The Ego Has Landed With a Whimper, Not a Bang

At the 2007 London Book Fair, UK literary agent Ali Gunn was shopping around a book proposal with the tag “What PRIMARY COLORS was to Capitol Hill, EGO will be to the media world.” For a few days, buzz abounded about the project because its authors were pseudonymous: an agent working both sides of the Atlantic and “an international author published in 17 countries.” It was fun to guess who those authors might be, and who the real-life publishing counterparts to various bitchy characters might be. Gunn even promised that the correct guesser would win dinner at the Ivy, so I gave it my best shot on the fiction-writing part of the team. But the buzz turned negative, and the book didn’t sell around the world, or even the UK. Instead St. Martin’s picked up world rights and everybody moved on to the next round of book news.

But then a funny thing happened last week: an advance copy landed in my mailbox. The new title is THE AGENCY, it’s coming out in February, and the pseudonymous duo has the pen name of Ally O’Brien. The accompanying email pitch claims the book “has become an in-house favorite here” and poses what’s supposed to be the big hook: “Who are the actual authors? Who are they writing about? Would you like to know.”

Turns out the answer to the first question is alarmingly easy. All I had to do was look at the copyright page and find that – OMG! – the authors are Brian Freeman (whose thrillers under his real name are also published by St. Martin's) and Ali Gunn. Ally O'Brien, get it? In other words, I was right about the author way back when, and it would make sense for an agent to try to obfuscate her own project by adding some fake hook to it. Looks like that dinner's about as likely as John Sutherland currying his proof copy of THE ENCHANTRESS OF FLORENCE and eating it. 

As for the book itself, it's probably better than the original 30,000-word proposal the anonymous editor read and groused about to Gawker last year, but that's more to do with basic narrative competence than substantive value. It's also fairly clear to me that there's more than a whiff of revenge in the air from Gunn with regards to her former employer Curtis Brown. As for playing the game of who's really who, the supporting players seem more like composites than anyone in particular – and if there are real-life parallels, they are mostly on the UK side so American readers won't care.

Which is the problem, in a nutshell: are people going to care about a fictional expose of the inner workings of a literary agency when insidery books like BECAUSE SHE CAN more or less tanked? The hook now seems more a generic "boss from hell" and readers of Perez Hilton and Jezebel are the marketing targets, but even that seems to be a stretch for potential success. The whole project from inception to completion smacks of pandering to the reader, and we're in a time when it's a far better bet to play it smart. Otherwise, it's just ego-tastic…