Therese here. Today’s guest is Jurgen Wolff, author of a dozen books including Your Writing Coach and Your Creative Writing Masterclass, and over one hundred television episodes. I’ve been a fan of Jurgen’s and his gem-filled site, Time to Write, for a long time, so when he reached out recently with a comment about one of our articles, I invited him to join us. I’m glad he agreed and that he’s with us today with a valuable and empowering post everyone should read. Enjoy!
Writers, Let’s Not Wear a “Kick Me” Sign On Our Backs
While I admire humility, I meet too many writers who take it too far. They act as though an agent would be doing them a favor by representing them and a publisher would be granting an act of generosity by publishing their book.
Maybe they think the publishing business still works the way it (occasionally) did in the old days, when an editor would see a spark of talent in an aspiring novelist and publish his or her book not expecting to make a profit on it but hoping that after five or six books the writer would catch on.
The editor most often cited in this light is Maxwell Perkins, who took on F. Scott Fitzgerald despite the opposition of Perkins’ colleagues at Charles Scribner’s sons. He worked closely with Fitzgerald to get This Side of Paradise into publishable shape and ultimately became a close friend of the talented but alcoholic and chaotic novelist. He had much the same relationship with Ernest Hemingway and, for a time, Thomas Wolfe.
If you hope for that kind of relationship with an editor you’re destined for disappointment.
WHY AGENTS ARE AGENTS AND PUBLISHERS ARE PUBLISHERS
These days it’s all about the money, and not in the long term. With the publishing business in disarray most editors are even less inclined to take chances even though it could be argued that the best response would be to take more chances.
Similarly, agents are interested in clients who will earn enough for fifteen percent of that sum to be worth working for.
I’m not saying that editors and agents aren’t nice people, but they’re not in business to be your friend, they’re in business to make money. If they think you can help them do that, they will work with you. If they don’t, they won’t.
You spend time and energy writing your novel or your screenplay. The agent will spend time and energy finding the most likely person to whom to sell it. If the agent succeeds, both of you make money. If the agent fails, neither of you makes money.
The same is true of a publisher. You invest your time and your skill as a writer. They invest some money in publishing the book and marketing it. They may give you an advance, although these days advances are less than they used to be, but you will have to earn it back when the book starts selling.
My point is that you and the agent or you and the publisher are business partners.
Equal business partners.
As such, respect should be expected and delivered in both directions.
Some people say, yes, but there are more writers than publishers. It’s a buyer’s market. That’s true, but so what? Most products are in greater supply than the demand warrants. You have your choice of hundreds of places to buy a television. Yet the television salespeople don’t feel you’d be doing them a favour by buying from them.
A MANIFESTO FOR WRITERS
What would mutual respect look like—how would it be different from the situation today?
- Writers would not strike an apologetic tone in their query letters for phone calls to agents and publishers or producers. No more, “I know you’re very busy but I would really appreciate it if you could take a minute to glance at my manuscript. It’s only my first novel and possibly it’s not what you’re looking for, but…” If it’s not as good as you can possibly make it, don’t send it out. If it is, don’t apologize for it.
- Writers would not ask agents or publishers for personal advice, loans, or make “my dog ate my homework” type excuses for missing deadlines. Yes, talk to any agent and you’ll find out all of these happen.
- Writers would treat their writing as a profession, even if they are doing it part-time. They would also expect and demand that the people in their lives treat it that way, and not accept any patronizing comments or attitudes about their “little hobby.” If you write and take your writing seriously, you are a writer, whether or not you have been published.
- Agents and producers who are willing to look at unsolicited material would have the courtesy to let writers know when they are not interested in something offered to them, rather than just not answering. I’m not suggesting they owe writers a critique or anything more than a simple, “Thank you, but this does not meet our needs at the present time.” That kind of response used to be the norm before silence became the new “no.” How long would it take to have a secretary send that message via an email
- Publishers would not offer writers boilerplate contracts that they know contain unreasonable provisions. Writers would have a lawyer or agent check a contract before they sign it, rather than saying, as one new author said to me, “The contract doesn’t seem fair, but I’m not going to question it because they might change their mind about publishing my book.”
- Agents and publishers would recognize that we are in this together and reflect in their royalties, especially for ebooks, that more of the burden of marketing falls upon the writer than ever before.
- When writers are treated unfairly they would stand up for their rights and support each other when those rights are not honored. I was invited to write this post because of a comment I made some time ago when a writer mentioned on this site that she had been promised a critique of her work by a well-known writer. This was part of a prize in a writing contest she had entered. Despite several reminders, the critique never came and the writer said something to the effect that this is just one of those things and it wouldn’t be right to complain.If we ordered and paid for a book but Amazon couldn’t be bothered to deliver it, would we think it’s just one of those things? Of course not. In this case it’s one writer disrespecting another writer, which I find even more shameful. By the way, I don’t mean to offend the writer who didn’t complain, only to suggest that this all too common attitude is something we writers need to shed.
HOW WILL WE GET THERE FROM HERE?
Generally people change only when conditions change. Well, they’re changing now. The choice is whether to think small or think big.
Thinking small will see agents trying to raise their commissions and publishers trying to keep the writers’ share as small as possible and writers settling for less because that’s how things are and one mustn’t complain.
Thinking big would see agents and publishers and writers all working together using their creativity to figure out how to make the most of the new realities. I believe we can do that if we have confidence in ourselves, a willingness to share the rewards fairly, and the courage to give and demand respect.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s by Funky64