I have a very unhappy friend. She didn’t like last week’s blog, where agents got a bad press. Why should this matter? Because she is one of my trusted sources with extensive experience of the book market world. She has worked for many years in a big publishing house selling foreign rights. As of this week she has also become – rather surprisingly – a free-lance defender of literary agents.
“They don’t ask for bigger advances for themselves, they do it for the authors. And just think, if a publishing house doesn’t pay a decent advance it won’t bother to put any effort into the marketing. It’s the advance that forces publishers to exert themselves to recoup the money they have spent.”
I thought about her comments for a while. I wondered if I should feel guilty? Guilty because I deprive poor authors of their bread and butter, guilty because I can’t pay much of an advance. And? No I don’t feel guilty. Actually I’m offering my authors something quite special – personal enthusiasm for their texts. And I tell you, personal enthusiasm generated by a one-woman-show counts for much more than an agent’s crafty negotiating.
Let’s take my latest acquisition for example, which will soon become Peirene Title No 4. This is an absolutely fantastic set of Kafkaesque short stories. In one, people turn into dolls. In another a man’s obsession with his neighbours causes him to hand over his life to them. Totally bizarre, totally gripping. Once again it was a translator – as with Beside the Sea – who had fallen in love with the text. She translated it on her own accord and did the running for a couple of years until she found Peirene. A one-woman-mission got this author and his text an English publisher. Now it is the turn of my nymph to bring this work to English readers. And she will do it with sparkling enthusiasm not because of any advances but because she believes the text is exciting and has something to say.
My point? Well, if Random House can publish you –you better make sure you get a mega advance to compensate for the many sleepless nights you will spend worrying whether your book will be pulped without ever having left the warehouse. If Peirene publishes you – the advance definietly won’t buy you a castle but your book surely will get the royal treatment.