The great thing about working in publishing is the people. You know the kid in your class at school who was too busy reading to look where she was walking? If she’s working in publishing (she is, hello, *waves*) she now knows it’s perfectly normal to sit on a tube platform finishing a book while the trains arrive, depart, arrive, depart; because everyone else she knows would do the same.
We’re so lucky, to have stumbled into a few thousand people who share our obsession; it’s not surprising that agents and editors and authors and publicists and everyone else in the publishing hemisphere quickly become friends as much as work colleagues. Lunches together are productive but they’re often fun too; emails between publishers and agents tend to be somewhat of a balance between work-life and life-life (baby sleeping through yet? did you finish that amazing book we talked about? how is your dad? do you have anything to show me on the jacket?).
Agents build on those friendships to do good business for their clients. We get to know editors well partly so that we can become their talent spotters, their scouts. Love dogs? Netball? Kale? I got something for you. You a bit dark and twisted? I have just the thing. Big dreamer? Bad sister? Good musician? OK, logged. And when agents and editors start to work together on a specific book, those friendships become the bedrock on which our professional collaboration is built. If we like each other, we can communicate about tricky things; we can solve problems together; we can help each other to do the best possible job for the author. We can talk it out.
But no one should become an agent if being liked is a top priority. It’s not just my job to have friends, but also to be unafraid to really piss my friends off. Authors need representatives who are willing to have all the most difficult conversations so they don’t have to. Why does this book not have any reviews? I’m sorry, but you need to pay my author higher advances. Two months is long enough to send editorial notes, don’t you think? This book jacket just isn’t going to work, you can’t read the title for all the glitter…
An agent has to be the bad guy, the doubter, the querier, the control freak: so the author doesn’t have to be. Yes, we only get away with this necessary interference by also being the publisher’s chief cheerleader and loyal supporter. You can’t be a good agent without being someone editors trust. But at the end of the day, the author comes first.
A few years ago, a publisher abruptly rejected a novel by a client of mine and requested all of their money back. This process nearly broke my author – her heart, her reputation, her finances and her career.* “They haven’t even given me a chance to make the book better, ” she cried. Her publisher could scarcely believe it when I defended her by attacking their process, which had been deeply flawed. They switched the force of their attack onto me: it was ugly and it felt personal. It was a horrible few weeks, but I’d never flinch from doing it again. Not only did I save my author’s finances (and some of the other things on the endangered list above), I also learned a lot.
Most of all, I see now with hindsight, it removed my fear of being disliked. I had that childish burden still – wanting everyone to like me, wanting to fit in. This was the moment to put that weight down. It is perfectly possible to be disliked by people you respect and to survive intact. Actually I don’t need you to like me, I need you to respect me and my authors in return. If you can’t do that, let’s not do business.
Writing this blog is one of the most exposing things I have ever done. One of my best publishing friends strongly recommended that I not do it. “There are too many haters out there,” he advised. “They won’t like everything you write.” You know now how I replied: Ah well, that’s life. You can’t be liked by everyone all of the time.
* Her career has never been in better shape than it is today. Authors, take heart, you too can survive a fall from favour and go on to find success again.