Thursday, June 24, 2010

Me and Pedro Down by the Arizona Publishing House with Hadji—Part II

I believe in reading fees.

That caught your attention, didn’t it? Even though Robert already stated it, you probably thought I’d disagree just to play devil’s advocate. Not on this. Note that I didn’t say that I charge reading fees, but only that I would if I could. However, as an AAR member, there’s this whole Canon of Ethics thing to consider, and so I can only dream about charging reading fees as opposed to actually doing it.

Agents dream about lots of things, you know? Like repping a bestseller or meeting a favorite author, or living to see the day one of our brethren brings up the discussion of how and what agents get paid. We here at WMLA certainly couldn’t do it, because if we do, the Scary Scam People come after us, as we aren’t a large agency in a large city with a large legal department. However, the fact is that NYC agent Colleen Lindsay brought the subject up on Twitter a couple of days ago, and a discussion of it showed up on Writer Beware’s blog, so now we get to chime in with no worries except for how offended readers will get after scanning this post (yeah, we know you don’t read all of it lol).

The question posed specifically was should agents charge billable hours as opposed to getting a commission. I, of course, have a vested interest in this, since I’m an agent and I like to make money in my chosen field. You can read the whole discussion here, which covers the ideas being bandied about--including the initiation, once again like so long ago, of reading fees--and the positives and negatives of each payment structure.

I don’t have the space here to go into a lengthy discussion of the whole issue, and I really don’t want to. I want to just point out a few items I think should be noted. First, though, how about a little mood music from Paul Simon and Sesame Street to get us into the spirit, eh?

There is no other professional in publishing so reviled and despised as the agent. Even though editors, publishers, writers, and agents all serve their specific purposes, only agents are considered guilty until proven innocent of everything and anything, from taking reading fees to getting kickbacks from editing services to the current BP disaster. The fact of the matter is, I’ve been lied to by more editors, writers, and publishers and caught more of them with a hand in the literary cookie jar than I ever have literary agents. Editors, writers, and publishers have, too, but it serves everyone’s interest if there is just one scapegoat, and agents fill the bill.

I continually see this argument when talking about agent payment for services rendered: If you pay an agent no matter what, the agent could suddenly lose interest in actually placing your work. S/he could just sit there and take your money, because, you know, agents are like that. Because, you know, there have been agents who abused their positions and misled, misguided, or flat out defrauded their clients. Because, you know, agents, are you know…well, they’re agents!

We scalawags are only supposed to get paid when the author gets paid because we can’t be trusted to not take advantage of the writer. Not that we all would, mind you, but the opportunity is there and so as a group, we all have rules we must follow to ensure that none of us will be tempted to do anything bad because as a group we are more suspect than most to indulge in criminal or unethical activity.

Is this making anyone else a little uncomfortable? Ever since I’ve been in publishing as an agent, I’ve heard the same arguments, crude remarks, and lame explanations for attitudes and perceptions about my profession. I haven’t encountered it as a writer that I can remember, and I’ve been getting paid to write since I was a teenager. Reading the “how an agent should get paid” debate brought it all back, and I suddenly realized this is how it might feel to live in Arizona, have tan skin, speak Spanish, and be asked for my papers, or how it might feel to speak Farsi, wear a head covering, and have to deal with hostile glares in an airport.

It’s called profiling, and it isn’t fair. It’s based on prejudice. When one group of people is treated differently and subjected to having to justify their actions or having to overcome stereotypes when others are not, it’s wrong. Telling people they have to prove they belong somewhere—in a state, on a plane, in a profession—while other folks can roam freely in that domain doing whatever is called discrimination. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, there’s a book called To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee you might want to read.

The problem with prejudice is that it destroys not only those who are on the receiving end, but also those who engage in it. Studies support this, and publishing is a good example of it. For years, agents have been told they are not allowed to do anything but focus on placing their clients’ books. We are not allowed to do editing, charge for reading or critiquing manuscripts, or be publishers, etc., or if we do, we must have a list of rules to follow to make sure we don’t do anything wrong or unethical or inadvisable, because, you know, agents can’t be trusted.

Can you imagine telling Chris Gardner that he shouldn't have tried to try to break into the world of finance because of his humble beginnings? Can you imagine telling Leonardo da Vinci he had to focus on painting? How about telling Dr. Mae Jemison she should stick with being a chemical engineer because she wasn't qualified to go into space because she'd never been in space before? How about Dr. Sanjay Gupta, the neurosurgeon/CNN correspondent who picked up his scalpel when covering the war in Iraq to save the life of an American soldier or two? You want to tell him that he can't be trusted to work with his patients and be a journalist, even though he saves lives doing both?

Now there are more agents than ever who have chosen to do their own thing anyway and have gone on to become editors, publishers, and writers in their own right, regardless of the restrictions placed on them. In doing so, they’ve paved the way for other industry professionals to take part in endeavors they’d have never been able to otherwise, including writers who never would have had a chance otherwise.

Most importantly, they’ve produced some good books for readers--that oft forgotten, but oh-so-important group of consumers who truly, for better or worse, control the market (like me and you). Unfortunately, for as many of those opportunities created, there were probably thousands more lost because of the skewed biased attitudes and protocols that were allowed to develop and evolve over the last couple of decades. It’s refreshing to see these phantoms slog back into the mist as we gallop into the new frontier of publishing, the Wild West of literary adventures. As Bette Davis said, though she wasn’t on a horse at the time, “Fasten your seat belts. It's going to be a bumpy night!”

The majority of literary agents aren’t rich, although most people believe that I paint my cat’s claws every day with pure gold fingernail polish. They also believe that if you’re not rich, you’re not a successful agent. Everyone wants an agent like Jerry Maguire before his fall from glory, a wheeler-dealer who ideally has the phone number of every major publisher in his IPhone, who with the punch of a key can sell your book no matter what. You saw what happened to him, didn’t you? If you didn’t, watch the movie, which will clue you in to what agenting is all about (even though he’s a sports agent and not a literary agent).

Or, you can just watch the following clip, which takes less time and gets across a similar message: Sometimes in the entertainment industry, you find yourself doing things you never, ever imagined, like singing a re-tooled love ballad to an unkempt, grouchy puppet while a woman who can’t hear a word you’re singing signs along, instead of playing at the Grammys. You do it because that’s what you want your career to be, not what others tell you your career should be.


Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Me and Pedro Down By The Arizona Publishing House With Hadji--Part One

There was a fantastic forum discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #agentspay yesterday. The discussion started when agent Colleen Lindsay asked the question, "How would publishing change if agenting moved from commission-based payment to billable hours?"

Victoria Strauss followed up this discussion by asking the question, “Are Agents Underpaid” on the Writer Beware Blogs.

And now here’s my take on it… Sharene will chime in later with hers.

I’m for reading fees. There I’ve said it. Five years ago, or even last year, I would have been scandalized for such sacrilege; that I’m in favor of charging for labor expended. I also like the idea of charging for critiques and for edits and for all those other things we now do free of charge that are above and beyond what literary agents are actually paid to do. What has changed? Can we now, please, have this fascinating open discussion in a reasonably calm fashion? Have writers and agents matured enough so that we can sit down together and discuss the hard times we are all now facing?

There is so much I’d like to say and so much bitterness about how shabbily those of us who have tried to have this discussion were treated in the past. I’m clinching my jaws and gritting my teeth while writing this, but I’m going to contain my wrath and stay on point. Hopefully, my anger won’t leak through as I give, in an agent’s point of view, my answers to a couple of the questions posed in the above discussion.

Yes, agents have taken on more responsibilities, but there have not been any payment changes since I became an agent. Probably the reason is that every move an agent makes is scrutinized, measured and quantified and because most larger agents are satisfied with the status quo, while the rest of us have to go along with rules made by writer advocates and agents more powerful. However, now that things are getting tight for many, here comes talk of change. We have always changed a 15% commission and have always felt underpaid for what we do to move a work through the long process from writer to publisher’s editor. We put up with all the crap and do it, of course, for the same reason as writers. We love books and the written word.

As for the specter of abuse, I think it’s mostly fantasy made up by those who have prospered by spreading rumor and innuendo. Secret files, also, don’t help alleviate my disbelief. As an example, I receive spam letters daily notifying me that I’ve won lotteries all over the world and winning a lottery is much, much easier than writing a novel or trying to get it published. I’m sure many fall for these scams, but we all should know better. There have always been and will always be those who try to trick others out of their hard-earned money. Writers’ advocacy groups might have had some successes, but their war against scammers has been about as successful as the war on drugs. Where there’s easy money to be made from those not too bright, there will always be scams. The best advice I can offer to not be scammed is to be more intelligent than those who might prey on you. Isn’t intelligence, after all, the only strength the human species has against predators and hasn’t our unique minds allowed us to move to the top of the food chain? Knowing who is prey and who is wolf, however, is becoming harder and harder to discern.

I’m also reasonably sure there were some, when this discussion began, who suffered from elevated blood pressure. The reason is because agents, over the years, have been portrayed as the enemy and for one of us to have the nerve to actually suggest that we aren’t rich by now is definitely something some writers don’t want to hear. These same writers were and are the kings and queens of popular writer discussion boards and are not too happy that Twitter and Facebook are more civilized places where agent and writer can be friends, instead of enemies--or maybe just frenemies. It’s still an improvement.

As far as job description, ours hasn’t changed. We are still charged with getting our clients published before we get paid. We still lay awake nights plotting and wondering if what we told that editor we spoke with about this wonderful author whose novel we’ve discovered; whether what we said was strong enough to make her consider fighting for it, too. We still hurt when a client’s work is rejected. But what hurts even more deeply is when that wonderful novel we love and have worked so hard to try to get published fails. No, our job has not changed. We still become heartsick when someone whose work we admire must be told that no matter how hard we’ve tried, we’ve still lost the battle. Then, after defeat, we still have to try to explain the wacky world of entertainment to a truly talented individual, even as mediocre and poorly written novels fly off the shelves. No amount of money or a different way of charging for this or that will help ease that pain. A raise of commission rate, reading fees or pay for edits or critiques will never make that painful pill easier to swallow.