Friday, April 23, 2010

A Quote is Nice, But Context is Better

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware

Like many writers (whether they admit it or not), I have Google Alerts set to email me a link whenever my name is mentioned online. Today, it brought me a link to a blog post by Peter Cox of the Redhammer Agency.

The post concerns the question of whether an agent who competes against another agent for business (i.e., solicits the other agent's clients) is, well, questionable. "What is it about this business that makes us so allergic to the idea of competitive selling?" Peter asks, and then, to illustrate what he identifies as the general perception that competitive selling is Not A Good Thing, quotes me.
Even now, any agent who overtly prospects for business is widely considered to be, well, wide. “Be wary of an agent who solicits you,” cautions the queen of literary scam-busters Victoria Strauss. “Good agents don’t need to advertise—or to solicit. Questionable agents, on the other hand, often derive much of their clientele from solicitation.” No wonder poor old Andrew Wylie is called the Jackal. Clearly the likes of Roth, Bellow, Mailer and Rushdie didn’t realize that Andrew was “questionable” when he enthusiastically chased after their business.
Yeah, that's me--good old black-and-white Victoria. Soliciting clients is bad. Good agents don't do that. No shades of gray, no in-betweens. Period.

Problem is, that quote has been taken out of context. It's only part of what I said; Peter has cherry-picked my words to yield the emphasis he wanted. If you look at my statement in its entirety, the effect is somewhat different. (You can find the statement here, on the Literary Agents page of Writer Beware.)
Be wary of an agent who solicits you.

Reputable agents do sometimes contact writers whose work they’ve seen and liked. This used to be extremely rare, and based only on published work–-but the popularity of blogs and social media have made it somewhat more common. However, it is still unusual. As noted above, good agents don’t need to advertise–-or to solicit. Questionable agents, on the other hand, often derive much of their clientele from solicitation. If you subscribe to writers’ magazines or register your copyright, you may be a target. Fee-charging agents often purchase lists of names and addresses from these sources.
So, in fact, I do acknowledge the possibility that it may not be questionable at all for an agent to approach a writer, and I go on to explain exactly why, even so, writers need to be wary.

More important, in the context of the page on which my statement appears, I think it's pretty clear that I'm discussing writers who are actively seeking literary agents, rather than the poaching of agented writers by rival agents. It's not the magazine-mailing-list and copyright-registration soliciters whom agented writers need to fear; their concern, in any attempted poaching, is the poaching agent's motives. Things may not be all roses for the poachers, either. Like cheating spouses, if a client will jump ship once, they may do it again.

Andrew Wylie, by the way, is far from the only client-poacher, though he's probably the most famous. I've heard any number of poaching stories over the years, some of which worked out well, some of which didn't. But Peter is correct: this is usually something that happens on the QT, because it does seem generally to be regarded as somewhat sleazy.

Peter finishes his post with a provocative statement:
I can think of no end of talented authors who are today poorly or even negligently represented. Is it fair to deny them the possibility of better representation simply because the more atherosclerotic parts of our industry consider competition to be ungentlemanly?
Leaving aside the question of whether prevailing opinion constitutes "denial," what do you think?

I do appreciate my promotion to royalty, though.

34 comments:

Harold Underdown said...

Interesting! He seems to have written that piece largely to justify what he wants to do, which is "compete" for and/or poach other agents' clients.

Also interesting that his post is closed to comments...

Janet Morgenstern said...

It infuriates me when someone is quoted out of context. It's all too easy for someone to spin your words to match theirs. It's intentionally misleading, and, unfortunately, most readers do not check up on quotes to see if they are quoted in context.

Ulysses said...

I think:

Poaching clients isn't a one-person action. The client has to agree to be poached. In that sense, it's like adultery: you have to have two willing parties.

Is it ethical? No. Neither is adultery. As in marital issues, if an author and their agent have a problem, they should try to work it out first, and failing that, part company before the author tries to seek other representation.

And, Victoria, I would hand you the crown myself if only I could hear you shout a few choruses of "Off with their heads!"

JS said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tabitha said...

Interesting... I don't know enough about the agenting world to say much, but I think Ulysses is correct that it takes two, and the end result may not be ideal (as with the result of cheating spouses getting together).

Regarding the talented authors who are poorly represented, though, that kind of irks me. His statement makes authors sound like damsels in distress who can't get themselves out of a not-so-great situation. If an author is being poorly represented, then that author will likely look for new representation (and that's not considered poaching).

If I feel that my agent is poorly representing me, I'm not going to just sit there and pine for a better situation. I'm going to do something about it, and I don't need another agent to come sweeping in with shining armor to make that happen. :)

Redleg said...

I'm just impressed by the use of the word "atherosclerotic" in a sentence.

Jeannie said...

Very sleazy. Also in poor taste.

Jeannie said...

To my previous comment, I might add, cheating usually is.

Mary B said...

Wow. do we get to call you "Queen Victoria" now?

Awesome!

Victoria Strauss said...

We are not amused.

Life's Beautiful Path said...

I can't thank you enough for your blog. I wish more writers would listen to what you have to say.

Jaycee Adams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jaycee Adams said...

http://www.kaitaia.com/funny/g2/d/14386-1/ROFLMAO.jpg
ROFLMAO @ Victoria!

Some would say that if the marriage partner was taking care of business, there wouldn't be any desire to cheat on them. (This usually works better to excuse a woman's cheating than a man's.) Like was said, if you're not satisfied, work it out one way or another before letting your eye wander.

S.M. Carrière said...

Here's a question I've never considered before... is poaching sleazy? The thing is, it's not a marriage. It's a business arrangement.
I shall have to ponder that a moment.
In any case, thanks again for a great post Victoria.
Oh, and I'm completely with redleg on this one. Atherosclerotic is now my word of the day!

Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God said...

You may not be amused, Queen Victoria, but I am. (A chuckle on Monday morning is always appreciated.)

I want to point out that the definition of poaching leads to an interesting question. This is from Wiki: "Note that only wild animals can be poached. Stealing or killing domestic animals is considered to be theft..." Does that imply writers are wild animals living on an agent's property with the agent believing that only he or she has the right to benefit from us? Hmm...

Peter Cox said...

Hello Victoria,

I think I accurately quoted the spirit of your post, sadly if not the post in its entirety. I'm always fighting against the word count in columns such as these; inevitably minor subtleties are lost.

However, my overall point remains - neither agents nor publishers have ever really accepted that they are engaged in a competitive business. And the ultimate loser is the author.

Some of the prior comments here are rather odd (I'll ignore the ad hominen stuff). My post isn't "closed to comments" - you yourself have commented, here: http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/117079-lifes-a-pitch.html

The comparison drawn between changing agents and cheating on your spouse is intriguing. I have to say that it beautifully illustrates the predicament that many authors face: the lack of a competitive market among agents means that any author who has the temerity to be a bit professional about their representation is accused of "cheating". Good news for incompetent agents, no doubt. But I can't see how authors actually gain from this.

What my column didn't mention is my own prior experience. As a former author myself, I've been represented by several major agencies, and invariably found the standard of representation to be far below what I would consider to be acceptable in any other business. That, in fact, is why I eventually became an agent myself.

The people who clearly stand to gain the most from a more competitive market amongst agents are authors. Why not support my call, rather than trash it?

My best,

Peter

Tabitha said...

Peter, I'm curious exactly how wooing "blue-chip authors away from rival houses" is helpful to authors. If it's to get them more money, then the agency will also benefit. So it's not just the author's best interest that the agency is pursuing...

If, however, the point is to get authors decent representation, then that same goal could be reached by educating writers on what exactly agents do, as well as how writers should be represented.

Honestly, I guess I'm not sure how poaching clients is really in the best interest of the client. It seems to be more in the best interest of the agent.

If I'm wrong, could you explain?

Peter Cox said...

Hi Tabitha,

Well, you're confusing two things here.

1) More competition amongst agents can only be to authors' benefit. It works in other areas of enterprise - why should publishing be different? That's my position, vis-à-vis agents.

2) With regard to publishers competing for top-flight authors... it happens much less than you might imagine. And when it does, it's mainly about the money (are agents responsible for this? Mmm, partly). What I'm saying here is, it's better to be well-published than to simply cash in a large advance. I can think of all kinds of ways in which publishers ought to be imaginatively competing with each other for this sort of author. And it does happen - a little. How do you think small companies like Canongate can outgun the behemoths of the business? It sure isn't because they slap down more cash on the table! It's because they accurately understand authors' desires to be effectively published - and they know how to pitch this successfully.

In most businesses, the above isn't really rocket science. Why is it such a radical proposition in ours?

Best,

Peter

Peter Cox said...

Hi Tabitha,

Well, you're confusing two things here.

1) More competition amongst agents can only be to authors' benefit. It works in other areas of enterprise - why should publishing be different? That's my position, vis-à-vis agents.

2) With regard to publishers competing for top-flight authors... it happens much less than you might imagine. And when it does, it's mainly about the money (are agents responsible for this? Mmm, partly). What I'm saying here is, it's better to be well-published than to simply cash in a large advance. I can think of all kinds of ways in which publishers ought to be imaginatively competing with each other for this sort of author. And it does happen - a little. How do you think small companies like Canongate can outgun the behemoths of the business? It sure isn't because they slap down more cash on the table! It's because they accurately understand authors' desires to be effectively published - and they know how to pitch this successfully.

In most businesses, the above isn't really rocket science. Why is it such a radical proposition in ours?

Best,

Peter

Peter Cox said...

Victoria, it's just been pointed out to me that a site I believe you are associated with - Preditors and Editors - is displaying inaccurate information about Litopia, here:

http://pred-ed.com/peall.htm

Litopia is not an agency and it does not charge fees. Both I and many members of Litopia would appreciate any assistance you may be able to give in correcting this.

Many thanks.

Peter

Bob Truppe said...

Victoria

Generalities such as those made in writers beware and this post are dangerous. And if you are advocating dictatorships and non-competition in the agent side of the publishing industry, I question why. Competiton in any industry is healthy and promotes the strongest product. It also benefits the author who has the opportunity to achieve the best results for his product. Blanket statements like "Be wary of an agent who solicits you." are much to strong and derogatory. Yes authors need to do their homework. But, "Be wary", could become "Be thankful" if an outstanding agent solicits you because they feel you are not being represented properly.

Bewares and advice informing writers about preditors is crutial for writers, to enable them to make informed decisions. Blank statements that may cause a writer to miss a golden opportunity are damaging, in my opinion.

I must agree with Peter. Competition is required in the agency side of publishing and we need more good agents who will work hard for their clients. This can't happen if the doors stay shut and competition is stifled.

Bob

Tabitha said...

Peter, I understand the benefits of competition and am all for it. And there are lots of ways to be competetive in the world of publishing, which is great for authors.

What you haven't told me yet is how poaching can benefit authors in ways that education can't.

behlerblog said...

Bob, I don't see where Vic is advocating non-competition among authors who are already represented. What I take away from this blog post is that she acknowledges that it goes on, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Rather, I see where she's making some distinctions in the attempt at further clarity because she feels she's been misrepresented.

There are two groups: agented authors and non-agented authors. Vic explains that non-agented authors are prey for the seamy underbelly of the agent world because they are invariably vulnerable and vastly undereducated to the industry.

The flip side is the agented author who is approached by another agent who has poaching on his mind. It is my impression that Vic agrees that all's fair in love and competition, but believes it's a bit sleazy.

At first blush, competition seems to be a good thing - and for the most part, I agree. I wholly believe in healthy competition. But there are other issues to consider when you're talking about agent poaching.

Since this element wasn't the gist of Vic's post, she didn't take the time to address those other issues.

But it definitely got my pea-sized brain thinking, so I wrote a blog post that picks up where Victoria left off.

Maybe it will give you another perspective.

Peter Cox said...

Hello Tabitha,

We're clearly not going to agree on this, if only because of a difference in terminology. You consider competition to be "poaching" - which is a bit demeaning to authors, since it suggest they're so simple-minded that they become easy prey for the carnivores of the publishing world.

I could just as well say to you - show me why competition amongst agents is such a bad idea. Authors have everything to gain from it.

Good discussion, btw.

Marissa Doyle said...

I think the issue here is still the context. Victoria's post that was quoted from was intended for newbie writers, on learning the warning signs that might identify scam agents. It had nothing to do with wooing established authors away from their agents.

I didn't get any sense of attack on Mr. Cox and his agency or philosophy--only her wish to clarify what she was actually talking about.

And, um, what's so "strong and derogatory" about "Be wary"?

Tabitha said...

Okay, Peter, let's change the terminology. Instead of 'poaching,' which I agree that it implies authors are prey, what about 'wooing?' That paints a very positive picture.

Unless an agent already knows that an author is unhappy and having trouble leaving his/her current agent, how is it beneficial to that author to woo him/her away to a different agency?

I don't actually see competition as a bad thing. I was approached by a reputable agent once, but she didn't try to woo me away from my current agent. Wooing is a form of competition, yes, but so is advertising why one agency's services are better than another's. How is wooing better than advertising or educating (in terms of benefiting authors)?

I think you're right that we're probably not going to agree, but it is a good discussion.

Bob Truppe said...

Marissa

A "Be wary" on a Preditors or Beware site means "Run for the hills." "Be intelligent and investigate" is appropriate.

Bob

Marissa Doyle said...

"A "Be wary" on a Preditors or Beware site means "Run for the hills." "Be intelligent and investigate" is appropriate."

I think we're getting a little silly here. In my book, "be wary" is just a more elegant and less cumbersome way of saying "be intelligent and investigate", but your mileage (or thesaurus) may vary.

Bob Truppe said...

Marissa, that's true. But in the context of a "Beware" site, those two little efficient words are the knife through the heart.

Tabitha,

You have missed the senario that hurts authors the most. Agent a has the "Next Stephen King" and is spending the bulk of their time promoting that fact. Meanwhile, their are six wonderful authors waiting in their stable who have never seen the track. Why should Agent B not approach those stuck in the table? Because "wooing" them onto the track is wrong? I hope not.

Bob

Peter Cox said...

"how is it beneficial to that author to woo him/her away to a different agency?"

It's clearly up to the author to decide this. All I'd add is (a) many/most authors have extraordinarily low levels of expectation when it comes to the quality of service they receive from their agencies; and (b) until competition becomes more normal, then loaded words such as "poaching" and "wooing" will continue to make many authors feel as if they are committing an unnatural act if they as much as look at another agency's website!

The business is fundamentally changing, you can't deny that. Publishers, authors and yes, even agents are having to reinvent their own roles. There are those, and they are many, who seek to constrain agents in particular to standards of behaviour that are more appropriate to the court of Louis XIV than to a C21st media enterprise. In doing so, they perform no service at all to authors: change is in the air and inevitable. We'd better start dealing with it in a more imaginative way.

Over and out.

Tabitha said...

Bob, that's a good scenario, which falls under that 'unhappy author' circumstance I mentioned earlier.

Peter, I can't think of a way of describing 'encouraging an author to change agencies' such that it doesn't sound loaded. But that wasn't my intent when I first brought up the subject of poaching/wooing/encouraging/etc.

I agree that publishing is changing, and that some roles will need to be reinvented. I also know of too many authors who stay with bad agents (or, at least, agents who aren't a good fit for them) because they are too scared of not getting another agent. Introducing competition would be great for authors, and I'm all for it. I just think you and I disagree on how that competition should be introduced. But diverse views and opinions are a good thing, as far as I'm concerned. :)

Victoria Strauss said...

Victoria, it's just been pointed out to me that a site I believe you are associated with - Preditors and Editors - is displaying inaccurate information about Litopia, here:

Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors have similar missions, but they're entirely separate organizations and we aren't associated with each other. I suggest you contact P&E's owner, Dave Kuzminski. I'm sure he'll be glad to correct any inaccuracies.

Victoria Strauss said...

Bob Truppe said,

And if you are advocating dictatorships and non-competition in the agent side of the publishing industry, I question why.

Me too. Because I don't think I ever advocated that, and I'm not sure what makes you think I did.

Blanket statements like "Be wary of an agent who solicits you." are much to strong and derogatory.

Sorry, but I have to stand by that statement (which, again, in the context of the page on which it appears, is aimed at writers looking for agents, not at writers who already have reputable representation). "Be wary" simply means "Be cautious, do your research, and don't take anyone you're not familiar with at face value." Surely, reasonable advice. There are some bad actors out there, and they really do troll for victims.

Bob Truppe said...

Hi Victoria,

My background is with the top 100 type of company where poaching and wooing prospective or existing clients is expected and welcome. In those companies, they strive to build the company, be the best and provide intangible extras to support loyalty. Poaching is a non-issue if everyone pulls their weight and excels because the client receives the best and is not easily swayed.

I do wish you explanation would replace the "Be wary". In the context of a Writer Beware site or chapter, "Be wary" is interpreted by most as the kiss of death, run for the hills.

Yes, I agree, the unsavory are out there teasing and tempting the almighty dollar out of whoever may be naive enough to fall for their tripe. So Bewares are valuable and great place to start, but should not spell the end. Even the best sources can and will be wrong.

Bob