ETA: I had a brief exchange with Rusch on Twitter after this post went up. I said I agreed with much of her article, but that it felt like she was on an anti-agent crusade. To which she replied, in part, “I am on an anti-agent crusade.” I mention this because it helped me better understand why Rusch went where she did in her post.
Yesterday, Kristine Kathryn Rusch posted an article titled An Agent Nightmare Revealed, talking about an accountant/bookkeeper who embezzled more than $3 million from a major literary agency. She goes on to discuss the need for authors to be in control of their own business and finances, and whether or not any authors should still be using literary agents.
I agree with a fair amount of what Rusch writes here. Donadio & Olson, the agency in question, screwed up. Rusch notes that they’ve known about the embezzlement since last fall, but failed to contact all of their clients to alert them to the problem. WTF? And the embezzlement has apparently been going on since at least 2011. I’m not an accountant, but it seems like any business should have some safeguards and auditing practices in place if they’re handling that much money…
Rusch also talks about how writers neglect the business side of things. Again, I agree. Whether you have an agent or not, your writing career is your responsibility. You’ve got to read your contracts. Be aware of what rights have sold, and when payments should be coming in. Follow up on discrepancies, or any transactions that don’t match what you’re expecting.
Every contract I get from my agent comes with a cover letter reminding me to read the contract. Because even though they go over every contract, it’s possible they might miss something. Or there could be a clause I don’t understand. As the writer, I need to understand.
Track your sales. Bookscan and publisher Author Portals can help with this. You don’t have to obsess over every week’s numbers, but know how your books are doing. Know when they’ve earned out, so you know when to expect royalties to begin showing up.
But then Rusch goes on to say, “Do not hire literary agents … If you already have a literary agent, extricate yourself from this relationship. Cancel it, get your books out of that agency, and hire an attorney to do your negotiations.”
This is exactly the type of absolute, one-size-fits-all advice I try to warn people against when I do panels and writing workshops.
I understand that Rusch has had some bad experiences with agents, some of which she describes in the article. It sounds like she’s happier on her own, and hopefully her career is doing better without an agent.
That’s great. She’s not the only author to make that choice. It’s the choice that works for her.
On the other hand, my agent has helped me land a large number of book deals I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own — mostly subsidiary deals through the agency’s contacts and their trips to international book fairs, where they’ve sold my stuff to publishers in Germany, France, Latin America, and more. Earlier this year, I wrote a pitch for a major publisher I’m waiting to hear back on. That opportunity came about through my agent; it’s almost certainly not something I would have heard about on my own.
In other words, for me, working with my agent has been the right choice, and has significantly improved my income as a writer.
But wait, what if my agent, or someone at the agency, is skimming from my royalties? As Rusch notes, “Prestigious agencies embezzle.” (I’m not clear whether Rusch meant some prestigious agencies embezzle or all of them do.)
This is where it’s important to be aware of your sales, as well as the checks you’re expecting, and when those should be coming. And if something seems off, follow up.
Rusch has a lot of good advice for writers about understanding your contracts and not neglecting the business side of writing. I just wish she didn’t mix that good advice with the alarmist “all writers should immediately dump their agents” rhetoric.
Do your research, and make the choice that’s right for you and your career.