After World War II had grabbed most of us Futurians by the scruff of the necks and flung us to various odd destinations in all sorts of unexpected parts of this planet of ours, it did, somehow get itself ended and there we were, civilians again, and back in New York. I had had a relatively undemanding war, ending up with doing public relations at the Mediterranean Theater of Operations in Caserta, Italy (with my spare time spent in a resort hotel on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius). Dirk Wylie, however, hadn’t had anywhere nearly as nice a war as I did.
Dirk’s war hit bottom in the early winter of 1944–45. That was when Hitler’s Wehrmacht made one last attempt to take back control of the western front in the Battle of the Bulge. It was a vicious and protracted fight, and Dirk, then an MP sergeant, was in the middle of it. This cost him. At one point, he jumped hastily out of a truck and landed in a very wrong way, doing something seriously bad to his spine.
That was the end of the war for Dirk, and the beginning of years of hospital stays and unremitting pain.
By the late 1940s, he was discharged from the New York-area Veterans Administration hospitals — not because he was cured but because there was nothing more they could do for him. Now Dirk was a civilian again, with one unanswerable question: What was he to do with the rest of his life? A normal nine-to-five job of any kind was pure fantasy. The only good part of the situation was that he didn’t need to make much money. The Veterans Administration had recognized their obligation to him and awarded him a substantial pension. But a living wage wasn’t the whole of Dirk’s needs. He was just barely out of his twenties, and didn’t like the prospect of doing nothing for the rest of his life.
I spent a lot of time with Dirk and his wife, Roz, discussing that question, and we came up with an idea that seemed worth pursuing. He could become a literary agent.
There are all kinds of literary agents. Some of them can do very good things for their clients, making sales for them that the writers would not have made by themselves and sometimes acting as story coaches to help their clients write more salable material. Others (as my mother used to say when totally exasperated) are not worth the powder to blow them to Hell.
So what made the difference between the saviors and the total wastes? One, a good agent needed to know the market. Two, s/he needed to know good work from bad. Three, s/he needed to be able to let clients know how to tell the difference between good and bad, too, and how to encourage them to get better.
Of course, Dirk didn’t have personal knowledge of all these things, although, as a Futurian, he had been exposed to a fair amount of shop talk over the years and had made a few sales himself. But what he did have was me.
Those poorly paid years at Popular Publications were paying off in ways that couldn’t be reckoned in dollars and cents. I knew a lot of editors personally, having worked with a couple dozen of them at Popular before going off to war, as well as a fair number of others to whom I had sold my own work. I knew what things were troublesome for an editor, and what other things made his or her life easier. Take it all in all, I had what Dirk needed to fill the gaps in his own knowledge, and I promised I would help him out while he got started.
In the long run, we would have to have a bunch of good professional writers as clients to supply the work we would market to editors, but acquiring those would take time. What we needed first was a source of income to cover the expenses in getting started, so we resorted to that hallmark of the lousy agent, the reading fee. That is, we invited unpublished writers to send us their stories along with a check — I think it was about $5 per short story at the time. In return, we would try to sell their story if it was saleable. But if, as was much more likely, it wasn’t we would read the story and give them an analysis of its virtues and flaws, along with advice on how to maximize the former and avoid as much as possible the latter. Then if they ever got to the point of being saleable, we would market them.
You can see right away how this sort of thing could be a racket. Your suspicions are exactly on target. It all too often is.
Sometimes — as was the case with the extremely successful Scott Meredith Literary Agency — the reading-fee business was what kept him going until the professional clients became successful. Scott, of course, didn’t necessarily write the reading-fee letters that went out to the people who had mailed in their checks. Most of the time the people who read those manuscripts and wrote those critiques were not much past the amateur stage themselves, perhaps best described as the juvenile would-be fraction of the New York science-fiction community. In fact, Scott himself in his younger days used to hang around the Futurians to pick up trade talk.
He nevertheless became one of the most prosperous New York agents. If there is anything I would criticize about Scott’s agency, it was that he instructed his reading-fee writers to end every letter with the invitation to the writer to send more manuscripts — and checks — along, and that he kept on with the reading fee business even when the actual agency work was doing well. But when I say the woods have been full of so-called agents who lived by the checks of the innocents, and gave little or nothing of value in return, it isn’t the likes of Scott Meredith I’m talking about. I didn’t particularly like Scott, but for some of his clients — Arthur Clarke, for one — he did an admirable job.
Ah, I’m digressing. Anyway, the only thing the Dirk Wylie agency needed to collect some reading-fee money for ourselves was some customers, and I knew how to get those. When I worked for Popular Publications, I had observed that they collected all the envelopes from their “slush-pile” — that is, unsolicited — manuscripts that had arrived in thar week and sold them to someone (perhaps Scott, I never inquired). I bought a few weeks’ worth from them and converted the return addresses to a mailing list. I then wrote a letter inviting these writers to send a story and check to the Dirk Wylie agency, and mailed it out, and the mss. and checks began to arrive. We had rented a room in the Fifth Avenue offices of Transradio Press, for which fellow-Futurian Dick Wilson was working as New York bureau chief, to use mostly as a mailing address, and we were in business.
Dirk wrote the reading-fee letters. He had a little help from me, but he didn’t need much. All those long old gab sessions with Cyril Kornbluth and Damon Knight and Don Wollheim and all the other Futurians had given Dirk a good grasp of where beginning writers went wrong and what to do about it. We enlisted some of the Futurians as clients and began to make some actual sales for them — me making up a marketing list and writing the submission letters, while the scripts were run along to the editors by another would-be writer, a protege of Dirk’s wife, Rosalind, Roz herself coming along for secretarial duties. Things were quite promising.
There was only one serious problem. Dirk wasn’t slowly recovering, as we had hoped. Au contraire. He was rapidly weakening. It had reached the point where it was getting hard for him to sit up long enough to type the letters.
And then he died.
Those of us who loved him did our share of mourning, and then Roz and I sat down for a talk about the future of the agency. Roz wanted to continue with it, and she wanted me to stay on as an active partner. I hadn’t planned on any such thing, but I was pleased to see how the business was steadily growing. So I thought it over carefully and then made the wrong decision. I said yes.
There’s not much more to tell on the story of my old pal Dirk Wylie. But as the story has been inexorably moving itself into an account of the agency and how, by means of talent and hard work, I ultimately became the most successful dead-broke literary agent in New York, I will continue that tale in these pages, perhaps under the title of “What You Should Not Do to Become a Wealthy Literary Agent” … as soon as I write it.