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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.

Comments

movingfinger
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.