Literary Agents in the Early 20th Century – Book Agents

Literary agents in the early 20th century Literary agents in the early 20th century paved the way for modern agents. But did you know that the first literary agent set up shop in Britain in 1875? Or that literary agents in the early 20th century are credited (or blamed, depending on how you look at it) for increasing author advances?

Those are just a few of things you’ll learn about in this basic history of book agents, part of a 9-part series in our Guide to Literary Agents.

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Literary Agents in the Early 20th Century – Introduction

During the early 20th century, educational awareness and standards of living were improving in more advanced countries like Britain and the United States. Those two factors helped contribute to an increased demand for books. Business and printing costs were relatively low at the time as well, and, as a result, many new publishers were formed (mostly in the Western world).

Book agents in the early 20th century west

Before the introduction of book agents in the early 20th century, publishers dealt directly with authors. They also published more titles, with smaller print runs (one thousand copies was common). After a while, some authors, not wanting to negotiate with publishers themselves, or feeling they didn’t have the skill, started hiring others to do their negotiating for them.

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So, Literary Agents in the Early 20th Century Were Born

And so was the debate…

Book agents in the early 20th century started driving up the price of publisher advances and royalties, resulting in more profit for authors and agents… and less profit for publishers. The risks and benefits of this practice were debated by literary agents in the early 20th century, and they continue to be debated today.

Book agents in the early 20th century debate

Some say that this behavior by book agents in the early 20th century was responsible for the trend of publishers beginning to print fewer titles and take fewer chances on newer and/or lesser known authors… another trend that continues today, and continues to be debated.

On the other hand, you might say that it’s a good thing. Many people believe that book agents in the early 20th century helped “push” publishers to get more marketing savvy and start working harder to sell more books… so they could recover the larger advances that they were paying!

Book agents in the early 20th century selling

The Spread of Literary Agents in the Early 20th Century and Beyond

Literary agents in the early 20th century weren’t confined to Britain. Literary agencies quickly spread to the United States and elsewhere. Today there are more than one thousand literary agents in the United States alone. And it’s extremely rare to find an author working directly with a publisher.

Now, click here to read the next article in this 9-part series
and answer the question: What Is a Literary Agent?

What Is a Literary Agent?

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