School of Hard Knocks

Last night I returned from one of the largest and oldest writer’s conferences in the country, the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference. Tucked in between San Jose, California and Santa Cruz, the location is beautiful and our electronic connection almost worthless. Because it’s a retreat conference center, they don’t want to encourage people to work on the Internet so the wireless connection is in a single spot on the camp and often laboriously slow. With my intense schedule at the conference, time to write any entries was almost nonexistent. From early in the morning until late at night, I was interacting one on one with different writers. In a span of a few days, I had over 50 one-on-one sessions and countless additional interaction with editors, other literary agents and writers. It was a great experience and something I highly recommend you incorporate into your planning for this year. Find a good conference and make time to get there.

If these entries get scarce, check my travel schedule. One of the items which doesn’t appear on my schedule is a family wedding on April 14th in Southern California. I’ll be out of my office from April 11th through the 22nd with two back to back trips. I hope to continue adding some entries but if not, there are good reasons–and I’m not on vacation (as some reader suggested).

The Mount Hermon Conference marked my second conference as a literary agent. While I’ve been a book acquisitions editor for the last five years, I’m still behind the learning curve when it comes to being a literary agent. On several panels during the conference with other agents, we were asked to tell about our recent sales or the highest profile client. I had little to say in this realm since I’m just starting to send out proposals and manuscripts for my clients. Something many writers know but need to hear again is the timing for this work. It takes time–and often lots of time for the proposals and manuscripts to be sold (or contracted) to a book publisher. Many of the factors regarding this timing are completely outside of anything that an agent can control. Often as an acquisitions editor, I’ve felt helpless to control the factors of timing–so you can imagine that as an agent who does not work directly for a publisher, such matters are even more outside of something you can control. Yes, we have active relationships with editors and publishing houses. Yes, we actively send the best possible pitches and proposals to these relationships–then we wait for their response. After an appropriately generous amount of time, we gently inquire about these projects and receive an update. It simply takes time for everyone. Our hurry-up, make-it-happen society does not like to wait or to have patience. I regularly tell writers that if you want a positive response, then it will take time. It’s easy to get a “no” response but “yes” takes time. Maybe that’s a new thought for some readers.

While we can read about the details of publishing through blogs or books or listen to teaching about it, it is often through the actual process of doing the work that we learn our way as writers and editors and literary agents. It is valuable to learn as much about it as possible but no book or workshop will cover all of the possibilities. For many years, I’ve been talking with writers in different roles. At this conference, I learned that agents have some taboo areas to talk about with writers who someone else represents. I had no idea there were such taboos but when I received a tongue lashing from another agent, I quickly learned in the school of hard knocks. You may be wondering what in the world I’m talking about so let me be a bit more specific about what I learned–yet I’m not revealing the other agent, the writer or anything that will give you this information.

There is a problem with publishing that I’ve heard labeled poaching. It’s where an agent will talk with a writer and essentially lure the writer away from their current agent. I understand the concept since writers are among some of the world’s most insecure people. Yes, we may exude confidence in certain settings but underneath we are insecure (and I include high profile, bestselling authors in this category). As writers we are only as confident as our latest well-crafted sentence or a glowing comment from a reader or better yet–from an editor. Every writer wants to increase their own personal book sales, the amount of money they receive for a book advance and million other things. In particular, I’ve heard about this matter of agent poaching in the Christian marketplace much more than the broader general marketplace. Maybe it’s because the community is smaller but I’m unsure. I know it’s a little-discussed problem area. It is true that writers change literary agents (and for many different reasons). It’s perfectly understandable and OK when a writer decides on their own initiative to change literary agents. It’s NOT OK when one agent stirs up this change and lures the writer away from the first agent. That’s called poaching. I’m not interested in poaching anyone else’s clients. I figure there is plenty of work for everyone.

With that background, here’s how I learned what I could not ask any writer who another agent represents. I met a writer at the conference for the first time that I had corresponded with numerous times via email. I knew another agent represented this writer. I was asking the writer about her projects and just making conversation about her work with the other agent. I asked specifics about what this other agent had out there for this writer (and that was my taboo question for one agent to ask about another agent). Why? Because the question looks at the performance issues about this other agent (and I didn’t even think about it). Imagine my surprise when the agent pulled me aside and confronted me about poaching their writer. In a heartbeat, the agent could tell that poaching this client was not my intention or desire. I apologized and learned through the school of hard knocks a valuable lesson. It was probably the first of many lessons I will learn in this area.

If you think you are immune to learning these lessons from the school of hard knocks, I’d encourage you to think again. I’ve not met anyone immune to such lessons–no matter where you are involved in this publishing world.

7 Responses to “School of Hard Knocks”

  1. Virginia Smith Says:

    Though I’ve got a few books under my belt, I’d still classify myself as a newcomer in the publishing world. But one thing I do know – learning lessons in the School of Hard Knocks isn’t exclusive to the publishing industry! The most memorable lessons I learned in the corporate world were ones that knocked me the hardest.

    It was good to see you at Mt. Hermon, Terry.

  2. Gina Holmes Says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Terry.

  3. Richard Mabry Says:

    This is why I, and many others, come back to your blog regularly–you regularly share your real-life experiences with us. We can always learn from you.
    I wish you a great deal of success as an agent.
    Have a blessed Easter.

  4. Cecelia Dowdy Says:

    Thanks for posting about poaching. I’ve never even heard of that practice(in the publishing/agent world) until you mentioned it in this blog entry. Thanks again…

  5. Bonnie Calhoun Says:

    Egads…I guess if you didn’t know, there’s a ton of stuff we don’t know!

  6. Steve Laube Says:

    Just so no one guesses incorrectly, I was not the one who confronted Terry. 🙂

    Poaching does happen in the agent world and many times it lacks subtlety. There are some high profile cases in the general market where this has happened. It usually has one agent promising a writer a bigger payday than they are getting with their current agent.

    I even had one general market agent give me the name of another agent saying, “Be careful around that one. Keep your hand on your wallet when you two are in the same room.”

    I know a story in the Christian industry that occured during the annual booksellers convention a few years ago. The “poacher agent” came up to the writer in a publisher’s hospitality suite and began their ploy. Unbeknownst to the poacher, that writer’s agent was sitting a few feet away listening to the pitch. According to the witness, just as the “poacher” was moving in for the “kill” the writer’s agent revealed their identity and in no uncertain terms told the poaching agent to pound sand. The witness was amazed to watch it all unfold.

    It is a sad reality. In Terry’s case he stepped over one of the unspoken boundaries in total innocence. No harm done and an easy lesson learned.

    May you “live long and prosper” Terry!

    The Steve Laube Agency

  7. Donna J. Shepherd Says:

    Thanks for the peek from the other side of the fence. Interesting lesson. It was good to see you again at Mount Hermon.

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