Sunday, September 16, 2012

Please Stop Groveling

I was checking out The Passive Voice recently and came across this article by agent Janet Grant.  The overall tone of the post is one of the issues I have with a lot of agents - it's haughty condescension that implores writers not to make waves and mind their manners or the big bad publishers won't like you.  Here we have yet another literary agent that seems to forget that she works for the writer, not the publisher.

However, it wasn't her article that annoyed me all that much.  I've come to expect this kind of garbage from an agent community that is placing itself more and more above those it purports to represent(there's more of me ensuring I'll never get one of those agents...they don't react well to recognizing that kind of stuff for what it is).  Instead, it was the tone of the writers who were trying to place their noses so far up her ass that the collars of their shirts are probably brown.

Go to the article and read the comments at the bottom.  It's alright - I'll wait.

Done?  Okay, let's take a closer look at what it was that nearly made me vomit.  The tone of all the folks who wrote(at least at first) seemed to be one of "Oh. thank you so much for letting me post on your site.  Since I want you to represent me one day, I'm going to tell you how great you are and how much I appreciate you sharing your insight with a peon like me.  May I please lick your boot clean?"

It was sickening.  The attitude of the obviously unpublished writers who went there to hear the master's words is exactly why a lot of writers are getting shitty deals.  These people are so desperate to land an agent - which is only the precursor to a possible deal...not the publishing deal itself - that they sacrifice both their dignity and independent thought in pursuit of the almighty agent.

Janet makes a couple of points that hold merit, such as a contracted author can't hold a publisher in suspense forever and not finish a manuscript(of course, a counterpoint would be that a publisher shouldn't take forever to pass on the rights to your next work, but that's another post).  However, the way she leads up to even those few decent arguments she makes is to scold the writers whose side she's supposed to be on that they've just pushed too darn hard the past couple of years to get more out of their contracts.

Imagine - a writer that has the temerity to try and get the best deal.  The horror!

However, she then goes completely off the rails and talks about non-compete clauses in contracts.  These are clauses that prevent an author from publishing more than x number of books per year(usually one).  The reasoning given by the publishers is that if an author has more than one book a year out there, that author will cannibalize his or her own sales and hurt the overall profit margin of the work.

Pardon me while I throw the red bullshit flag.

When I read something I like, I almost immediately go and find out what else the author has penned, and then I'll buy that too.  In other words, the presence of more than one work out there actually spurs sales rather than hampering them.  However, the presence of multiple books can cannibalize the sales of a particular publisher, and that's not something the publisher is willing to do unless they can be guaranteed to make gobs of money(rarely guaranteed unless the writer is named King or Rowling).

What these clauses do is prevent the writer from being as profitable as possible and keeping food off the table of said writer.  Does a football coach ever tell a QB to limit the number of touchdown passes he can make?  Does a film studio try to limit the number of films an actor is in?  If I saw something like this in a contract my agent presented me, I'd do two things:
1.  Fire the agent
2.  Run screaming in the other direction

But again, the writers commenting on the post were breathless in their thanks to this agent for limiting how much money they can make.  I was floored at the desperation I saw.

This is what agents and traditional publishers are counting on.  As long as there are more writers willing to let themselves be walked on and then beg for another trampling as opposed to those willing to stand up for themselves and remind agents that they work for us, the status quo will hold.  Publishers know that newbies are so desperate to get their foot in the door, they can demand strangling terms, and if a writer asks for something better, then publishers can kick them to the curb, secure in the knowledge there'll be another poor schlub out there willing to bend over and take it.

Do I want to be published?  Yes.  Do I want my work to be successful?  Of course.  However, I'm not willing to sacrifice my dignity to make it happen.  Publishers have nothing to publish without the writer.  Agents have no one to represent if authors tell them to get bent.  It's time for writers to stop being happy being walked on for the chance to be out there.  Until more people understand that, the writer will always hand over their power to a bunch of folks who've forgotten what the pecking order is supposed to be like.


  1. RD
    The main reason to limit the writer to a book a year is that this is what allows the publisher (and other publishers) "clear numbers" on how much you're selling. I.e. it allows them to know how your book did and if they won the lottery. The other reason is to keep you out of options. I.e. you can't say "Stuff it. I'm going with my other publisher, whose statements, btw, are much clearer than yours." Also, you can't talk back to them as in "What do you mean you can't use my real name because it's burned? My other publisher is using my real name and..." It hurts the whole deferential and desperate thing they like us to have. And you know what? They can look upon my middle finger and despair.

    1. I think the second reason you listed is at the heart of it - limiting choices about going to the competition. Common sense would suggest that they'd be happy squeezing as much money as they could out of their authors; but hey, this IS traditional publishing we're talking about, and I'm not sure common sense factors in all that much here.

      I think that their upper echelons are indeed despairing, but that hasn't reached some of the lower rungs yet. I wonder if they'll all get it before it's too late, or if their arrogance will let them continue in this death spiral they're in.