There’s a delicate balancing act that needs to be played in the author-agent relationship, and while we’ve touched on it a few times I’m not sure we’ve addressed it in quite this way.
I’m often asked how I handle a situation when the author and I disagree on the merits of a proposal. If, for example, an author is hot on a new idea that I’m a little cold on, how should that be handled? Like everything else, of course there’s no answer to this question. Much would depend on the author and the agent and the relationship they have built, some of it would depend on the agent’s knowledge of that market, and of course a lot of it would really depend on the idea. If the book is a completely new direction for the author and an unfamiliar direction for the agent, maybe she’s not the right agent for it. If the idea or proposal is something the agent just feels isn’t the author’s best work, but the author is insistent it needs to go out, maybe she’ll give in and let editors make the decision. However it’s handled, I think that it’s important for both people to come to the situation with a mutual feeling of respect and trust for what the other has to offer.
There have been only a small handful of times in my career when I really felt I had to dig my heels in and tell an author that I would absolutely not submit the proposal or do whatever it was she wanted me to do. In all instances I really felt like the situation had gotten out of control, not because I was unwilling to compromise, but because there was a lack of respect. One thing I think authors need to remember is that agents are only as successful as their reputations. Editors depend on us to send them great projects, to negotiate respectfully, and to help them, as well as our authors, should problems arise. If I want to do the best job for my clients I need to maintain the reputation I’ve built, and of course I need to balance that with the work I’m doing for you.
I strongly believe that the only way I can be successful as an agent is to be as honest as possible with my clients. Typically I think this is appreciated. If you send me something that’s not your best work it’s my job to tell you and to give suggestions on what I think needs to be done to make it your best work. It’s also my job to tell you what I believe the market can and will support and whether or not what you’re writing might be a more difficult sell, or an impossible sell, than other ideas you have. Presumably when you’re hiring an agent you’re hiring someone for her expertise and knowledge of publishing and not simply a middleman who can shuffle papers on your behalf.
Let me tell you something that will not work for me and, if you really want the best representation, shouldn’t work for you either. It will not work if I send you a list of revision suggestions, edits, or concerns about your proposal and instead of looking carefully at what I’m saying, you respond with something along the lines of, “I disagree. Submit it anyway.” Nope. That won’t work with me. You might disagree and I can respect that. I even welcome a discussion on how we can make the proposal work, if possible. In fact, I think a number of my clients can tell stories of when we disagreed on something. I don’t expect to be blindly followed. I don’t want to be blindly followed. Selling a book takes teamwork and a good team listens to the ideas of all of its members. I also don’t expect to be ordered around. I’m not here at your beck and call. I don’t even get paid until something sells, so if I thought it would sell why wouldn’t I want to get paid?
I come to this job with experience, and while I don’t have a crystal ball any more than you do, I have to be honest with you and with myself about what my limitations are. If I really don’t think something can sell then there’s a pretty good possibility that I won’t be the agent to sell it. Most important, though, I’ve spent years working with authors, publishers, other agents, and editors. I’ve spent years learning the ins and outs of this industry and making connections to keep on top of what’s happening, and certainly I hope that you have respect for that.
Let me clarify again that respect doesn’t mean blindly following someone, it doesn’t mean keeping your mouth shut when you disagree and it doesn’t mean doing whatever someone else says. Respect means really taking the time to listen to what the other person has to say, and sometimes respect means compromise. Certainly there have been times when I’ve compromised with my authors, and definitely I know they’ve made compromises for me. However, what you should know is that the biggest compromises I think most of us make are to the publishers. If we can’t handle respecting each other and coming to a middle ground now, we’re never going to make it once we’re in the middle of contract negotiations, cover discussions, editorial work, or sales, marketing and publicity decisions. Trust me, the work you do with your agent is the easy stuff.
I think all of us have seen that there are authors out there with a real lack of respect for agents and what agents can bring to the table. And certainly, yes, there are agents out there with a lack of respect for the work an author does. Presumably you don’t want an agent who disrespects authors. Well, here’s a newsflash: I don’t want authors who disrespect me.