By Eric Olsen
In a previous post, we discussed a few strategies for finding an agent. Assuming you find one, then what?
Let me refer you to John B. Thompson’s The Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century (Polity, 2010). I reviewed this book in a previous post, and noted that its first 300 pages are about the pub biz, not writers or anything having to do with writers. Finally, though, in the last chapter, “Trouble in the Trade,” Thompson gets around to writers as a (not particularly important) part of the pub biz, and specifically to agents and editors. I think this chapter, and especially a section in it titled “Damaged Careers,” is a must-read cautionary tale for any starry-eyed young writer, or starry-eyed older writer for that matter (and what writer of any age isn’t starry-eyed to some degree?).
In “Damaged Careers,” Thompson tells the sorry tale of a writer named “Joanne” who “came to writing later in life.” She had been a university professor, then in her mid-40s gave up her career as an academic and devoted herself to writing crime fiction.
My first thought on reading this was that this Joanne needed adult supervision, or medication, or both. Give up a cushy career in academia? To write?!?! You’d have to be stark raving mad. But then writers don’t always have a choice; sometimes a writer’s just gotta do what a writer’s gotta do. At least Joanne had the good sense to write in a niche that gets readers: crime. Maybe if she’d done crime fiction with zombies things would have turned out differently….
Not that she didn’t have success. Indeed, her first book was published hardcover, then a paperback, then a second book, a third. Her agent seemed happy, her editors, too. Then as she was finishing her fifth book, it all fell apart. She found out about another younger writer at the same publisher with a big marketing budget. She asked her editor what her marketing budget was. “Nil,” he said. “They had made a policy decision to put all their marketing budget on their top four or five bestsellers and withdraw, utterly, the budget from everyone else.”
She pushed her agent to help her. “Can’t you intervene in some way?” she asked. Says her agent: “Well, you know, that’s the way things are going.”
Joanne’s story concluded with her talking to the new marketing guy at her publisher, who told her: “I’ve been here 18 months and I’ve never exchanged any communications with your agent whatsoever.” It matters, he said, because the agents have to be pushing all the time in order for your book to get marketing money.
“And that’s when I realized,” Joanne says, “that the younger woman with the marketing money . . . had a very aggressive agent who was in there all the time.”
Ten years had gone by, five books had been written, opportunities had been missed that would never return. Thompson writes: “If she knew then what she knows now she wouldn’t have counted on her agent and editors to provide her with sensible advice and wouldn’t have interpreted their encouragement as a sign of commitment or long-term support. She would have taken it upon herself to try to find out what she needed to do to try to make her career a success . . . And she would have been much more assertive.”
Joanne’s story is hardly unique. Indeed, based on my own experience with editors and agents, and the experiences of several friends, Joanne’s story is fairly typical.
Bottom line? Don’t trust your agent or your editor to do right by you. Make sure they keep you informed about what they’re doing (or more likely not doing) to protect your interests. And in these rapidly changing times, with the growth of e-books and self-publishing roiling the traditional relationships between writers, editors, and agents, it’s more important than ever to educate yourself about the publishing world and the changes taking place within it.
And what of Joanne’s options now? Thompson offers two: One, find a smaller “indie” publisher. He might also have added that she find a new agent while she’s at it. And the other option? Change her name and start over as a “rising young star.” And Thompson’s serious. “The industry,” he writes, “is willing to take them on when they are fresh and unknown and maybe even willing to lavish on them advances . . .” This is an industry, he goes on, “that expects things to happen quickly, that is hungry for something new and that has little patience for what it regards as a settled mid-list author.”
By the way, if anyone asks, I just turned 23.
Next, we ask if a writer really needs an agent these days.