Monday, July 14, 2008

Out of Control Clients

Everyone has been talking about Moonrat’s experience with a boorish author over lunch. And since I didn’t want to be left out I thought I’d better jump into the fray, albeit about a week too late (that’s what happens when you have a really rockin’ July 4th BBQ). . . .

If you haven’t read Moonrat’s story, hop on over to take a look, and if you haven’t read how Janet Reid would react if she had been the agent, you should hop on over there too.

What this all made me think of was not so much the crap Moonrat had to deal with over lunch, because I’ll tell you right now that almost everyone in this business has had to deal with something similar, but of the difficulties of being an agent when placed in such a position. As an agent, my job is to help shape an author’s career, but how much of that author’s personality do I have to try to control during the shaping process?

I had a client tell me recently that if she ever starts acting like a Diva she expects me to tell her and straighten her out. Really? That makes me nervous. I can tell clients that a certain book or book idea isn’t working and I can certainly tell them to email or call me with questions or concerns before talking to their editors (in cases where the client is being disruptive or the editor has asked me to step in), but can I really tell the client that she’s acting like a diva, an ass, or just an idiot? And is that my job?

At what point is a client’s personality or behavior starting to impact my career and my reputation? And at what point am I responsible for another’s behavior? Let me tell you my theory on this and a little insider secret. The insider secret is that as agents and editors we are friends to a degree. Probably not BFFs, but friendly anyway, and if there is a client or author who is difficult it’s not uncommon for us to talk about that person over lunch. Not in a snotty, snippy, snarky, gossip girl way, but in a coping, how should we handle this situation way. If I have a client who is a diva (thank god I don’t) discussions of strategy will occur with the editor. How should we approach Diva Author about her revisions? Who should tell her she’s not getting the six-page color ad in the NY Times Book Review she’s demanding? And what are we going to do about the fact that she’s now emailing the publisher about her cover changes? Remember that while an agent works for the author, sometimes the best thing an agent can do for you and your career is team up with the editor as well. It’s a team effort on all of our parts.

How do I keep my reputation in tact when my client is out there trying to mess it up? By understanding what the editor is being put through. And yes, as Janet Reid said, praying for a large whole to open and swallow me whole. I was an editor, remember? And what saved an agent from obnoxious clients was by not being an obnoxious agent. There are definitely agents out there who feel that the best way to represent a client is to keep that client happy at all costs, and that for some reason that often means becoming as obnoxious as the client. Luckily for editors these agents are few and far between. Almost every agent has dealt with a difficult client at one point or another and the best way to do so without damaging your reputation, and in fact often building an even stronger reputation, is to do so with professionalism. This means guiding your client as best you can, conferring with the editor, and apologizing when necessary.

The troubling thing about situations like this is that I am not responsible for anyone’s behavior other than my own, and while I can guide my clients into how to act, or react, and try to tone them down or cut them off, I am not a parent to any of them. In other words, I’m not going to be giving any time-outs. So while I doubt many of you will become the author from Moonrat’s story, I can almost guarantee one of you might. How to know you’re headed down that path? Listen to the subtleties of what your agent is saying. If she’s suggesting you no longer email your editor with your questions, but go through her first, you might want to do that. If she’s kindly cutting you off during conversations with your editor, you might find it’s time to stop. And if she’s raising a large, heavy object over your head, you might want to move.

Luckily for us, most authors are charming, wonderful, and a delight to work with, but with any business and any aspect of life, there’s always one.