Agenting Changes

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From Kristine Kathryn Rusch:

This past week I got one of those letters. Someone wrote to me to tell me how great his agent is and what a great deal his agent got him. Not for his novel, but for his movie option.

I get “my agent is great” letters all the time, but usually they’re about book deals. If someone feels the need to write to me about how great their book deal is and how I don’t know anything about traditional publishing anymore, more power to them.

I figure someone who feels the need to write to me about this stuff is actually hearing me, and is writing to their future self. Some day, that letter will come back to haunt them.

But this one, the one with the movie deal, made me feel sad. This guy was very careful to tell me that he was indie published with his books, that the agent reached out to him because his book is so good, and the agent got him the best deal ever.

I have no idea if the agent got him the best deal ever. I do know that the option sounds weird or maybe it’s the way the guy communicated it. There are four payments involved. Until this week, I had never seen an option agreement broken into four payments, the way that a book publishing agreement is broken up. This week, I heard of two such deals.

Let me focus on the email guy first. Maybe the guy didn’t understand what he was seeing (which is likely). Maybe he misunderstands that the first “payment” is actually for the option and its term, the second “payment” will be to seal the actual deal if there is one, and the third and fourth “payments” are due and owing on things like principal photography or distribution or something.

Or maybe the guy got a new kind of option, one that might be coming out of what I’m going to write about below.

I really don’t know, because, as I said, I’m speculating. I don’t want to see his deal. I really don’t.

The reason? He’s a new writer with an agent who approached him and who got a deal that paid, in the new writer’s words, “a lot of money.”

Generally speaking, “a lot of money” in movie terms equals a major loss of rights. For all I know, this guy got tens of thousands of dollars up front…and will not be able to license any part of his book until this option ends (or, in some cases, even past that. Yes, these deals can be bad).

Why am I concerned? Because of two things that hit the trades recently.

First, the Association of American Literary Agents changed their Canon of Ethics. For those of you who don’t know what AALA is, it’s a loose organization of literary agents. Unlike many organizations, AALA has no real teeth and honestly, no one really cares about them.

I’ll bet those of you once had literary agents didn’t even know the organization existed. It used to be AAR (the Association of Authors’ Representatives) and back then, its president was the agent who embezzled from me and half the science fiction field. So excuse me if I think little of this organization, even now.

However, I’m telling you about it because the organization changed its code of ethics…ostensibly so that it can diversify its membership. Publishers Weekly says that the change came “in the wake of an anti-racism workshop and a retreat taken by the board of directors.”

If they had simply said that they were trying to diversify by bringing in younger agents (read newer agents), then the change wouldn’t be as insulting as it is. But think about this for a moment: If this was only about younger (newer) agents, then nothing would have happened after the anti-racism workshop. But the idea here, which is so very New York publishing, is that the standards had to be lowered for people of color.

. . . .

Anyway, that’s not the most head-shaking part of these so-called ethics changes. The other head-shaking part is buried in the middle of the press release.

While AALA continues to advocate for a future where commissions on royalties and advances will sustain an agent, many literary agents currently struggle to support themselves by agenting alone.

Lookie this: “agents currently struggle to support themselves by agenting alone.” Yep, that’s right. Traditional publishing deals have gotten smaller, the terms have gotten worse, almost no one earns royalties anymore, so AALA has decided that an agent is now

any individual employed by a literary agency–including members of contracts departments, accounting departments, and other teams within agencies engaged in the support of author care.

And…an “agent” can now provide “editorial services for a fee” to any writer who is not a client. If that writer becomes a client, then the agent must refund the fees. Of course, there’s no timeline on the refund. If you want to see how the AALA is negotiating this bit of garbage, look at the flowchart at the bottom of the Canon of “Ethics.”

These aren’t ethics. This is an organization that’s trying to continue to get its dues and to provide some people whose job no longer has relevance with cover.

The point that I really want you to see here, though, is this.

Agents struggle to support themselves on agenting alone.

Link to the rest at Kristine Kathryn Rusch

PG has mentioned this before, but will do so again.

There are no qualifications or licensing requirements for literary agents. None. Someone can walk out of prison one day and start working as a literary agent the next day.

If an agent acts unscrupulously, serving the agent’s needs and benefits at the expense of the author/client, nobody can make the person stop being an agent.

There is a remote possibility that an author could persuade law enforcement authorities in New York City investigate the agent’s behavior as a crime, but PG wouldn’t advise holding your breath while waiting for that to happen. The New York City Police Department just released crime statistics for the city which indicate that it may not be prioritizing literary agent misconduct:

Overall index crime in New York City increased by 31.1% in June 2022 compared with June 2021 (11,073 v. 8,448). Six of the seven major index-crime categories saw increases, driven by a 41.0% increase in grand larceny (4,467 v. 3,168), a 36.1% increase in robbery (1,548 v. 1,137), and a 33.8% rise in burglary (1,279 v. 956).

Here’s a link to Kris Rusch’s books. If you like the thoughts Kris shares, you can show your appreciation by checking out her books.

2 thoughts on “Agenting Changes”

  1. I must disagree with something in PG’s comment. He said “Someone can walk out of prison one day and start working as a literary agent the next day,” which is horribly overoptimistic. I know of an individual who hadn’t completed their custodial sentence before they started working as a literary agent.

    And then there’s the deeper problem. A voluntary membership/trade association’s “Code of Ethics” is absolutely worthtless unless it is actually enforced. That necessarily means fairly public consequences for miscreants…† including violations other than assault, addiction, or embezzlement, too. If those are the only causes of discipline one can glean out a several-years-long record, there is at best some willful blindness (and at worst an ethics code not worthy of the name in the first place).

    † Don’t worry; I’m not picking just on literary agents. I will mutter very darkly about the organized Bar after pointing out that it took a certain state bar authority over eight years to even open a formal inquiry about the fitness to practice of a government official who was impeached (unanimously) and removed from office for overt corruption and bribe solicitation. He was not, however, asked to resign from the voluntary state bar association. And as to “chambers of commerce” and the real-estate industry, their attitude seems to be “There but for a better document destruction policy (and more effective defense counsel) go I.”

  2. But the idea here, which is so very New York publishing, is that the standards had to be lowered for people of color.

    If only the idea was limited to New York publishing…

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