Sunday, November 2, 2008

It’s a Small World After All

Let's take a moment to appreciate what a small world children's publishing is—what a small, talkative world.

This is a good thing for the majority of people, since the majority of people in children’s publishing are very nice.

It’s a not-so-good thing for the relatively few people who don’t think they have to be nice.

Perhaps, for instance, you hear (from a reliable source) about an author who has done something that was at best unprofessional and inconsiderate, and at worst sneaky and unethical. But she was a brand-new author, and you like to think well of people, so you assume it was a momentary lapse, and she’ll learn better behavior soon.

And then you hear (from a different reliable source) about the very same author and how her agent got her to do something that was sneaky and unethical and no two ways about it. Something which would, no doubt, displease her publisher quite a bit to hear.

At this point you're deeply afraid that this author has not understood something fundamental about the children's book industry: word gets around.

No doubt this author and her agent figured that no one would find out about their behavior, or if someone did, it wouldn’t matter because it’s making money that people care about, and how you do it isn’t really important.

Ahem. (This is me leaning into the microphone:) Which is wrong.

One day, perhaps quite soon, this author and agent may find a themselves facing a bunch of resistance from the people they’d most like to work with. And it’ll be a big damn mystery why, won’t it?

Because it’s a small, small world.

38 comments:

Miriam S.Forster said...

"It's a world of laughter, a world of tears, it's a world of hopes and a world of fears..."

(I will now be humming the Small World song all day.)

I love people who think no one knows. Like those people who post stupid comments about others on Facebook or Myspace and then act surprised when the person finds out.

In the age of Internet, fax, email and talkative children's editors, I wouldn't count on being able to hide anything for very long.

Sarah Laurenson said...

Is it lack of ethics, lack of maturity or a very different value system that doesn't mesh well with the children's publishing world?

Could be a bit of all three and then perhaps others. Why do something you are not proud to stand up say I did this?

I used to live like that and it was not fun and not easy remembering who knew what, what I said or did to who, who could know X but not Y and how many secrets did I have to keep, when and where. Exhausting. Why not be true to myself and be exactly who I am everywhere? Much simpler, easier, and kinder to myself if no one else.

We do tend to get caught up in the pursuit of money (and not happiness) and in instant gratification, short term goals and gains instead of looking long term and thinking of being of service. But it is in looking long term and helping my fellows that I find my happiness.

Madame Lefty said...

For the sake of being fair...is it possible that the author in question who is behaving unethically just doesn't know any better?

I agree that people should behave professionally and word does get around in small industries such as publishing, but I'd feel very sorry for the author if she had no clue what she was doing was considered unethical and is just taking her agent's advice at face value.

Unless, whatever she did is blatantly wrong and well, like Sarah Palin's phone call with the Canadian comedians, she should have picked up on the hints sooner.

green ray said...

Can you tell us what the writer and agent did? It would be so helpful to know!

Anonymous said...

You leave us with the juicy story and you don't say what the author/agent did?

Come on, EA! We're dying...

(but whatever it was I blame the agent, the agent more than likely had been around the block, the writer somtimes doesn't know any better than to follow an agent's advice)

ChrisEldin said...

My husband has a saying (he's such an old man most of the time) that I really like: There is no such thing as a secret.

There really isn't. It's just a matter of time...

Will Entrekin said...

"And then you hear (from a different reliable source) about the very same author and how her agent got her to do something that was sneaky and unethical and no two ways about it."

Um. Isn't this the agent's fault, then, unless it's, like, egregiously unethical. I'm just thinking that all the agents' and editors' blogs always say that authors should always follow instructions, lest they be considered problematic and primadonna divas (e.g., Mickey Rourke). I'm just thinking that, had I representation, which I am currently seeking, I would take my agent's advice at his or her word. Because that's why I'd have an agent after all; I'm good at writing, but I don't know everything, you know? So I've got this advisor, basically, who knows contracts and publicity and who can really tell me the things that are in my best interest, for the privilege of which I will gladly pay 15% of any earnings, because that's what he or she would deserve, right?

Sounds to me like a brand-new author got taken advantage of by a disreputable agent. But I could be wrong.

And hey: if you say they're acting disreputably/unethically, why don't you say something to them? Anonymous blog posting about it seems a tad passive aggressive. I mean, sure, it gives the Internet a nice chance to titter about it, but doesn't really solve any problems in the long run, I don't think. But I could be wrong.

Christy Lenzi said...

What the heck did she do? How inconsiderate and sneaky of you to draw us in and then leave us hanging. There's no two ways about it. I like to think well of people, so I'll assume it was a momentary lapse, and you'll learn better behavior soon....

emmadarwin said...

The book trade runs like no other industry on earth, and is often very counter-intuitive: a lot of practices which are commonplace elsewhere don't work or are frowned upon in publishing circles.

For every new author so meek and anxious not to make trouble that they don't dare ask what their agent thinks of the new novel after he's had it six months, or whether it's right that their book doesn't show on Amazon a week before publication, there's another writer phoning twice a day because 'Your agent works for you, dammit, and you've a right to know'.

I agree that I'd be inclined to blame the agent for either suggesting, or at least not stopping, such behaviour, but in the eyes of the booktrade the agent and the author are the same entity. Which is where advisors like EA, Miss Snark, Nathan Bransford, How Publishing Really Works, and so on, are so invaluable. As you say, EA, everywhere else, word gets around.

nw said...

I know you can't tell us the specifics of this situation, but I'd love to see a list of examples of unethical behavior by agents and authors. I think a lot of us authors have no idea what might be considered unethical, and some of the "rules" seem slanted against writers.

For example, any time a writer gets on Verla Kay's board and says "Can I look for a new agent before breaking with my current agent?" everyone screams "Unethical!" But many agents go on signing up authors even to the point of not being able to adequately handle their current clients--and then they dump their least successful authors, keeping the new ones who are doing better. They don't break with the old ones before signing up the new ones. Isn't that basically the same?

green ray said...

That's a good point, NW. There's plenty of things that agents do that are unethical, like, for instance, never responding to requested material, or, like my first agent, not keeping her word. I'd love to get a take on this situation to see what is deemed as "unethical" in the publishing world.

working illustrator said...

EA wrote: something fundamental about the children's book industry: word gets around.

I'd be more impressed by this vigorous, community-based enforcement of behavioral standards if I thought, even for one moment, that it cut both ways.

Alas, I suspect that all these eager gossipers are not nearly as quick to jump on failures closer to home.

The "the relatively few people who don’t think they have to be nice" includes just as many people on the editorial side as on the creative one. More, probably, since people in editorial are so, so, so much more insulated from the effects of their neglect, carelessness and inconsideration.

Editorial Anonymous said...

You've got a point, Working Illustrator, but it truly can cut both ways if authors and illustrators would talk more freely to each other.
I absolutely think editors should be as much at the mercy of the reputation they acquire as anyone else. And I'm a big fan of community--especially for lonesome occupations like writing/illustrating.

nw said...

EA, I'm sure you're sincere, but the power dynamic doesn't work that way. If editors or agents talk to each other about an author who behaves in a way they don't like, the author gets a bad reputation and no one will work with him. If an author talks about editors or agents who behave in a way he doesn't like, the author gets a bad reputation and no one will work with him. That's how word gets around.

It would be great if writers were a little bolder (and if other writers didn't always jump to assume that any writer with a beef was a talentless malcontent). But as long as there are a lot more authors wanting to be published than editors and agents waiting to help them get published, that power dynamic isn't going to change.

Maybe it's different when J. K. Rowling gets together to talk turkey with other bestselling authors . . .

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

I HOPE YOU'RE NOT TALKING ABOUT ME?!?!!?!

:-P

lol just kidding. I hate assholes, no matter what they do or what kind of work they do.

joelle said...

While the agent may be at fault for starting the ball rolling, that hardly lets the author off the hook (per someone's comment). I have a fabulous agent and I will consider EVERYTHING he suggests, but if he asked me to do something unethical (which he never would), I'd have no trouble saying, "See ya later."

My first experience with how small a world it is was when I queried an agent and said, "there is an editor at a certain house considering this manuscript" and the agent said, "who is it?" and I told the agent and then found out that the editor also writes and this was her agent! Of course, I don't have to worry about what I might've said because I'm always professional, but it was a bit of a shock! I've come across many things like this over the last few years in publishing and in regular life. It's a small, small world no matter what business you're in.

working illustrator said...

As much as I appreciate your hosting of this forum, EA, there isn't any way it can truly cut both ways, for all the reasons NW lists above. I'm all for community but at its best it's only going to improve things at the margins. Very, very few of us are ever going to be in a position to withhold something from a potential publisher for purely personal reasons. The situation we find ourselves in just isn't structured that way.

Case in point: a few years back, an illustrator friend of mine delivered art for a book to his big NYC publisher's office. The art director didn't like it and basically made a serious, extended point of humiliating him, holding up the art and calling in people from other parts of the office while she got very personal about his failures.

I don't remember what the art looked like. I don't think it matters. There was and is no excuse for doing this to someone who's worked hard for very little pay.

My friend was in his late twenties at the time, very talented but not very experienced. He would have responded to guidance and gone on to make better work both for that book and others. The art director blew her opportunity to cultivate an unpolished but insanely talented individual who - partly as a result of her actions - left the field for good. He took a whole lot of vision with him when he went. A lot of great books never got created.

The art director, on the other hand, has since been promoted. Her elimination of one more disposable aspirant meant nothing to anyone because hey, there are always more where he came from.

You can argue, of course, that he needed a thicker skin. You can argue that maybe she was having a bad day. I won't dispute any of that but the fact remains: it was possible for her to do this and suffer no penalty whatsoever.

I think it's important not to equivocate about this. Not because I think my outrage or anyone else's is going to improve anything, but because a lot of people who read this blog are relative newcomers to the world of publishing. I think it's important that they not go in blind about what they're going to encounter:

Editors will lie for months on end about mailing you contracts that do not in fact exist (happened to me). Art directors will demand hundreds of hours of revisions for projects they will then cancel, whereupon they will demand that you return the advance you spent on food and shelter while you tried to follow their incoherent instruction (happened to another friend of mine). Agents will vanish. Manuscripts will be mangled. People will, in fact, not be nice.

You have to know this going in. And you still have to want to do it.

If this were all more generally known, that much-talked-of slush pile would be a whole lot smaller.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I compeletly agree with both of NW's posts:

I'M SOMEONE who has experienced having a terrible agent such as NW has explained. Actually, exactly as NW has explained. Most writers don't talk about their bad agent experiences, however, because they fear being shunned by other agents/editors in the business.

Editors and agents hold virtually all the cards for unpublished writers -- and are able easily to make a living without adding one more, whereas writers, illustrators can only very rarely make a living at all, and certainly not without the backing of agents and editors.

The fact that editors would rather gossip about the author, than, I don't know, shoot them an email and give them a heads up before they ruin their entire career speaks to a lack of character. This is such a throw away business. It's too bad.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous wrote: "Most writers don't talk about their bad agent experiences, however, because they fear being shunned by other agents/editors in the business."

Or maybe those of us who don't talk about our horrible agent experience keep it to ourselves because we're trying to only put good things out into the world. If someone asked me specifically about my "bad agent", I would have to say that they should be wary of her. But to start blogging about her and all the ways she did me wrong, makes me feel bad, look bad, and unhappy. What I have done is try to blog about the ways to find a good agent and reiterated other agents/editors/writer's advice regarding asking lots of questions and not jumping into things. It seems ultimately more important and more helpful than "telling the truth" to other writers.

Kristi Holl said...

Good post today. Spouting off about an editor or agent (whether verbally or online) is just shooting yourself in the foot. It's like the old saying that unforgiveness is like drinking poison and hoping the other person will die. Giving a quiet private warning when directly asked is one thing (and I've certainly done it), but trashing someone is something else. It pays in so many ways to take the high road instead.
Kristi Holl
Writer's First Aid blog

nw said...

I don't blame the people who don't broadcast their bad experiences with editors and agents, because they have nothing to gain (it's too late for them) and everything to lose. Even when friends or acquaintances ask you directly, it's tricky. Suppose you tell someone the truth and then they go ahead and sign anyway? (It's happened to me.) It's like warning someone off a potential date and then getting the wedding announcement.

On the other hand, I really don't think those of us who "take the high road" need to pat ourselves on the back quite so vigorously. It's a little like taking the high road and not telling your neighbors that a child molester is living on your block. Because of our group silence, lots and lots of writers (who are eager for information, and who can't possibly know exactly whom to ask) will go ahead and sign and have the same bad things happen to them. It's nothing to be proud of.

christine tripp said...

If I am asked by an illustrator about "such and such" a publisher, I will tell them the truth. Certainly I could not live with myself if this illustrator took a project with a publisher I know does not pay or whatever and I didn't warn them first.
What is funny about "It's a Small World After All" is that some publishers don't realize this too. Authors and Illustrators do talk to each other and now, with the internet, FAR more then ever before. So, if the publisher is unethical, word gets around fast. If the publisher tells on author one thing and another author another thing, these two can and do compare notes.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:20 writes:

"...What I have done is try to blog about the ways to find a good agent and reiterated other agents/editors/writer's advice regarding asking lots of questions and not jumping into things. It seems ultimately more important and more helpful than "telling the truth" to other writers..."

I'm sorry, but this is riduculous. No one is suggesting that you get on the internet and commit slander about a former agent. BUT blogging about "how to find an agent" is not more helpful than "telling the truth" to writers? I'm the Anon that suggested it can cause a huge backlash when you blast a former bad agent. And it can. It can make you look petty and insecure. No one is suggesting you ruin your chances of gaining other representation by trash-talking a previous agent.

But there are tons, tons of people that blog about how to find an agent. Guess what? The same agents that make glowing promises to you can also be the ones that do not execute any of these promises. Because with agents, you don't know how they work, really, until you've already signed with them, and then it's too late. They don't follow up on submissions. They don't return emails. And that book they said they'd sell for you no matter what they give up on after only a round of submissions.

I've never publicably blasted the agent that did me wrong, but when I was asked specifically by a writer who was considering signing with him/her, you better believe I told about my bad experiences. Guess what, it didn't matter. They signed anyway. And after more than a year, haven't sold. But my conscience is clear.

Yogi said...

I'm in a business as far away from book publishing as one can get (natural gas gathering and processing) but the principle you are talking about is universal. Many industries are very small worlds and I've seen many people make big ethical blunders and then get frozen out of the industry when word got around about their secret.
Integrity is very important in any field.

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

quite frankly, if I had an awful agent, I would keep my mouth shut and quietly go find another one who is willing to rep me and help me become a published writer. then I'd politely tell the 1st agent that it ain't working out between us.

announcing to the whole world that a certain agent sucks dick is not going to improve matters-it will only make you look like a whiney, ungrateful, insecure writer.

people need to calm down and drink a tall cold glass of iced mocha.

BJ said...

I always tell people about the website Preditors and Editors when they are looking for agents, editors, or what have you.

http://anotherealm.com/prededitors/pubagent.htm

This is a great place to find out if an agent is disreputable. And reporting disreputable agents or editors to the people here is completely anonymous.

However, that said, I would *also* be interested in the *types* of disreputable conduct that can cause such problems. A novice author could very well follow an agent's unethical advice without knowing it's unethical in the publishing world. An agent is the writer's advisor and often a new writer's guide to the world of publishing. If the agent is unethical, the writer may not realize that.

Anonymous said...

From a comment: An agent is the writer's advisor and often a new writer's guide to the world of publishing. If the agent is unethical, the writer may not realize that.

While I agree one hundred percent that an agent is and adviser, they are not your mother. You find out what's ethical by going on gut feeling and learning about the business from blogs, other writers, the internet, books, etc. You ask other people if something is ethical if you're not sure. I just can't get with writers who say, "I write. I don't have time to learn about the business. I'll let my agent do that for me."

NOT THAT I AM IN ANY WAY SUGGESTING THAT THAT'S WHAT YOU MEANT! I just mean that there are plenty of other people out there who do that. If you landed a job in a new field, would you just go to work every day and hope that no one leads you astray or would you try to find out as much about this new field as humanly possible. I know writers who don't even read their friggin contracts because their agent said it was fine and guess what? It wasn't! It's a business.

Monica said...

"...a lot of people who read this blog are relative newcomers to the world of publishing."

I'm one of those. I'm a writer who hasn't been published yet, and I'm very content with that position, but also looking ahead to the next steps. And this post was mystifying because, yes, I wish I knew what this "unethical action" was. Every industry has its own idea of ethics, appropriateness, and so on; and newcomers just have to learn by example and maybe make a mistake or two. But if people just pass judgment instead of giving them a break? - that's not an industry I'd want to be a part of.

I remember being an intern at NASA when I was eighteen. I heard a story about how a fellow intern had mass-emailed the whole astronaut corps to say hey, hello, and how did you get where you are? He was fired. And I remember thinking, "I really wouldn't have known that was a fire-able offense. Maybe a little naive, or gauche, but not fire-able." And I still don't really know why he was fired. But I'll bet you he stopped wanting to be an astronaut.

Editorial Anonymous said...

I can't say what it was that happened in a forum like this. If I know you well, I'll tell you.

I do understand what some of you mean about different industries playing by different rules. The first thing the author did wrong was in one of those gray areas, and so I'm less likely to condemn her for that.

But the second thing was simply unethical. If you don't know what things are unethical in any terms and in any industry, go check with your mother because clearly you weren't paying attention.

Anonymous said...

If you don't know what things are unethical in any terms and in any industry, go check with your mother because clearly you weren't paying attention.

What a terribly naive point of view you have.

My mother was a sociopath who never taught me anything but how to hate myself and demean others - so there was nothing to pay attention to. This belief that all mothers are nurturing saints is stupid beyond stupid.

But to the point:

This isn't an industry where lives are at stake, so I can't imagine what might be considered unethical. Lying? Actors do it all the time on their resumes and in interviews - it's certainly not universally considered unethical. Torture is widely accepted as ethical in the meat industry.

Maybe something to do with money? How many writers have the ability to steal large amounts? Insider trading? Yeah, right.

There are shades of gray in this world. You don't appear to understand that.

So pardon me for wanting concrete examples from a professional before I get into the industry.

Editorial Anonymous said...

This belief that all mothers are nurturing saints is stupid beyond stupid.

No, it was rhetoric. I know not all mothers are good mothers.

Ok, I see what you're saying. And perhaps this does make me naive, but I think there's a line to be drawn between 'commonly accepted practices' and 'ethics'.

Stealing, lying, hurting others... even if these are commonly accepted practices in your chosen industry (and they are most certainly not in children's books), they are enevertheless perfectly unethical.

Anonymous said...

Every editor has been burned by an author or an agent at some point in her career, but as one of the comments pointed out, the balance of power often rests with the editor. (I'll bet EA thinks twice before working with that author or agent again!) My favorite authors to work with are not the ones who sell the most books, but the ones I like the most. I'll commit to a in-need-of-serious-revision manuscript from an author I like more readily than to a pretty good manuscript from an author I distrust. So naive as it may seem, the best advice is be nice. And if you're not nice, you'd better be really incredibly talented.

Ebony McKenna. said...

OK um...
it shouldn't be news to people that you need to be nice to get along in this world. No matter what industry. Big industry or small, word gets around.

(I'm talking nice as in polite, treat people the way you'd like to be treated etc. Not nice as in gullible, or the very old definition of mildly retarded.)

Jane Smith said...

It's difficult to know, as a newbie, how things work in publishing (hence the title of my blog which Emma Darwin so kindly referred to upstream). Nevertheless, it's pretty easy to know if something that you're doing is unethical out there in the real world--and therefore, whether it's likely to also be unethical within publishing.

I'd advise everyone to be honest and open about what they do when submitting; and to be discreet in their dealings within publishing. There's no reason not to be. And it saves so much potential worry!

Marian said...

This reminds me of a question I saw recently from an agented writer.

The agent loved the book, had offered suggestions for revising and was working on the proposal when the author received a reply from Major Agency, a reply to a long-ago query. Major Agency requested a partial. The writer asked whether to stick with the current agent or to cancel the contract and send the partial to Major Agency.

I could understand how the writer felt, but I couldn't justify canceling a contract to send out a partial. Plus, what if Major Agency found out about it?

It's often just easier to play fair. More peace of mind that-a-way.

Dal said...

My first advice to everyone, especially to myself and my kid:

1) Be honest. It's easier. Mark Twain said that a liar needed to have an extremely good memory. Do you want to work that hard?

2) Be polite. It doesn't matter what the person's position or situation is currently, they are a human being and deserving of respect.

2a) When someone does something bad (in your eyes), and you have need to communicate about it, you phrase the transgression in the most neutral and factual way possible. This prevents it from appearing that you are the problem.

2b) Be kind to service personnel of all kinds. There is no one in the world more important than the boss's EA or your agent's intern. Or the waitperson who will bring you your food. Make their lives joyful if you can! Warning - there is no predicting the costs of failing basic decency in this regard.

3) Honor your commitments. It's not always easier, but people remember how you act under duress, and respect is earned one hard decision at a time.

Steve Stubbs said...

I have to say, I love your post. It would be nice to know what it is the agent and/or author did, but in a way, not knowing is much more interesting. That is the same technique Grisham used to keep us turning pages in THE PELICAN BRIEF. I actually awoke in the middle of tbe night last night and was unable to get to sleep for wondering. I have not felt this way since Renee Zellwegger divorced her cowboy-wannabe husband after a brief period of time and cited “fraud” as grounds, then refused to tell us what that means. I admire Zellwegger hugely as an actress (she is the only actress I can think of who is clearly a genius) and so won’t speculate. But boy would I like to know how marrying someone can constitute fraud. Mystery, properly used, is a great way to get and keep interest.

I won’t speculate about this one, either. I understand why you do not feel you can share the who in whodunit this time. But sometime, if you feel OK with it, please let us in on whodunwhat, or whatshedun – without proper names. At least tell us if it is something anyone with any common sense would have known not to do. Or if it is one of those esoteric tripwires understood only by the initiated.

Great blog. Keep posting.

Liz said...

Hi, EA, love the blog.

I'm also an unpublished writer, learning the industry, and by the time I got to the end of the comments to this post, my mouth was dry, palms sweating, nausea swelling ... What am I getting myself into?

A lot of the discussion about how you're supposed to have the internal compass that lets you know when you're veering into the realm of clearly unethincal behavior reminds me of my mom's experiences as a real estate agent. After 25 years in the business, more than one client over the years let her spend weekends and evenings (away from ME, mind you) showing them around to property after property, only to have the client change their mind about buying, and then a week later put a contract down on something she'd shown them - under rep with another agent.

Nasty, nasty, nasty.

So here's the one thing I'd like to throw to the mix. Being a lawyer, too many times I see clients think that because they CAN do something, it's totally okay. This is when I put on my business hat and explain to them the likely consequences for their business down the road. Maybe there won't be any, maybe they can get off scott-free. Doesn't make it OKAY to do it. People get so contract focused, that if the contract doesn't forbid it, then it's a free for all. This makes for longer and longer contracts, which keeps me gainfully employed while I try to be a writer, but doesn't make anyone happy or more successful at what they do.

CAN never has and never will be the same as SHOULD (and I'm not saying that anyone here confuses that - it's just something I see over and over as a business lawyer). If you're working with someone whose moral compass seems to be gathering dust on the shelf, run far, far away. This post is a morality tale of sorts for the rest of us. Here's hoping the wayward author will come to his/her senses, find ways to make restitution and ditch the agent - who should go sell shoes now.