A few weeks after the sudden death of my agent, Deborah Rogers, in 2014, a colleague in charge of my care called me. “I found something at Deborah’s desk.”
“It simply came to our notice then. Remember that? “
Of course he remembers. Frustrated a few months after trying to get an answer to a novel, he wrote me a letter, I attached an envelope to my address and told him to identify the appropriate answer: “The novel must be read”, “The novel needs work”, “The novel has been sent” , “The novel has sold: £1,000, B: £10,000, C: £100,000.” Minor-minded and given his support and encouragement year after year, unforgivable, but being Deborah, he accepted it well. In the morning he rang the phone.
“Hello.” Daborah rarely announced himself when he called.
“Okay, I was very embarrassed. When I read the letter, I put it in my drawer. We need to talk. What are you going to do tomorrow? The next day we talked over lunch and he sold the manuscript for a good sum. And like the ones before and after, it also got some decent reviews and some sales. Writers need writers more than agents need writers more than agents. They needed these in the late 1800s, when the invention of the linotype press created a lucrative industry for a growing educated audience through magazines and single-volume prints.
Until then, the authors operated a “half-profit” system with publishers, in which they shared 50/50 of the profits after the publishers had deducted their expenses (and when they came to send the check). A new generation of agents empowered publishers by leasing their copyrights in exchange for royalties and prioritizing those royalties in advance. Today, conversations with other writers at some point often address the thorny question about sales: “Did you win?”
I don’t know many writers who regularly “win”, i.e. make their progress clear. I suspect that very few writers do. Henry James, one of his clients, wrote to his brother William: “He keeps 10% of what he gets for me.