5 THINGS EDITORS/AGENTS SHOULD NOT DO TO AUTHORS
© 2011, Vicki Hinze
WARNING: THIS IS A NO EDIT ZONE…
Over the years, I’ve seen scads of lists of things authors should not do to editors or agents. I’ve written a few articles on both subjects. What I haven’t seen is a listing of things editors or agents shouldn’t do to authors. I’m not saying one doesn’t exist, I’m saying I’ve not seen one displayed for public viewing.
There are common sense reasons for that. The dollar volume and scope of author’s works is huge, but our industry is a small one with tight bonds. The editor at one house today becomes the senior editor at another tomorrow, and so authors are reluctant to “burn bridges” anywhere for fear that tomorrow that editor will move to gain a promotion (common) and the author will be working with him or her again. But there are also common sense reasons to discuss the matter. Better, more amiable professional relationships benefit the whole of the industry and everyone in it. So I’m addressing this. It’s long overdue.
First, let me say that I have never looked at the author/editor or the author/agent relationship as adversarial relationships. In the author/editor relationship, each brings different and essential skill sets to the table for a common goal: to create the best possible book. While they might have creative differences of opinion, they work through them together and eventually get to a place where both are content with the results.
In the author/agent relationship, the same thing happens. Different sets of skills, common purpose, and different goals. The author’s goal is to write the best book possible, and the agent’s goal is to best market the book and author. Again, common aims.
Note that in both relationships, the author/editor and the author/agent, there are common goals that pursued by both result in win/win situations. Neither the author nor the editor “wins” at the other’s expense. Neither the author nor the agent “wins” at the other’s expense. (Winning at another’s expense, by the way, is never winning.)
In both sets of relationships, strategic business alliances are formed for the purpose of achieving together something greater than either can achieve alone. For years, there have been more writers than publishing slots. More writers than agents. And while alternative publishing has existed, distribution challenges made it difficult for authors to succeed in that venue. But it has happened.
Today, the model that has been in place is no more. Today there are many alternatives that are lucrative and solve the distribution challenges. Yet new challenges emerge, and while the old models don’t work well anymore, the new models haven’t yet been clearly defined for a broad spectrum of authors or editors or agents. Everyone is in a period of adjustment.
That feels like a bad thing, but it’s not. Stagnant anything dies. So change is good. It’s sometimes scary and uncomfortable because we haven’t seen how it all works or how it will all shake out, but it’s good because change breeds growth, breathes in new life, interest, enthusiasm. All that’s constructive and positive—and essential to long-term progress.
There was a time when authors were adrift in a sea of fog. Information wasn’t readily available, it was considered proprietary, it was guarded—yes even from the author, who had a direct interest and took many leaps of faith with little certainty of outcome. Authors worked in isolation, having little contact with other writers or industry professionals, and they were pretty much at the mercy of others when it came to finding out what was going on with their work. Those days are gone. Authors have information, access, and the ability to create their own model based on their own vision of success and they can do it alone.
That doesn’t mean they should. Remember those skill sets. Each—the author, the editor, and the agent—brings a different set to the table, and unless an author is expert at all three, s/he shouldn’t take on all three. They are distinct. They are different. They are all essential to the process of the goal: creating the best possible book.
That said, an author who does not possess all three skill sets can move in what is deemed untraditional ways to get those skills working for him or her. Editors can be hired on specific projects. Agents and/or literary attorneys called in when needed for specific purposes. When an author chooses this route, it is with the knowledge that time must be spent developing those assets and doing what those professionals do. Can it be done? Yes, it can and has been done many times. Should it be done? That’s the better question, and one only the writer can answer.
Do you want to write or devote more time to the business end of writing? Where’s your personal line on the division of your time? Answers on those things go back to your own vision of success and your personal circumstances and skills. If you charted your existing skills on all three sets, where on a bar graph do you fall on each one? How much time and effort would be required to elevate your skills to a level you consider sufficient to achieve what you want to achieve? Do you want to make that investment or hire it? It’s your call.
But I digress. Point is, these things are germane and should factor into the author’s decisions. It’s important stuff, defining success for yourself and understanding your strengths and weaknesses, not just in the writing but also in those other skill sets. There are many other factors to consider as well, but that’s the topic for another post.
In this post, I wanted to make the point that the model has changed, authors do have more options now than at any other time in history, and that makes relevance key for all parties.
While authors have heard often what they should and should not do in author/editor and author/agent relations, we haven’t talked much about putting the shoe on the other foot, and that is equally important in non-adversarial relationships, which is a key component to everyone’s success.
So here’s a list of things editors and agents should not do to authors based on a compilation of information gleaned from authors across the writing spectrum—fiction to nonfiction, in books and articles.
Editors and agents should not:
Fail to communicate. An author relies on the editor, his/her in-house advocate, and on the agent, his/her representative in the industry, for information and insight. In an effective alliance, all parties know the objectives, goals and status. While agents have multiple clients and editors have multiple projects, the author has a more linear and single focus and the greatest singular investment. S/he should be informed and has every right to expect to be informed.
Fail to “say what you mean, and mean what you say.” Authors do not require coddling and do not appreciate being told one thing and watching another thing unfold without explanation, discussion and/or input. If you say you’re going to do x, then do it or let the author know why you’ve elected (or been directed) not to do it. Discovery through a third party of what is your business is not a pleasing thing to an author. It’s not just annoying, it’s putting the author in an untenable and often embarrassing situation. Strong alliance partners should never leave their partner’s backs wide open like this. We are all professionals. We all know that things change and developments arise. Don’t bury them, or dismiss them as insignificant. Discuss them openly and honestly. Only grownups should sit at the strategic alliance table. Show authors the same respect you expect from them. No sugarcoating, no ego feeding, no producing unrealistic stars in the eyes. Truth and straight talk is expected, warranted, cherished. Straight talk builds trust. Trust is a key component in effective alliances.
Fail to recognize that contracts bind you as well as the author with whom you contract. Because of the nature of writing—it takes time to write a book—long periods of time pass from contract to completion of a project (or multiple projects) and acceptance. Time doesn’t stand still in the industry, or in the market, or in the world. Authors understand this.
Conditions change and publishers must react to those changing conditions to stay relevant and viable. To stay fiscally sound. No author wants to write for a publisher who is not fiscally responsible or sound. So if conditions warrant a change in contract terms, then discuss the necessity of those changes honestly with the author. But do it through direct communication with agent/author and straight talk, showing your grasp that your decisions affect this author (and agent) in very real and specific ways. Don’t drop this bomb with a general announcement. Your decision to alter the existing contract or to not honor the terms and conditions you agreed to well might be necessary, but your decisions have a significant impact on the author’s income. Acknowledge your awareness of it, and explain yourself. Were the shoes reversed, you would insist on an explanation—and you would not cite the information proprietorial. Confidential perhaps, and that’s acceptable—to share information under those terms and conditions. Contracts work both ways. They are backed by mutual respect and trust. If they aren’t, they should be. And if they’re not, it’d be wisest not to enter into them.
Conditions change between agents and authors also and those too require adjustments and modifications. Be honest about them, and remember that while you have other clients, the author has you as his/her main advocate. If you cease to be an advocate, that doesn’t mean you must become an adversary. Again, mutual respect and trust are paramount. You entered into this professional alliance for the combined good. If you must change the terms and conditions to retain or gain better prospects, fine. But respect your author and yourself and your association enough to be professional. Your career and your client’s rely on it.
Fail to create a joint strategy based on specific, realistic expectations and solid planning. Everybody has a dream. Publishers, editors, agents and authors. Unless everyone on the team is aware of not only their own dream but of the others, odds are not good for realizing those dreams. If you don’t know your author’s dreams, then you can’t structure your actions to help achieve it. That leads to an unfulfilled author and that leads to discontent—the author, the agent and the editor.
Now just for a second imagine that the three of you engage in a strategy session where everyone knows everyone else’s dream as it relates to the strategic alliance you’ve formed. Everyone is on the same page, looking out for his or her own interests and for those of the other two parties. Okay, does this increase the odds of success? Yes—and no.
Awareness is not implementation. Being aware is crucial to implementation, so it’s significant, but alone it does nothing. So have that strategy session, get aware, and then together create a strategy of specifics that work toward your combined goals.
Everyone understands achieving those goals is a process. That steps are required. That there will be setbacks and changes will be required. But working together as a cohesive unit—getting and staying on the same page—provides terrific odds for success. Collectively, strides can be made that simply can’t be made alone. Create and maintain your joint strategy seated in specific, realistic expectations and solid planning.
Underestimate the impact of being forthright. People are messy. All people. We bring our perceptions (accurate and inaccurate), our past experiences (good and bad), our beliefs and attitudes and senses of how things should be (right, wrong or indifferent) to the table with us.
Authors do it. Editors do it. Agents do it. It’s part and parcel of us.
Misunderstandings, misconceptions, and misstatements occur. Sometimes we step on it. Sometimes we’re tagged for stepping on it when we don’t even know what it is—or that we’ve stepped on it. If an infraction—real or imagined—takes place, or seems to have taken place, address it. Don’t brush it off—that marginalizes. Don’t pretend it never happened. Never lie about it.
Be forthright and (back to number 1) communicate. More often than not if left unaddressed these are the things that end up becoming mountains and obstacles that drain energy, effort and diffuse focus that can be crippling or downright destructive to the alliance. I’ve yet to see a crippling or destructive strategic alliance produce positive results. Have you? The two are just diametrically opposed.
Remember the old saying, “If you broke it, fix it?” Alliances rely on that and more. Even if you didn’t break it, if you see that it’s broken, fix it. If you can, great. Now the alliance can again focus on its objectives. If you can’t fix it, end it. Remember that trust is essential. Violate that and it takes monumental effort to rebuild, if ever you can. So bottom line, be forthright, clear up misunderstandings before you land at the bottom of a mountain you’re forced now to climb, and never violate trust. Your reputation as trustworthy earns you the benefit of doubt and certainty that acts in your defense.
As I write this, two decades of situations run through my mind. Not only situations I’ve encountered but those of authors, editors and agents I’ve mentored. Yet as I look at this listing of five things—none of which appear earth shattering—I realize that those situations at root level fit into one of these five.
So what’s the bottom line? Regardless of which of the three hats you wear, respect them all. Wonderful strategic alliances are possible—I know that for fact. I’ve experienced them. Not so wonderful ones are possible too. Because that’s true, here’s the one thing you should recall and embrace above all the rest:
If respect and trust are earned and honored by all, odds are really good that all will share trust and respect.
That nixes most of the annoyances, irritants, and bones of contention, which makes for better, stronger alliances. And stronger alliances negate the need for more tips on what authors or agents or editors should or should not do.