Tuesday, January 31, 2012

playing for the house: an editorial assistant on the dangers of going agent-free

A few weeks ago, INTERN received an e-mail from an editorial assistant at a New York publishing house who had recently had a distressing—but telling—experience with a brilliant manuscript, an unagented author, and an offer that had "poor sucker!" written all over it. Unagented writers, take note...


I want to be clear—I love my job. But this isn't a post about how hard won it was to
get an editorial position or how great it is to work with authors or make decisions
that will impact a book that people will read. This is a post about the less glamorous
part of the job. This post is about the money.

It feels so long ago that I had the good fortune of finding something in slush, that
strange and hopeful pile of paranormal love and dark futures. But what I found was
a quirky memoir with an itchy, infectious voice. My boss "Steph" read the partial
and loved it. So with butterflies, I emailed the author to ask if it was still available.
I know authors feel like the wallflower at the dance but I want you to know editors
worry too.

It was still available, and the rest of it was fresh and wonderful. We got the approval
to make the offer, but it was a pittance really. New and naïve, I did the silly thing of
asking “Steph” if we could offer a higher advance. “Steph” looked at me like there
was a fly on my face and I wished I had never spoken up. Maybe “Steph” thought I
was being cute, maybe “Steph” chalked it up to my previous post at an agency. In
any case, “Steph” made it clear very quickly that we were playing for the house. In
fact, when “Steph” called to make the offer to the joyous hoots and hollers of the
lovely author I’d dredged up from the deep of the slush, “Steph” offered less than
the pittance. “Steph” explained to me that we needed to leave room for negotiation. I
almost laughed.

There was no negotiation. There were only profusely thankful emails sent to me for
that one chance that changed everything. There were lots of rants in the evenings,
empty threats to quit this moneymaking machine, shouts of indignation that were
unheard save for my poor friends who had seen me work myself to the bone and cry
on the floor for only a chance to work in publishing.

I got over it, cut my teeth on other deals, compartmentalized what I did during the
days and what I did in between—write, write, write.

A few months later, the author came down to New York and we took him out for
a fancy midtown lunch. It broke my heart when he told us he hadn’t even read the
contract before signing.

Maybe you think “Steph” is a terrible, terrible person. But “Steph” is not a bad
person. No, actually “Steph” is the kind of boss who never makes an underling
get coffee at the Starbucks down the street. “Steph” never gets mad, even when
people make really, really dumb mistakes. “Steph” is one of the best editors I
know. “Steph”’s authors, including the memoirist, adore “Steph” for “Steph”’s kind
words, endless insights, and personal touch.

If anything “Steph” is not the exception but the rule. Please get an agent. A good one
is worth it, I promise.

There you have it, straight from the mouth of an editorial department insider. It shouldn't come as a shock that the house is playing for (gasp) the house, but sometimes you need a not-so-gentle reminder. To this, INTERN would like to add: Editors seeking a lower price tag aren't any more evil than agents seeking a higher one. Everyone wants to get a really good deal. It's just how the game works.

Writers: please don't make any more tender-hearted editorial assistants cry on your behalf. Get an agent, educate yourself, and read the freaking contract.


  1. Well, did he at least succeed with the book, have wonderful glowing reviews and good sales and people queuing up clutching it to tell him how much it resonated with them? Ah I'd like a happy story out of this somehow, even if it's a fairytale. You can lie to me, if you need to.

  2. schietree: the book hasn't come out yet! so there may yet be a happy ending :) And it isn't an unhappy story—the author is thrilled to have a book deal, and rightly so. The point is not that the author got screwed, but rather that he/she could have gotten better terms.

  3. And not just any agent. A good and competent one!

    1. It's possible that agents turned him down already. They didn't want to take a chance on a quirky book for a possible 15%-of-a-pittance payoff. And if the writer relied on an agent's opinion, he'd have no deal at all, so this is a happy story from his point of view.

    2. Kelly - I'd respectfully disgree on this one. The problem isn't so much the small advance, though, of course, higher advances are always better. There are some *bad* boilerplate contracts out there -- forbidding you from publishing anything else without the publisher's permission while your book is in print, allowing the publisher to make any changes they want to your book with out your permission, allowing the publisher to hang on to the book and delay publication indefinitely without any recourse available to the writer. Not to say the writer signed any of those, but with all the options available to writers today, there are *definitely* things worse than no deal at all.

    3. Sounds so easy...get an agent. I may make the same mistake, but I'd like my book published nonethe less. A guys got to do what a guys got to do.

  4. I've been agented and unagented and it doesn't matter which you are - you need to read and understand the contract and know as much as you possibly can about the publishing industry! I did a series on my blog called How to Read a Publishing Contract. I hate to plug my blog, but that bit is really useful if you don't have an agent. And if you do - you still need to know what is going on!

  5. Kelly Andrews: Good point! INTERN hadn't considered that. INTERN agrees that it IS a happy story, all things considered. Sure, there are elements that make you cringe (he didn't READ the CONTRACT?) but at the end of the day, a book deal is a book deal. Or is it? Because what if this is his first book, and it doesn't get quite the launch it could have if he or his agent had negotiated a better deal? Which then sets his entire writing career off on the wrong foot? Hmmm....

  6. I'm going with: The moral of the story is READ THE CONTRACT.

  7. INTERN, i think you are a better writer than most i have read.

    but, i'm confused: you work like a drone for free doing things most of us get paid for; the author of a quirky memoir tosses a manuscript over your transom and is already getting paid, with a contract for more money to come. and now, for the first time in his life, he's a 'soon-to-be-published author'.

    i can't say that i have any sympathy for someone literate enough to write a book, but foolish enough to sign a contract unread. it is you my heart goes out to.

    gaetano catelli
    author of (soon-to-be-self-published) "Behind Lesbia's Door: Her Slave-Girl's Shocking Revelations"

  8. Gaetano: you will be glad to know that INTERN no longer works like a drone for free, but is now a paid author herself! hurrah for book deals and freelancing :)

    INTERN *does* have sympathy for the author in question, even though it was dumb not to read the contract. Even if he had read the contract, how many people would risk losing a book deal in an attempt to get a better advance/better terms without an agent? Most people would probably settle for the not-so-awesome contract, because they'd figure it's better to have any deal than no deal.

  9. I agree with some of the other comments--the moral of this story is really "read the contract." An agent might help, but I've seen some authors get screwed over by their own agents (not all agents are angels of goodness and light). Authors, don't stick your fingers in your ears and hope for the best when it comes to your career. Read through the contract yourself. If you're in doubt, get a contract attorney to help you go through it.

    The advance size aside, I hope there weren't some really nasty clauses in that author's contract, like some of these: http://kriswrites.com/2011/05/25/the-business-rusch-publishers-surviving-the-transition-part-2/

  10. Yes, sadly *lots* of first-time authors sign either without reading or without arguing because (a) they don't understand the contract and/or (b) as you say, they are so pleased to have any deal they don't care about the terms and/or (c) they are afraid the contract will be taken away if they argue.

    I have argued about many contracts and never, ever had one withdrawn. There have been times when I won't accept the terms and have dropped out, and times when the terms have been improved. But I've never been dropped because I queries the contract, so go for it!

    1. Stroppy -- Yup! A polite request to change things never hurts -- the worst that can happen is that they say no to your requested changes. And if they *do* withdraw the contract simply because you asked for changes (which they shouldn't, if they're reasonable professionals), then most likely you dodged a bullet.

  11. Stroppy Author: thanks for sharing this info! it's very encouraging to hear from an author who has disputed the terms of a contract and can report that no, you don't get dropped like a hot potato for doing so. more authors need to hear this!

  12. Coming from a slightly different angle, I really appreciate the honest portrayal of an editorial assistant who so clearly feels strung between too worlds. It's HARD to be the one at the bottom of the totem pole in-house, but to realize you're on the side wielding most of the power when it comes to blows; to have the thrill of the slush-pile discovery, but to see what can happen to a slush-pile author without a good agent on his side.

    Loving a job that does some pretty crummy things is an experience we all have to grapple with, author or publisher, and I appreciate the honest telling--and will definitely recommend it to our readers at Trendsetter!

    Elisabeth, Managing Editor of www.PublishingTrendsetter.com

  13. Elisabeth: Exactly! Publishing is a minefield of moral quandaries for everyone involved. Just like most jobs (unless you're, like, a yogi).

  14. And if one is a yogi, I'm guessing the moral stakes are so high as to exceed what we mere mortals could bear! I think I'll stick with books for the time being...

  15. If you can't get an agent, there are at least lawyers who will read over the contract for you.