Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Dance With the One What Brung Ya?

Years ago I heard a very famous and important author, one whom I respect so much, speak at a writers conference and I've never forgotten it. He talked a lot about loyalty. He had the same agent and the same editor for all of his career and not only was this very important to him, but he also felt it was an integral part of his success.

I think that's wonderful, and like I said, I remember it still. And his agent and his editor are both stellar and important members of the publishing community.

But there's a nagging voice inside my head which asks the following: what if he'd had different luck? What if he'd started with a different agent, an agent who was a lemon, or maybe even not a good fit? What then?

In a business where the personal and the professional are melded much more closely than in other industries, I think there is often an expectation of loyalty that perhaps is not so warranted. Publishers are often outraged if successful authors leave them: after all, they are the ones who made said author a huge success, they reason. They feel that the author has taken advantage, and used their hard work to leverage a better deal with another house.

Agents are often furious if clients decide to leave, using the same reasoning. They worked so hard to build an author, after all, and this is how they are repaid?

And some authors are angered if their agent or editor tells them it's time to part ways. They feel abandoned, rejected, dumped. It's been a close personal relationship, they've exchanged hopes, dreams, and baby pictures, and now they are being discarded? The agent after all reaped the benefits of their career for a long time and should stick with them.

And while I understand all these reactions, and they certainly have merit, I do see the other side, which I think is as follows:

This is a business and while loyalty plays a role it is not the only factor. Regardless of the friendships that are formed along the way, this is the way we all make a living. And if anyone: editor, agent, author, publisher, feels that it's time to make a decision which may be painful, but is ultimately necessary, if we are at the receiving end perhaps we should set aside our egos and recognize that it's not personal, it's professional. (I struggle with this myself, don't get me wrong.)

Having said that, I also say this: the fact that it is a professional decision does not mean that it shouldn't be carried out in a direct and kind way. The goal is to part friends. This is a nod to the personal side of this business, the side that means we are all so often friends as we all do our individual jobs.

So here's my conclusion. Be a loyal friend. Be a pragmatic businessperson. And meld them as much as you can: when you have to make tough business decisions, keep in mind that you are often dealing with a friend and act accordingly.


  1. I think this is true in many aspects of life. Treat others as you want to be treated, with respect, kindness, and consideration. Leaving any meaningful relationship is difficult, especially one where you've "exchanged hopes, dreams, and baby pictures." (Love that line!)

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  3. Great post and topic. It isn't talked about often.

  4. Excellent post, Jenny. To me, it's all about communicating. If I have a problem with one of my editors, I certainly don't wait for their yearly evaluation to address the issue. My goal is to make the editor the best editor he/she can be or the reporter the best reporter he/she can be. And one of the ways I do this is to make sure that we are communicating effectively. So if something were not working for an agent or for an editor or for an author, I would hope that this person would speak up and that their concerns and frustrations could be discussed before anyone throws in the towel. I think you owe each other that kind of respect. I agree that it's a business, but many (perhaps most) writers do not get into the business (nor journalists in journalism) to make tons of money. Not that making tons of money wouldn’t be great (I have kids to put through college, after all). But we do what we do because it's a calling. Because it’s part of who and what we are and fulfills us in a way nothing else can. So when something isn't going well, talk to each other. Don't let it simmer and then explode. Am I making sense?

  5. Buffy, I agree 100% percent. After I started my agency, someone fired me in part because of a misunderstanding about what services I would be able to offer now that I was on my own. I respected her decision, but I did wonder why she didn't just ask me about it? Pick up the phone, send an e-mail, however you do it: communicate. Give the person a chance to address and hopefully rectify your concerns.

  6. Good post! I think this is something that is transferable to all businesses, not just the publishing industry!

  7. Agree, Jenny. I think all parties need to remember that everyone wants the same thing. So lets work together to make that happen and, that includes, being willing to look at what's working, what's not working and why, and how can we fix what's not working so that it does. I think my reporters and editors know that I am deeply committed to helping them do the best work of their lives, and I will go to the ends of the earth for them. In return, I expect that kind of commitment and respect from them. But it's by working together and communicating that we can achieve great things – and we often do.

  8. Of course, you're right. I have to say, though, I've had several wonderful editors -- a few of whom I'd follow off the edge of a cliff -- but I can't point to one of them who'd have been the perfect fit for every book I've written. I've learned and grown from each publisher I've worked with, so for me, house hopping has been healthy.

    Agent hopping sucks. It's very stressful, but sometimes it's necessary. I always say it's not possible to be married to the same person for 40 years, because it's not possible to BE the same person for 40 years. You have to hope that you can both remain open and keep falling in love with each other's reincarnated selves. Same dynamic applies to the author/agent relationship. Can we keep believing in each other, listening, and compromising for the long haul? Am I willing to s#it-can a completed ms because you don't love it? Or are you willing to champion a book you don't love because you believe in me as an author?

    Maybe it's a matter of what/whom we're being loyal to: a book, a person, the biz, or the bottom line that sustains the family.

  9. Great post, thanks!

    I don't want to be naive about the process, but my hope is that I will be lucky enough to find an agent/editor/publisher that I'll keep my whole career. It would make sense to me to grow together; learn from mistakes or whatever the problem is and move on as a better team. I guess I have a little Golden Retriever in me - loyal friend to the end!

  10. Wonderful post, Jenny!

    I am just starting the process of looking for an agent. I'm looking for one that's in it for the long haul. Jane Yolen has been with the same agent for her whole career, and that's worked out quite well. As I search agency sites, I carefully read about each agency to see if they want a one shot deal or if they are in it for the long haul. I tend to be a touchy feely person, I'd like to hope that my eventual agent will be a friend and a career manager.

  11. Wonderful post for a very emotional subject.

  12. Joni brings up a very difficult subject, which is what happens if your client writes a novel that you don't think you can enthusiastically represent? No easy answers to that one, but many of us have been there on either side.

  13. Ahh, egos. Such pesky little/big things. Great advice for the business and personal world. Thanks!

  14. Wonderful post Jenny.

    Business/friends is a process. We all have "far weather friends" as we as well as "far weather business friends". A business whom you are able to find a "loyality" to is a rare connections just as a "loyal friend".

    Many people if asked can only count one or perhaps two friends who they really feel a loyalty to. Who like this person you wrote about clearly has found.

    But, it is rare and a true gift, that does not come along often.

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  16. The balance of professional and personal is a hard one. Two things keep it on a equal playing field--trust and respect.

    Great post.