authors, most of whom are not writing in the expectation of making a living. Some write to supplement their income from the day job, academic authors wish to advance their careers, and many just feel the urge to put pen to paper (or most likely type on screen). It is part of who they are – they know they want to write. With annual income from authorship running at a low level, on average around

£11,000 in the UK, the large majority of writers do not earn enough to support themselves.2 They are most likely to have other careers alongside. The paradox is that writing and getting published in book form remain desirable, whilst there are many new avenues for writers to be heard. If you want to write, you can post a daily blog and reach thousands of readers in an immediate way. Yet, when the British prime minister Tony Blair wanted to write the story of his premiership, it was not a blog he produced; he wanted to put his version of events on record – and a book remains the best way of doing that. The coming of digital enables innovation and experimentation by authors, from

self-publishing to new forms of writing, and so far these developments can be seen most clearly in author-led publishing and in particular in the area of genre fiction.

Getting taken on by a publisher remains difficult, which of course adds to its desirability. For a first-time novelist, for example, the chances of being noticed and picked up by a mainstream publishing house remain low. Publishers no longer

maintain a slush pile of manuscripts to pick through – most trade houses will not accept unsolicited submissions. In the area of fiction they expect to work through literary agents, and the trend has been to shift the sifting of talent in that direction. Agents in turn may prefer to work on personal recommendation from contacts or existing clients. There will always be the story of a new author being picked up from the mail box, and this does still happen, but it is a rare event. However they are discovered, working in a new author’s favour is that publishers are always on the look-out for a new star around which a story can be built to promote them. To the detriment of ‘mid-list’ authors still developing their career, who may find themselves dropped by publishers and agents, there is pressure to find the next new talent. Agents are largely a phenomenon of the Anglo-US publishing system, and in the

UK they began to appear at the end of the nineteenth century. This coincided with a boom in print publishing, the strengthening of the copyright regime internationally, and sufficient economic and other rewards for writers.3 In the terms of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, writers acquired considerable cultural capital and notable authors were feted and celebrated. Employing an agent could benefit authors financially through better terms from publishers, and also increase their status by emphasizing their role as a professional. After their initial hostility towards agents, publishers over time came to appreciate the advantages of an intermediary who could select and nurture talent. In the present multi-channel environment, trade authors have come to rely heavily on their agents. Selling rights to a range of other media can be highly important, from film and TV to computer games, in addition to selling translation rights and an assortment of electronic rights. Agents are a rarity in Continental Europe, perhaps because there is generally less

money in the system by comparison to the globalized markets of English language publishing. In France, for example, the first whispers of the entry of literary agents in the 1990s were greeted with some horror by French publishers, who believed that their presence would alter or destroy what had ‘previously been a sacrosanct relation between artist and editor’.4 Further, there was the belief that the precarious nature of French literature publishing would be destabilized. Examination of practices around the payment of royalties showed that a first-time novelist might only receive any royalty at all once a certain sales threshold was reached. A stir was caused a decade later when the American author Jonathan Littell

decided to use an agent to sell the rights in his novel Les Bienveillantes (2006) to a French publisher whilst retaining the rights in other languages. He first wrote the book in French and it was later published in English as The Kindly Ones (2009). The significance of his step in acting through an agent was amplified by the rave reception given to the book: it won both the Prix Goncourt and the Prix du Roman de l’Académie française. Interviewed in Le Monde des livres, Littell said: