Many years ago, when I was an aspiring novelist, I sent a manuscript to a literary agent. The months went by and the silence was deafening. I wrote a couple of letters asking for his thoughts on my magnum opus, a novel about the nature of irony. Ironically enough, when the agent finally replied it was to tell me that he was very sorry but had no views on my outpourings one way or the other. The reason was that he had irretrievably lost the manuscript without reading it.
So cavalier a treatment of a putative scribe’s efforts would not have arisen had I sent the manuscript to Roger Field, a lawyer who is carving out a sideline that suits him down to the ground: being a literary agent. “I’ve always loved books,” says Field, now a consultant with law firm New Media Law LLP and formerly the Group Legal Director of Random House. “Being at Random House for seven years, surrounded by so much literature, was like being in a sweet shop,” he says.
But for Field, doing things the right way has always been paramount. “Many manuscripts aren’t good enough but every writer has invested their heart and soul in their creation,” he says. “As such, they should be treated respectfully even if their literary merit leaves something to be desired.”
Literary merit is a curious beast, rather in the “you know what it is when you see it” category. As the years have rolled by and I find myself on the brink of my second book’s appearance, I count my lucky stars that the miscreant agent lost my novel about irony, for it deserved nothing but literary oblivion. But Field, who recently sold the rights to a book tipped for bestseller status - Jeremy Archer’s Home for Christmas - to Random House, says that immersion in the publishing world as a libel lawyer has given him a strong sense of what is publishable in today’s market.
“For years, I’ve seen manuscripts of all kinds at an early stage in their evolution, reading them for libel and working alongside editors,” says Field. “The experience has given me an excellent eye for which books will fly, and which ought to be returned with a polite ‘no’.”
As with all good literary agents, Field not only secured a book deal for Archer but also played a part in the genesis of Home for Christmas. “Jeremy is an old friend from my Sandhurst days" - he served in the British Army with the Blues and Royals, rising to captain, between 1974 and 1983 - "and one Christmas he sent an unusual card. It amounted to 18 pages of diaries and letters written by soldiers on Christmas Day. I found it fascinating and knew that there was a book in the idea waiting to be written.” His enthusiasm was shared by Mark Booth, the publishing director of Century, a Random House imprint. “He snapped it up over a lunch before I’d even finished telling him about it,” he recalls.
The same thing could be on the cards with another writer Field represents. “I’m about to send out details of a World War II memoir by Geoffrey Gordon-Creed. It’s called A Fool Rushed In and is an extraordinary account of a young soldier’s wartime experiences. Gordon-Creed’s voice is as vibrant and fresh as if the events he’s describing happened a couple of days ago. It’s a staggering achievement, full of honesty and even tales of soldiers chasing local women in central Greece. I’ve already had an enquiry about it from one publisher.”
Field may well strike lucky with A Fool Rushed In but says he has no plans to quit the law in favour of literary agency. “I act for a number of publishers, agents and writers and love my legal work. It’s centred at the heart of the book world and I couldn’t give it up. I enjoy literary agency as a passion that’s born of my life as a lawyer but wouldn’t want to do it full-time.”
What about his own literary ambitions – does Field have a manuscript that he might one day wish to see in print? “I’ve just finished my second novel, about the First Crusade, and yes, I’d dearly like to be published at some stage.” I’m about to tell Field which agent to avoid, but my mind jumps ahead and I wonder instead if he would represent himself. The answer is a categorical, yet polite, no. “The old saying for lawyers is just as applicable for agents: a lawyer who does his own legal work has a fool for a client.”
That may be so, but in the cut-throat world of contemporary publishing, this urbane man of letters is eminently well-qualified to look after himself.