Friday, August 17, 2007

further notes on grubby agent-author relationships

I'm posting here my response to post Jessica made on the BookEnds, LLC Literary Agency Blog. Jessica and BookEnds are both awesome, and my vitriolic little essay is in no way a reflection on the way she does business--it's just a note that was inspired by a tiny point in her post. As my readers here will know, friends of mine have been burned by this issue before. So my response, in the spirit of upstanding book-making business:

Hi Jessica,

This is not a message for you, since I've worked with your agency and know how honorable and by-the-books you are. This is more for writers who haven't been in this particular position and don't know this angle of the issue. Thanks in advance for letting me kvetch.

I'll vouch that we editors are perfectly happy to have unagented clients seek out agents to negotiate deals and "finer points of contracts," like you mentioned. Honestly many authors who are great writers and smart people are less equipped to handle the process alone--it's a business, like any business, and it's hard to be thrown into an entirely new industry without the years of experience an agent would be able to offer.

However, I also have to admit that every time I make an offer to an unagented author and hear them say "I think I'm going to take this opportunity to find an agent," my heart sinks. I would like to go back to the note you made about taking the offer and shopping it around to other companies--this is the rub. An editor's take:

An author is of course entitled to get the best offer on their own project they possibly can. But there is intellectual capital to be lost here, too, and any agent (except the extremely self-serving kind who doesn't care about burning bridges--and unfortunately, there are quite a lot of this particular kind of agent) should look into the situation and pump the author for the history of the deal. If this project is, say, a novel the author wrote and one publisher has offered $2000 for it, it is fair enough for that agent to shop that project to her little heart's content. But if this was a concept developed by the publishing house and the editor, who probably put long hours into refining it and seeking out a particular author who would be best for the project, the agent MUST be sensitive to the fact that the editor already views this project as hers.

And, from my position, I would like to say fair enough. Although I have never lost a project I specifically developed, I have had an agent who was belatedly brought in threaten to shop what was a very specific and carefully developed idea of MINE. (Oo boy did that one make me mad.) And I have had two very good editor friends who have seen their intellectual capital literally stolen and sold elsewhere. This is sheer heartbreak. Not to mention permanent dissolution of professional relationships--neither I nor any of my friends will ever work with those agents again. Also, people like me work to aggressively spread the word of who to avoid.

So this is a long response to a tiny point in your post, but I wanted to back you up on the fact that editors are very, very happy to have agents brought in after the fact, since it really does smooth the negotiation and delivery processes over with industry accountability. There is the caveat, though--so a plea on behalf of my kind. Authors, be honest with your agents; agents, be honest with your editors. We're all meant to work together, we really, really are.


Kaytie M. Lee said...

I came by way of Bookends. Thanks for giving us this perspective, one that writers otherwise rarely get the chance to see.

I'm curious to know whether the projects that you mention were fiction or non-fiction or a mix? Not that it makes much difference in the end. :)


Dara said...

Wow. Seems like incredible chutzpah to even consider taking a project developed with an editor someplace else. I gather this only happens if the author in question had been unagented, and therefore working directly with you until the project gelled.

As an author trying to get an agent for a new project, I've discerned a bit of a "wild west" attitude out there among some of the newer agents. The last time I went agent-hunting was about five years ago. Since that time, there are a tremendous amount of new agents and agencies, who are all over the place trying to build. While I applaud them, I'm trying to get to the more established, less "me, me, me" agents.

As for burning bridges, I wouldn't worry. Since the lifespan of agents is like a comet -- seems to be about six years. All you as an editor have to do is wait it out. These agents leave/change agencies more often than editors change houses! Which is another reason I want a reputable, stable agency.

moonrat said...

Kaytie--the projects I'm referring to are almost always nonfiction. Certain houses, like the one I work for now (and, incidentally, the one I work for previously) still like to have the editor integrally involved in the creative process--my publisher is a real advocate for editorial project development, because he feels it helps maintain the integrity of what should be a creative industry. Houses like mine do a lot of commissioned projects, meaning I (the editor) have an idea; I solicit an expert; the expert and I work together to hone the idea; thus a book is born.

More rarely, as was the case with one of my friends, this happens with novels. Since novels are more directly the creative product of the author and not a collaborative work, I think it's pretty safe to say that this happens infrequently with fiction. But I know it HAS happened at least once. There is constantly a fear as you're working on editorial shaping with an author that if contract negotiations fall apart the agent (as some agents, about whom I shall reserve any use of adjectives at this time, don't mind doing) may take the manuscript, with all your hard work, and hike it to another house. Our worst nightmare.

Dara--chutzpah indeed!! And I know you're right--it's true that agency careers do often burn out rather quickly. And it's always nice to hear that a hopeful author is still old-fashioned about the ideas of integrity in the business (and, I have to say now, almost all the authors I have ever worked with have been--bless them if they're reading this! I love you all).

But that doesn't mean I don't seethe when something like this happens!! So kudos to you for being savvy and knowing to look for the kinds of agents editors WANT to work with.

Kaytie M. Lee said...

Thanks for the clarification, moonrat. I'm impressed by your publisher's stance of "maintaining integrity" in a creative business. I hope that when I get the chance, I match that integrity.

I've just read all your summer blog entries--what fun! There's a lot of good stuff there for authors. Plus, I enjoyed reading (and therefore reliving) your posts up to and including the Harry Potter release. I also read your very useful post, "Moonrat's Guide to Getting Published."

This is, of course, because I have other work I should be doing. ;)

moonrat said...


David L. McAfee said...

You know, that's not something I think I, personally, would ever consider doing unless I had serious issue with the editor. Then again, in such a case I most likley would not have been working with him/her in the first place unless I was already under contract.

Of course this is all academic since I am speaking as an "unpub" who hasn't crawled out of the trenches yet (give me time, I just started writing a year and a half ago). Still, I would think most writers (well, maybe only the new ones) would be so thrilled to have an offer they'd just about poo themselves when one came in. Why tarnish that with hard feelings and a touch of back stabbing?

Anonymous said...

This post makes it sound like you might run out of agents to deal with before too long!

Angie said...

Unfortunately, I can easily imagine a brand new writer in this position getting snowballed by her/his new agent into believing that "this is how business is done." If they don't know any better they might have no idea they're offending the editor or burning any bridges. :/ Sounds like something that needs to become a standard addition to all the Newbie Writers' Guides out there.