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The Mad Scribbler



The Dunce

“Somewhere out there was a village I’d deprived of its idiot.”
— Summer Knight, Jim Butcher

A while back, a stranger approached me for professional advice. This was a successful new writer who had signed an agreement with a literary agency, which contract was now causing considerable problems. The writer didn’t know what to do about it and was referred to me by a mutual acquaintance. (To clarify, the “literary agency” had entered the picture only recently and had not contributed in any way to the author’s career, income, or opportunities.)

The problem was that the agreement entitled the so-called literary agency to an unusually large percentage of the writer’s income from all subsequent deals. I confirmed that this was a terrible contract, but it was indeed a contract. That made this a legal problem, so I referred the author to a good literary lawyer. The upshot was that, although appallingly egregious, the contract was legally binding and could not be broken with impunity. Fortunately, though, the agreement had an expiration date; so the writer decided not to make any deals until after that expiration date had passed—a decision that meant walking away from a good offer which (wholly unrelated to any action of the so-called agency) was on the table at the time.

I advised the author to treat this incident as a learning experience: “Never again sign a professional contract or agreement that you don’t understand and haven’t negotiated effectively.”

You may imagine the writer said: “Absolutely! Lesson learned. I won’t make this mistake twice.” But not so much, really. The writer got defensive, resisted my characterizing that “agency” agreement as a bad decision, and started justifying to me the reasons for signing it and explaining why the choice had made sense at the time.

This sort of reaction happens a lot.

It’s not behavior that’s unique to writers. I think it’s just human nature. But since I’m exposed a lot to writers, I particularly notice it in that context: Having made a bad professional decision, it’s not unusual— even when seeking advice about how to fix the problem—for writers to get defensive about a bad choice being characterized as such, and then to waste time and focus arguing that point.

In an effort to encourage others to abandon this tiresome practice (otherwise, one of these days, I’m going to wind up shoving someone’s head into the nearest toilet), I will now acknowledge some of the most idiotic things I’ve ever done as a professional, without trying to pretend these were anything other than really bad decisions that I should never repeat.

By way of disclosure, this is easier for me than for some, because all of the stupidest acts of my career have involved literary agents—and I quit the agent-author business model almost six years ago. Although I’ve certainly made professional mistakes since then, none of them have been embarrassingly foolish since I stopped dealing with literary agents.

Anyhow, here we go.

On numerous occasions—and despite having candidly discussed with them, before becoming a client, my opposition to this practice—I let literary agents talk me into paying them a full 15 percent commission on   

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