Sunday, January 25, 2009

A TALE OF TWO CLIENTS (OR PLEASE DON'T TELL US HOW TO WORK!)

We had a rather dramatic ending to our work week--we fired a client. Hate that.

Here's what happened:

In the "old days," agents made several hard copies of their clients' manuscripts which they would then mail to eager publishers. Some editors, publishers and agents still work that way. But the convenience of emailing manuscripts is catching on. Now, most of our editors prefer that we email manuscripts to them--usually in RTF (Rich Text Format). So, when we take on new clients, we ask for both hard copy and in an electronic RTF version.

Sometimes editors give us the option of sending either way. We prefer the email version for so many reasons--the salvation of trees, the elimination of many extra steps, plus saving ourselves the cost (constantly escalating) of making copies. So, whenever possible, we email manuscripts to publishers.

I explained this a few weeks ago to a client and asked her to please email her manuscript in RTF. She told me she was "technically challenged" and would have to get help. For the past two weeks we've been emailing back and forth as she and her helpers have been trying to send the manuscript via email. I learned on Friday, after she sent a PDF version, that it was not the technical aspects that bothered the author. It was the fear that editors would steal her work if they had it in an electronic format. I explained that this is standard practice now in publishing. We are working with professional editors and publishers whose ethics forbid such plagiarism. She consulted two "experts" and decided that her work would be in jeopardy if it was emailed to publishers. (Her "experts" are people who are technically savvy, not publishing pros.)

After several weeks of haggling, I told her I was releasing her from our agency contract. I love her book, but it's just not worth the fighting. I fear this kind of stubbornness would replay itself in many other ways during our relationship and life is just too short. We are in the trenches every day with editors and we resent being told how to do our business.

Compare this attitude with our other clients who simply convert their Word document into RTF and send it on to us. The author/agent contract is a collaborative dance. We respect the author's right to question our techniques, and we try to be as flexible as possible. But, the business is changing under our feet. And we pride ourselves on our work to keep up with these changes. It just makes us nuts to be second-guessed on standard publishing policy.

Am I crazy? How do you feel about sending electronic versions of your work to publishers before you have a contract?

16 comments:

Sandy said...

No, not crazy at all. Honestly, I think I'd rather everything be submitted electronically rather than in hard copy. Saves money, saves time, saves trees.

It seems like a lot of aspiring writers are worried about people stealing their work recently. I guess writers could officially register/copyright their manuscripts. If someone does happen to steal it, they'd have proof the book was theirs. For me, though, I just assume professionals are professional. Plus, if an editor or agent stole someone's work, it would be all over the 'net and that person's career would be over.

Laura R. said...

If you thought my work had a shot at getting published, I wouldn't care if you sent the manuscript by messenger pigeon. As my agent, you'd have trust.

Joe Iriarte said...

People don't seem to realize that an unpublished manuscript is pretty much worthless. Nobody wants to steal it. There are no sure things in publishing, except books ghostwritten for famous people, and then it's the name on the cover that makes it a sure thing, not the content in between. Who could have predicted the success of Harry Potter, The DaVinci Code, or Twilight? The next big thing is a lightning strike; it can't be predicted. The most likely fate for the vast majority of us, even if we do get published, is to be largely anonymous and in the midlist. As a writer, I stay in the game knowing those odds because I want to tell stories, because I want to hold my book in my hand, and because even that minuscule level of success would be a big deal to me. But if I were a thief and not a writer? Come on. There are way better things to steal than an unpublished MS. Some writers just need to get their head out of the clouds.

Seriously. Nobody wants to steal your MS.

Kae and Jon said...

Thanks for the comments. Well-said, all of you!

Adam Heine said...

I agree. I think you did the right thing in dropping them. Aside from stubbornness, there's ego in this too, which may very well have bitten you later on.

I'm often surprised at the apparent Luddism of publishers (and some agents). It's not often I hear about Luddite authors.

acpaul said...

Even in this day and age, people remain afraid of that whole technology thing. They also have a high opinion of the worth of their own work.

That's good, because otherwise an author would have a touch time dealing with all the rejection.

But it's also bad in that the aspiring author often thinks their work is better than everyone else's work, and deserves special treatment on that account.

For myself, if an agent wanted an electronic copy of my mss, the only thing I would ask is "How soon do you want it?"

Anonymous said...

Whether it was sent PDF, RTF or hard copy, someone could copy it if they wanted to. You did the right thing as this client could have proved difficult later on - especially when an editor suggested revisions. The client has a better chance of winning Mega Millions than having an editor "steal" their idea. Their chances of finding another agent have also now been reduced. What a bad career move.

Patrice Sarath said...

Oh dear. That, sadly, is a particularly newbie mistake, to think that one's unpublished manuscript is vulnerable to theft. Most people get over it but it sounds like this author may have irreparably sabotaged her career. I think you made the right decision.

Rebekah Mills McDaniel said...

Your client was right to express concern, but the minute you told her there was no reason for concern, she should have trusted you. The entire point of having an agent is to have someone serve as an expert and advocate in the marketplace so that you can just focus on getting things written. People who don't appreciate what an agent knows and does - and feel the need to "back seat drive" constantly - should not have agents. It's a shame for everyone involved that your client had to learn this the hard way.

Susan Hanniford Crowley said...

If an agent wanted my manuscript in RTF and hard copy, they'd have it. No problem. I'd be glad to send it and get back to work on the next book.

Dave Bara said...

I have no problems with sending my work electronically. I figure nobody knows me well enough to bother stealing it anyway.

And for the cost reasons you mentioned, it's just much easier to work electronically than to print-and-mail via dead tree.

db

Jolie said...

I think your former client's problem wasn't stubbornness, it was ego with a side dish of extreme naivete. A professional editor at a reputable publishing house, stealing an unpublished manuscript? Such a scenario would only occur to an author who is convinced his/her book is a masterpiece and is guaranteed to bring success to whoever claims credit for it. Or (if you give her the benefit of the doubt) to an author who is very ignorant of the industry.

... hm. So maybe I'll rephrase: the author's real problem is lack of professionalism. That's not the kind of person you want to work with.

Jane Smith said...

Why the paranoia over electronic copies? What makes them more likely to be stolen than paper copies? It's not logical. And if you don't trust your agent to submit your work safely, how on earth do you think he or she is going to manage to sell your work for you?

I would far rather send over an electronic version than spend time printing, packaging and posting the thing--not only is it quicker, it's cleaner and more environmentally beneficial. And in all my years in publishing (over a quarter of a century, good grief) I've only ever once known for sure of an episode of potential plagiarism, which was dealt with swiftly and stringently by the writer's agent as soon as it came to light. And that was over 20 years ago, before email was possible.

Dorie LaRue said...

I would love to have my manuscript sent to any publisher, email, hard copy, smoke signals...

Jan said...

I think you avoided future problems by letting the client go.

meltastick said...

I would literally run from Phoenix, AZ all the way to New York City if a publisher wanted to read my MS. I don't care how it gets there; as long as it does. You did good on letting her go. You don't want future headaches. Toodles!