“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
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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