Let Your Agent Be the Bad Guy
One of the primary advantages of having an agent is that you have an advocate who can handle all the negotiations with the publisher and navigate difficult territory, allowing you to maintain a positive working relationship with everyone at your publishing house.
This positive relationship can have huge implications when it comes time for a publisher to decide whether they want to work with you again. It can also affect how you’re treated— whether it’s with respect, with kid gloves, or with dread. Most importantly, it can determine whether your publishing experience is mostly pleasant and rewarding… or not.
When I say the agent can handle your negotiations, I don’t mean just the contract. I mean every point of discussion or disagreement that comes up between you and your publisher through the entire publishing process. Unfortunately, things can get stressful behind the scenes sometimes. You may feel unsupported by your publisher for a variety of reasons, especially when they don’t communicate with you very frequently. You may not like the cover or title they’ve chosen, you may not think they’re doing enough marketing.
This journey isn’t always a smooth one. That’s one of the reasons you have an agent. So here are some thoughts:
♦ Don’t be impulsive.
If you have an agent, it’s crucial that you avoid dashing off angry or panicked emails to your editor. Send those to your agent! Things can happen that appear inconsiderate, and while there may be no deliberate insensitivity on the publisher’s end, it can be difficult for an author not to lose it, emotionally, when you get hit with something unexpected that seems disastrous. ONE honest email from you to your publisher, that the publisher interprets as “angry” or “emotional,” can sour the whole relationship, which if you think about it, is true with any relationship. You can’t take back what you’ve already said. It can be difficult (or impossible) to recover from saying things you didn’t mean… or simply saying things you did mean but with a tone that can be easily misunderstood in writing.
Your agent needs to be included, and this isn’t a power play to make your agent feel important. It’s for your protection… and it’s also to help the agent protect the work they’ve already done to help you get where you are. If you try to engage in difficult conversations with your publisher without your agent’s knowledge, they can’t protect you from the backlash or unfair judgment, they can’t help advance your career, they can’t negotiate for what you want. You’re emotional about these things, your agent is not. They will find the most tactful and effective way to help you get what you need.
♦ This is a partnership.
And the nature of the partnership is this: The agent gets the business side, the unpleasant parts, dealing with the sticky stuff, being the ogre when necessary. You get to WRITE. And be nice. And be the kind of writer that publishers want to keep on their lists.
You can and should tell your agent when you are so upset that you’re about to blow. I’m not trying to shut you up, I’m trying to get you to vent to the right person.
If you don’t think your agent is doing enough, tell them your thoughts. Give them the chance to explain their approach and/or change it to better meet your needs. If you tell your agent how upset you are, and the agent doesn’t get it or gives an offhand answer, then get very, very clear with the agent and work towards an acceptable solution. You should NEVER think: “Well, my agent doesn’t get it, so I guess the only person I have left to talk to is my editor.” Talking to your dog would be preferable!
♦ Publishers are human.
And that means they may read an email from you, which you didn’t intend to be rude, and interpret it wrong, take it personally, get defensive, and make judgments about you—because they don’t know you. Most of the people who touch your work at the publishing house know one another very well and have tight friendships, but the author is an unknown quantity. If there’s a conflict, those who feel criticized may vent to one another, so the in-house chitchat is not in your favor. It’s not fair, but it can happen. Ideally, in a community governed by grace, judgments of authors under trying circumstances would not be harsh, but just like other businesses, publishing is run by busy people who are not perfect and who may be stressed-out and thinking, “I don’t have time for this.” So don’t give them a chance to think that, or to have a reason to hold a grudge.
♦ If you have an agent… use him or her to your advantage!
As agent Steve Laube says in his 10 Commandments for Working With Your Agent, “Thou shalt vent only to thine agent and never directly to thy publisher or editor.”
Photo credit: https://pixabay.com
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Great post, Rachelle. I’ll be mentioning it during the Master’s class I’m teaching at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ conference this weekend. The course is on Publishing contracts, and while I think it’s critical for authors to understand the contracts they receive, I think it’s equally important for those who have representation to understand the value of letting the professional do his or her job. I have seen many deals skewed by authors so focused on a grain of sand that they missed the waves entirely.
I like what you said about the agent not being emotional about the piece. I think that is a good point. The ms is the writer’s “baby” and may get offended by comments/changes. Having a third party (agent) to help with the “scrapes and bruises” can be helpful in opening the eyes of the writer to see the truth. Thanks for another tip to put into my pocket for the day I need to use it. =)
Thanks for the heads up, Rachelle.
Angry letters have been a bit of a trap for me at times in the past. I hope I’ve learned better.
But in case I haven’t, and the publishing pressure cooker interferes with my common sense–and in case I’m lucky enough to get an agent for my first novel in the revision stage–I’ll let my long-suffering agent take the flak.
[Sorry about that awfully-constructed sentence!]
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. It helps form a realistic expectation for an agent relationship.
I think you’ve describe the role of an advocate for the author, and the importance of communicating professionally about something so personal and so public as the words we write.
You share birthdays with my mom and my niece, that must make you very special–Happy Birthday!
Good advice, and I love the picture selection. LOL
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A great working relationship between an agent and author is a match in heaven, so to say. Such an agent is worth her / his wages in gold, having direct influence over the advancement of the author’s career.
Although I’ll fight hard for someone else who needs help or support, I don’t do a good job of standing up for myself, so I really appreciate an agent who will fight those tough battles for me!
As long as I did not feel as if I were the one being MANAGED, I would love having an agent working on my behalf, allowing me to remain free to write and create.
A good agent is hard to find and worth their weight in commission!
Finding the right combo of author, agent, editor and publisher is what every author dreams of but has no idea how to assemble.
I like everything about this post! The way I see it is, I’ll pay an agent 15% to manage the publishers with me, and that has always included “playing the bad guy”. Of course, I’ll hope my agent never has to, but in the event that it’s necessary, the agent can protect my image by fighting for me, and being more intimate with the business, will probably do it better than I could anyway. Why not let them?
Great post. If/When I have an agent, I will be happy to let said agent handle the hard stuff in the process. An agent will know lots more than I will. I tend to be a do-er, but when I know how things are supposed to work, it’s easier to let an agent do their job than to take things into my own hands and probably mess everything up. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Happy Birthday!
Good thing you’ve been doing all that body combat at the gym, Rachelle 😉
Wonderful post about using the literary agent well. It’s important to preserve my relationship with the editor, but I think it’s even more important to build my relationship with the agent. After all, I want him to be motivated to work for me.
In the end, it’s all about relationships. It’s never a good move to damage relationships.
It works the other way too. I have no agent and had a very difficult contract negotiation with one of my publishers. I managed to stay friendly, if firm, throughout, but he did not. His emails were bullying, abusive and threatening. We made it through, we signed the contract and, who knows, we may do business again. But he will be my last choice!
I always enjoy your posts, mostly because I feel like I’m paddling in a kayak out in the middle of the Atlantic as I search for an agent. I would definitely step back and let an agent do the negotiating and deal with the sticky issues. I think that is why looking for an agent is an important (and lengthy) process and one in which you hope to find someone that is knowledgeable, excited about your work, and willing to help you survive this ocean called publishing.
I’d be delighted to have an agent handle these things for me, and I’d be the best little client ever. 🙂
I don’t mind being the bad guy. I just don’t want to be the stupid guy. I recognize the importance of a good team and publishing, from what I read, involves a great deal of teamwork. Each person on the team has his or her part. I’d be the stupid guy if I didn’t involve my agent in the area where he has expertise.
I believe it is a partnership. Thanks for this wise post.
I can be sensitive at times. On the flip side, I know that my words may not always be interpreted correctly–just ask my sister. Then, there’s that temper–it only comes out when I have been totally wronged–that, occasionally, shows its ugly head. So, I can see the benefit of having “a go between” to help with smoothing things out a bit.
If you have an agent, it’s crucial that you avoid dashing off angry or panicked emails to your editor. Send those to your agent!
I did, and she dumped me.
Ultimately, best thing that ever happened to me. But still.
Yet again another confirmation from your posts. Thanks, Rachelle.
Sounds like very wise counsel.
Great article, Rachelle! I’ve been hearing a lot of talk about agents vs. IP lawyers these days, focusing on the contract negotiation only, and people forget that agents’ roles extend beyond that. Would you say, as a corollary to your post, that it’s therefore really important to find an agent who is able to handle conflict in a professional way? Cuz I’d imagine that an angry, unprofessional email from an agent to your publisher could also do some collateral damage on your career.
Thanks for this info, Rachelle. I’m uber grateful that agents are ready and willing to do the tough stuff (like negotiations and follow ups), leaving me to do the fun stuff (like writing, revising and putting myself out there). Cheers for partnerships.
As I try to enter the world of publishing, one thing I know I need is someone who knows the ropes and can put up with me being naive, being an idiot, asking stupid questions, making wrong assumptions, making bad suggestions… and stopping me before I derail my writing career before it even gets started. Realizing this helped me come to terms with how valuable a good agent can be.
Thanks for the post, Rachelle!
Great post Rachelle. I bet it’s harder in practise than theory but necessary.
Oh, yes, and HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I guess I don’t think I’d ever be one that would send a rude e-mail of any sort to an editor! I get hives just thinking about it! Instead, I’d vent to my husband:-) So my husband will be VERY VERY happy to know that there is someone else I can vent to! (He gets tired of being yelled at for other people’s stupidity… not that I plan to yell at my agent obviously, LOL!)
I think I’m more gonna have the issue of making myself actually send the e-mail of my issue to even my agent… I can’t STAND it when people complain and nitpick over everything so I tend to under complain (my husband being the exception… poor guy!)
But, things like awful covers or tacky titles might need to be addressed. So I’m sure I’ll find my big-girl pants and send my uber-wonderful agent an e-mail about it when (if) the time comes!
GREAT post. It’s so true. When I had my agent, I worked through her if I had questions/concerns. It was nice having someone working on my behalf. To advise me. And sometimes, to talk me down off the ledge. LOL. I didn’t so much view her as the bad guy but more as someone who knows how to interact with editors and publicists. I figure that’s who I’d want talking on my behalf since she’s a pro at it. 🙂 Great post
I will likely never have an agent, but this is definitely good advice to consider. The minute you (general you) get defensive, the minute things start to go sour, with any relationship. It’s best to have low expectations and then be internally thankful when those expectations are met and/or exceeded. That way, nobody gets hurt.
Although it’s hard for me to think of my sweet, demure, petite, feminine agent as “the bad guy,” I’ve left negotiations in her hands, and the results thus far speak for themselves.
Thanks for everything, and happy birthday.
I’ve been in the seat of ‘The Negotiator’ as a Sales Consultant for an IT company. I have had the duty of flying to a client site at a moment’s notice to smooth ruffled feathers over a heated conversation between stakeholder and sales rep. Trust me, it’s an ugly job that no one wants. You wind up with two problems, the issue at hand and the new problem, your angry customer who may can the whole thing over one soured conversation. As an author, I see the publisher as my customer. I need to treat them like a customer and allow my consultant to do their job as expert in the field. Do yourself a favor and remember who your customer is. It isn’t you!
Janet Kobobel Grant blogged about what can happen when you go around your agent on the Books & Such blog yesterday – http://www.booksandsuch.biz/blog/are-agents-prima-donnas/#more-10747
Hey, I’m all for letting someone else play bad cop! Though I can see how it would be tempting to throw my two cents in.
P.S. Happy Birthday! Hope there’s chocolate cake involved in your day.
I would not talk to the editor directly.
I would follow the process my agent suggests.
It’s good that you explained this subject to this extent.
This is SO true. The few (very few) disagreements I’ve had with my publisher have been handled quickly and with finesse by you… and that’s such a wonderful thing!
Those are all of the reasons why I want an agent to handle my writings. I don’t have the time or inclination to handle agent duties on top of my own.
Reason # 1,876 why I’m thankful to have you in my corner. You are an excellent communicator. I’ve learned there are times when it’s far better to let some thoughts sift rather than let them impulsively fly.
This is why I think it’s essential to sign with an agent you trust.
Not only would it be easy for me to step back and let an agent handle such things, I would prefer it!
I think it would be hard for me to step back – especially if I feel that I’m not being heard. However, if I had an agent that could explain what was going on and how it would be handled I would be OK with that. My biggest problems come when I don’t understand what’s going on and can’t get anyone to talk to me. I’d love to let someone handle the sticky stuff. . I’d love to HAVE some sticky stuff! 🙂 I’m a peacemaker and want everyone to be happy. Thanks for the great post.
You? A bad guy? Nooooo! haha
I’m a fiction writer seeking an agent and publication. When I land the Holy Grail and achieve both, I can’t imagine why I would bypass my agent and enter into direct confrontation with my publisher. I’ll have signed with my agent because I trust his/her expertise to navigate the publishing industry and to have my best professional interests at heart. Call me a moral coward, but I hate having to be the bad guy. I’d much rather send my agent into the ring instead.
My answer is yes, I have been in this situation. My book is being published through a self-publisher who I researched before I sighed up.
What I liked the most about this publisher is the fact that they assemble a team that handles your book and each one is in contact with you during their part of the process. But at the head of this team is the first person you make contact with. This person explains the process, walks you through the process and intercedes when there is a problem.
After reading what most agents are looking for and what I should look for sounds like the head of my team. He acts like an agent for the publisher he works for. I have been on the phone for as much as an hour and half with him. He is always there for me when I am upset about any part of the process.
I know this is not exactly like an agent who approaches more than one publisher but I trust his advise and continue to follow it.
I’m a non-confrontational person, so having an agent to deal with any conflict that may arise would be ideal. I think my first call would be an honest girlfriend to find out if I’m over reacting. If my concern was still valid after taking a step back and thinking it through, then I’d email my agent.
Sounds like me. I like to talk to someone outside the situation first to get their input. Once I get a chance to vent, things usually don’t seem as bad as they did before. Of course, I don’t have an agent yet, but this is good advice for the future.
Unfortunately your #1 is so true. I had a friend of several years who tried to engage me through email on something she was having a problem with. I tried not to discuss the problem across email, telling her that she needed to wait, but she didn’t and through that series of emails it was impossible to reconcile. I’m sure both of us think something about the other that isn’t true because of those emails, but we both were so hurt, we couldn’t restart the friendship. It bothers me to this day.
I’m so leery of emailing people anymore if anything might sound wrong/negative. As an agent, if your author wants to vent at you about your handling of a situation or about the publisher, would you prefer them not to use email to you either? Are phone calls any better in that respect? I’d hate to lose an agent using email when that email was my attempt to keep from hurting my relationship with a publisher!
I generally give the benefit of the doubt to a person whose tone in email isn’t great, and I’m sure agents realize this with what you’ve said above, but as you said in your third point –publishers are human–and so is an agent.
Don’t have a dog to vent to, but I got a cat. 🙂
I read your email and was reminded of a somewhat similar situation of mine own. I know it’s your business and not mine, but did you try to reach out to your friend since time has past for both of you to look back and to understand your disagreement better? I ask because you say that it bothers you to this day still.
In case you are wondering, no it didn’t work out for me, although I am a bridge builder, cool and not hot-headed, and don’t rely on hasty spoken words that are difficult to take back. And yes, it’s on my mind. Still.
Joseph, thanks for the concern! And yes, I’ve tried a few times to reconcile, but she isn’t having it. I figure if she ever wants to reconcile in the future, she knows I’m willing. But I have to move on though I find it tough not to dwell on it. As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.
Having an advocate sounds like a wonderful thing for a writer…
Gosh, it would be so nice to have an agent. But really, I’m mostly after some college scholarship/tuition money from my first novel. I’ve always been a decent salesperson and negotiator, but it would be nice to have a real agent supporting me.
This is a great post, and something I needed to read right now.
I have both an agent and an editor. Each relationship is different, and I have to cultivate each in a different way. Each plays a different role, though, and that’s where the line has to be drawn. (It’s nice to know where to put it.)
Thankfully, I haven’t had too sticky of situations to deal with yet, but I do know that the first email I send is to my agent. She always advises me on what to do next, or if she’ll take care of whatever I want to know.
Wise words. As an author, it can sometimes feel like we’re on the outside looking in on parts of the process and as questions and concerns arise, it’s so helpful to have an agent to turn to. Also, thanks for the reminder that editors (and agents) are busy people too!
Ah, it seems like the perfect relationship to me! I think a writer would be foolish to sidestep the relationship with her agent to deal directly with her editor. The writer didn’t just hire the agent to simply sell her book, but to help navigate through each and every phase up to & beyond publication. Wouldn’t it be nice to have that kind of advocate for everything we do?