Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Respecting Each Other

There’s a delicate balancing act that needs to be played in the author-agent relationship, and while we’ve touched on it a few times I’m not sure we’ve addressed it in quite this way.

I’m often asked how I handle a situation when the author and I disagree on the merits of a proposal. If, for example, an author is hot on a new idea that I’m a little cold on, how should that be handled? Like everything else, of course there’s no answer to this question. Much would depend on the author and the agent and the relationship they have built, some of it would depend on the agent’s knowledge of that market, and of course a lot of it would really depend on the idea. If the book is a completely new direction for the author and an unfamiliar direction for the agent, maybe she’s not the right agent for it. If the idea or proposal is something the agent just feels isn’t the author’s best work, but the author is insistent it needs to go out, maybe she’ll give in and let editors make the decision. However it’s handled, I think that it’s important for both people to come to the situation with a mutual feeling of respect and trust for what the other has to offer.

There have been only a small handful of times in my career when I really felt I had to dig my heels in and tell an author that I would absolutely not submit the proposal or do whatever it was she wanted me to do. In all instances I really felt like the situation had gotten out of control, not because I was unwilling to compromise, but because there was a lack of respect. One thing I think authors need to remember is that agents are only as successful as their reputations. Editors depend on us to send them great projects, to negotiate respectfully, and to help them, as well as our authors, should problems arise. If I want to do the best job for my clients I need to maintain the reputation I’ve built, and of course I need to balance that with the work I’m doing for you.

I strongly believe that the only way I can be successful as an agent is to be as honest as possible with my clients. Typically I think this is appreciated. If you send me something that’s not your best work it’s my job to tell you and to give suggestions on what I think needs to be done to make it your best work. It’s also my job to tell you what I believe the market can and will support and whether or not what you’re writing might be a more difficult sell, or an impossible sell, than other ideas you have. Presumably when you’re hiring an agent you’re hiring someone for her expertise and knowledge of publishing and not simply a middleman who can shuffle papers on your behalf.

Let me tell you something that will not work for me and, if you really want the best representation, shouldn’t work for you either. It will not work if I send you a list of revision suggestions, edits, or concerns about your proposal and instead of looking carefully at what I’m saying, you respond with something along the lines of, “I disagree. Submit it anyway.” Nope. That won’t work with me. You might disagree and I can respect that. I even welcome a discussion on how we can make the proposal work, if possible. In fact, I think a number of my clients can tell stories of when we disagreed on something. I don’t expect to be blindly followed. I don’t want to be blindly followed. Selling a book takes teamwork and a good team listens to the ideas of all of its members. I also don’t expect to be ordered around. I’m not here at your beck and call. I don’t even get paid until something sells, so if I thought it would sell why wouldn’t I want to get paid?

I come to this job with experience, and while I don’t have a crystal ball any more than you do, I have to be honest with you and with myself about what my limitations are. If I really don’t think something can sell then there’s a pretty good possibility that I won’t be the agent to sell it. Most important, though, I’ve spent years working with authors, publishers, other agents, and editors. I’ve spent years learning the ins and outs of this industry and making connections to keep on top of what’s happening, and certainly I hope that you have respect for that.

Let me clarify again that respect doesn’t mean blindly following someone, it doesn’t mean keeping your mouth shut when you disagree and it doesn’t mean doing whatever someone else says. Respect means really taking the time to listen to what the other person has to say, and sometimes respect means compromise. Certainly there have been times when I’ve compromised with my authors, and definitely I know they’ve made compromises for me. However, what you should know is that the biggest compromises I think most of us make are to the publishers. If we can’t handle respecting each other and coming to a middle ground now, we’re never going to make it once we’re in the middle of contract negotiations, cover discussions, editorial work, or sales, marketing and publicity decisions. Trust me, the work you do with your agent is the easy stuff.

I think all of us have seen that there are authors out there with a real lack of respect for agents and what agents can bring to the table. And certainly, yes, there are agents out there with a lack of respect for the work an author does. Presumably you don’t want an agent who disrespects authors. Well, here’s a newsflash: I don’t want authors who disrespect me.



Author Kelly Moran said...

This is a great post! And very true. So often you hear from authors that their agents don't listen, but the turn to that is agents know what they're doing. Very nice to know that you respect the clients enough to listen, hopefully you'll continue to have clients that return the favor.
This is true to other areas of life and business as well. No one wants someone around who doesn't respect you or others.

Unknown said...

Great post ad very appropriate since I'm shopping for an agent now! Thanks so much for sharing your insight.

I think what some inexperienced authors forget is that an author and a good agent are a team. A team is always stronger when it works together and each member recognizes that the other has something important to offer.

Think of it like a good marriage - united we stand, divided we fall. Compromise is the key in all things, because there is always room for improvement.

I know I need an agent who is experienced and knowledgeable in the field - one with contacts, experience in the trends, courage to take on a fresh voice and concept, one who can help me navigate contracts and direct me in making a wise decision.

It's why any writer who is serious about succeeding would want a good agent. I don't need someone who can just submit my work when I tell them - hell, I can do that on my own and get the rejection quite nicely as well.

A person with success is normally surrounded by smart people who helped them achieve that goal. I plan on getting a smart agent to help me become a successful writer. I don't think any writer worth their salt would deny having a ringer on your side always makes your team stronger.

Which is, of course, why I submitted my story to you ;-)

DL Hammons said...

Tactfully, and respectfully stated. It really hit home for me when you said that your reputation is on the line as much as the authors. Most of us are just fumbling blindly in the dark, hoping that someone will hand us a flashlight so we can see the path we need to follow. I didn't realize that where we shine that light reflects upon its owner as well.

Thanks for the education.

Kimber Li said...

I think this can be helped along enormously by the way the two parties communicate with one another.

Communicatios is often impaired by how one person dealt with the person who came immediately before.

Just because the last aspiring author an agent talked to was a lazy researcher, for example, it doesn't mean I am too.

And just because one agent ridiculed someone's last name, doesn't mean the next one will.

I think it's hard for people to let go and accept each individual at face value. But, if they can, I think it leads to more effective communication, which makes the respect obvious.

What's the use in talking to someone who obviously has no respect and, therefore, will not listen?

I can see how an agent with excellent communication skills would come in mightily handy.

Donna Lea Simpson said...

I've never understood why anyone would hire someone presumably for their expertise and then not listen to them. Doesn't make a particle of sense. The author/agent team has to have mutual respect and a willingness to listen.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I'm only a month into my agent/author experience, but so far I have nothing but the greatest respect for my agent. I have no doubt she has my best interest at heart, so why wouldn't I listen to her suggestions and take her advice seriously? Some people are just know-it-alls and are hard to work with. As the saying goes, "it's their way or the highway."

You, Jessica, have always appeared to be a very understanding and compromising person. If an author is being exceedingly difficult, maybe they need to move on.

The bottom line is, if you - as an agent - are not on board 100+% w/a project, how are you going to sell it? As you said, your reputation depends on your pitching projects that you're totally excited about. What author would want anything less?

Stephanie Damore said...

This is exactly why I think the publishing world will always need agents. Authors need someone, a publishing expert, to be honest with them about their work and career. (Totally not the point of your post, but it's what came to mind.)

Kate Douglas said...

This is such an important post. As an author, it's easy to get caught up in a project--face it, our minds our often bursting with ideas that, once implemented, don't always work as well on paper as they did in that stew we think of as our brains. I've proposed a few things where I'm sure my agent thought I was nuts, but I've learned to trust her instincts AND her experience.

That's what it all comes down to--trust. I write, but I have to trust my agent to be honest with me and to do her best job for me. It's not always easy--another thing that seems universal to writers is that we're all control freaks (I know that's why I love writing--the chance to think I'm in control of SOMETHING!) and turning control over to another person isn't easy, which takes me back to trust. I'll do my job and trust my agent to do hers. So far, it appears to be working.

Rebecca Knight said...

I think C.J. summed it up nicely when she said: "I don't need someone who can just submit my work when I tell them - hell, I can do that on my own and get the rejection quite nicely as well."

We absolutely need agents to tell us the truth and to listen that truth :). How else are we going to be successful?

Mira said...

Another great post, Jessica.

I completely agree. Mutual respect is so important. Both the writer and the agent have skill sets that are extremely valuable and should be treated as such.

I also thought your point about how agents need to maintain their reputation was well-spoken. I actually hadn't thought of it that way, but seems obvious now. :)

I can tell you'd be a great agent to work with. Lots of open, honest communication. :)

The Daring Novelist said...

You sort of said this, but it's worth reiterating.

We aren't just hiring an agent for expertise and knowledge, we're also hiring an agent's reputation!

So it should be a no-brainer to respect an agent's opinion on what she can and can't (or will and won't) sell.

If you want freedom to write something outside of your agent's comfort zone, then be prepared to either sell it yourself, or work with more than one agent. (And make sure your agent is comfortable with that too.)

Nevada Wolf said...

I just want to say that I love your blog! It has helped me tremendously in my process current process of searching for a literary agent. When I needed information on query letters I went to your blog. When I needed information on a synopsis I returned to your blog. Thank you!

What you say is true, and can be said for any relationship in life. Communication and professionalism is very important. A lack of respect can cause a lot of problems in a personal or business relationship. I hope that once I am fortunate enough to obtain an agent that we have a good working relationship.

Anonymous said...

"I’ve spent years working with authors, publishers, other agents, and editors. I’ve spent years learning the ins and outs of this industry and making connections to keep on top of what’s happening, and certainly I hope that you have respect for that."

This more than anything, is what an agent brings to the table.

Voidwalker said...

Do you find that the "lack of respect" you encounter is more from a first time author basis, or previously published authors? I know for me, if I were to land an agent for my novel, I'd take what they say VERY seriously. Last time I checked, they were the pro right?

Jeff King said...

I hire an agent for her skills and experience, to help guide my career down this dark path. If I don't listen and respect that person I am working against myself.

I am a proud person but I respect others because I in turn expect to be respected...

It blows me away that there are Authors out there who act this way. The relationship should work for all parties involved, if it doesn't why bother.