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The Love Ballad of the Bad Cop Agent

Have I mentioned that I love my agent?

Let me explain…

Agents have to take a lot of shit.  They sit between the author and the publisher, as the literary equivalent of Switzerland in a land war.  For both parties, they must navigate that very fine line between truth and tact.  Thus, a publisher may say to an author, “Darling, I loved your latest book, it was sensational, just sensational – but don’t you think the plot needs changing completely?”

“What?!” shrieks the author.  “What the hell kind of shit is this?”

However, with any luck, the author will have been trained well enough not to holler those precise words at the editor so instead, needing somewhere to vent, they’ll scream it at the agent.

“My editor is out to ruin my life!  There’s no literary sensitivity there, no delicate touch, no understanding of my brilliance I hate my editor arggggghhhh!”

“Your editor has, however, paid you in pure gold and the blood of newborn infants for this book, and you did sign a contract…”

But they don’t understand my art!”

Meanwhile, the phone will be ringing in the agent’s office, and on the end of the line will be the editor in question.  “Ah, Literary Agent,” murmurs this beleaguered publisher.  “I had a quick chat with your client about the book – marvelous book, obviously, just marvelous – but the question of the plot did come up.  I suggested that perhaps, the plot should be re-written entirely, and I’m wondering if you’ve had any feedback from your client on this point?”

I hate my editor!” screams the writer.

“It would be so disappointing if we couldn’t find a solution to this,” purrs the editor, tiger-like.  “Obviously we all want the best from this, but with the book as it currently stands, it would make it very difficult for us to put the resources into it that this deserves.”

Hate them!”

“… disappointing…”

Hate them!!!”

“… difficult market…”

etc..  In between these two voices sits the agent, smiling with a skull-like rictus through it all.  So, to the author she turns:

“I do completely understand your frustrations about the re-writing of the entire plot.  I wonder if there isn’t some way we can make this process easier?  Some solution that allows you to retain your integrity while giving – or at least seeming to give – the impression of conforming to the publisher?”

Meanwhile, to the editor she replies:

“Of course, I see exactly what you’re saying and entirely understand how re-writing the book from cover to cover will help you position it in the market, darling.  I think the issue here is a purely artistic one, and we just need to work with the client to find the most seamless way of ensuring that what you want happens without undermining the integrity of the novel as already presented.  I’ll talk to her, and discuss the easiest way for her to fulfill your desires.”

“Oh Agent!” both reply.  “I’m so glad that you’re on my side and get what I’m talking about!”

The legend of the stern agent – ‘up your offer or else!’ – still persists in publishing and is sometimes correct.  However, by far the more intimidating agent is, to my mind, she who uses niceness, good manners and courtesy as a dangerous, dangerous weapon.  Thus, in response to a book offer, instead of shouting down the telephone, you might instead hear the following:

“Ah,” murmurs the agent, “So you want my client to do x amount of work for y amount of money?  That is interesting.  Of course, what you’re suggesting is a long way below the going rate, and is weaker than the amount offered by this person, and really not very competitive in this market given the situation.  And if z were to happen and we were to end up in court on the subject then obviously, all legal precedent on the subject have come in favour of the writer, with punitive damages against individuals like yourself – although maybe your case will be the exception to this universal rule?  But I do understand why you’ve made this weaker offer and of course I’ll discuss it with the client and see if she can find any reason why we should consider it other than our great respect for your good self which so massively exceeds the financial reward you’re currently proposing.”

Cue: dazzling smile.

One of the many, many perks of this – besides being able to actually maintain working relationships with everyone – is that when an agent turns properly Bad Cop, it’s absolutely terrifying.  Imagine all the safety and warmth you’ve ever felt suddenly turn to ice and come crashing on your head, and you’ll have a tiny fraction of a sense of what it’s like when a scrupulously polite literary agent turns round and declares, “Unacceptable!”

A last story: my Dad, back when the earth was young, was a publisher, though he’d left the business by the time I wrote my first novel.  He had, however, done plenty in the years before, and it was at his advice that I went to my agent in the first place, with the promise that she was likely to be the person most willing to give me a chance.

“I’ve known your Dad for years,” mused my agent shortly after we’d met.  “When you were very young, I’d sometimes have lunch with your Dad, and if I was trying to sell him something, I’d ask to see the baby photos of you.  He carried some in his wallet always, and he’d pull them out and show me pictures of his baby daughter and tell me how you were doing and you know, I could always get better offers from him after.”

I think it was this story, more than anything else, that convinced me of my agent’s awesomeness.  To know that baby pictures of myself had been used – sullied, you might almost say – in the name of increased author fees by my now-agent filled me, not with a sense of family indignation, but with the warmest pride.