Tuesday, May 7, 2013

To Kill A Mocking...Agent

As the three of you who have followed me for the last year know, I have undergone a stunning transformation from traditional publishing wannabe to staunch defender of the indie movement.  One of the main reasons for this is the distrust I've come to have, through my research, of most literary agents.  A new story in the literary world over the past week has only reinforced this position.

By some standards, Harper Lee isn't a very successful writer.  She has only published one book, and that was over 50 years ago.  However, anyone who has sat through a junior high school english class in that time knows the impact Harper has had on society, for her lone venture in the publishing world was To Kill A Mockingbird.  The impact this story has had on both the literary world and our society at large is legendary.  Even the most cynical among us is usually swept up in the drama of Atticus Finch as he defends a clearly innocent African American accused of rape in the South in the 30s.  I was blown away by the story, and it remains among my favorites.

Alas, not all is a happy ending for Harper and her novel.  She is now in court, suing the son-in-law of her literary agent for taking advantage of her to enrich himself.  The suit says that the man in question, Samuel Pinkus, failed to properly protect her copyright and swindled Ms. Lee into granting him the rights to it.

First, the reason this is even a story is that unlike in most other endeavors, when your agent dies, you as the writer aren't automatically assumed to find a new agent.  Ms. Lee's original agent, Eugene Winick(Pinkus' father-in-law) became ill and died ten years ago.  For those that don't know, once an author is tied to an agent, that relationship lasts longer than the salami you have in your icebox.  When Winick died, Ms. Lee didn't get the chance to grieve and then figure out what new agent to hire, much as we would if our lawyer or favorite personal chef died.  No, the literary agency Winick was part of simply reassigned her a new agent(Pinkus).

The process of finding an agent is long and intense, marked by many more misses than hits.  A lot of agents would like for you to think that they are the gatekeepers and are performing oversight for us poor masses who simply don't yet know the publishing world, but in truth, the writer is hiring a person to represent them.  This relationship has to be solid and nuanced, and you don't just go with the first person who shows interest(even though many writers do just that, leading to innumerable problems).

If your child's personal tutor died, would you just accept whoever was sent over without any chance to vet that person?  I would hope you'd shop around and find that right match.  But in this case, Pinkus simply became Lee's agent.

He then, allegedly, conned her into signing over her copyright to him.  I could go on for days about the stupidity I think revolves around most copyrights and the publishing industry(usually assigned for the life of the author plus 70 years...meaning your great grandchildren would be lucky to get the rights back), but it is inherently incompatible with an agent's duties to have the rights to a copyright.  An agent that owns the copyright now no longer represents the author - they have ownership in the work itself.  Such double dealing should make the hairs on any author's neck stand up.

The only reason we're hearing about this is that Lee is so famous.  Perhaps the dregs of publishing society that don't have as much success needn't worry about this because they're not as successful, but their lack of stature makes this all that harder to fight if it happens.  Ms. Lee will benefit from her stature; how would the rest of us fare?

I hope she brings this guy to his knees and gets the judgment.  I also hope a lot of writers reading this take heed and think twice about their dealings with the agent world.  I'm sure some are great, working tirelessly for their clients, but my continued research has shown me far more of these types of stories rather than of the ones of selfless agents.


  1. Man, and I was just starting the process of finding an agent. Maybe I'll hold off awhile. This kind of stinks.

    1. Dan, my research over the last year has put me off from ever hiring an agent unless I get gobs and gobs of money up front. Even then, I'll be very involved in everything.

      Wait until you see the post I write next about what super-agent Rachelle Gardner posted on her site recently. It'll blow you away.