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Whenever authors gather to discuss the merits of their agents (it may legitimately be wondered whether they ever discuss anything else), the word "clout" inevitably enters the conversation. Clout is the measure of an agent's influence over publishers, and though it is by no means the sole criterion by which agents are judged, it is certainly the ultimate one. What is clout? How do agents wield it? And is it everything we crack it up to be?
The definition of clout has two important components. The first is access: the enclouted agent is intimate with the most powerful men and women in the publishing industry. "They put me through to the head of the company whenever I call," an agent might boast. Or, "I can have your manuscript on the editor-in-chief's desk tomorrow morning." The second component is power, the capability to effect, yea to coerce, positive decisions. The agent with clout does not merely have access to the honchos (and honchas) of certain publishing companies, he has the ability to make them say yes, and to say yes when they would have said no to some other agent.
Unquestionably, clout exists in our business as it does in any other, and there are indeed agents who can make publishers jump every time they call them on the phone, or render a positive verdict when they were originally inclined to render a negative one. At the same time, there are many erroneous impressions about clout stemming from the widely held belief that power in publishing is concentrated in the hands of an elite circle of men and women, a belief promoted by the press, which tends to quote the same people every timeit does a story on industry trends. Let's look a little closer at these impressions.
1. Agents with clout know the top people in the business. It is not that hard to meet and know, or at least claim to know, the top people in publishing. For one thing, ours is an extremely small industry consisting, according to my short list of key contacts, of no more than two hundred men and women with acquisition authority in the trade book field -- a number sufficiently small so that in the course of a season of publishing parties, lunch and drink dates, and office visits, any agent could meet 75 percent of them.
Of course, it is one thing to be acquainted with these folks and quite another to truly know them as one knows friends or family. Among that two hundred I mentioned, I doubt if I know more than half a dozen in a way that goes beyond the superficial. More pertinent is whether an agent should be too tight with the people he does business with. If my own experience is indicative, I would say there are few true friendships between agents and publishers for the simple reason that business all too often gets in the way of consistently close friendship. A time inevitably comes when one or the other must get hard-nosed about something, and few friendships survive the test of a knock-down drag-out negotiation, for it's impossible to dig in and take a hard stand when you're afraid of hurting the other guy's feelings. Bear in mind also that as genuinely warmly as agent and publisher may feel toward each other, the former is responsible to his clients, the latter to his company, and the pressures exerted on them are immensely daunting to friendship. The most one can hope for, I think, is solid mutual respect.
As for an agent's boasts of his ability to get an author's manuscript promptly on a publisher's desk, it's hard not to laugh, for if you could see some publishers' desks you would wonder why anyone would want to add to the mountainous chaos to be found there. I know of one editor whose office is so cluttered with unread manuscripts that his staff calls it the Bermuda Triangle. A story is told that one day an agent received a manuscript that this editor had finally gotten around to reading and rejecting. The agent dropped him a line thanking him for at last returning the manuscript, but pointed out that the book had been sold to another publisher, published, gone on and off the best-seller list, and been remaindered.
The truth is that most heads of publishing companies have too much administrative work to read manuscripts or even, for that matter, read all the books their firms publish. I would guess that more than half the time, when an agent submits a manuscript to the head of the company, that person is going to turn it over to an editor or reader and ask for a report. Unless the report is a rave, this executive will take the reader's word about the merits of the work. And again one has to ask, is going to the head of the company necessarily the wise thing to do? This tactic can backfire for an agent, for if the publisher thinks the manuscript is a stinker, he may be less inclined the next time to spend a valuable evening reading that agent's submission. An agent's credibility is his stock in trade, and once lost it's extremely hard to retrieve. Best to go through channels 99 percent of the time, and to be damned sure about the one time in a hundred you attack at the top.
One more myth about accessibility. It's commonly believed that clout among agents is the power not to return phone calls. Although executives in all industries have their phone calls screened by subordinates, I know of few agents who are not available to the lowliest of editors or to any professional author desirous of speaking to them.
2. Agents with clout can make publishers buy things they wouldn't ordinarily buy. The judicious use of a close association with a publisher can make a difference in certain cases, particularly when a close decision teeters on the fulcrum of the key man's or woman's opinion. On such an occasion the agent may call in a favor, or beg one, or utilize any of his countless wiles, ranging from bluster to blarney, in order to elicit a yes decision. But because of the democratic process by which most decisions are reached by publishing companies today, few chief executives are going to make it a practice to overrule their editorial boards. The agent who tries to force positive decisions too often will eventually antagonize even his closest buddies in the business.
But I'm not sure that making the head of a company buy books is the best use for such personages, for, as I say, they are not as influential editorially as they are in other areas of the publishing process. The higher in a company an editor rises the less he is involved in editorial matters and the more in administrative ones. The editor-in-chief, publisher, and other titled executives are the principal transmitters of corporate policy. Such matters as advertising and promotional budgets, payout schedules, royalty scales, and reserves against returns are controlled by those persons, and if there is any flexibility on policies in such areas, it's to be found in their offices. And it's there that the agent is best advised to use his clout, except that clout is a terribly brutish word for a process that calls for the utmost finesse and diplomatic skill.
Because publishing in the last four decades has become highly conglomeratized and bureaucratized, decisions that used to be made by just one person who was accountable to nobody are now made by committee. Consensus is achieved by the input not merely of editors but of financial, legal, production, marketing, advertising, design, art, promotional, publicity, and advertising specialists. These individuals form a dismaying picket of decision-makers, each a potential naysayer. The agent's task thus becomes far more challenging than it used to be: it is no longer a matter of bullying, coaxing, or charming one person but of manipulating an entire system. Naturally, an agent can't approach the art director, head of subsidiary rights, in-house counsel, marketing director, vice-president in charge of publicity, and the half dozen editors who sit at a publisher's weekly convocations, whenever he tries to sell the company a book. But he might speak to one or two key board members whose reluctance to vote yes might be jeopardizing a deal or other important decision. The full measure of the agent's tact must be used here, for if he blunders the reaction may be likened to what happens when one inserts one's arm into a hornet's nest. Only at the utmost risk do you play office politics with somebody else's office.
One of the advantages a literary agent has over the unagented author is that the agent is usually familiar with the dynamics of each publishing house, and is able to adapt his methods to the style and structure and personality of each company. He knows all about their organizational structure and power hierarchy, their policies, their negotiating strategies, knows all about the friendships and rivalries that form the corporate profile. To know how a company reaches its decisions is to know how to influence those decisions.
There are other techniques for influencing decisions from without, ranging from relatively harmless ones such as cultivating and flattering secretaries (of either sex, I hasten to add) to the extremely dangerous one of going over the head of the person you're dealing with. For the agent who does not understand the company dynamic, who misjudges it, or who overplays the game, serious and possibly permanent damage may be rendered to his relations with that publisher. Some firms are so rigidly structured that any attempt to tamper with the system will create terrible turmoil.
3. Agents with clout get higher prices. There is a good deal of truth to this, but not necessarily for the reasons you think. High prices are a function of boldness; you get big money only if you ask for big money. Agents with reputations for landing huge deals earn their celebrity by seeking prices that other agents would hesitate to demand, and by risking everything by refusing to back down. But it takes two to make a deal, and if publishers accept an agent's demands, it's because the profit-and-loss statements they've drawn up before negotiations commence indicate that they can make a profit even if they meet the agent's outrageous terms. If a publisher takes a bath, the fault rests with the executives who wanted the book so badly they were willing to delude themselves about its prospects in order to acquire it. Of course, one thing that agents with clout do best is foster such delusions by reassuring publishers that they will earn back all that money. But seldom can an agent charm a publisher into overpaying again and again, for at a certain point along the chain of failures, people start getting fired.
One last myth about clout that deserves to be punctured: it is seldom exercised by means of a raised voice. The image of a cigar-chomping agent-bully browbeating an editor into submission is not one with which I'm familiar except in movies. Almost all of the agents I know speak to editors in conversational tones, even when the going gets rough. One of the most clout-laden ones I know seldom raises his voice above a whisper, but heaven help the publisher who does not detect the apocalyptic undertones in his voice when he murmurs, "Are you sure that's your final offer?"
There are hundreds of literary agents plying their trade in New York, California, and many locations between coasts, and I'd guess that you've never heard of most of them. They don't get their names and faces in the trade papers every week like some agents we all know. Yet almost all of them make a living, and some make very good livings, simply because they know that a good book is the master key to most editorial doors. So perhaps you should ask not what your agent can do for you, but what -- by way of a good book -- you can do for your agent.
Copyright © 1996 by Richard Curtis