What Drives an Agent Crazy? Part 5

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.

The week of writing about crazy-driving scenarios wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention that sometimes the good folks at the publishing houses drive us crazy. One of those times is when they become in communicado.

I’ve phoned and emailed about a timely, important issue–well, it’s important to my client and me. And the person at the publishing house–be it an editor, someone in marketing, someone in publicity, or the publisher himself–doesn’t respond. Acknowledgment of receipt of the communications would be appreciated! A time-frame in which a respond will be coming would be deeply appreciated.

When agents get together, one of the items we grumble about is that publishers tend not to deliver bad news to our clients, but ask us to do so. However, they love to deliver good news and rarely think to even include the agent in the conversation. For example, if a client is a finalist for a writing award, the publisher happily phones or emails the client. And then the client informs the agent. While I’m thrilled for the client, I’m not thrilled that my part in the publishing process wasn’t noted.

Then there’s the bad news part of the equation. Just today I had to phone one of my clients, whom we’ll call Carolyn, to tell her that the editor she’s been working with for several years hates Carolyn’s next novel idea. The two of them just returned from a time together in which the editor offered only praise for Carolyn’s writing. So imagine how unprepared my client was to receive a phone call from me in which I have to explain that not only was the idea not liked–the word “hate” was used by the editor. Why did this “go down” this way? Because, as the editor explained to me when she called me with the bad news, she didn’t have the heart to be honest with Carolyn face-to-face.

Agents get to announce: canceled contracts; poor sales figures; a publishing committee turning down a project; a tiny advance/royalty offer; an almost nonexistent marketing budget; a title or cover the author hated that the publisher is moving forward with anyway.

It isn’t that I want to be uninvolved in these “bad news” communications; it’s that some of these items could be more effectively communicated with both the agent and the editor on a conference call with the client. If that were done more often, I think authors would have a better sense of teamwork with the publisher and comprehend more why a decision was made. But I also understand that editors don’t get paid to hand authors Kleenex; it really is the agent’s job to pick up the pieces and come up with a plan of how to move forward. I just think it would be nice to have some balance and let publishers explain certain decisions to both the agent and the author–whether that decision is headline-making great news or heartbreaking hard news.

So there you have it; my week of exposing some of the situations that cause eye-rolling in an agent’s life. I appreciate all the feedback and discussion we’ve had.

For those of you who haven’t commented, what’s surprised you the most in what you’ve read? What insight did you gain?

18 Responses

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  1. Agents can be the unsung heros of the whole process.

  2. An excellent series of posts.

    Thanks, Janet

  3. Lori Benton says:

    I think the non response issue makes everyone a little crazy, especially with email, as there’s no guarantee the message was actually delivered. Most of us have had emails disappear into the ether (I once had an extremely important one do so), so that insecurity always lurks in the background for me until there IS a response.

  4. Nicole says:

    I guess your admission today of giving the handling of bad news to you (the agent) and usurping your position to deliver the good news. Huh.

    I imagine you’ve seen it all by now, Janet. Some of it can’t rise above downright ugly.

    Hmm. I guess the solace comes in “You reap what you sow.” You know?

  5. I’ve enjoyed this series! What surprised me most is that some editors tell the author good news w/o filling in the agent. I could see why that would elicit some grumbling!

  6. Janet, I’ve read these five posts with interest and could do nothing but agree with each one. When we start out to learn writing, most of us figure we’ll learn about publishing along the way. We just don’t realize that the lessons will be taught painfully at times.
    I think the keys to solving many of the problems you describe are hard work, respect, and communication (with emphasis on the last one).

  7. a. Surprised me most: how similar an agent’s work is to that of a life-coach or pastor. Similar joys; similar pitfalls.

    b. Resonates with me most: today’s post. Silent waiting for weeks and months with no idea of what’s going on (if anything) between communications. One industry-person once told me “I’ll get back to you tomorrow” which meant 13 weeks later (this was a couple years ago). I’m not complaining; I get it. It’s still painful.

    Is the industry log-jammed because it’s slow or slow because it’s log-jammed?

    Thank you for all your wisdom, and for putting a much more human face on what you and other agents have to do. We’re all teammates doing our best to put our piece of the Jesus-puzzle into play.


  8. Lindsay Franklin says:

    Janet, thank you for this series. The whole week was very eye-opening.

    What surprised me most was that agents ever get annoyed about anything… just kidding. 🙂 I was especially surprised that an editor would have a face-to-face meeting with an author and not share her feelings on a new novel idea, then have you deliver the bad news at a later time. I suppose I can understand having agents deliver bad news to their clients, but if an editor is having a meeting with the author anyhow… I guess confrontation is really hard for a lot of people!

  9. janetgrant says:

    Thanks to each of you for your comments, not only today but also the entire week. I appreciate your responding with a sense of “ah-ha!”
    And,Bill, regarding your question about the industry being slow or the logjam causing the slowdown, the answer is a bit of both. This industry (and some individual publishers) are like a giant cruise ship. They lumber along and are slow to turn. Because publishing is such a complex business (it takes so many elements to line up just right to produce and sell a book)with so many people involved along the way, and with little to guide a publisher in which project to make an offer on, that to those on the outside, it seems to take forever to make seemingly easy decisions. We also have to consider how overworked each person is at the publisher’s–all those job losses added up to each remaining employee carrying a bigger load. So logjams are a part of the scene, but when it’s complicated to make a decision and there’s work overload, that creates more logjams.

  10. Very timely post for me. When you are dealing with a magazine for the first time and they reply quickly at the editing stage. You leave them alone for three months and casually enquire about your story and hear nothing for days. I seriously hope a certain someone is on holiday. They do say patience is a virtue.

  11. Loralie Hall says:

    The whole world of publishing is still a vast wonder to me. Beyond having a few short stories published, most of my knowledge is limited to what I read online.

    I am a productive member of the society I call Corporate America, though. The most illuminating thing to me about your series of entries – something that should have been obvious but didn’t click until now – is how much the business side of writing is…well…business.

    For me as the writer, it’s easy enough to say “this is my art, my baby, an extension of me” but the reminder that if I’m trying to sell, this is still business, was a fantastic one. The whole venture still has to be approached the same way any professional relationship would be (including – hopefully – being friends with co-workers/managers/your agent). Thanks for this series of posts. It’s been a fantastic group of insights.

  12. Janet,

    What a wonderful week of posts. I imagine it was not only edifying to all of us in the trenches of publishing, but great therapy for you to get it all out!

    My guess is there are dozens of agents out there who said, “Preach it, sister. Preach it.”

    We appreciate you.

  13. Kathy Hurst says:

    Dear Janet,

    I have just read all of the posts and it has been an eye-opener for me. I am unagented, unpublished, and uneverything. I think this is the best way to learn about the businees and I appreciate your time and insights.

    I am surprised at how much of this “business” is about relationships. The need for people to be mature in Christ, and treat one another respectfully is paramount. I was surprised to learn how insecure the writers are and that an editor might not be professional enough to tell the truth to someone’s face.

    In a sense it is not so different from being a teacher and conferencing about someone’s “baby”. I have known teachers who would not include important but negative information when they knew it should be brought up in a conference.

    I hope that this information will help me be more realistic when I get agented and that I remember your good advice.


  14. Larry Gray says:

    I am new to your blog and I have enjoyed this week’s series. Your insight into the world of agents is very helpful as I begin to make plans. Thanks

  15. janetgrant says:

    Michael, yes, I had several agents Tweet about my blog posts this week, and one simply lifted a post and put it up on his blog (attributing it to me, of course). So I’d say I hit a nerve with other agents.

  16. Rick Barry says:

    I can’t say that anything literally surprised me. However, it’s interesting and educational to slip into an agent’s POV and view publishing’s ups and downs through her eyes.

    But I do agree with Lindsay, who commented on the editor who spent personal time with an author and couldn’t muster the courage even to hint that she was not interested (actually “hated”) the author’s next idea. If I found this out later only through the agent, it would be tempting to view the editor as two-faced or cowardly. I see authors-agents-editors as partners in a wonderful industry. I prefer honesty and openness. Much better to have an editor say, “Frankly, we don’t like this concept and will never publish it,” before I invest any more time or thought into developing the manuscript.

  17. janetgrant says:

    Rick and Lindsay, my client was disturbed that the editor hadn’t been more forthcoming regarding the “hated” project, especially because the editor had loved the rough outline of the story a few months ago. I try to look at what might be happening behind the scenes when something odd like this occurs. Ultimately, I think the editor is hearing from the publisher that my client’s sales numbers aren’t in an upward trajectory. Often these things are about money and the making thereof.

  18. kim says:

    For me, it’s helped to understand the agent’s pov. I think I understand the agent better which I think will help me in the long run. I understand a bit better as to what an agent looks for in a writer and his or her role in the writer’s life. It’s a lot more complicated than I had first thought. Thanks for sharing.