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I Love You For Who You Are

Dear Ms. Lerner:

Are there different ‘types’ of client? The midlist author with no idea his career is in irretrievable decline (although you’re fully aware)? The literary author trying to deny the fact that she only had one book in her? The Shotgunner, who sends you a different idea every month? The Hibernator, who you don’t hear a whisper from for years, until a new manuscript arrives at your desk? I’ve always wondered if agents have a ‘Field Guide to Clients.’

Also, what percentage of clients sell a couple of books then never write anything else? What percentage keep writing, but stop selling? For how long?

Sincerely, W

Dear W:  Clients, like agents, come in all shapes and sizes. Insecure, egotistical, driven, lazy, perfectionist, intrepid, resourceful, blaming, determined, fragile, headstrong, complaining, stoic,  you name it. I think I even wrote a book about it. More interesting is to watch how any given writer responds to going through the process of sending  out his work, looking for an agent, getting a publisher, getting his edits all the way through to post-publication. Every aspect about the writing process is character-defining.  For instance, when one writer gets rejected he takes his marbles and runs home. Another swears he will never quit as a result of getting turned down – he doesn’t care by how many. One writer gets a great review, believes his own press and never writes another true word. Another writer gets a great review and develops a case of stage fright, never writing another word. One writer gets slammed by reviews and becomes a pit bull, another grows timid and eventually silent. Your books slips beneath the waves: do you?  A Field Guide to Getting Your Ass Kicked is more like it. A Field Guide to self-loathing and doubt, a guide to self-flagellation and self-aggrandizement and hemorrhoidal hell. A field guide to every insecure thought and jealous rage. A field guide to my brilliance, to my ass, to misanthropy, my loneliness, my love. What species are you?

Dear Lady, Can You Hear the Wind Blow?

Dear Betsy:
What is the right way to end a relationship with an agent/representative?
How can a writer assess whether the still, small voice saying: “Enough is enough, time to move on” is the voice of reason, and not the voice of: “My dead father didn’t love me enough, here’s a cry for help that’ll show ‘im!”
When a representative seems to already be a step ahead of the game, not returning emails and phonecalls, leaving the writer to make submissions and handle follow-up on her own behalf, and generally projecting an air of radically depleted enthusiasm, must a writer make the effort for face-time?
Or does a writer who breaks up with a rep via email doom herself to the Permanent Asshole File?
Some friends have advised that it is better to have a non-functioning relationship with an absentee rep than to have no rep at all, and that one should only cut ties once a replacement is in the wings. However, I saw a dating guru on reality TV who advised that to meet Mr. Right, you need room in your closet and a clean house. Where do you fall on the “take what you can get until something better comes along” spectrum?
Thanks for any hard-won wisdom you can spare,

Dear A:
Break up. Now. In your situation, this person is hurting more than helping. If there was history, past deals, happy times, bad times you weathered together, well that’s another story. But so far this representative has not gotten you work, has not been there for you, has not followed up, etc. Now, in fairness, if he or she has tried and failed for some length of time, it is possible that he or she has hit a wall. Which, of course, is another reason to amscray. Is an abusive husband better than no husband? Even Robin Wright Penn finally said no can do.

Does one window close and another open? Sure, especially if you’re sitting in the last row of an Al-anon meeting and someone with Munchkins comes in and sits down next to you. Whenever a writer comes to me on the verge of leaving his or her agent, I always counsel him or her to talk it through, maybe the person needed a wake up call, maybe lines of communication got clogged like my purple bong circa 1978. That said, by the time most writers start looking for a new agent, they are usually past the point of working things out. It’s probably time for a divorce. Since you two don’t have any kids, it should be pretty clean. I’d send a handwritten note over an email, but that’s just me. From what I can tell, breaking up via email is the norm.
Good luck, Betsy
p.s. any break-up stories you feel like “sharing”?

Rubber Chicken

Dear Friends of My Blog:

Today’s post writes itself. At 11:45 I headed down Fifth Avenue on foot. I was wearing my one and only suit, my lucky gold watch, and in my pocket an invitation to the Barnes & Noble 2009 Discover Great New Writers Awards. I think you can see where this is going…Winner of this year’s Discover Award is the handsome and gifted Dave Cullen for Columbine. It was very Oscar what with the nominees and fancy writer announcers and suspense as they called third, second and first prize. I loved it when Dave thanked me. I looked down at the floor, feigning humility when I was really pumped and teary at the same time. I looked up and everyone at the table from Hachette was clapping. And I started clapping. And then I had an out of body moment when I thought for just a second that I was an extra in Rosemary’s Baby. That’s normal, right? Dave got a crystal sculpture that could easily double as a weapon in a pinch. That motherfucker looked sharp!

Dave, for your ten years, for your exhaustive research, for your incredible writing, for never giving up when it was well past time to give up, for your hugely compassionate heart and the integrity with which you told this tragedy: I salute you.

Winner, Non Fiction, 2009 Barnes & Nobler Discover Award

Money for Jam

Ten years ago this month, I turned in my blue pencil and became an agent. I never thought I could be closer to writers than in my capacity as an editor, but I have found that the agent relationship can be even closer. You are there at the inception of a career, or you are stepping in mid-stream and trying to rebuild a career. You spend your time as an interpreter, negotiator, editor, shrink, friend, mother, principal, ping-pong partner and bank. You witness the passing of parents and the birth of babies. You know when the writing flows and when it falters. You know your writers’ strengths and limitations, when they’ve had a breakthrough and when they’ve hit a wall. You track a mood swing from self-aggrandizement to self-flagellation and back again many times over the course of one conversation. At a reading, you feel as if you are watching your child’s first recital. You wildy applaud as he picks up his first literary prize. You are celebrating a great review. You are going to a memorial service, an emergency room, a motel in Texas. Just when you think your tank is empty, a pile of pages arrives that takes your breath away.

I’m curious how you feel about your agents, but please don’t mention names or call anyone a douche. And if any of my clients feel compelled to write in, lay it on thick.

Count the Headlights On the Highway

A client accused me of being a tease today. It was warranted. I dropped a hint about some positive feedback for his project during my trip to LA. I think I might have said that they were creaming for it in my usual tasteful and delicate way. The last thing this writer needs, as he is polishing his manuscript for submission to publishers, is for me to dangle diamond studded carrots before his eyes.

Am I tease? I guess I wanted him to know that I was pitching his book, and that people seemed genuinely enthused so far as you can use the word genuine with respect to anything in LA. And I’m not going all negative on Hollywood. I’m not. But I put the Hollywood cart before the Publishing horse and it was a misstep.

I think it’s important to know what information to give your clients and when. They are not children, but there’s only so much a person can take. I also e-blurted it out because it’s fun to drop big Hollywood names. But again, stupid. It sets up unrealistic expectations. Though I’ve got to say, I would have never lasted 25 years in publishing if unrealistic expectations didn’t course through my veins.

Would you rather know more or less? Only concrete information or every nibble? Tell me everything or wake me up when it’s over? Straight up or with a twist?

You Know Sometimes Words Have Two Meanings

Whenever my mother expressed pride in anything we did, she would immediatly chase away the evil eye lest the wrathful gods punish our hubris. Tonight was the HBO screening of the movie based on Temple Grandin’s life. And I’ve got to say, I was busting with pride. I worked as Temple’s editor on Thinking In Pictures, and continue to serve as her agent.  It was extraordinary to see her life captured so intelligently and emotionally. But it’s Temple the scientist and  Temple the visual thinker who clearly captured the imagination of the writer and director, and together they found a way to portray Temple’s autism without going all Rainman or I am Sam. Instead, it’s her genius you see. It’s her genius I salute. And lucky me, I get to have breakfast with her tomorrow.

You Are Everything and Everything Is You

I've always wanted to be her.

I had the unique pleasure last week of telling a client that we had sold his book. He said, “I’m sure you hear this all the time, but you changed my life.” When I first became an agent and started selling books, I felt as if I were Santa, The Tooth Fairy and a Fairy Godmother all wrapped in one. It wasn’t long before I saw some of those books struggle in the marketplace and sometimes sink without a trace, the writers filled with despair. Even those who succeeded including some bestsellers didn’t necessarily thrive in the wake of their success. In fact, some were entirely crippled by it. (I know, I know.) I went from being Tinkerbelle to an ER nurse.

I too thought publishing a book would change my life, that I would cross over into some magic kingdom, that pounds would shed. I was prey to the same magical thinking and I worked in publishing, saw the shit hit the fan every day. I also thought that I would change my life; I had always promised myself that if I made x amount of money from writing, I would quit the day job and write full time. Didn’t happen. Couldn’t walk away from a career I had built for so long, didn’t have the confidence I would be productive. So, here’s how I look at it now: publishing a book doesn’t change your life so much as creates opportunity. Then it’s up to you.

Did publishing a book change anyone’s life? Good, bad, snuggly?

Here’s Johnny

Just Kids - Patti Smith - Ecco 1/19/10

NY Times review: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/18/books/18book.html

LA Times feature: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-patti-smith17-2010jan17,0,2564080.story

NY Post feature: http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/relics_of_punk_poet_a61CPcQkfCcp6IshzkCA8J

Chicago Tribune feature: http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/ct-ae-0117-patti-smith-20100115,0,2094777.story

San Francisco Chronicle lead review: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/01/15/RVQC1BH4ST.DTL

Boston Globe review: http://www.boston.com/ae/books/articles/2010/01/17/patti_smith_recalls_life_with_mapplethorpe_and_atop_new_york_art_scene/

Newsday: http://www.newsday.com/lifestyle/books/just-kids-by-patti-smith-1.1701826

Cleveland Plain Dealer review: http://www.cleveland.com/books/index.ssf/2010/01/in_her_memoir_just_kids_rocker.html

Bookforum.com: http://www.bookforum.com/review/4981

All In Love is Fair

This just in:

Is it OK for a writer to seek another agent for their second book, while the first book remains with the first agent, regardless of whether the first book sells or not? Of course, it’s taken for granted that the writer informs the agents about each other. In other words, is it OK for a writer to have different agents for different books? We’re talking fiction here.

In a word: NO.

Let me put it this way: NO.

You can’t have multiple agents. It doesn’t make sense unless you’re writing in different genres and your agent only specializes in one. For instance, I am working with a young adult novelist on his adult material. He has a YA agent for his fiction. But this is the exception.

One agent per customer, please. There is so much involved in representing a writer; you would be crazy to split up your properties and by extension how they were then handled in Hollywood, abroad, etc. It would be extremely confusing to the publishers as well. And, ideally, you hope to develop a relationship with your agent over time such that he or she fully understands you, your work, your needs, etc.

What happens more frequently is that a writer will become disenchanted (euphemism for disgusted) with his agent and want to make a change. He will talk to prospective agents before “breaking up” with his current agent. He wants to make sure there’s someone to catch him before he leaps. I totally get this. It’s a shame when a misunderstanding doesn’t get aired and leads to a break-up, but usually people do what they need to do for cause.

Maybe what you’re asking for is some new vision of the future where clients can have multiple agents like Tiger has multiple blonds.  For the moment, I think monogamy in client-agent relationships is best. That said, some relationships stop working and it may be time to move on. For whatever reason, you no longer believe that your agent is the best advocate for your work. Trust has broken down. Sometimes, an agent feels she has done everything for a client and nothing is working. Just as authors  need to change publishing houses to get a new start, clients and agents sometimes need to make a new start.

I’ve lost a handful of clients over the ten years I’ve been an agent. Some dumped me. I parted company with a few. It was always awful. Often painful. Even when it’s for the best, it sucks. When I was a young editor, a powerful agent told me that she never fired clients. She just stopped returning their calls. She waited for them to get so angry that they fired her; her reasoning that it would have been far worse for them to have been fired by her. Oh, merciful tyrant, you are too kind. WTF. Is there ever a good way to break up?

If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right

Years ago, long before I became an agent, I fixed up three couples, all of whom got married. I didn’t even know any of them particularly well. I just had a “feeling.”  And when things worked out for the happy couples, I applauded my own prescience. (Let the record show that this skill did not extend to my own romantic adventures.)

My point: this same “feeling” applies to agenting. Of all the things the job entails, first and foremost discovering writers,  the next most important decision you make is selecting the editor you are going to submit any given project to. I think this is common knowledge, but in case it isn’t, you can only submit your book to one editor at a publishing company. If that editor passes, it’s a pass for the whole house. You can’t try the editor in the next office over. Your chance with that the publisher is over. So a good agent will have relationships with a few or more editors at every house and have as much hard as well as anecdotal information about each editor with which to target the submission. Writers often ask how we decide which editors to send to. You choose a certain editor over another at a publishing house to submit a project to because :

  • You have a perfectly clear sense of what they are looking for; it has “their name on it,”
  • You have sold them books in the past and you’re tight.
  • You have some inside knowledge from lunch dates about the editor’s  life or taste .
  • You’ve done copious research (i.e. a publishersmarketplace.com search) into their buying patterns .
  • You saw their name on a restroom door at Grammercy Tavern in conjunction with a certain sexual proclivity.

I wonder what’s more difficult these days: getting married or getting published.