Ode to a tea shop

May 25, 2008

On Friday I had a sudden strong urge to jack it all in and run a tea shop.
Let me explain. ‘Running a tea shop’ is British shorthand for considering a change of career. Because somewhere, in the recesses of most of our minds, is the notion of skipping away into a bucolic setting, acquiring a cottage (preferably pre-17th century), with roses climbing up its ancient stone, and spending one’s days serving tea (preferably from a floral-patterned, antique teapot), scones with home-made strawberry jam (Americans: preserves), cream that could coat your arteries at first intake, and a range of freshly made and delectable cakes. All this would take place in the perfect cottage garden, where colourful parasols would shade the crisp, white tablecloths . . .

You have the picture? Are you salivating for coffee cake? Then I’ll tell you why I had the tea-shop moment.

A gentleman called me on Friday (a very nice gentleman, so, sir, if you have dropped in, I wish you good day). He runs a website that tracks agents’ deals and wanted to update my information. We clarified a few points and I then I volunteered certain things about the Greenhouse – my ability to work editorially with new authors, the information to be found on the website, the kinds of manuscripts I am particularly interested in . . . But it soon became clear that authors who use the site are only interested in one thing: tracking which agents do the biggest deals. And that’s it.

Now, I am an agent who loves to do deals (and score pretty well given Greenhouse only launched very recently). I love auctions. I love negotiating, I love making money for my authors. I love pursuing every opportunity. But for me, the size of the deal can’t be the only criteria for evaluating anything – I just don’t find the industry works that way. It takes an awful lot more than being a Good Agent to make an experienced publisher part with their precious acquisition dollars (or any other currency). There is no kind of subterfuge – they will buy what they want to buy, at its market value. As the agent your job is to find them the manuscripts they are going to love (if possible, a ‘must have’) – and then do your level best to get your author the best possible deal (which is going to be very much easier if more than one publisher wants it).

But there are always Mystery X factors that you can’t control. Like what they’ve already bought and have scheduled (and bear in mind publishers now will have most of their 2010 programs in place). Did you know there are lots of ‘funny ghost’ novels coming in the next 2 years? Well, there are. I well remember the year at Bologna where every second house had an ‘angel’ novel coming up; and the subsequent year when everything was the Irish Potato Famine. And of course, much more recently, the endless vampire fiction. There is a weird kind of zeigeist that goes on, long before anyone knows there’s a tipping point in that theme or genre – or even a trend.

But to go back to the big deals. There are the authors who score whopping deals first time out (and may then find it very hard ever to earn out those advances and get royalties). But there are also the smaller deals that change a person’s life, because they enable that individual to write, as they’d always wanted. And those authors can grow – so, if well managed and published, and with a fair wind behind them, that same author can quite possibly be making considerably more a few years down the tracks. Do you think J.K. Rowling started huge? or Stephanie Meyer? Or Meg Cabot? The answer is NO, THEY DIDN’T. In each case, an agent, an editor, believed in them and gave them that all-important first step into publication. Most authors don’t spring up fully formed, either in talent or income; they grow – or rather, they are grown, by editors, publicity, marketing, rights, and sales departments.

As an agent, you have a choice: you could sit in your office waiting for the occasional novel with massive potential to swing by (once a year?) – or you can work with a range of authors, with varying styles, genres, expectations and potentials. And that’s what I like to do. Because I believe literary fiction should also be encouraged (which would certainly go out the window if you only focus on huge deals); the newly budding talent should be developed and given light and air. Publishers’ lists have room for all – the ‘super lead’, the ‘lead’, and the ‘take a risk’ fiction, and I believe that as agents and as publishers we owe it to our young readers to provide them with the full spectrum, not just a tiny number of same-old, sure-fire blockbusters. If you pursue the ‘publishing only whopper deals’ theory to its logical conclusion, we’d end up with shelves stocking very little, because a tiny minority of books would eat the rest. Sometimes it feels like we’re already not far off that – do we really want to make it worse?

I love working with new authors – that talent growing and developing, tentative, unsure and lacking in confidence. They deserve to be given a publishing chance too. This is a cut-throat business; but we should never lose sight of the small because we only have eyes for the large.

So I’m off into the yard now, to soak up this glorious holiday-weekend sunshine. Shame there’s no tea and cakes out there. But hey, you KNOW I’d be rubbish at running a tea shop. Right?