There was one occasion in the past when I proposed to my agent that we should deal with a particular matter in a thoroughly brisk and businesslike way, setting out on paper, in clear terms, what we would and would not accept.
My agent was not happy. 'Michael,' she said, 'what you have to remember is that publishing is a very friendly business.' She might equally well have used the word 'personal'.
The point which my agent was making, and I belatedly accept it, is that selling books is not like selling fish or buttons. Everything depends on personal judgement and personal interaction. A writer offers a manuscript to an agent, and the personal reaction of that agent is central to whether the agent takes the book or not. And ditto when an agent approaches a publisher. And then again when the press agent seeks to place the author on a chat show.
It is tempting to grumble bitterly about this, and to complain about the old-boy network and the public-school mafia and the literary cliques, and so forth. But it has been shown, time and time again, that it is easy to overlook books which could, properly handled, be enormously successful; and, equally, it is easy to become over-enthusiastic about books which prove to be duds. So much depends on trusting other people's judgement, and knowing their track record.
(The same is true, incidentally, of the theatre. With knobs on. Appearing on stage is a mighty scary business, and if you're going to do it you want to be on stage with people whom you know and trust. People who understand the traditions and the conventions. Which is why many actors are the sons and daughters of other actors, or people in the business.)
All of which leads me to the sad case of the mighty UK literary and talent agency PFD. As mentioned here once or twice recently, this agency has fallen into the hands of the money men, who simply do not understand the ethos of publishing. Consequently agents and clients are fleeing in all directions.
In the latest Publishing News, Andrew Franklin explains it all rather well. I must say that I have seen better formatted articles for on-screen reading -- some white space between the paragraphs would help -- but it's worth struggling with.
If only CSS understood the difference between shareholders and stakeholders, how much better handled this business might have been. Perhaps they're just not very good businessmen.