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Do You Try Your Agent's Patience?

By Richard Curtis

If you do something so horrendous as to provoke your agent to declare, "Life is too short," you'd better start looking for someone else to handle your work. It means you have tried his or her patience beyond its limit. You're a walking dead author.

We recently described good timing as one of the most important virtues a literary agent can bring to the job. There's another that most good agents possess, and that's patience. If timing is the art of "when to," patience is the art of "when not to." Unfortunately, that often means when not to knock my head against a wall, wring an author's throat, or hop in a taxi, race over to a publisher's office and trash it.

Although some people are born patient, for most of us it's an acquired quality. We attain it only with experience, and it is arguably the only significant benefit of aging.

If you are constitutionally incapable of practicing patience, you are definitely not cut out to become a literary agent. Despite the appearance of furious activity, and notwithstanding such timesaving innovations as multiple submissions, computers, email, laser printers, cell phones, high-speed printers, overnight mail, instant books, and quickie releases, the truth is that just about anything of importance that happens in our industry happens slowly. Good books are written at a snail's pace, submissions take ages, negotiations drag on, money flows like cold lard, and the building of an author's career from first sale to bestselling masterpiece is about as dramatic as watching a lake evaporate. Difficult publishers test our patience, as do difficult authors. If agents seem to have a higher per capita ratio of weekend homes than other professionals, have pity on them: they must have a place to go to chop wood, bay at the moon, and otherwise relieve the strain of holding their natural impulses in check during the other five days a week.

I do not own a weekend home, but I do have a set of molars that have been ground down close to the nerve endings from restraining the desire to commit a variety of felonies in order to make things move faster. Behind a demeanor that one of my clients once described as "judicious" (it was not a compliment) seethes a cauldron of emotions, energy, grievances, and heroic fantasies. I smile, I speak moderately, I behave politely, I move deliberately. I polish my buckler and hone my sword, ear cocked for the call to arms. It may come in the form of a letter, a phone call, an offer, an opportunity, an insult. But I am ready for action.

Meanwhile, I wait.

I wait, for instance, for you to finish your book. Because my agency does a lot of business in paperback original series, I have to wait only a month or two for many books. For most mainstream ones, however, I have to wait nine months, a year, or longer. The potential in these books presses heavily on my consciousness; I'm dying to wheel and deal. But with few exceptions there is little to be done to convert that potential until the manuscript has been turned in, reviewed, critiqued, and revised (once, if I'm lucky). However much I am dying to go into action with that book, I cannot advance the calendar by one day, the clock by one minute. I grind my teeth and wait.

I wait for publishers to make up their minds about my submissions. Decisions on manuscripts can be forced by means of the auction, and when agents have to move fast they can elicit decisions virtually overnight. But most material does not command that kind of attention. The more conventional approach of one submission at a time, or at best two or three simultaneously, is what is usually called for. Like most agencies, we have a reminder calendar and regularly write or phone publishers prodding them to keep the property in question at the top of the pile.

Despite every measure taken to make editors respond to submissions promptly, it is unrealistic to expect decisions in less than six weeks, and quite realistic to expect none in less than three months (at the end of which you discover the manuscript has been lost). If a work isn't placed on the first or second round of submissions, therefore, a year or more can pass with relatively few responses to show for all one's investment of time. So we wait.

We wait to make deals. Deals can be struck in a matter of minutes, but many negotiations take days, weeks, or even months to unfold. With the evolution of publishing from an individual entrepreneurial enterprise to a bureaucratized corporate one, seldom do agents end up negotiating with the principals of a publishing company. Instead we discuss terms with editors, who refer them to superior officers or editorial boards. Several weeks may pass if the appropriate executives are not available to formulate offers or counteroffers. Often, figures have to be worked up by a variety of departments to help the company determine its negotiating strategy. During which time we wait.

We wait for contracts. The people who work in the contract departments of most publishing houses are among the most professional in our industry. Nevertheless, it is seldom possible for them to produce contracts for signature in less than six or eight weeks. After the editor reaches agreement with the author or agent, he prepares a deal memo summarizing the terms of the contract for approval by the head of the company. After approval has been rendered the deal memo goes to the contract department where it serves as the basis for the formal agreement. This agreement is reviewed by the acquiring editor and an officer of the company, then returned to the contract department for final issuance to the agent. After signed contracts are returned to the publisher, they are circulated for signature and a voucher is issued directing the accounts payable department to prepare the check. We now wait for the check.

We wait a long time for the check because in many cases the accounts payable department is not in the same building or even the same state as the contracts department. After receiving the voucher from the contracts department, accounts payable prepares a check that must be reviewed and signed by the treasurer or other officer of the company. It is then forwarded to the contracts department to be issued with the contracts, or sent to the payee directly from the accounts payable office.

If form follows function, publishers could not conceive of a better structure for attenuating the time it takes to release money. Even with all hands working at maximum efficiency - not a very desirable state from the publisher's viewpoint, you must realize, when there is interest to be earned - I figure two to three months is now the industry average for payout from the time check vouchers are issued (add thirty days if it's an emergency). Agents who have managed to map and penetrate the system can keep things moving with phone calls to various departments along the paperwork routes goading delinquent bookkeepers to press on with their tasks. (I am not afraid to alienate the CEO of a publishing company, but I never, ever speak unkindly to clerks in accounting offices.)

And of course, we wait for books to be published and...well, you get the idea; just about everything concerning publishing is a test of an agent's patience. I wish that didn't include authors but why should they be exempted? One of my colleagues in a fit of pique wailed, "Publishing would be great if it weren't for authors." And another, with tongue somewhat in cheek I suspect, created an index for rating his clients. He calls it the PITA factor.

PITA stands for "Pain In The Ass." He assigns his clients a rating from one to ten, depending on such factors as how often they hit him up for loans, how many times they call him at home at six o'clock on Sunday mornings, how many editors they insult, and in general how much maintenance they require beyond routine care and feeding. Their PITA factor is then divided into the commissions earned on their sales. Applying his criteria, an author who earns only $1,000 annually in commissions but is a model client with a PITA factor of 1 is as valuable to his agent as one who earns $10,000 in commissions but, rated at 10, is a raving lunatic. "Life," says my friend, "is too short to have to deal with 10s."

Well, I don't know.As I said at the outset, if you do feel that way, the literary agent's trade is not for you and you should go into something less aggravating, like sewage management or emergency room administration. When it comes to dealing with artists, irritating behavior comes with the territory. And, far more important, think of what they have to put up with. With the rare exception of the author whose first book stuns the critics, sweeps the public off its feet, and soars to the top of the bestseller list, success for most writers is won only after decades of economic struggle, mental anguish, crushing loneliness and obscurity, and the consumption of murderous doses of pride. They spend a lifetime practicing patience, and if they do not always practice it very well, if conditions are difficult when they start out, difficult when they begin to make it, and difficult even when they finally arrive, a larger degree of tolerance is called for on the part of those who serve them, particularly if they've never tried that life themselves. And most agents haven't.

A PITA scale that does not factor in the emotional satisfactions of midwifing first books, of nurturing authors careers as they gain skill and confidence and stretch to realize their visions, and the joy of attending their graduation ceremonies featuring smashing reviews and sales by the trainload, requires some serious rethinking.

Life is not too short if an agent's patience is rewarded with such satisfactions as these. And so, when tried, the wise agent will count to ten, then - realizing things could be worse, that we've heard horror stories of agent-killers with PITA Factors of 20 or worse - we count another ten, sigh and go back to work.

And if you're wondering about my clients?

They're all saints.

This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.
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  1. Great post. I shall have to remember it when I finally get an agent whose patience I will have to try.


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