When I set out to become a writer in the early Seventies literary agents were no more than fantasy figures to me. I had no idea who they were or how I might find one to help me. I imagined that once I did locate one, however, he or she would take me under their wing in much the same way that Colonel Tom Parker had looked after Elvis, and they would do everything to launch me that Brian Epstein had done for the Beatles. Surely, I reasoned, literary agents must work in the same way as these infamous Svengalis of the music business, who we read so much about in the “Swinging Sixties”.
Eventually I discovered where these mysterious agents’ addresses and telephone numbers lay hidden and I started to pursue and plague them with letters and synopses and ideas and manuscripts. I was a frustrated and deluded stalker in pursuit of the ideal soul-mate who I fantasised would accompany and support me through my professional life journey, assisting me in picking up all the glittering prizes along the way.
After what seemed like forever one of them broke free of the ranks of rejection and indifference that had till then greeted my lovesick overtures, and agreed to take on the project I had sent to woo them. When they sold it I experienced an almost overwhelming surge of joy and tearful relief and assumed this was the start of my meteoric rise to fame and fortune, just like Elvis and the Beatles. But the next set of ideas I sent my beloved new agent didn’t seem to catch her fancy. I could see I was losing her attention. What should I do? Should I scream and cry and make a scene? Should I sulk and pout? Should I beg?
Then it occurred to me that just because she didn’t fancy my ideas, that didn’t mean another agent wouldn’t be interested. I wrote to tell her that if she wasn’t interested I wouldn’t just be chucking my work in the bin, I would try to find another partner who would appreciate me more than she did. She replied that she was hurt by this betrayal. I pointed out that I had to live and I had managed to leave myself with no other skill in life than writing with which to support myself. This was a matter of basic survival. I promised always to bring projects to her for first refusal. She told me if she couldn’t have me to herself then the relationship was over and I had a sickening feeling that I had made a terrible mistake.
But then another agent took one of the rejected ideas and managed to sell it, and yet another agent came to me with a project that had landed on their desk and needed a ghost and some royalties dribbled in from the book sold by agent number one, who resumed a semi-amicable relationship with me as a result. I realised that if I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity that came along, and if I wanted to exploit every idea and lead that came my way, I was going to have to run my professional life like an open marriage.
I returned to writing begging and submission letters with renewed gusto, hundreds a week would fly out from my garret to the desks and bins of the literary world, no agent, publisher or editor was safe from my constant entreaties.
Most of the agents I started relationships with accepted that an open relationship would work well for both of us. If one complained that they really wanted me to work exclusively for them I had an answer ready; “if you can find me three or four books a year I won’t have time to work for anyone else”. Now and again one of them would manage to do that for a year or two. The trick was to retain their friendship whenever that particular seam of gold ran out and I had to return to looking for new pastures.
It wasn’t long before I was set on a path of lifelong professional promiscuity.