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Writing related article by the fabulous, funny John Scalzi, called -- very inappropriately, imho -- Utterly Useless Writing Advice. Go forth and read, if you aren't a Whatever regular.

One thing about the fabric of discussion on the internet: It takes you to all kinds of places you might not have visited before. One thread on Making Light led me to a discussion about Vanity Presses (which I tend to read almost compulsively when the mood strikes, when the more sensible among you are reading fanfic), and an offshoot of that discussion -- somehow -- was a new "Ask the Agent" topic. Which I also checked out. It can be found here.

Andy Zack is a reputable NY agent. I want to say this up front, because he's said a bunch of things on the Absolute Writer Water Cooler board that I'm not certain I agree with. There are two; the first is:

With regard to your personal beliefs, well, you're entitled to them, of course, but what seems under discussion here is not "fee charging," but the charging back of out-of-pocket expenses. Your friend signed a contract agreeing to that. You may choose not do so. But you may have a tough time finding an agent who believes as you do, as most agents I know do charge back such expenses. Commissions cover time, knowledge, experience, contacts, etc., but not photocopying, shipping, office supplies, etc. Those are expenses you would incur with or without an agent. An attorney would charge you both to send and receive a fax. So might your accountant. Or your publicist. Why not your agent?

An Attorney also charges a flat per hour fee and does not retain a continuing interest in income generated by the rights of your work for the life of the agreements in question. I consider the example of an Attorney in this case to be at best disingenuous; they are not analogous situations.

I know agents that require the author to have 15 copies of the manuscript delivered to them. Is that preferable to having the agent do it, ensure they meet with his approval in terms of quality, and then charge the reasonable cost back?

In the case above, they would probably be for auctions and/or foreign rights sales. This would, at either of my agencies, be considered an exceptional expense. I have never been required to furnish 15 copies of anything to either, possibly because I've never been in a position to auction anything off, but had I, I would bear the cost of it. -- and be consulted about said cost in advance. The last example is not, however, what the beginning of the paragraph seems to imply: that office expenses and standard day-to-day costs of doing business should be absorbed by the author.

Mr. Zack was responding in part to someone who also feels that the daily expensees -- rather than the exceptional ones -- are the agent's cost of doing business, not the author's. It will probably come as no surprise that I feel this way as well.

I expect that those who haven't acquired an agent yet will feel, on some level, that this is easy for me to say, and I admit that things might have changed in the interim since I first started looking for an agent and now, and I would hate to be in a position of stating something with clear authority when it's no longer tenable or reasonable in the current market; it would be like saying everyone should pay no more than 10%. Which was the absolute bottom line when I first joined SFWA, but which has all but gone the way of the dinosaur now. Things do change. I'm not entirely certain, however, that this is one of them.

I've been in this business, and agented, since about 1990 (I can't remember the date I signed with my first agent, and by signed, I mean that it was a handshake deal). And during the years between then and now, having changed agencies once, I've never been charged for standard office-related expenses. I've been charged for FedExing something overseas, which was near 200.00, but was considered an exceptional expense, and I had to agree to that before-hand; I've not been charged for the standard shipment of proposal to publishing house, or mailing expenses for contracts, or photocopying of anything, or long distance phone calls. I'm of the opinion that it would probably be as costly to track most of those things, in terms of employee time, as it would to charge them back to clients, but as I've never run an office (home offices being, imo, a different beast), I could be wrong.

I've certainly never been charged for "office expenses", which I'd consider nebulous enough that I'd almost have to ask what was meant by the words.

I may, however, be almost entirely out of the loop. It may be that other authors or other agencies, of which I know little, are charging back disbursements as a matter of course. I know that when I was with the DMLA, I wasn't; I know that with Russ Galen at SCG, I'm not. I've asked a couple of friends who are with different agents if they are, and one is being billed by book for expenses related to that book, the other isn't.

So I'm curious to all you agented writers out there (or agents, if there are any reading this) -- is this standard or almost completely standard business practice, as Mr. Zack claims?

The second comment which I'd like to address is the more important one, and actually, I'm not sure if it's just the semantic use of words that's causing my ambivalence, or if it's the entire text:
When an agent and author reach irreconcilable differences, it's time to part ways. When an author starts to give an agent orders or tell him how to sell a book, that's when it's time for the agent to say good-bye. While there is certainly a time and place for an agent to ask an author for a direct request for action (say not making something a deal-breaker), agents are not the employees of authors.

And, neither are authors the employees of agents. If an author feels like an agent is treating him as such, then it is time for author to say good-bye.

The author/agent relationship is a partnership, just as the editorial/sale relationship is a partnership. You should be rowing together, in the same direction; not barking at one another to go one way or another.

The bold is mine. And the last time I looked, it was also untrue. Agents -- in the universe which I inhabit -- are, in fact, employees of the authors. The author pays them a percentage of the sales they garner as a commission for their services, and that percentage continues for the life of the contract(s) the agent negotiated.

My agent, Russ Galen, made this perfectly clear when we first talked: He worked for me. Does this mean that I tell him what to do? Sometimes. And sometimes he counters, and we discuss the situation. We don't always agree, and we don't always see eye-to-eye, but we always reach a point in the discussion that we're both happy with.

My take: It's my career. His take: If I hadn't hired him for his proven expertise, why did I hire him at all? In neither of these takes are the positions in question; he works for me. And he works very hard for me, I might add.

Editorial and sales are a partnership yes -- because editors and marketing people both work for the same firm. They answer to the same people. It's not a relevant comparison, in my mind, for this reason. Agents and authors have to have a working relationship, and yes, you can call it a partnership -- but there's a reason you sign the contracts, and in the end, if there's anything that blows up, it's your name on said contract.

The publisher is not paying the agent -- the publisher is paying you. You, in turn, are paying the agent. That defines employer/employee relations to me. I've no interest in hiring someone I have to micromanage; if I have to spend the time doing that, I don't need an agent.

But it's not just semantics, to me. When push comes to shove, if you -- as an agent -- can't do what I ask of you, that's fine. Call it a day. If I ask too much of you, that's fine as well; you can also call it a day. But I'm paying you, not the other way around.

This may make it sound as if I have no respect for agents -- and that's not my intent; I've said elsewhere that I feel at this point I need an agent, and I have a good one. I trust the expertise that he does have, and in turn, he trusts the expertise that I have, and we do work together; we make plans for the future and contingencies as well. The business is what it is. But he's never felt a need to stress that he's not my employee; he's gone out of his way to stress the opposite.

All comments welcome, of course.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 17th, 2004 05:18 pm (UTC)
which I tend to read almost compulsively when the mood strikes, when the more sensible among you are reading fanfic

Do you mean that you compulsively read stuff from vanity presses, or that you compulsively read threads about vanity presses?

You know, earlier this year I was working my way through Glen Cook's Black Company sequence, and one of them bears the following dedication (very closely paraphrased): "For Russell Galen, #40, at twenty-five years. It hasn't always been a happy marriage, but let's see if we can keep making it work, eh?"

I immediately leapt up and said to my girlfriend (also a Black Company addict) "Sweetheart! Glen Cook is married! He's been married for twenty-five years, at least, plus a few years since the book was published!" And the name Russell Galen was familiar, so I hopped online and Googled it out of curiosity. One minute later, I called out "Holy shit! Sweetheart, Glen Cook has been married to a guy for twenty-five years! I wonder how they managed that?"

Ten seconds later, enlightenment hit like a brick to the head.

Metaphors are crafty things, especially when the reader isn't. :)
Dec. 17th, 2004 05:22 pm (UTC)
My agent has never charged me for postage, telephone calls, faxes, or copying. I have to confess that I've never really thought about who works for whom. I wonder if the emphasis on how agents are not employees reflects what seems to me to be a tendency in corporate America generally to treat their employees like dirt, even more than was the case the last time I had a day job. You don't want to treat your agent like dirt, so you'd better not think of your agent as an employee; I wonder if that's the rationale. In any case, if I had to choose, yes, I'd say that my agent works for me rather than the other way around. It's not actually something I've expended a lot of thought on.

As for the fifteen copies, well, my free copies of my novels are shipped to her, and she takes ten or fifteen for various contingencies, including archiving them, before sending them on to me (without charging me for the shipping); but I've never been required to send her fifteen of anything at all.

Dec. 17th, 2004 05:34 pm (UTC)
Pamela's comment reminds me of a discussion on customers_suck, summed up by "I'm your serVER not your serVANT."

I do think it's possible to have someone who is your employee but who is working with and not just for you. This does not mean that, in the case of disagreements, you don't get to make the decision; you still should be the final authority, but with an open enough mind to say "hmm, Agent is the expert, I should consider their argument thoroughly".

Not that I'm this amazing authority on the relationship between authors and agents, being unlikely to ever be either; however, I do have employees who will disagree with me, and even convince me to change my mind at times.
Dec. 17th, 2004 06:13 pm (UTC)

That's been my experience, too. I've never had to pay office fees, shipping, etc, or send more than one copy of the manuscript.

Dec. 17th, 2004 05:40 pm (UTC)
Re: Charging for expenses --

My non-fiction agent will deduct certain expenses including postage. However, of the course of a decade these expenses have been trivial, not the least because so much now gets done by e-mail. I think over ten years, I've been charged about $100.00 for these expenses, all of which have been itemized so I've known what they were. I've never had any problems with this.

Re: Agents being author employees --

Nope. They are the author's representative, who are charged with looking for their client's best interests, and they do have to follow the wishes of their clients. But that's not exactly the same thing, not the least because (nearly all) agents have more than one client and must take the interests of their other clients to heart equally. In my opinion, my agents don't work for me, although they work for my interests.

Jan. 31st, 2005 02:44 am (UTC)
Agents, Attorneys, and Expenses
Hello, I was looking at the bibliography on your web page and discovered you had a livejournal, and I couldn't help joining in.

This started off as a clarification of Scalzi's post, and turned into a comment on how the comments you made are related to each other.

Re: Agents being author employees --

Nope. They are the author's representative, who are charged with looking for their client's best interests, and they do have to follow the wishes of their clients. But that's not exactly the same thing, not the least because (nearly all) agents have more than one client and must take the interests of their other clients to heart equally. In my opinion, my agents don't work for me, although they work for my interests.

Legally speaking, literary agents are representatives, the only kind of agent you can be and be an independent contractor.

The two comments are related because how someone is paid and who is responsible for expenses are important when you are determining who is an employee and who is an independent contractor. An attorney is an interesting example in more than one way because an attorney-at-law is a legal representative, you hire them to represent you in legal situations. But they are more like employees than literary agents because they charge by the hour, and sometimes they are employees of the entity they represent. And an agent who charges office expenses (expects them to be paid by someone else) is moving closer to being an employee than an agent who doesn't. :-)

Er, sorry that turned into U.S. Agency Law 101.

Rachel M. Burnett
Dec. 17th, 2004 06:12 pm (UTC)
FWIW, even though Andrew Zack is reputable agent, some of us find it questionable that he charges a fee to have requested manuscripts be read faster and if rejected, for them to receive a detailed critique as to why. It's an optional fee though and not necessary, but it's certainly induced a "Huh?" reaction in several people who receive a manuscript request from him.
Dec. 17th, 2004 06:24 pm (UTC)
I don't know why, but Zack makes me feel a bit squicky.

One thing we also have to remember is that except in cases of work-for-hire, the author is not the publisher's employee (despite attempts by publishers to create this impression). The publisher is licensed by the author to publish the author's work. The author is within her rights to demand that her text be printed as she wishes, and she is also within her rights to expect timely and respectful editorial and production input. And payment--since as advances against royalties that will be presumed to be earned by her books, that money is hers to begin with, not the publisher's.

Publishers would be very happy if fewer authors remembered this.
Dec. 17th, 2004 07:23 pm (UTC)
While the author should perhaps not be giving "orders" as to how to sell her book, she absolutely should be bringing her take on how to do so to the table. One of the things I had to learn, when I had an agent, was that this didn't mean I should become passive and wait for someone else to do all the work; I still had to be every bit as much involved and on top of my career as before.

If you hit a point where you just can't agree on something major, of course it is time to part ways, though. An agent can't be expected to go out and sell a book he doesn't believe in, any more than a writer can be expected to sit back and watch a book she does believe in go unmarketed.

In fact, my former agent and I amicably parted ways over just such a different: I had a couple of projects that I thought were marketable that he didn't.

I think one thing that sometimes does create tension is: the agent's career requires on submitting stuff that is on-target more often than not. But the writer's career requires being persistent with projects that don't sell quickly. And these two things are sometimes at odds.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 18th, 2004 12:24 am (UTC)
So, it sounds like this may be something to watch for when agent hunting. From what I've seen in agent listings, asking for repayment for photocopying is common, and, as you all have noted, repayment for certain excessive expenses (such as shipping overseas or soemthing) is reasonable, but anything more than that may be an agent to watch out for?

Eh, I don't know why I worry about this stuff - I'm at least a year from having book 1 finally ready for submission to anybody. And that's if I manage to keep a good pace on these revisions now that I'm working out of the home. *sighs*
Dec. 18th, 2004 03:18 am (UTC)
We once paid for our agent to FedEx a check to us, which was perfectly reasonable, since we had needed the money Right Now.

Our agency, apparently, would charge a fee if we email a manuscript, to cover the cost of paper and ink. Since we send the completed manuscript directly to our agent via USPS, and are perfectly happy to mail as many as she needs, that's not something that's come up.
Dec. 18th, 2004 03:40 am (UTC)
You're quite right to flag the difference between an attorney and an agent. The agent is not billing you hourly plus expenses, but is getting a cut of your money for representing you. An agent's normal business expenses come out of that.

The agent-client situation is similar to the investment advisor-client situation in which the advisor is paid an agreed-upon fixed percentage of the assets managed (usually annually). It is in the advisor's interest to increase the assets in order to increase income. Variations can include paying the advisor a percentage of earnings. The advisor, like the agent, performs a professional service handling an asset for the client, and is compensated only according to performance.

Fee-only (hourly or flat rate) financial advisors exist, and their services are performed differently, usually periodically (annually), not with the personalized day-to-day or month-to-month management and other services the other type of advisor is expected to provide.
Dec. 18th, 2004 05:08 am (UTC)
He also charges a higher than normal commission from new writers because (so he says) of the increased difficulty of marketing their work. There have been multiple run-ins with Preditors & Editors -- where the last I looked he was listed as not recommended -- including one rather publicized one over on the Rumor Mill.

While I realize that Mr. Zack apparently has reasons for charging for office expenses, charging for "express lane" slush reading, charging higher than normal commissions on new writers, and such, I still don't agree with it. For one thing, charging fees at a legitimate agency (as others than myself have pointed out) will only legitimize fee charging for the slimeball scammer agents. And I find it difficult to understand how charging fees for slush reading is necessary to keep wannabee writer stalkers at bay (one of the excuses which I have seen given for this).

I'd rather not identify myself here, for various reasons, including the fact that if recognized I know I will hear from at least one of Mr. Zack's supporters and possibly from Mr. Zack himself, this having happened once before. However, if you're interested in more specifics, I'd be happy to provide them in email.
Mar. 5th, 2005 08:27 am (UTC)
I guess I subscribe to the theory of, "If you don't get paid, I don't get paid." school of dealing with agents. And I'd fire an "agent" in a new Yopk minute who tried to pass on to me his or her everyday expenses of being an agent. Part of the point of hiring an agent is to have somebody else doing the grunt work--mailing, copying, etc. etc. etc. And pay them expenses on top of the 10 or 15 percent they already get from me? Ummmmm...I don't think so.

I respect agents (or at least the good ones) very much. They do work I wouldn't want to do, but paying their operating expenses in addition to a percentage just doesn't sound like a very good idea.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )