Okay, so I was hoping that this thread would kind of die down, but since it hasn't I think it's time to say something.
Let me be clear, I'm not writing this to give flack to anybody. I'm writing this because I want everyone to understand that while there's truth to this article, there's also enough untruth and sensationalism here to do some real damage, and that's the last thing I want. Many of you know that I am an intern at a literary agency. I'm am party to a lot of insider information because of that, and I'll do my best to clear up some things.
This is going to be a long post. I apologize in advance. (Also, when I tried to post, I had used too many quote bubbles, so some of the quotes from the post in question are in bold)
First off, as was stated in the OP, this article is now almost 4 years old. That's pretty much an eternity in the publishing world. Just as quickly as things change, things can change back. I'll address some of the key things I find distressing about this article.
The first example used (The textbook company in the 1980s), while not to be completely dismissed, let me reiterate that that was 25+ years ago. You think this article is old? This example, and the contracts used in it, are equivalent of dinosaurs roaming the earth. While I'm not saying what that publishing company did was right--it wasn't, by any means--a mistake nearly thirty years ago shouldn't be the measuring stick by which you judge publishing interactions now.
"I was noticing a few other things at the time, but not putting them together because my own career had hit a crisis point. My agent and I would negotiate a contract. Then we’d get the contract, and we’d have to remind the publisher that we had changed certain terms. The terms would get changed back.
Or we’d negotiate a contract, then sell a second book six months later on the same terms. Only when the contract arrived, it would be a completely different document. While the terms we had explicitly discussed would be the same as the ones we negotiated, the other terms, from the warranties to the deep discounts, would be extremely different."
Agents, authors, and publishers negotiating contracts isn't anything unusual. In fact it's pretty much the norm. However, the difficulties she experienced are not. This speaks more to the quality of her publisher, or perhaps some different levels of communication than any skills on the agent's part. Mistakes happen, negotiations happen.
"Ever since I worked for that textbook publishing company, I read contracts with a ruler in hand, going over the contract line by line. And if the contract had to be compared to a previous contract, I’d have the contracts side by side as I went over them."
This is a good idea. It's always a good idea to read your contract completely.
"One of the many agents I fired in this time period was stunned to hear I did that. Apparently this agent hadn’t thought of that technique and was happy and surprised that I was so smart. Naw. I was pretty dumb to hire a person who didn’t understand each word in the contract and how contracts worked."
One of the many agents she fired. Huh. You know, generally when I hear that it sends up alarm bells. Not because you're not allowed to change agents, that's totally within your prerogative. However, when I hear of an author repeatedly changing representation, it makes me think the other may have unrealistic expectations about what an agent's job is, and what is within their ability to control and change.
After I had switched agents, I forced one publishing company to redo a contract completely.
No wonder she had to change agents so many times. Negotiations are one thing, but 'forcing' a publishing company to re-do something entirely for no good reason? I've seen a good amount of contracts now, and even the worst ones I've seen could have been fixed with some requests. This move will make the author a very unpopular person with the publisher.
A few years later, an agent friend of mine with a really big agency told me in confidence that the days of influential agencies was over. “We can’t get our own boilerplate any more,” he said, “except for our biggest sellers.” [...] But, apparently, no longer.
Hate to break anyone's hearts, but this is flat-out un-factual and untrue. The agency I work for has their own boilerplate with several publishers. And the exact thing happened in reverse, we got a really good contract that now applies to all our writers with that publisher. So yes, this can and does still happen.
By the way, that agent, whom I had known for 20 years at that point, was answering a question for me. I was thinking of getting a new agent (yet again) and I asked him what his super-famous really big agency could do for me that a smaller agent couldn’t. Maybe because he’d had a few drinks, maybe because he is a very savvy man who has a finger on the pulse of publishing’s future, maybe because we were friends, he told me that he couldn’t do as much for his writers as he could have ten years before.
Clout counted for less and less in this business, he said. And since his business was all about clout, he was quite morose about it.
Then he told me stories about canceled contracts and misfired deals, stories like the ones I just told you, only these had happened to big name writers—writers with more clout than I ever had, more clout than that poor textbook writer could ever hope to have had. And the agent said he could do nothing about it.
While yes, the actual writing and content is becoming more important in the modern publishing landscape, the fact that clout isn't important anymore simply isn't true. There are literary agencies some people have never heard of because they don't have websites. Why? They're so well known that they don't need them. Now that's clout, and the fact that those agencies are still thriving is plenty of evidence to the fact that clout very much still matters.
No as far as cancelled contracts and deals, there are horror stories, of course there are. There will be no matter where you look in any creative profession, and often the horror stories are the ones that get heard the most because they're sensational. Everyone wants to hear them and be glad that they happened to someone else, but they aren't the norm.
Slowly, over time, agents stopped advocating for writers, and instead, started advocating for their agencies.
Um, what? I see no evidence of this. All the agents I know love their authors and want what's best for them. After all, that's why they took them on as clients in the first place.
I knew that many agents had forgotten who they worked for when the agent started refusing to mail books that “weren’t good enough” and refused to do things in their clients’ best interest because it “might hurt our other clients.”
A. It's the agent's job to know the market, and know the level of writing that is acceptable and what is not. This is the basic concept behind queries, if the writing is good enough to make it in the market, the agent will know. It's also their job to make your work the best it can possibly be before sending it out so that you can get the best possible deal. If you disagree with the revisions your agent wants you to make, I'm sure discussing it and coming to a compromise is an option.
B. I've never heard of any agent not doing something because it would hurt their other clients. I can't even think of what that would be.
The agreement called for the agent to have the right to represent the writer’s work in all forms for the duration of the copyright of the work, even if the relationship between the agent and the writer was terminated. I blinked, damn near swallowed my tongue, and told the writer not to sign the agreement. Even though the agency was a reputable one, this clause was horrible.
This isn't actually all that uncommon, nor is it a bad thing. I know of a good deal of agents who still represent certain books, though the author and agent had parted ways. It's called being the 'agent of record.' I agree that maybe the life of the copyright is a little long, but it should be at least as long as the terms set in your book contract. After all, the agent sold the book for you, don't they deserve to make money on that book as long as it's in print? If an agent sells one of your books and then you part ways, it hardly makes sense for your new agent to get royalties from your previous contracts, on which they did no work.
I made a mental note: avoid that agency. Tell writers not to sign the agency agreement, and if the agency didn’t like it, then the writers should not be repped by the agency. That simple.
Then prepare not to sign with any agency if you don't want agents to make a living.
Until another student sent me an agreement from an agency that used to represent me. And there it was: that horrible clause. Again. When I had been with that agency, I hadn’t signed any agreement at all. One didn’t exist.
This is a side note--very much a red flag. Agency Agreements are there to protect both parties. If you don't have one you can be severely taken advantage of.
Those agents she mentions in the following paragraphs are scammers, but we already knew that those do exist.
Agency agreements have become as draconian as publishing contracts—maybe even more so. Because one agency agreement I saw stated that the agency could negotiate for the writer, that the writer could not reasonably refuse the terms negotiated, nor could the writer easily terminate the agreement. Worse, that agreement, in a very sneaky manner, gave the agent the power of attorney over any contract negotiated for that writer.
I just about fell out of my chair.
What happened to the agent being a writer’s advocate? What happened to hiring a consultant to negotiate for the writer?
If a writer’s relationship with a publisher is adversarial, and the person the writer hires has decided to take it upon himself to put his company ahead of the writer’s business, then who speaks for the writer?
Again, ummm, what?
'The writer could not reasonably refuse the terms negotiated.'
Yes, that or something similar is a clause in many contracts. The key word there is reasonably. This means that if there is no legitimate reason to reject the terms, then the writer can't refuse. What are legitimate reasons? It being not in the interest of the author or book, being a crazy or unreasonable demand, or something conflicts with a previous contract. You get the idea. Not legitimate reasons? 'You just don't like it' or you had a bad hair day. Again, you get the idea.
As for power of attorney, if your agent didn't have power of attorney (which, by the way, allows them to negotiate on your behalf) they wouldn't be able to do their job. No domestic deals, no foreign rights deals, nada. I'm having a really hard time understanding why this woman is freaking out about this considering that having power of attorney is pretty much in an agent's job description. That being said, it is a limited power of attorney. They can't sign anything for you.
What she's saying here just doesn't make any sense. I know no legitimate agents how don't advocate for their clients. It just baffles me.
He said, “What do writers need? They need to grow a pair.”
He’s exactly right
I don't disagree with this. Writers do need to know when to speak up about something they feel strongly about. This doesn't mean forcing anyone's hand or bowling people over, but making your voice heard.
The rest of the article cobbles together bad personal experiences with agents and publishers. I can't emphasize enough that these are personal experiences. They don't apply to everyone, and should definitely be taken with a grain of salt.
If you're with me after all of that, I appreciate it.
If you're upset with me, I understand, but I find it very hard to stand by while people make it seem like all agents are is a bunch of conniving money grabbers. This isn't the case. There are always a few bad apples, but agents do what they do because the love it, not because they make a lot of money. Many agents have to work second and sometimes third jobs to support themselves, and yet they do it for the love of their work.
I do caution you to always be careful in business practices, but also be careful of taking to heart the words of someone who is clearly very very bitter.