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Your Agent Isn’t Your Mommy

26 November 2011

Continuing a Thanksgiving weekend reprise of the most popular earlier posts.

A comment at Courtney Milan’s blog caused Passive Guy to reflect on the extreme reactions of some authors to any criticisms of the business practices of agents. These reactions may also occur in response to reports or opinions that traditional publishing is in rapid decline, but are particularly intense when agents are criticized.

Some of these reactions don’t strike PG as the responses of mature business people discussing a business relationship.

Here are some examples from the comments section of the Bookends blog during the disastrous introduction of Bookends’ agent/publishing venture:

[Speaking of one of Bookends’ agents] My gut, my heart, my experience says to trust in her vision because I have faith in her inventiveness, faith in her intelligence, and unshakeable faith in her integrity.

I trust her implicitly to take care of my career…which in turn takes care of hers.

Jessica and I have spent many hours talking about my work and my career. I trust that she has my best interest at heart, and not just because my best interest is her best interest.

The idea that anyone is trying to exploit anyone else deeply saddens me. [After signing with an agent,] I would trust him/her with all my future endeavors. All. Even if they seemed, excuse the turn of phrase, sketchy as hell.

Quite simply, I trust them no matter how our business relationship shifts and changes to keep up with the industry.

To PG, these kinds of reactions seem weird and a little icky, but mostly adolescent, maybe even babyish.

They’re sound like a shy sophomore who has a giant crush on the high school quarterback and slips anonymous love notes into his locker. Bobby can do no wrong because he’s just so cute and wonderful and she knows he likes her because he said hi one time in the hall between classes.

Or (rolling away from sexism), they’re like Napoleon Dynamite after someone agreed to go to the dance with him.

This is a business relationship, not a girls and boys club. The class of trust that speaks to PG in quotes like these is a mommy trust or a clingy best friend trust, a deeply codependent and needy trust. If the agent terminates representation, it will feel like a breakup instead of like switching to a new doctor.

In discussions about the massive changes underway in publishing, some authors resolve all concerns by saying something like, “I asked my agent about this and she says it’s not really a problem.” This reminds PG of little kids who say, “Oh yeah, well my dad says . . . ”

Passive Guy doesn’t know if agents consciously encourage this sort of dependency, but it sure makes for cooperative clients.

How badly must such an agent perform before the author decides to terminate the relationship? If a plumber made a mistake that cost you money, that plumber would be gone. If a real estate agent assured you it would be a cinch to sell your house in 30 days, you’d fire her if it was still on the market six months later.

How can an author make sound independent decisions about his writing career if he “would trust [his agent] with all future endeavors. All. Even if they seemed sketchy as hell.”

When PG practiced law, he would have expected to be immediately terminated if he ever suggested something that struck his client as “sketchy as hell.” He was always happy to be thanked for his services, but would have been creeped out by the saccharine sentiments some authors slather all over the web about their agents.

Apparently, for some authors, love conquers all so long as they’re regularly rocked and reassured.

Feel free to tell Passive Guy he’s crazy about this. He promises he’ll leave your comment up even if you say you trust your agent implicitly.

Here’s a link to the 50 comments to the original post. Feel free to leave a comment here if you like.


14 Comments to “Your Agent Isn’t Your Mommy”

  1. I have a trad-published friend who made the comment “My agent takes care of me.”

    My reply – “You mean like your first husband did?”

    So yeah, I agreed with the “abused spouse” comparison long before it was proposed.

  2. I am not so sure it’s a dependency so much as a deep ego attachment. The biz (supported by the conventional wisdom of a million writing panels and websites) so long taught writers that getting an agent was the penultimate achievement, not merely getting published or having a viable writing career. You often find it’s the bizarre refuge of the unpublished, as well. (“We’re not selling anything, but my agent still has hope for the next…”)

    Sometimes you see writers put it in their little Twitter bio: “Repped by so and so.” I can’t help but lose a little respect for those writers–not because they have an agent, but because they feel the need to say so. Like they need to not only have the badge of approval, but to make sure you know they have the badge.

    It’s not an easy road no matter which way you go, and personally I don’t care how many agents you have or don’t have–because I don’t think every writer is equipped to navigate the future, just as some of those hitting big right now didn’t have the tools or timing or luck to compete in the past world. Tar pits exist for a reason.

    • In some hopeful writers circles, getting an agent is almost celebrated more than getting a book contract. And I know parents of talented young children who talk more about their agents than they do about their children.

      • You’re right about the celebrity of getting an agent. I remember reacting with feelings that would be truly hard to describe when I signed with one. It was SUCH validation.

        The need of writers for some sort of validation of their worth is one of the real problems in this whole paradigm.

        • Luckily a reader can now directly validate you with a purchase! Is an agent or publisher really any more qualified than the average reader to say “This book is good”?

  3. The culture that pushes getting agents as a form of achievement is utterly wrapped up in this “agent as mommy” thing. The reason getting an agent is better than getting a book contract is because getting an agent means getting someone who will take care of you for the rest of your life. Getting a book contract just means one more thing you have to worry about and deal with yourself.

    And, let’s face it, the traditional writing culture is VERY much like being a woman in the 19th century. Catching an agent is like catching a husband. You’re a failure and a hopeless wallflower if you don’t do it, it’s your crowning glory, and by the way, he will take care of you forever and ever so you don’t have to grow up and take care of yourself.

  4. Once publishers got so uppity and wouldn’t accept unagented manuscripts, didn’t that make it mandatory to have an agent if you wanted to approach most houses/get a contract/make money/eat and survive to write again?

    It’s about survival, isn’t it? Stockholm Syndrome is all about not wanting your captors to kill you so the instinct is to submit and identify with them.

    These people, the agents and the editors who have no regard and no compassion for writers, have been holding our futures hostage. No wonder some people got screwed up in the process. The psychological stress is enormous.

  5. Hi PG 🙂

    I totally agree with you. Ok, how wouldn’t I, since I have a business background…

    But, besides that, it is a matter of common sense.

    However, the issue starts earlier, before the “agent/publisher” involvement. It starts with the attitude “my baby” regarding the book.

    I have mentioned this more than 100 times: “The book you wrote is NOT your baby. You wouldn’t sell your baby, right? Right???”. But, unfortunately, there are many authors with such a mentality.

    So, PG, you shouldn’t be surprised. As long as the book is “the baby”, the agent will be the “mommy” or “daddy” and the publisher will be the god or at least an archangel.

    Since these authors don’t treat their work in a business-like manner from the beginning, don’t expect them to treat the relationships involved with their writing as business relationships.

  6. You’re right PG. Statements like this one are scary. This is the type of author who might wake up one day and find her/his writing career and/or money gone and then wonder what happened. “Sketchy as hell,” hmmm, that says it all.

  7. I think I’ll write a novel of romance between an agent and a writer. Title: “Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle”

  8. It frustrates me, too, to see authors’ eyes glaze over when I say (again and again) that publishing is a business. They often look like I’ve just blown out the candles and turned up the lights in the middle of a date. I wonder if it’s the same in other creative businesses.

  9. Love this post. I believe the implicit trust in (very untrustworthy, positively shark-like, IMO) agents stems from the fact that it is such a pain in the butt to get an agent. You go through a year of rejection hell and then you get one, and you can’t imagine firing the agent because it was such a pain to get one in the first place.

    I have had two useless agents so far. I am more than disheartened by the whole agent thing (and I used to work for an agent!). I think the question now is: if agents aren’t selling our mss or are giving us bad advice, why do we need them? Publishing needs to move away from agents, in many cases–or so I think. Why do we really need another layer of gatekeepers? It turns out that no one really knows what is going to sell…it’s just a big mystery, after all.

  10. This just in from the early 20th century:

    “Buggy makers reassure suppliers about their commitment to horse-drawn carriages and the industry’s bright prospects.”

    Uh oh…

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