Wednesday, August 27, 2008

How Much to Tell Your Agent or Editor

I received a very interesting question from a reader not too long ago, one that I think, sadly, has crossed the minds or lives of a number of writers. If you are facing insurmountable (or seemingly insurmountable) challenges in your life, how much do you tell your agent or editor? For example, what if you are going through a divorce and can’t muster up the ability to get out of bed, let alone meet a deadline? Or what if you are suddenly diagnosed with a disease like cancer that is possibly fatal, but also potentially curable, do you tell your agent or editor or quietly take care of yourself and your disease while working your best to meet deadlines?

I think the concern this reader had was whether telling could negatively affect your career. Would a publisher consider a new contract if they thought the author was battling a fatal illness? Would an agent want to continue representation if she didn’t think the author would be able to meet deadlines?

These are tough, tough questions and ones that there is no easy answer to. Life throws us curveballs, and how we hit them or even whether we swing is completely personal.

Ultimately, the decision to tell your agent and/or editor is going to be up to you and is going to be based on the relationship you have with that agent or editor. At the recent RWA RITA awards ceremony one author praised her editor, remarking that they were much more than business partners, but after 20 years of working together were truly friends. I would imagine in this case the editor knows a great deal about this author and her life. That author is lucky though. Few authors spend that many years with one editor, which is why I can’t stress enough the importance of finding an agent you truly feel can go the long haul with you.

How an incurable disease or missed deadlines affects future contracts is going to depend on the publisher, and how professionally the situation was handled. Did you eventually meet the deadlines by setting realistic goals for yourself in spite of the circumstances or did you never turn in the books? And . . . how are your numbers? Because that’s what it all comes down to, sales of your books. If sales are good you can be forgiven almost anything. If they’re not good, sickness or health probably won’t do you any good.

My advice . . . talk to your agent. Your agent is your best advocate in any situation, and if you are worried, your agent should be the one to help alleviate those fears and worries. When I mentioned that to the reader she came back with whether or not that was fair to her agent. She worried that it was putting her agent in a difficult position by asking her to lie. Well, guess what, folks, that is an agent’s job. Well, not lying exactly, but client-agent confidentiality. While I’ve never felt like I had to lie for an author (and that’s good, because I’m not good at lying), I do know that a great deal of what we talk about is confidential. Confidential from other clients, blog readers, and, yes, editors.

My feeling is that honesty is the best policy. If whatever is happening means you might miss a deadline, I think it’s best to be up front and honest, at least with your agent. After all, calling to say you need a deadline extension because of illness, death, divorce, or another crisis is going to be easier than calling to say you need an extension because you just do. If, however, you don’t want your editor told, talk to your agent about how to handle the situation and let your agent handle it. That’s the beauty of having an agent.



Jess Anastasi said...

I think honesty is always the best way to handle these sorts of situation (speaking from someone who has found themselves in similar situations with employers through serious illness). I guess we would all like to imagine that our agents/editors/employers (etc) are going to be accepting and understanding of such circumstance, but the unfortunate truth is they're sometimes not. I found this out the hard way, yet it hasn't stopped me from continuing to be up-front about my issues. How people respond is their perogative. My policy is to be turthful and hope for the best. Ok, it hasn't worked out in my favour a number of times, but to me the important thing was that I handled it as true to myself as possible.
And just as I feel it's important to be open, many people will feel it's their business and have every right not to let anyone know. Its not black and white, and there will always be many other contributing factors to consider.

Anonymous said...

Even for those writers who don't have that close of a relationship with an agent and aren't sure how open to be, or who might just want to keep their personal lives private, perhaps saying "I'm going through a temporary personal situation right now, and I need to ask for a deadline extension of XX" might be sufficient to get through the crisis time. It might even help to build that agent/author relationship once you're past the crisis and know that the agent went to bat for you during a rough patch. Obviously, if it turns into a non-temporary situation that affects your ability to write, you'll have to disclose that (or be sure to have the executor of your will notify your agent).

By the way, make sure your will includes things like copyrights, unpublished manuscripts, royalties, etc.

Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity, what would you do if something you said in one of those confidential discussions were to find its way into a public one? (I dn't know anyone who's done this, honest; it was a hypothetical discussion some friends of mine and I got into a while back.) If you made an offhand comment to a client, trying to make them feel better about something, and suddenly they were telling people about it ("My agent said so-and-so is an amateur", for example, or "my agent said the people on that website are idiots.") What would your response be? Would you want someone to tell you about that comment?

Anonymous said...

That's a really good question. And Jessica, I think you gave a really good response. You don't have to be best friends with your agent, but they are your advocate. Keeping them at least on the lip of the loop could only be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

What Jess said. My rule of thumb is (or tries to be :) decency and common sense.

Some people try to keep secrets like this in the belief -- it's a bet, really -- that "If I don't tell my agent/editor/[etc.], then they'll never hear it from anyone else so all will be just fine." Very dumb assumption!

Julie Weathers said...

I have mixed emotions about this.

On one hand, I'm positive agents have problems of their own and don't want to listen to someone else's. On the other hand they need to be aware of things that might affect me professionally.

Personally, I would hope I have a close enough relationship with my agent they would rejoice at good news and be understanding about the bad.

I tend to take the, "buck up and get it done," approach, but there are times crap just happens.

As harsh as it sounds, I understand agents and editors are business people. They might be sympathetic to your circumstances, but the bottom line is what they have to focus on. It's up to me to live up to my end of the deal as much as possible regardless of what's going on.

Scott Eagan said...

I have to agree with you on this Jessica. Keep the lines of communication open with the agents and editors. Timelines can be adjusted for future projects. I have heard time and time again from editors that adjusting timelines is an easy thing (as long as the book isn't already in production) and they just want to know in advance if you aren't going to make a deadline. They always have projects that might be able to slip into that slot until your manuscript is ready.
I know that when I have writers that are working through issues, I will always slow down the rate of submissions and writing projects until I hear they are ready to go again. When I get that quick note that says things are better, then as a writer-agent team, we are back to full steam.


Robena Grant said...

Great post. The publishing world isn't as big as we think it is. Everyone has their web of connections. I think honesty is always the best policy.

Also, the author trying to overcome whatever his/her difficulties are, needs to concentrate on health and not add the additional stress of a looming deadline. Health first, writing second. He/she might even find once the pressure to perform is relieved it will be a joy to get back to work, and can even be therapeutic.
Great to know that there are agents out there who will get your back.

Kate Douglas said...

One thing a writer needs to take into consideration is how personal issues will actually affect their writing. Sometimes the things you think will get in the way won't, and life in general will. I managed to complete three novels and three novellas in a year that included the deaths of two family members, the births of two grandchildren, my husband's retirement, a move to a new home and almost getting myself killed by a falling tree. This past year, without a single crisis, I've needed extensions on two projects, which my editor graciously allowed. My feelings are that we should always be honest with our agents as far as the life issues we're dealing with, but if an extension is necessary, at least have a realistic idea of when the work can be completed, and do your best to stick with it.

ryan field said...

Honesty works!! Last summer I went through a serious life and death crisis with a family member and spent every day, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, at the hospital as power of attorney. I contacted my editors first thing, and all were wonderful and supportive and truly concerned. Somehow I even managed to meet my deadlines (thanks to lap tops). So tell your agents or editors when something devastating happens...this is a difficult, competitive business, but it's not heartless.

Aimlesswriter said...

Very good post. I think we always worry we'll be brushed aside if we rock the boat. (Even if its not our fault.)

Jessica? What about age? How old is your oldest client?
Does age matter?

Anonymous said...

My mother is dying right now, and I haven't been able to write a blessed word.

I am published, but I am currently in the process of writing a new series and changing editors, so I don't have a deadline or an editor to "report" to right now; but, if I did, I'd tell my agent and get her advice for sure.

BTW, I am in final revisions on my next novel and close to finishing it. I told my agent I hadn't been able to write and why. She wrote me beautiful encouraging words, and she told me to take my time. She would be there when I was ready. Needless to say, I have the greatest agent on the planet! :)

It's SO important to hook up with an agent who connects best with you and your work, and not to rush into that relationship just to get an agent.

BTW, this was a great post. Thanks!

Susan at Stony River said...

Thanks for this post. I'd already become convinced of the need for an agent; this erased any doubt.

The 'advocate' role, or even someone who just knows how to deal with contingencies, would be worth its weight in gold!