Friday

Unsheath a Steel Fist From the Velvet Glove? Timeless Agent-Insider Viewpoints on The Biz

By Richard Curtis

Traduttore, Traditore
("The translator is a traitor") - Italian proverb

One of the critical roles literary agents play is that of translator. We perform the task on several author. The writer who sells his first book to a publisher and reads his first contract is plunged into a sea of words that may be totally unfamiliar to him, or that are used in a totally unfamiliar way. "Force majeure," "net proceeds," "matching option," "warranty," "discount"—these need to be defined for the novice author. There are many difficult concepts to be grasped, such as "advance sale," "midlist," "fair use," "reserve against returns," "pass-through," and "hard-soft deals." The language has its own slang, too, and our initiate hears bewildering references to who handles the "sub rights," what is the tentative "pub date," and what happens when the book is "o.p.'d."
levels. The most obvious and fundamental is explaining the nomenclature of publishing to the uninitiated

Agents patiently try to demystify these terms, but it may take many years of experience before our clients are completely at ease with them. It may well be true that what distinguishes professional authors from their amateur brothers and sisters is that the pros have undergone this linguistic rite of passage and are now able to sling around "pre-empts," "first proceeds," and "escalators" with the best of 'em.

But there is another, and profoundly more important, job for the agent-translator to perform beyond explaining to his clients the terminology of the book industry. I'm talking about using language to forge and strengthen the bonds between authors and publishers. For, while the goals of both may ultimately be identical, they are usually achievable only after many conflicting viewpoints and interests have been reconciled. Sometimes those conflicts become intense, and if allowed to go unresolved can cause serious if not fatal breakdowns in the relationship. An agent, standing between these potential adversaries, must find common ground for them to stand on, else all - including his commission - is lost. And though their differences may be genuine, sometimes they are semantic, and if an agent can pinpoint and settle the linguistic problems, perhaps the more substantive ones will not seem quite so insuperable. Although it's a stimulating challenge, not all of us enjoy sticking our heads up in this no-man's land.

You must not think, however, that editors cannot be seriously wounded. And it is important to know that fact, because a hurt editor (or art director or royalty bookkeeper) may not want to work as hard for an author who has irked him or her as for one who has been supportive, tolerant, and forgiving. This is not to say that editors are so thin-skinned they fold the first time someone criticizes them. But I do know that if an author or agent injures an editor's feelings seriously enough, it can undercut his or her initiative, and that may eventually redound to an author's detriment. Some years ago I phoned a bookkeeper who had been verbally abused by an author a few months earlier. This author was owed another check, and I wanted to know where it was. "Funny thing about that check," she said, deadpan, "it keeps falling to the bottom of my pile. Must be gravity or something."
We have learned that "a soft answer turneth away wrath."
It is therefore vital that editors and their colleagues in other departments of publishing companies be handled with a certain degree of diplomacy, and it is in the language of that diplomacy that most agents are adept. We have learned that "a soft answer turneth away wrath." And most of the time, we are able to rephrase or paraphrase the blunt demands, the raw needs, the hard feelings, the hostile remarks, of our clients into gracious packages of civility that convey everything the author intended without damaging the fragile sensibilities of the person at whom they were directed.

I've been keeping some notes about discussions recently conducted with editors and am happy to offer herewith a few examples of this process in action. Some of them are tongue in cheek, others are deliberately exaggerated. Still others will sound stilted, and that is because, unfortunately, that is the way I speak.

Let's take one of the commonest problems in our business, that of getting editors to make up their minds about submissions. Editors are burdened with a great many tasks that curtail their reading time. They may be inundated with manuscripts to read. They may be on the fence about a submission and wish to postpone a decision for a while. They may be soliciting opinions or sales estimates from colleagues in their company. They have many legitimate reasons for taking a long time to read submissions.

At the same time, some editors seem to have a considerably dimmer sense of the passage of time than people in other fields, such as airline management or television programming. So, one of the first lessons one learns in the agenting profession is how to translate an editor's promises about time. "I'll read it overnight" too often means, "I'll get around to it in a week." "I'll read it in a week" means, "I'll be back to you in a month." And "I'll read it in a month" may well mean that the manuscript is lost.
Let's take one of the commonest problems in our business, that of getting editors to make up their minds about submissions.
In order to reasonably hold editors to their promised schedules, agents use the elegant phraseology of coercion. "As I'm loath to keep manuscripts out of circulation," I might write, "may I trouble you for a decision?" If this fails to yield a reply, I might escalate to something more pointed, like, "My client is getting restless," or, "I'm under some pressure to determine where we stand."

Sometimes a humorous approach is in order. I'm a great believer in the power of teasing to accomplish that which solemnity cannot, and I'm not above a little sarcasm under the appropriate circumstances: "When I submitted that manuscript to you, the oceans were two inches lower."

If an editor has sat on a submission for an unconscionably long time, I will invariably get a phone call from my client saying, "You tell that sonofabitch that if we don't have a decision by Friday, I'm personally gonna come down there and rearrange his prefrontal lobes with an ax haft!"

Justified though that ultimatum may be, it is couched in language this is terminally infelicitous. By the time I'm through modifying it, it may sound something closer to this: "As you don't seem able to make up your mind, suppose we say that if I haven't heard from you by Friday, I'll put another copy of the manuscript into play elsewhere, and you may take as much time thereafter as you wish." And sometimes I'll put a finer point on my message with this veiled warning: "Do let me know when your work load is down to a more reasonable size so that our agency can resume submitting books to you."

I'm certain that you must be saying to yourself, "How is an editor going to get these messages if the agent pussyfoots around that way?" The answer is, editors get these messages loudly and clearly, for unless one is incredibly dense, he or she will have little doubt that a knife has been placed against the throat.
The transmutation of hurtful language works the other way around, too, so that when we have to tell a client that his publishers hate his book so much they want to manure a cornfield with it, we may say something like, "It didn't live up to their expectations"...
Another common problem for agents is, of course, overdue checks. Authors are remarkably articulate when it comes to expressing the discomforts of financial deprivation and to depicting the character and ancestry of those who conspire to keep them in that condition. Unfortunately, most editors would go through the roof if exposed to the authors' invective. Enter the honey-tongued agent, and though that agent might love nothing better than to say, "Pay up or we'll vaporize you," it's more likely he or she will say something a bit more subdued. Perhaps a subtle form of extortion: "It would be to your advantage to remit payment promptly so as to avoid scheduling delays," In plain English, this informs the editor that unless his company ponies up the dough, the agent isn't going to deliver certain manuscripts that the publisher desperately needs to put into production. Because a late manuscript can wreck a production schedule at fearful cost to a publisher, the wise editor will undoubtedly give the check-processing machinery an extra-hard spin when he or she gets a message like that from an agent.

I can think of lots of other ways that agents refine the harsh language of their clients without sacrificing effectiveness. For instance, though we may be thinking, "My client just turned in a real turkey," what we are telling an editor is that, "My client thought you might like to see a first draft of his book before he starts polishing it."

Or, "My client is going to sue you into Rice Krispie-sized pieces" becomes, "My client is contemplating contacting his attorney, at which point the matter will be out of my control."
Or, "My client thinks your editor is so incompetent, he couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the C and the T!" becomes, "I'm not certain that the author's and editor's views about the book are entirely compatible."

* "My client is so upset he's taking big bites out of his living room sofa" translates into, "My client is finding it hard to understand why . . ."

* "You'll use that cover on my client's book over his dead body!" may be altered to, "My client is pretty determined."

* Here's a brief glossary of other agently euphemisms commonly employed when tempers start to overheat:

You: "I'm thoroughly disgusted with those people."
Agent: "My client is somewhat disenchanted."

You: "If I had that editor's throat in my hands . . ."
Agent: "I'm not sure my client is completely comfortable working with you."

You: "They're lying and cheating."
Agent: "My client feels he may have detected some discrepancies.

You: "What a crummy deal?"
Agent: "Some of the terms leave something to be desired."

You: "I wouldn't sell another book to that butcher if he were the last editor on earth."
Agent: "Let's have lunch."

The transmutation of hurtful language works the other way around, too, so that when we have to tell a client that his publishers hate his book so much they want to manure a cornfield with it, we may say something like, "It didn't live up to their expectations," or, "They found it lacking in certain respects." Or an editor's remark to the effect that a certain author couldn't write his way out of a trash can liner becomes, "They don't feel you've reached your potential quite yet."
Here are a few others.

Editor: "This material is simply lousy."
Agent: "Your editor is disappointed."

Editor: "What language is your client writing in, anyway?"
Agent: "Your editor pointed out some obscure passages."

Editor: "Your client is the rudest person I've ever had the misfortune to work with."
Agent: "Your editor seems to have overreacted to what he perceives as a slight."

Editor: "Is your client crazy, or what?"
Agent: "I'm not sure your editor appreciates your sense of humor."

Of course, not all agents approach matters as delicately as this. Some of us are in fact quite plainspoken, and even the most tactful among us realizes that there are unavoidable occasions when we must unsheath a steel fist from the velvet glove. Still, it is gratifying to know that at least when it comes to the language one may still find reminders of the time when publishing was a profession for civilized ladies and gentlemen.

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