Friday, August 3, 2007

Dryden's Horace

Happy the man, and happy he alone
He who can call today his own
He who secure within can say
Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today

Come fair, come foul, come rain, come shine
The joys I have possessed, in spite of Fate, are mine
Not Heavn' itself upon the past has power
And what has been, has been, and I have had my hour.


Jenny Davidson said...

As an evangelist for the 18th century, I am always happy to see Dryden getting due, but I find this quotation slightly alarming as a prominent statement at the top of the blog! Everything OK?

Anonymous said...

I'm in agreement here with jenny d: I found this lead quote posted at 51 minutes past midnight, and no further posts today, troubling. Assuage us please.

Ithaca said...

Starting in the 50s Jean-Jacques Laffont, a French economist, began to do work on the theory of incentives and the principal-agent model.

When a principal hires someone to do business on his/her behalf, this person (the agent) then acquires information, contacts and other benefits that are not available to the principal unless the agent chooses to share them. Sacrificing this information, in other words, is part of the cost of delegation to the principal. There are all kinds of reasons why perfect transparency is not in an agent's interest: incompetence may be revealed; withholding information and contacts raises the cost to the principal of firing the agent and hiring someone new . . . But the relationship between the two parties is not usually a zero-sum game, where benefits to the principal come at the agent's expense. In the book business, for instance, an agent takes a 15% commission of an author's income; if I make $1,000,000, the agent makes $150,000, but if my income drops to $10,000 the agent's commission drops to $1,500. The interests of the agent are to some extent bound up with those of the principal -- and cashing out this 'to some extent' takes Laffont some 400 pages of densely mathematical argument. A 14-page bibliography suggests to the novice, anyway, that this is quite a complex subject.

People in the publishing industry are not usually well-versed in economics; they dislike complex arguments, and they particularly dislike complex arguments that require exposition using equations and graphs. It would help me if an agent could be persuaded to provide me with intellectual profiles of editors, since I might then finish first the book most likely to find a publisher; it would be helpful, for that matter, if editors themselves made this information available. It seemed to me that Tyler Cowen, as a popularising economist, might see a way to make Laffont's arguments accessible. So I took advantage of his offer, pre-ordered his book, and asked this question to be addressed in his personal podcast.

Unfortunately Cowen chose to rehash conventional wisdom in his podcast: he claims that it is ALWAYS in an agent's interest to withhold ALL information from clients, and that only a disreputable agent (whom I should avoid) would think of breaking with the culture of secrecy.

This was really not very good economics, and not helpful. I then had the idea of holding a competition on this blog for the best answer to the question, the prize being either a free copy of Cowen's book (now in the post) or a copy of TYPE: The Secret History of Letters.

So I wrote the whole thing up in a blog post, explaining about Laffont, explaining about Cowen, offering the prize.

After I had put up the post I thought: I don't want to do this any more. I don't want to spend my life this way. I am spending all my time trying to change the game. Maybe the game can be changed, but I don't actually want to do this any more.

I had had the idea of selling some stories on my website and had got as far as posting one and including a Chipin widget for those who wanted to read a second story. I got an e-mail from a reader saying this looked bad, it's one thing to have a donation button on the blog but this looked really bad, offering to enter a stripping competition to raise the money and save me from the shame of, um, suggesting that readers pay to read a story.

I thought: I don't actually want to deal with this. I get to the end of each day and what I have to show for the day is a day of trying to beat the game. I have to stop playing this game.

So I took down the post and I took the story and Chipin widget off my website. I need to think of something else to do.

Jenny Davidson said...

Yes, just think, all the time that you spend trying to change the game could be spent--TRAINING FOR TRIATHLON!

(Your description of agents and principals reminds me of the vaguely anti-Semitic but still sort of insanely funny treatments of money-lenders and their use of the cant of principals in "The School for Scandal" and "Our Mutual Friend," you could while away a day or two rereading those...)

Take good care of yourself in the meantime! And let me know if there's anything I can help with, eh?

hassan said...

Lovely poem.

But it is unfortunately from unauspicious origins, and that's not good. I do hope everything is better now...

I have a suggestion for the agent thing: I assume an intellectual profile of an editor is gathered from what the agent knows of the editor from personal experience, rather than some sort of an industry brief.

If it the former, then how about this - an agent has at the very least a listing of the books an editor has worked on. Perhaps for a little extra, the agent can be convinced to do research into the books of an editor, reduce each one into a list of keywords and adjectives. A super-list of editors and collective descriptions is then assembled, and then we replace the actual editor names with something vague, say, capital letters.

I'm thinking this list should be a fairly good approximation of what sort of intellectual entity an editor is. Assuming that having a hold of such a thing is actually useful enough to be worth the effort, all that remains to make it happen is to convince your agent that providing you with such a list to make a more informed decision about what book to finish is risk-free. Which amounts to proving that this list of bland adjectives, keywords or whatever would be impossible to use to trace back to a specific person. Which is probably easier than Laffont, plus the burden of proof is on them.

Also, I think putting up stories is a GREAT idea. I don't think I speak for myself alone when I say there are many of us who would love to read what you have at probably more but at least the cost what you'd charge for it. I think your reader was talking absolute bollocks. I mean, sheesh, EVERYONE has an online store, even David Lynch who works in the film industry no less charges ADMISSION to his website, and here you are, selling not Last Samurai t-shirts, but stories, which is after all what you do, for writers sell stories, yes?, and yet, this is somehow embarassing?!!

Ignore the naysayers, and please do reconsider putting up your stories again. If you'd like any help with setting up some sort of an online store as a more permanent solution, please do let me know if I can be of any assistance...

Ithaca said...

Jenny. Yes. If I reversed the ratio of exercise to writing I would look good and probably write better too. Check out the video of the süsses Baby Faultier (baby sloth) on Tar Art Rat.

Hassan. Your idea is perfectly rational. It eliminates the only possible cost to an agent of providing information. The rationality of the scheme, however -- above all in assuming that the self-interest underlying the code of secrecy is not unmentionable -- in itself makes it profoundly alien to the culture it is meant to modify. Presented with the sensible proposal of concealing editors' identities under the labels A, B, C, D and so on, an agent would see at once that this is not the way things are done, and be instantly suspicious. Perhaps a rogue agent with a crack habit -- the sort of agent Cowen thinks would reflect badly on a client -- My natural inclination, of course, is to advertise on my website for a rogue agent with a crack habit, but this would not look good.

Thanks for your offer to set up an online store. Perhaps I should go back to the original plan.