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Let’s Admit We Made a Mistake, But Can’t We Still Be Friends?

Breaking up with clients, getting broken up with, none of it is easy. Egos wounded, hearts broken, tongues wagging, reputations flagging. Even when someone you hate fires you, it stings. Not that I would know. Even when you fire someone, you feel fucking awful. Especially when their next book goes on to sell for millions. But awful, too, if they don’t find a new agent. If they are, in publishing terms, homeless. Most people are pretty bad at parting company, even if both acknowledge that it’s better this way. Even if the writer desperately needs to be seen in a new light. Or if the agent no longer knows how to advance his or her career. Where are the boundaries?

Where are the boundaries after you’ve worked on five books with a writer, went to his mother’s funeral, lent him money for rehab, emailed every day during a six month depression, how do you say: it’s just business when it’s no longer working?

Is this messy business of writing and passion and rejection and ego and wit and fear and posturing and hoping and bluffing and talent and belief and love —  is it ever “just business?”

Tell me, what is just business?

24 Responses

  1. For those who care about more than the almighty dollar, it’s never just business. As a reader of your blog and your books, I don’t believe the bottom line is always your bottom line. That said, all writers and agents still need to comprehend reality and practicality. Sometimes the world of publishing gives one no choice but to move on. And look for the next open door.

    Or did that second drink just make me too philosophical?

  2. This is a great question. I once took a narrative nonfiction course in a college setting and my classmates and I approached the critique process with damning care. I don’t think we helped one another at all. We also remained great friends. There seemed to us a fine line between being critical of an author’s work and being critical of an author’s life — his or her vision of the world, his or her perceptions. I tend to think we can never be totally “professional” when it comes to writing, though I think we can pretend to be professional. That is, we can pretend to such hyperactive egos — or to so little emotional investment in our work — that any form of rejections feels like a drop of rain … then go home and hit the vodka. Ugh.

  3. Geez. It’s all so terrible and sad. But you are cool. At least that.

  4. Isn’t it really more about who you can trust when times are rough… as when there have been many passes on a book and it’s really just belief in the author’s vision keeping the agent subbing it anymore…and the understandable point at which he/she runs out of steam cuz she has to make a living too, and much as we as writers understand that we want to be their cause celeb, their passion, the object of their belief almost more than we want to be published.

    Success is easy. Faith is hard.

  5. Geez, lady, when you put it like that… I really don’t see how it could be.

    Agents beware, I’ve never in my search for representation considered it solely about business. Why would I take such a risk with my brain babies? Perhaps it’s an expectation I must have in order to be okay with the process – but I was honestly hoping for something more.

  6. Um, and you’re wondering why you haven’t been able to sit down and write?

    If I had someone who came to my mother’s funeral, lent me money (Gah! You must be a saint under that freaking pessimism!) and supported me emotionally when I couldn’t do it myself – well, even if I was pissed I’d be the one lacking if I tried to cause guilt over a *business* decision. It was rare to find someone who possessed such empathy in the first place. Time to say thank you for all you’ve done and give back with a little graciousness. Because business is business. No matter how mean it seems if you take it personally. And I’m not heartless. Just a realistic idealist.

  7. It’s not just business. That only works before the relationship has started. When you’re in the mutual rejection phase.

    Once you’ve entered the advice-giving, supportive phase, it’s no longer business. But that doesn’t mean it’s good or healthy or that you both wouldn’t be better after breaking up. Just that it’s no longer business.

  8. I believe it can be business. It SHOULD be business, because I think as soon as money is involved any other arrangement just won’t work. It can be friendly business, but not a business friendship.

    • Yes. A business relationship is what i need; what my agent needs too, I hope. Friendly business, as Jen says. But business.


  9. My ex-agent did to some extent try to be my friend (or rather, tried to be friendly) but then when I’d ask hard questions, like, “Why don’t you submit to more than one publisher at a time?” or “Why don’t you phone to follow up after three months of silence?” he’d get defensive and passive-aggressive. I’d have preferred strictly-business to that treatment.

    When he told me he was no longer representing fiction, so have a nice day, he tried three times on the phone to elicit some kind of “It’s okay” from me, and I just held silence or changed the subject to some detail-oriented business thing. If it had been friendship, he’d have made provisions for his client with a new agent. If it had been professional, he’d have done the same. He did neither. It would have been better to have those boundaries in place from the start.

    My husband is an engineer, and no one in engineering says “Where do you draw the line at friendship?” there even though there’s quite a bit of career-counseling and brainstorming and support through difficult economic times. Boundaries are good. Fences keep things where they belong.

  10. I approach it as business, but wish it was more. The intimacy that an agent and author share is awfully sexy. To pretend we’re just fuck buddies seems kinda ingenuous.

  11. disingenuous. As in I do not have enough caffeine in me yet.

  12. Well, I’ll tell ya…If you really did these things–and if not those were pretty specific for a hypothetical (but you are a great writer, so who knows), I would hang on you like a baby-bird to its mamma. Once you get to that stage of kindness, you’ve gone beyond the business relationship, and a breakup is gonna hurt as much as that moment baby-bird gets kicked out of the nest. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness breakup, and there is no way it won’t hurt like hell.

    That said…what an amazing agent/client relationship, like in the days of yore. I think it might be painful that it didn’t work out, but still pretty cool.

  13. When I cut someone loose because they’re not serving my purposes any longer, it’s business. When someone does it to me, it’s totally fucking personal. And I’m keeping a list.

  14. An agent as described in this blog seems almost surreal. For every agent you describe, I would guess there are dozens of agents whose clients sit around wondering what if anything their agent is doing for them.

    I’ve had an agent relationship I would describe as friendly and cordial. I am very loyal and it lasted for several years. She described me as the “perfect client.”

    “Why,” I asked

    “You’re a good writer, I believe in your stuff, you’re receptive to criticism and editing, you always beat deadlines, you do more than I ask, your submissions are professional, you don’t pester me, and most of all you’re fun to work with.”

    My unspoken response was, “Quite applauding and start throwing money.”

    But I have to say that throughout the entire process I never had a warm, comfortable feeling that she was doing all she claimed, that she used what I call good salesmanship which includes good followup, and in my opionon her approach was haphazard (shotgun) at best.

    She recently decided to pursue her own writing and only a few nonfiction projects. So we shook hands and went away friends.

    To lose the agent described my Betsy would have the emotional impact of losing my beloved aunt who helped raise me. But I would have to know that this wonderful person has good cause and that mostly that cause is me.

  15. I know how you feel. You rejected my masterpiece.

  16. Being a foster kid taught me more about business than a kid should ever know. People feed and cloth you, take care of you, for money. Do they like you? Try sorting that one out.

  17. Yeah, those things suck. But I think it’s a choice whether or not to do them with compassion. We all have to do things difficult and disappointing to ourselves or other people. I think not losing your humanity in the course of doing them is probably the only way to survive.

  18. So how should a writer fire her agent? A friend of mine is a few months away from writing the Dear Binky letter, and I’ve read that you shouldn’t get a new agent before firing the old one–but I suspect that’s just agents looking out for themselves. True? False? What should a writer tell the new potential agents?

    • Well, it’s cleaner if you break up with your agent before looking for a new one. But it’s not realistic. And it explains why most people cheat before they leave their marriages. You don’t throw away the old shoe, as my grandmother used to say, unless you have a new pair.

      First, I think you should have a “we need to talk” talk with your agent, especially if you have been working together for a long time. Air your grievances, talk about what you need. If this doesn’t serve as a wake-up call, I would have discreet conversations with some other agents. You don’t want to bad mouth your old agent, but explain what you’re looking for, see if they would be interested in reading your work. I believe this is how most writers change agents. I think.

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