9.29.2005

Firing your Agent!

A Snarkling who has devoted himself to a life of crime offered up this link in the comments column: Craig Mazin on firing your agent

One of the things that really struck me was how deftly he described what I've been trying to in so many of these posts:


What concerns me is that there is often an imbalance of psychological power between writers and their agents, and that’s because agents are professional manipulators and writers aren’t.


Not that writers are poor poor pitiful me at all.
But you have to remember, we spend our professional lives being persuasive and not taking no as the final answer very often. It's hard to turn that off when dealing with clients. Let alone the county clerk who seems to think Miss Snark should serve on jury duty.

17 comments:

kitty said...

Maybe Mr. Sponge Worthy will be in the jury pool, too.

Gina Black said...

You might be interested in what Deidre Knight wrote for Romancing the Blog today.

Miss Snark said...

oh wow Gina, that post from Deidre Knight is amazing. Particularly the part about 9/11.
Thanks!

E. Dashwood said...

After reading Mazin, I now understand why Miss Snark, professional manipulator that she is, won't do lunch with her clients.

harridan said...

What an awesome post by Deidre.

Agents often get a bum rap, because honestly, there are Bob Sugar's in the world. This 1-10% darken the image of agents in general.

I know they exist, because I met one up close at a convention. The woman was ruthless and obnoxious, and her overbearing behaviour at an event a publisher put on to provide exposure to their company and their authors ... well let's just say it tarnished her clients reputation with said publisher.

The woman clung to the side of the head editor at an event she wasn't even supposed to be at, pitching her client's greatness. The editor couldn't mingle with the invited guests, which was exactly the purpose of the fete.

On the other hand. Good agents put up with a lot, and are as gracious as they can be when faced with an ugly situation.

Case in fact, the same conference had a tribute to agents luncheon. An agent was seated at each table, with pubbed and un-pubbed filling out the seats.

We had a great well-known NYC agent at our table. He was funny, attentive, and we all just talked about the business and trends in general.

Until ... one young woman pulled out the first three chapters of her manuscript and thrust them under the man's nose as he ate his salad. "Could you read these?"

The rest of the table went into stunned silence.

To his credit, he accepted the pages and even read them as his entree chilled. He did not show any sign of upset at all.

When he finished, we all tried to turn a deaf ear as he took the time to explain what he felt lacking in the opening chapters. He was kind and very careful how he chose his words.

Then came the bomb. The woman proceded to explain to him that he didn't understand what she was trying to get at in those pages, and that the rest of the manuscript would make it all clear. This after the man forgave her breach of etiquette and actually read her pages immediately. And offered his expertise opinion!

What it all boils down to is professionalism in your endeavors. Be it on the agent's end, the publisher's end, or the writer's end.

Horror stories abound.

Kristin said...

Oh yuck, what a horrible story, harridan. I can't believe there are people out there like that. Does this kind of thing happen often to our Miss Snark, I wonder.

Miss Snark said...

I'm very surprised at what the agent did frankly. The writer has an excuse: she didn't know any better. But the agent? Giving someone feedback in public? Yikes.

This never happens to me. I don't take anything from anyone ever except by mail. I have a whole spiel on why, and it's all funny and charming but bottom line is I keep myself OUT of this kind of humiliating situation.
I'm cringing just reading it.

Bernita said...

Harridan, I suppose a person who did "A" at an event such as this inevitably will do "B".
Met a publishing head over the weekend, and afterwards wondered if I'd let ingrained manners, appropriate venue and all that stuff get in the way by NOT mentioning I was a writer...
Wouln't mind hearing some of Miss Snark's horror stories also. Such are reinforcement.

harridan said...

Miss Snark,

The agent actually whispered his opinions to said person who was sitting right next to him. We knew that it wasn't she wanted to hear when she argued loudly and vehemently.

And yes, he probably should have said "send it to my office", but until that point we'd all been having a lovely time. Lots of discussion about chick lit and hen lit and such. Lots of laughter. I think on the spur of the moment he went against better judgement. He's not a newbie to the game, so I truly believe he was trying to give some pointers to a new writer. Smart in that setting? Probably not.

And Bernita. I don't think "mentioning" that you are a writer would have been inappropriate. If said publishing head did not then pursue the topic of your writing, you would know to leave it be.

Lilith Saintcrow said...

There is a perceived power imbalance, but I don't think it necessarily comes from the agent's persuasiveness. Rather, I think it comes from authors taking the first agent to accept their work without a getting-to-know-you kind of conversation that clearly sets out what the author and the agent expect from each other. I always told myself I wasn't begging agents, I was auditioning them (as fanciful and stuck-up as that sounds.) Of course, I didn't put that in my query letters, but it did mean that I was a wee bit more psychologically prepared when I did discuss with an agent where I saw my career going and what kind of relationship I wanted to have with her. I really think that kind of negotiation is sadly lacking, and that's what creates so many problems.

Of course, I also told myself that it was better to have an agent that was really excited and passionate about my work as well as someone I could see having lunch or a few drinks with than having an agent I didn't really get along with even if they replied kindly to my query- even if the latter replied to me first. Which was almost a lie, I was desperate as all writers are. *G*

Fran said...

...Guess I'm the only one who sees (or at least will admit to seeing) that Mazin's quoted comment is potentially flawed: in my opinion, writers are like professional manipulators too. Agents often manipulate editors with their efforts; writers often manipulate readers with theirs. To me, writing is about persuading readers as much as it's about simply communicating, persuading readers to believe in fictional worlds, to believe in ideas, to disbelieve in certain other ideas, to like certain characters, to dislike certain other characters, to have no feelings on still other characters, to agree with certain positions, to disagree with certain other positions, and to have no feelings on still other positions.

It often seems like many people operate at two extremes in writing (and in the rest of life too): on the one hand they take too adversarial a stance with agents, publishers and producers; on the other hand they take too friendly a stance with agents, publishers and producers. I see many middle paths between and outside the two choices.

harridan said...

A very valid post, Fran.

I'm of the type who is too whimpy with publishers.

Not a good character trait for this biz.

Elektra said...

You're going to kill me, but I took Bookner's advice and created an Anti-Bookner blog. It's not a flame; it's commentary on his web site. He was just so rude, I had to do something. antibookner.blogspot.com

Existential Man said...

I would say that the imbalance is caused not from the agent's persuasiveness or an author's desperation leading to taking the first legitimate agent who shows an interest in his work. Rather, it is due to the structure of publishing and the gate-keeping system wherein agents are the entry level guards of the keys to the kingdom.

While technically an agent works for the author, in reality, the agent is in a more powerful position because of her ability to grant the first level ticket into the big league game. Few authors are able to get into the game through direct submission to an editor.

Simple supply and demand dictate that agents are more powerful than authors--way too many authors want to play, not so many agents to help give them the entrance ticket. It is only when an author proves herself with the marketability of her work that the power imbalance between author and agent begins to become more equal. It is no wonder that authors look up to agents and view them as more powerful than desperate authors.

Second point regarding the comment by Fran on manipulation. Persuasion is not manipulation. Readers knowingly and willingly enter a state of "suspended disbelief" when they read a novel. An author using the usual techniques to draw the reader in, etc, does NOT constitute manipulation, which is more of what one person does in a shrewd or devious manner to another without the knowledge of the one being done to and for the gain of the manipulator.

Better to say that authors try to be persuasive than to compare them to editors or agents, who in the course of their regular business with each other, may not always tell the whole story, each for their own purposes.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

I think I agree with existential man, but I let you know for sure, if and when I secure an agent.

Fran said...

Existential man:

Writers like George Orwell, Colette, D. H. Lawrence, Ayn Rand--I think their words and intentions often seem manipulative; they intended to sway people to certain beliefs or courses of action or both, and they didn't always do it obviously. From what I've read, Lawrence and Colette were manipulative in personality and action too, even very controlling at times. Many political nonfiction writers are also manipulative in their writings, at least IMO.

Readers may not intend to become subtly "brainwashed" when they read novels, for example, but I think they can nevertheless come out being subtly brainwashed, even though they simply intended to suspend their disbelief while reading. Whether or not many writers will admit this sometimes happens doesn't necessarily mean that it ain't ever happening, that writers aren't sometimes doing this, even unintentionally. But I think a significant number intend to do this, intend to manipulate readers into accepting/not accepting a position, cause, idea, character, etc., in real life, outside of books.

I think I understand what you seem to be saying, like persuading is done more openly whereas manipulating is done more deviously, like readers may often know when a writer's using persuasion but not when that writer's using manipulation. I just don't think that's always true; the "lines" can blur between the two actions. Persuading and manipulating aren't necessarily the same thing, but they can be, just maybe one is usually a more gentler form than the other, or one can be a subset of the other. Manipulating could be the gentler form or persuading could be, depending on the way you look at the definitions.

From The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary:

Manipulate: 1) handle with skill, 2) influence, manage, 3) adapt or change

Persuade: prevail upon by argument or entreaty; convince

From answers.com:

per·suade (pər-swād')
tr.v., -suad·ed, -suad·ing, -suades.

To induce to undertake a course of action or embrace a point of view by means of argument, reasoning, or entreaty...SYNONYMS persuade, induce, prevail, convince. These verbs mean to succeed in causing a person to do or consent to something. Persuade means to win someone over, as by reasoning or personal forcefulness

From http://www.thefreedictionary.com/manipulate

1. To move, arrange, operate, or control by the hands or by mechanical means, especially in a skillful manner: She manipulated the lights to get just the effect she wanted.

2. To influence or manage shrewdly or deviously

Webster definition of influence:

n. power to control or affect others by authority, persuasion, example, etc.

Existential Man, I think you may be focusing on "the way" usually seeming different in the definitions of persuade and manipulate and their variants, and I'm focusing on "the goal" usually seeming the same in the definitions. I think the idea of "influencing someone toward end goals" seems a commonality in both persuading and manipulating.

IMO, even outside their specific written works, a significant number of writers often behave manipulatively when querying agents and editors--I mean, I don't think this is a big newsflash. Writers regularly slyly lie, exaggerate, create false impressions, omit stuff, etc., seemingly to induce a certain result: eventual publication. Whether that manipulative behavior ultimately proves successful for many writers--that's probably another story.

Largely-a-Nihilist Fran

Existential Man said...

I agree with you that political non-fiction certainly can be consciously aimed at manipulation of readers through lies, deception, etc. My response was made primarily with fiction in mind.

And I also agree that authors seeking representation are not beyond lying to agents, playing them off against one another, exaggeration of their credits and contacts, etc.

As we all know, the whole marketing function of publishing (and sales in general) is built on creating an image that will sell its product. This image--derived from a bookcover,flap copy, an ad campaign, book buzz, etc.is not always an accurate portrayal of the product--especially in non-fiction. We could even say that to the degree that marketing "works" it has accomplished its task of making a book look bigger,better and more important than it really is--whether it be fiction or non.

Thanks for your reply.