Stories of your life


The film I’ve watched the most times (perhaps 30) is Star Wars.  When I first discovered it, I watched it obsessively for months.  Even the opening bars of the soundtrack (which I also had to have) would set off the craving.  Only in hindsight did I figure out that it was saying to me something I really needed to hear: ‘You’re not meant to waste your youth doing your duty. Go and have The Big Adventure!’

Those months of watching the movie, I was, perhaps, subconsciously nerving myself up to immigrate to Britain, ignore a university degree I no longer wanted to use, and look around for what I was really meant to do with my life.  I was 22.

It took five years (during which time I was working in a bookshop, secretly reading the entire stock) before I stumbled across what an agent is.  Starting as an assistant in an agency really felt like climbing into an X-wing fighter.

I’m no longer a Luke Skywalker in years – I like to think of myself more as the Han Solo of the business – but before I turn into Yoda, I can tell you:  some books, some movies, some plays are telling you what you need to hear.



  EmpathyThe digital revolution is polarising jobs: those that can be automated, and those that can’t.  In the media world, there’s pressure to put more rights licensing through software.  In a small way, this has been happening for years – for instance, with photocopy licences.  You can put in the number of copies you want to make onto a form on a website, pay the money, and photocopy away.

As formats and platforms proliferate, publishers and producers worry about escalating costs of clearing permissions.  The Bill going through parliament right now has involved intense discussions of whether more automatic licences can be enabled –or even forced on writers.

In a nutshell, a writer should be able to decide whether to automate their licences, or whether all, or some, of their work should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

So how much can be done by clever software?  I’m glad to say writers and agents don’t look to be replaced any time soon.  According to a recent article in Forbes*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1_*1&trk=NUS_UNIU_PEOPLE_FOLLOW-megaphone-fllw

the fastest growing job sectors in the States are the ones where human qualities are paramount.

One of my big jobs this week has been to tailor a big deal to the writer’s likely cash flow over the next 5 or 6 years, and where his creativity is probably going to take him.  I phoned Emma Adams to say ‘break a leg’ for the premiere of her play tonight, and talked about how the stuff in your head is never as good as when you get it out into the world.  I’ve just called my favourite Hollywood agent to talk about his worries about a mutual client.  So I’m pleased to say that if you call 020 3214 8287, you won’t be given a series of options, leading to another series of options.  You’ll get me on the phone.

Toxic conditions

Besides the toxic emotions that can afflict both writers and agents (paranoia, jealousy, self-loathing, encroaching unwillingness to bathe regularly etc), bad stuff can infect our relationships with each other.

One of the Hollywood agents I work with says he does the Cringe Test when considering a new client.  He imagines what it’ll be like picking up the phone to the writer six months from now.  If he thinks it’ll make him cringe, he politely declines.  As he says, ‘Represent in haste, repent at leisure’.

What makes an agent feel the relationship with their client has gone septic?

– They pay you for your advice but won’t listen

– They listen to your editorial advice, then spend twice as long justifying their writing (especially the self-indulgent bits)

– They don’t keep in touch often, and in the meantime write something you could have told them in a second couldn’t be sold

– They tell you about problems so late you can barely do anything to put it right (‘My book’s published tomorrow, and all my neighbours will be able to recognise all the libellous things I’m saying about them’ or ‘I met my producer at a party last night and told him all the bad things I’ve been thinking about him’).

– They nag you, even when they know you’re doing what they asked you to

– They find ways to waste your time

– They need constant affirmation, to the point where you feel like you’ve had to give them a pint of your own blood to get them back on their feet

What makes a writer complain about their agent?

– Failure to return calls, answer emails, tell them what the hell they’re doing with your work, or contradictory information

– Impatience when explaining important parts of your contract

– Obvious laziness

– Tendency to boast about more successful clients than you, or boast about important people they know in the business but have never introduced you to

– Preference to discuss personal matters or the football scores, rather than make a selling strategy or have a proper talk about a script

– Failure to sound enthusiastic about your work, ever

– Having way too many clients

– Sounding desperate, or spending too long moaning about the business and why they can’t sell your work

– Crying on the phone

I’ve been sacked for:

– Being a rubbish agent

– Not explaining something crucial (although it was plainly expressed in the contract that the writer signed)

– ‘Change your luck, change your agent’

– The writer got dazzled by another agent who said ‘You’ve never met [Head of BBC1 / Stephen Spielberg / Harvey Weinstein / etc]?  What is your agent doing?!’

– ‘It’s not you, it’s me’

– One kind man said he couldn’t bear to watch me worrying about him any more

Not all relationships are meant to last forever.  Sometimes you run out of steam with each other.  Sometimes there’s a blissful honeymoon period that suddenly ends in shocked disgust.  I love that the agent/writer relationship often is a long one – and it takes a while to learn to work with each other effectively.  I grieve over some of the writers I no longer have a working partnership with.  But I guess we’re all human beings, even some agents.