Agent Transparency: a manifesto for changeHarry Bingham
Agent Hunter is, by far, the UK’s most complete database on literary agents and agencies: a database that extends far beyond mere contact info, to deliver such things as photos, biographies, genre preferences and much more. We’ve crunched our mass of data to produce the first full demography of Planet Agent and, if you want to skip straight through to the results, you can view them in full on our infographic here.
But this post has a purpose beyond merely releasing some novel data. We use it to call attention to two facts which should disturb everyone who cares about our written culture and the way its gatekeepers currently operate.
First, though, a word about my own position. I am myself a professional author and have been for 15 years. My literary agents have always added a ton of value to my career: they’ve made it possible for me to stay in this vocation that I love. I know a large number of literary agents and, indeed, have just had the pleasure of hosting some two dozen of them at our Festival of Writing – an occasion which reminded me once again, how hard-working, passionate and professional they are.
In short, I believe in agents: I only wish that they, as a group, would fix some things that are easily fixable and which would make a real difference.
The strange pallor of Planet Agent
Let’s start with the basic demographics. It won’t surprise anyone with a knowledge of the industry that Planet Agent is largely (66%) female and very heavily (86%) London-centric.
The strong representation of women makes perfect sense in an industry where most readers, writers, and publishers are women. The strong metropolitan bias isn’t ideal, but since all large publishers are based in London, it’s perhaps impossible to avoid. What’s more, there are excellent agencies in Dublin, Edinburgh, Oxford and elsewhere. If a writer really, really wants an agent who lives close to them rather than to their future publisher, that’s not impossible to achieve. (And personally, as a non-London author, I prefer my agent to be close to publishers and to interact with them frequently. It’s those interactions which add value to my career.)
However, 40% of the population of London is now black or other ethnic minority – and the publishing industry is there, in theory, to give a voice to the full range of experience and background of the nation. Yet Planet Agent is strangely, weirdly, disturbingly white.
To our shock, we have only been able to find 5 literary agents who are black or Asian. Even allowing for uncertainties in our data (basically the fact that so many agents don’t release photos or biographies), we can be pretty sure that ethnic minorities make up less than 3%, and probably no more than 2%, of the industry overall.
That is, quite frankly, pathetic. I doubt if any industry leader would argue otherwise.
Yes, the agenting industry draws most of its strength from the publishing one and, yes, the publishing industry is also hopelessly white. In my own career, I’ve worked with literally dozens of editors, publishers, publicists and the like. Only one of these was Asian and not one of them black. Is there any other London-based industry which performs worse? I rather doubt it.
But perhaps individual agencies are too small to effect change on their own. Perhaps publishers need to take the lead. And arguably it matters less whether agencies employ ethnic minorities than whether they can effectively promote the work of ethnic minority clients. And, of course the success of writers like Zadie Smith and Arundhati Roy and many others offers real comfort in that respect. Indeed, most agents I know would actively prefer a book written by a black or Asian author to a comparable one written by a white, English, Oxbridge male.
Yet good intentions aren’t enough. They need to be backed up by intelligent actions – which brings us to our second serious concern: namely, whether the industry is as open and inviting to new and diverse talent as everybody wants it to be.
Agent Transparency: a failure without excuses
For an industry to be open to new talent, it must invite that talent. It must bend over backwards to be as approachable, as comprehensible, as welcoming as possible.
In the old days, that was easy: you gave your name and address to the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook and waited for submissions to come pouring in. It was hardly a brilliant system, but there weren’t many other mechanisms to connect agent with writer. It was OK for what it was.
But times move on. The Internet arrived. Google happened. All of a sudden, it became easy for agents to connect almost costlessly with writers and to offer as much information as those writers might want.
Sure enough, the sales of the venerable old Yearbook have been flat or declining, while online searches for agents and agencies now dwarf anything happening in print.
Yet far too many agencies, even great ones, are stuck in an old, information-poor mindset.
Take a look, for example, at the United Agents website. Some agents on that site provide no photo, no biography, and no guidance as to genre preferences. Nothing beyond a client list.
Now United Agents is, beyond question, a superb organisation crammed with excellent agents who do great things for their clients. I’m happily represented elsewhere myself, but if I were not, I would be proud and honoured to be represented by the firm.
But please consider the agency from the perspective of a writer who might be ablaze with talent but have no inside track, no industry contacts, no point of connection beyond a laptop.
How the hell does that writer decide who to send her work to? Does agent X like crime fiction? Is agent Y looking for new authors? What kind of background or experience do those people have? What kind of books really give them a buzz?
Those are all, surely, reasonable questions, but United Agents doesn’t want you, the writer, to know the answers.
And UA is only one prominent example of a much wider culture. I single the agency out only because it is the industry’s flagship firm and because it is notably stingy at providing information to writers: we think it should set a better example.
But a huge swathe of the industry displays an almost total disregard for a writer’s natural desire to know something about their future possible career partner. As our extensive infographic shows
Many agencies fail to provide even the most basic information: if you fool around a bit on our search pages it won’t take you long to find agents and agencies that reveal essentially nothing about themselves. And bear in mind, our data is collected from every public source we’ve been able to lay our hands on, so our data is considerably more extensive than that provided by agents directly.
And that’s not good enough.
We believe that agents should as an absolute minimum disclose (i) a reasonably detailed biography, (ii) a client list and (iii) a photo. Yet, shamefully, 35% of agents don’t even manage that. (And that 35% number is generous. We’ve set the bar quite low as regards the level of detail in agent biographies and we’re willing, for now, to accept agent photos released by means other than an agent’s primary website – eg: via Twitter. If we were being stricter in our criteria, the fail-rate would be edging towards 50%.)
In short, more than a third of the agenting industry refuses to disclose key information to its potential clients. Not via their website, nor via other sources. Given that Planet Agent is a white and Oxbridgey industry feeding a white and Oxbridgey publishing industry, that refusal to open up and empower writers with the most basic data is simply inexcusable.
I repeat: I like and admire agents. I think they do a great job. But at the moment, Planet Agent, taken as a whole, is failing to meet the legitimate demands of writers for information.
Why does this matter?
I hope it’s blindingly obvious why this matters, but let me spell it out.
1. Writers are totally disempowered by agents’ reluctance to reveal information.
The author-agent relationship will be, for almost all authors, the most important in their entire career. If writers are to be respected at all, they must be given a fair degree of information about who their future partner may be. Without information, they have no meaningful capacity to make a rational choice.
2. The absence of information looks and feels elitist to a broad cross-section of new writers
If you go to a top agency website and see nothing meaningful to guide your choice of contact, what do you infer? The literary agents concerned are almost certainly not racist, snobbish or elitist – but, oh boy, that’s not how it looks from the outside.
3. The say-nothing approach is at least 15 years out of date.
In the old days, agents advised that you fished out books by your favourite authors and scoured the acknowledgements section to see if an agent was mentioned. That, according to some agencies, is still how authors are expected to operate today. We would, however, note that:
- no one searches for anything like that any more. Agents don’t search for things like that.
- It was and is a stupid way to search. I want to know far more about an agent than whether he or she represents one of my favourite authors. After all: really good writers could get almost any agent to represent them.
4. Writers have already rejected old-fashioned, information-poor research
The Writers & Artists Yearbook is a fine old publication but, specifically as regards agent search, offers little more than a list of names and addresses. I understand the YB’s circulation to be around 50,000 copies annually, and in decline. Those figures are already dwarfed by the volume of online search and the disparity is growing every year. In short: writers are migrating online, because that’s where the best information is to be found: it cannot be argued that writers don’t want full information.
5. The current system is blitheringly stupid
The lack of information released by agents means that writers waste their time sending material to agents who really don’t want it – and those agents waste their time, in turn, by having to deal with it. That’s stupider than Amazon trying to quote Orwell. It’s the king, queen and jack of Stupid.
6. Why should agents hold themselves exempt?
Authors are now required to do communicate ever more online and on the Festival circuit. We tweet, and blog, and answer questions. Publishers too make huge efforts to communicate their messages via social media. What’s so special about agents that so many of them make no equivalent efforts themselves?
7a. It doesn’t have to be this way!
Agents in the United States release far, far more information than their brethren in the UK. They do so without suffering any ill consequence whatsoever. On the contrary: they get submissions that suit their tastes, and writers get a sense of who they are approaching. It’s win-win.
7b. It really, truly doesn’t have to be this way!
What’s more, there are plenty of British agencies that have opened up to the new age of information and how well they’ve done it! Look for example at Madeleine Milburn’s website. If you were a new writer, would you not get a fabulous sense of what Madeleine does and does not like? Or take Conville and Walsh‘s discursive and helpful site (look at, for example, Susan Armstrong’s approachable and useful bio). Or the Science Factory‘s innovative and inviting one.
These agents, agencies and numerous others like them communicate effectively, cheaply, clearly and attractively. They are better agents and better agencies because of it. It’s not surprising that Conville and Walsh has scored some notable recent slushpile successes (examples here and here): they’ve worked hard to invite those authors in and they are reaping their just rewards.
And writers win too. They feel they can know something about their possible forever career partner. They feel that these people are warm and approachable and enthusiastic – and perhaps warm and enthusiastic enough that the lack of coloured faces wouldn’t deter an approach by minority writers. The information-rich approach benefits both sides: writer and agent – and, in the end, by welcoming new and diverse voices, it will benefit readers too.
What Is To Be Done?
In the end, the only people who can change the current state of affairs are agents themselves – particularly the pre-Facebook generation who tend to run the larger, more influential agencies and who simply don’t need new clients: their lists are already stuffed full of gems.
But though we can’t force anyone’s hands, we can push – and are going to do so. We have, today, released the first cut of our Transparency Index, in which we rate every single agent and every single agency for the degree of information they make available to writers. That index is a weighted composite of factors that include:
- does the agent release a photo?
- does the agent release a biography?
- does the agent publish a client list?
- does the agent give guidance on what books and authors they do or don’t like?
- does the agent give guidance on other interests and passions?
- does the agent offer other advice or guidance to writers?
- is the agent available on Twitter?
- do they blog?
Wherever possible, we give weight to the depth of those things as well as their mere existence. A discursive, informative biography, for example, will score more points than a scant one-liner.
We recognise that our system isn’t perfect: no system could be. We have some upgrades in mind for future versions, but for now this isn’t just the best system of its kind in the UK: it’s the best and only such system anywhere in the world.
We also recognise that our underlying data isn’t perfect. We go to great efforts to construct it properly and every single agent on our list has been contacted and invited to review, correct and approve the data assembled. When we do come across incorrect data, we correct it immediately.
So. Our Transparency Index rates agents from 0 to 100. Agents who score poorly are giving writers wholly inadequate data. Agents who score well are open, generous and intelligently self-interested in what they convey. The data is calculated real time, so if we’re alerted to an agent who has released new information, that agent’s TI score will adjust the second we alter the data on our system. That data is published for every agent and every agency. You can find it by looking at our search pages either for agents or for agencies themselves.
We would regard an Transparency score of more than 50 as showing an excellent level of disclosure. Transparency scores of less than 30 indicate, to us, a quite inadequate one. Alongside the data itself, we have also created a search function which allows our users to filter agents by their TI rating. Basically, we’re enabling excellent, intelligent writers to filter out agents who can’t be bothered to communicate with them. We think that will gradually improve the slushpiles of high-transparency agents and cause the slushpiles of low-transparency agents to degenerate. That’s a good outcome, in our opinion.
If you want to see how that search function operates in practice, then pop over to our search pages and have a play. Do note that though we’ve made our Transparency data available to all, most of our other data is greyed out for non-subscribers. But if you are:-
- an ordinary joe, you can buy a subscription for as little as £5
- a journalist, you should contact Harry Bingham, who will be delighted to set you up with a free subscription.
- a writer who blogs, you should register as a new user and then contact us: we’re happy to give away limited free review subscriptions.
Additionally, if you are an agent and would like to discuss anything (for example, possible improvements to your website or the other data we capture about you), we would be delighted to talk to to you at length, and in private. Just get in touch.
There is a new generation of agents entering Planet Agent. Those agents are young. They’ve grown up with Twitter and Facebook. They are happy to communicate their likes and thoughts and preferences to the writers from whom they hope to make their living. They are the future of their industry and that future is bright.
But those are not the people at the helm of the industry’s leading firms and the best firms in the industry have too often been far too slow in adopting communications practices suited to the Internet age. Given that those old communications practices look and feel exclusive, alienating and elitist, the agenting industry is at risk of encouraging the best new voices to leave conventional publishing aside altogether – a lethally stupid strategy in an age when increasingly influential voices are broadcasting the virtues of the self-pub route.
We call upon agents to improve their communications. We invite writers to demand more, to expect more; to refuse to put up with an inequality of information that places all power of choice in the hands of agents. And we, for our part, will continue to report on how the industry is faring in terms of transparency.
Things, we hope, will only get better.