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.

Jessica

23 comments:

Kim Lenox said...

Janet Reid's link isn't working for some reason. Very interesting post/links!

Lorra said...

Jessica, I feel your pain. I've been the scheduler for a music organization for years that offers six concerts a year by local professionals as a way to raise scholarship money for aspiring musicians. There are often minor concerns among the fifteen musicians in the organization, usually about the piano, but for the most part the musicians are lovely to deal with.

Then there's the diva, a soprano, a glorious soprano actually, who's a nightmare to deal with. After I schedule her, she'll call my answering machine twice a week, issuing her breathless demands until the machine cuts her off. This can go on for a full year. (Our organization was actually banned from one venue because of her behavior.

And now I've had enough. Before I even started scheduling for next season, she called my machine (thank you God for caller ID)to demand a specific date and venue. "I'd better not do this and I'd better do that."

And that's when I said, life is too short. I called a lovely, sweet pianist, whose program will not be as good as Ms. Diva's, and scheduled her for the month the diva had requested.

I'm guessing the same could happen to a writer who just proved too much for an editor: Is their book so fabulous the editor is actually willing to risk an ulcer, lose sleep? As the old saying goes, you attract more bees with honey than with vinegar.

JES said...

There's always one. And there's the rub, hmm?

A rash of self-help books came out in the 1980-90s whose titles referred to dealing with difficult people, working with dinosaurs, etc. As with a lot of self-help books, I found the experience of reading them, well, exciting and inspiring. Couldn't wait to put them to use.

Trouble was, I'd managed to surround myself either with people who WEREN'T difficult to deal with, or WERE, but I'd been working with them for so long that we'd already developed a sort of dance to enable us to get through the day.

By the time the next diva/ass/idiot showed up, I was completely unprepared. In the heat of the moment, the best to hope for is not to fight ass-hattery with ass-hattery and wind up on somebody else's list of difficult people.

I so admire Miss Manners. :)

moonrat said...

thanks for your take, Jessica.

spyscribbler said...

Here's Janet Reid's post, Kim.

I admire Moonrat's patience. I had a prospective student call me with that exact same attitude. It was a little mind-boggling that he'd call me if he was going to be so insulting. Like I'd accept his child if he clearly had no respect for me.

pjd said...

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?

This question means one of two things. It could be the author warning you that she's a total diva, and if you expect anything else you're fooling yourself. Or, more likely, it could be the author feeling out of her element in the publishing world and not knowing the etiquette boundaries in all the different steps through sale and publication. She's placing her complete trust in you to help guide her and help her learn along the way. And this seems reasonable to me.

CC said...

At my job where we have prestigious researches and physicians as clients, we have a communication standard up front as part of our standard operating company policy.

When someone throws a hissy fit (and I totally understand that when you've spent all day doing brain surgery and then need to jump through hoops to get a pen to conduct your life saving cancer research that a hissy fit may feel warranted) we can politely sympathize with what they're going through but point to the communication standards.

Or would that just make things worse for you?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure there are many women capable of bad behavior like that (but I think they're more prone to do it on the sly--the email to your boss)but I KNEW this was a man before I even read the story. This is NOT a generalization but there is some behavior that is very gender biased.

Anonymous said...

I agree with pjd's comment. Most likely, said author IS feeling out of her element and isn't quite sure what's proper agent/client etiquette at this point.

It's wonderful, yet scary at the same time, when you've finally snagged that elusive agent after years of trying. Like Jessica said, there is a certain amount of camaraderie there, but there's also a boundary set by professionalism, and it's hard to know when you're crossing that.

I recently specified to my agent that I really didn't want a clincher cover for my first book--didn't say it in a snotty way, just wanted to let her know my preferences for this particular book--but later I talked to one of my published buddies about it.

After finding out how little say my agent or I will have in that particular aspect of my book, I emailed my agent back and apologized, promising to be happy with whatever the publishers give me (I jumped the gun anyway--we haven't even started sending the MS off yet. Chock it up to nervous anticipation... :-)).

I DON'T think most of us want to be divas. And we don't want our agents to think we're being one.

So ... is it okay to tell your agent things like personal preferences/aspirations for your work--so long as you word it respectfully? Or does that automatically make you seem like a diva?

Robena Grant said...

I think the big fear for me comes with the understanding that everything is so public these days. You never know who is listening and taking note, the recent political gaffs for instance.

I'd be afraid that I'd say something that could be taken out of context, repeated, I'd be discussed over lunch and my reputation ruined. So I'd probably be worse than this guy because I'd sit frozen like a big slab of ice, too scared to make a mistake. Ha ha. Those who know me know that is impossible.

Still one of my ex-husbands had the code word "penguins". Whenever I chatted too much he became quite creative in working the word into the conversation. It was our code for, "Do not go there. Shut up now. And I mean now."

So with agent/editor, client lunches perhaps the agent could use a similar code word to guide the nervous Nellie newbie author.

spyscribbler said...

PJD, to continue that discussion: I tend towards too nice, sometimes, so I have to push myself to speak up more.

The cues Jessica listed would be totally obvious to me, LOL, but I could see myself saying something like that: I want to feel the confidence to be proactive author and know someone will stop me if I ever come close to being an annoyance.

Sometimes it feels there's an attitude "out there" that authors should just sit and nod and smile and say: Thank you. I'm so grateful. There's a happy medium between being a smiling, nodding bobblehead and being a Diva, and we authors are pretty clueless about publishing "politics."

But people skills are people skills, and this story kinda makes me feel relief to know I could never be like that!

Vicky said...

I've concluded Morons like the one in Moonrat's post are missing the sensitivity chip.

Jessica, I agree you are not responsible for a client's behavior. In any sort of relationship, we can only control our own response to others. The problem with the Chipless folks is they don't abide by common courtesies like the rest of us. In fact, I'm doing final edits on a MS with a chipless villain. :-) Chipless people make interesting Antagonists, but they make miserable business partners.

I can empathize with agents and editors who deal with these difficult people. I've had to have *discussions* with suppliers I hire who sometimes step over the line. In a few instances, I have severed relationships with suppliers because working with them is conflicted and unproductive. When it comes to a choice between my job and their job, it's no contest. In a business world where we're all wearing multiple hats, we can't afford to waste time on people who don't *get it*

Suzan Harden said...

Jessica, I have to agree with pjd's second assessment of your client's comment.

Or it could be your client saw a friend become Mr. Hyde when his writing career took off and is afraid she'll fall into the same pit.

Either way, your client is saying two things here: Subtlety may not work with her, and she trusts you enough to kick her in the shin when she needs it.

But if you're really worried that your client wants you to be her mommy, then talk to her about it. Be straight with her about what she can and, more importantly, cannot expect from you as an agent.

Now, if your client is a total age-ist, sexist bigot like Moonrat's writer, well then, it may be time to pull the trigger. :-D

Elissa M said...

While social skills are learned rather than inherited, they are still skills. Some folks are better at them than others.

There will always be the clueless folks who are a chore to work with. As Jes said, you can never go wrong with Miss Manners. If you're worried about becoming a Diva, or if you have to work with one, grab an etiquette guide and stick to it.

Anonymous said...

I have never seen a better -and more fun- way of getting people up to speed on people skills and communication skills than the Dale Carnegie class.
Seriously.
It should be a must for all people who have to speak, or deal with other people, or represent other people.
If only we could require it for diplomats too.

Jana Lubina said...

I feel so embarassed for that author. I'd like to think that it would never happen to me, and I think I would expect my boyfried or best friend to tell me I'm making an asshat of myself before expecting that from my agent.

Granted, proverbial slaps in the face are sometimes necessary for everyone. The intelligent and feeling will be humbled; the rest insulted and furious.

Kinda like dealing with a hormonal teenager home 5 hours past cerfew and stoned out of his or her gourd.

Julie Weathers said...

This is a difficult situation for me.

I agree with PJD and it's entirely possible the author was trying to say, "I don't want to be like that."

Frankly, it's something I might say, not because I'm afraid I will turn into a diva, but because I'm afraid I might inadvertently do something to appear that way. In other words, if I am sticking my foot in my mouth, feel free to kick me in the shin. I respond quickly to inflicted pain.

A few years ago, my oldest son nearly died in a bull riding accident. Very nearly. I didn't think I would get him to the hospital in time. Not long after his recovery I won a trip to the CMA awards and took him with me. I figured he needed something special. One morning one of the organizers asked if she could borrow Brandon for a bit. They had all fallen in love with their little cowboy and I just assumed they wanted him to help them with something. He came back an hour later and said she had taken him to a private room where Shania Twain was waiting for her limo. She sat there and shot the bull with him like they were old friends. Neither Brandon nor I are much for stargazing, but I will always be eternally grateful to her for taking time out of her schedule to make a little Texas cowboy feel special.

Hopefully, I will always remember this lesson and make others feel important.

Life is too short to put up with people who make you miserable. I have no idea why any agent or editor would even be remotely inclined to do so.

Honestly, I really hope I don't need to have many meetings with people. I hate having to try and find translators for country bumpkin.

Heather B. Moore said...

I hear you on all counts. When I edit, it's amazing the personalities that come out of the woodwork. Sometimes I wonder if those type of people would be as bold if we didn't have email. Thanks for the link to Moonrat, although it was painful to read.

Elyssa Papa said...

Julie, I'm so happy your son is okay from that accident. And Shania Twain sounds like a real sweetheart to do that.

I cringed when I first read Moonrat's blog because it just felt like one of those bizarre moments that only happen in a book.

Diana said...

Today's blog post hurts my heart. When push comes to shove, Moonrat's author had an editor who not only put a lot of effort into the author's work, but also had access to the big boss. Sounds pretty win-win to me.

Chumplet said...

Managing careers can sometimes feel like herding cats, or at least like Benjy Stone who had to keep an eye on Alan Swann in My Favorite Year (see, I spelled it American! I can adjust!).

Having access to a great editor and her boss isn't win-win if you treat the editor like a second class citizen. In this case, the author lost access to the boss.

Julie Weathers said...

"Julie, I'm so happy your son is okay from that accident. And Shania Twain sounds like a real sweetheart to do that."

Thank you. It's one of those things that turn a mother's hair gray, but it all worked out. Thankfully, no one got in my way on that wild drive to town.

I really do figure if someone of her stature can be so kind and generous, it's a good reminder for me to pay it back.

Alina Padilla said...

Thankfully, Precise Edit has had good, professional relationships with all of our clients. I believe it has a lot to do with the fact that our authors are willing to admit what they can and can't do. Ultimately, that's why they hire us. We are not just in the business of helping people create a great read, we sometimes have to lend our experience in marketing and publishing, as well. A good client is willing to take risks, conduct themselves professionally, and put good advice to use.