Swimming with Sharks 2: Writers’ Values

If you’ve been following Dean Wesley Smith’s “Sacred Cows” series (click here) or his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Freelancer’s Guide” series (click here) then you might know what’s inspired this post here.

In the dictionary, there are numerous definitions for the word values. Some people — cynics, mostly — tend to giggle if ever you talk about values as they apply to people. But I tend to take values fairly seriously. In fact, the older I get, the more seriously I take them because I feel like I’ve begun to learn that values are all we have, all that define us. Strip away the material, and there is who you are. What you are made of. Beyond intellect, what kind of person are you? What is your integrity like? What kinds of rules do you have for the world around you, and more importantly, what kinds of rules do you have for yourself as a human being?

As writers, we often seem to value one thing above all else: publication. We’ll do just about anything to be published. Including giving away our writing for free, or for very little return. Including entering into contractual agreements negotiated by total and absolute strangers — people we wouldn’t let tend our kids or come over for dinner, because we have no idea who they are, but we’ll let them negotiate some of the most important business decisions of our lives.

Yes, I am talking about agents. And yes, I am one of those “renegade” writers who believes that you don’t have to have an agent at all costs, or under all circumstances, to be a successful working fiction writer.

Why? Well, namely, because I’ve concluded that the agent model — as it currently exists, with agents acting as slush readers and asking for re-writes and just generally functioning as bosses of the writer community — is against my values, for myself. Other people feel differently, and I understand that. I even understand that some people feel so differently, they’re liable to be angry at even the suggestion that agents aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, or that an agent is not, in fact, a vital and absolute necessity.

Here’s the thing. While pondering the latest round of agent discussion at Dean’s blog — and enduring not just a little heartburnt backlash in other places for speaking my mind on the matter — it occurred to me that the reason I am so deeply conflicted about the agenting system, is that it contradicts my values as a writer.

Firstly, the current system contradicts one of Heinlein’s key rules: never re-write unless to editorial request. Heinlein didn’t say to agentorial request, he said to editorial request. An agent is not an editor. Editors are people who can cut checks and buy books. An agent is an interlocutor. If ever an agent is asking for re-writes that an editor has not asked for first, that agent is going around one of Heinlein’s key rules. And if I allow an agent to get me to re-write anything, I am therefore violating one of Heinlein’s key rules. And from what I’ve seen so far in my career, Heinlein’s rules prove to be “true” almost all of the time. Thus, for me, this rule is a writing value.

Second, the current system violates another one of Heinlein’s rules: once something is written, send it to someone who can pay you for it. Can agents pay writers? Why must every manuscript written pass through the “filter” of agents before getting to the actual payers in the equation? Especially if the agenting filter is going to “reject” the book? Seems to me it’s functionally impossible for an agent to reject a book because an agent cannot, in fact, buy a book. Yet under the current system that is precisely how we all go about it: we send our manuscripts to agents and we let the agents turn down the books or, perhaps worse, accept the books and sit on them or shop them to a very few markets before declaring the books “dead” and effectively ceasing to get them to market. This not only violates the rule about sending work to payers, it also violates the rule about keeping work on the market until it sells.

Another concept I consider a value: writer as the payer of the agent. No writers, no agents. No agents… There would still be writers. And publishers. And people to buy the work. So how come writers almost always let the publishers pay the agents, who then pay the writers? Here again the agent is placed in the position of “boss” when in fact it is the writer who is boss. But because this practice — of agents getting money first — is so common and so commonly accepted, any suggestion that writers get the money first — or that publishers split payments, sending 15% to the agent on one check and 85% to the writer on another check — is regarded as “rogue” advice from someone who either cannot or will not abide by the system. Me, I believe in the writer-as-boss model. Treating someone else as boss — especially someone making money off my work — is in direct conflict with my values. It seems logically backward, and also functionally backward. When I am in uniform, do I let my subordinates “boss” me?

A few other values to go along with the one above: not tolerating tardy royalty statements or checks. Now, that might seem like a cart-before-horse statement coming from someone like me, but again I have to ask: why is it accepted, as common practice, that agents will a) get the money before the writer and then, often b) sit on that money for weeks, or even months? In his post, Dean talks about float: the ways in which agents can and do make money off writers’ money while that money is in the agents’ bank accounts. So far as I am concerned, an agent deserves precisely that 15% stated in the contract, and not a gottdamned penny more. Yet an agent very good at pooling multiple income streams from multiple writers in a single account, then sitting on the money for a period of time, can make quite a bit of interest on that money. To say nothing of the smaller and less able agents who simply need the money as “shuffle” money to pay the bills and keep the utilities on. Here again, an agent’s inability to manage his or her finances is not my concern, but the current model — agents getting and keeping writers’ money — fosters and enables that very kind of activity. BZZZT! Values violation. My money is my money and nobody should have my 85% but me. Including whatever interest that 85% might earn once it leaves the publisher’s account.

At this point you might be asking why I, Brad R. Torgersen, would even bother with an agent, and that’s a question I ask myself a lot too. And the only logical answers I can arrive at are: an agent can possibly get through doors that I can’t get through yet, and an agent can possibly work foreign markets for me and grab foreign sales opportunities that I am not aware of or might not know enough about to even begin working the deal on my own. So I am inclined to say, yes, on these two specific matters, an agent appears valuable.

But is there an agent who is willing to NOT ask for re-writes and ALWAYS send my work out ALL the time without questioning me as producer of product? At the same time would this agent agree to split payments AND never asking me to sign for anything beyond a single contract at a time? How about vigorously pursuing foreign sales? Never bullshitting me about the contents of a contract? Never bullshitting me about conversations had with editors? Never dealing against me when in talks with an editor about a bigger or more important client? Ergo, sacrificing my deal in order to make someone else’s deal better? Never acting as first reader BUT always going to editors with vigorous enthusiasm about my work?

Yeah, I don’t think such a creature exists, either. If such a creature does exist, someone please e-mail me, I will be the first to sign up. But since my fantasy agent does not, probably, exist, and likely never will, what’s my recourse?

Stick to my values. Especially the most important value of all: if ever it is suggested that I compromise a value in order to secure publication of any kind, have the courage to walk away. Even if it means walking away from a big publisher, or big money. The older I get the more convinced I am that once you sell out — once you let your values become compromised because your desire for something, or for a certain outcome is so great — it becomes wickedly difficult to backtrack and protect yourself from the repercussions. Plus, there is the self respect issue. I know from personal experience what happens to your self respect when you let values go by the side of the road. It’s a tough thing to live with yourself if a value that is central to you has been fracture for the sake of short or even long-term gain, because what have you got then?

Writers’ values are ostensibly designed to protect writers.

By refusing to accept publication for little or no pay, you are establishing the value of your product and you are establishing for yourself the internal value that you are a professional and that professionals are paid for their labor. Amateurs work for free. Professionals work for money.

By refusing to let an agent get paid for your work and then pay you — and all that goes with that — you are establishing for yourself the value that you are the boss, and it’s your work that is earning the money. Either all of the money comes to you and you pay the agent — funny how no agent would ever go for this, even though almost all of them would happily go for the reverse — or the agent can be satisfied with a separate check from the publisher, containing only their 15% of the deal.

Likewise, by refusing to allow an agent to demand re-writes, you again establish the boss-to-employee relationship. An editor might ask for this, because the editor can pay. But an agent? How many bosses let their employees tell them what to do? Any agent skilled enough to actually instruct a writer how to re-write, should probably be writing themselves. And yes, I know that flies utterly in the face of everything experienced by every writer who has a “creative collaboration” with their agent. Again, my blog, my values. You might not like it, but you don’t have to like it. I take re-write requests from payers only, not employees.

As writers, I think we have to ask ourselves in the mirror: how much do we respect ourselves and how much do we respect what we do. Is it all just hack work and do we not give a damn how we get to print, just as long as we get there? I imagine some people might feel that way. But as much as I am in this for the money — oh yes, the money is a key motivator — there are still some things I have decided I am not willing to do, even for the promise of a great deal of money. Because I suspect I will be trading away far more than rights in a contract. I’ll be teaching the system itself — the agents and editors and the other parties — that I am a writer who can be compromised. Work on me enough, offer me enough, and I’ll break. I’ll cave. And then what leverage do I have?

Not much, I think. Not with the industry, and not with myself, either. And me is who I have to get up and live with every day.

About Brad R. Torgersen

Science Fiction & Fantasy Author - Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell award nominee
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2 Responses to Swimming with Sharks 2: Writers’ Values

  1. correia45 says:

    I didn’t even think about it as a value question at the time. I sent query letters to agents like everyone else, just because “that’s the way it is done”. Once they all rejected me I went ahead and started having a successful writing career without them.

    Sure, I’ve made some business mistakes,and I’m sure that I’m missed out on some opportunities. But at this point, the only way I’m going to ever have an agent is if I happen to find one that I really like, and that would probably only be for foreign sales purposes. It helps that I’m with a pretty darn honest publishing house too (Baen) so unlike a lot of authors I’m not worried about getting shafted by my publisher.

  2. Larry, thanks for commenting. I appreciate it.

    I am with you. I don’t see myself having an agent unless that agent is a really, really good fit. Someone who is willing to work with me according to my ROE, not their ROE. Someone who can work foreign sales. Because to be honest, for domestic, if I could develop a tight shot group with a house like Baen, I’m not sure what an agent could do for me after that. Answer questions, maybe, but as long as I had an IP lawyer explain some of the contract language once in awhile, that would only cost me some hourly rate, no more. No agent necessary.

    I have a sense that “that’s the way it’s done” is working less and less for many writers, and that the industry as a whole is going to see a gradual shift to where agentless contracting is more common, and more commonly accepted as a viable business model. Especially SF and spec writers, who are brainiacs and love information, if a lot of us got ourselves schooled up on contract law, talked to and use IP lawyers, etc, there wouldn’t be much — beyond foreign sales — that an agent could do for us.

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