Literary Agent: Middleman


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At the origins, the social and an exile

At the origins of the literary agent figure lies an exile, a literary no-man’s land: that of Emile Aucante, godchild and secretary of George Sand, who was forced into exile under Napoleon III due to his socialist and democratic positions. The Agence Générale de Littérature that he founded in Paris in 1858, with the support of Sand, did not survive, and the function of literary agent disappeared from the memory of French book history until the 1920s.

It is worth noting that Aucante’s career, from his democratic convictions to his involvement with the Revue Sociale, could have intersected with the commitments of the publisher Maurice Lachâtre. In the 1870s, Lachâtre contributed to the foundations of the figure of independent publisher, and also faced mixed fortunes in a time of international publishing industrialization and the French literature market. Both Aucante and Lachâtre embody alternative, collective, and almost anti-globalist positions before their time, somewhat actual anachronisms depending on how one positions themselves in the industrial history of publishing. They are slightly blurred and dimmed silhouettes that inhabit an unconscious memory of French publishing, especially that which, under the impetus of Hachette and Hetzel (among many others), founded empires of literature and bookshops, installed tutelary figures of authors, and for some of them, contributed to a nascent colonial empire.

The World Republic of Letters

For a long time in France, the literary agent was thus relegated to the background of a glorious history, that of the construction of a shiny, central World Republic of Letters, a center for translation and influence throughout the international publishing industry. Then, the literary agent became this international complement to French publishers’ foreign rights, supported by their admirable organization, the Bureau International de l’Edition Française. French literature was thus established as the benchmark for literature in French, dominating the future “Francophone literature” in terms of international reach. It is not entirely surprising that the publishing of African countries, in particular, and more broadly the Global-South Francophone publishing, did not access the same international dimension, or that international literary agents did not take the same interest in publishers whose foreign-rights departments were not as visible or effective as those of their French counterparts.

A triple modern movement

This sometimes blurred, fluid, and often poorly-known figure that is the literary agent had little grasp on the literary diversity of the Francophone world for a long time until the beginning of the 2000s. The rise of several agencies with a sharp eye on the literature of authors from formerly colonized countries helped define and identify the faces of French literary agents through the Francophone and international literary field.

Isn’t it remarkable that the periods of dead-ends, anxiety, and stifling concentration in French publishing and distribution correspond to three reactions:

  • First, a gathering of independent publishers, especially under the banner of “bibliodiversity”;
  • Second, an increasingly strong refusal of literary labels (“African”, “Francophone”, etc.) by writers whom we save from any classification like “postcolonial”;
  • And third, a revival of the literary agent’s work in French and Francophone publishing, and more broadly, throughout the international book market.

A memory’s back

For the third example, it is perhaps possible to note a reverse echo of the deletion of the agent from memories during the 19th century when French publishing became internationalized and industrialized. In this sense, the rise of the literary agent and its revival since the 2000s is a positive sign.

Often presented as a “rights commercial” by some detractors, the agent in whom we identify corresponds historically to a guarantee of literary diversity and an actor of decentering, thus a vector of balance. Working within the Francophone world on the circulation of rights through different languages (not to mention the so-called “minority” languages) and in a multitude of territories (sometimes simultaneously), their role is no longer anachronistic. From their original exile, the literary agent now contributes to a new form of “deterritorialization”.

The literary agent is not a competitor of international publishers and independent publishers’ foreign rights. Rather, they represent a mobile operator working at their level to circulate rights in a more heterogeneous, communicative, and less centralized way. Thus, the agent is more an ally to publishers (independent or not) than an adversary, sometimes an intermediary, and above all, a middleman at the service of authors and their rights circulation, in the interest of their good and long-term relationships with their publishers.

Isn’t the literary agent simply sign of a healthy publishing industry?


Raphaël Thierry


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