Rusch’s Article on Agents and Embezzlement
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.
May 31, 2018 @ 12:47 pm
Yes, Rusch is an absolutist on self-publishing. Anyone who sticks with traditional publishing isn’t making a different choice that works for them, they’re blind fools who are WRONG! All trad publishers are incompetent and clueless so you gain nothing by going trad! Ditto agents! But yeah, her advice on reading contracts (and paying, if necessary, to have them explained) is sound.
I’m not surprised the agency stayed mum. The default response in any organization always seems to be to bury the truth.
Jaime L Moyer
May 31, 2018 @ 1:43 pm
For people with a long history in publishing, and an encyclopedic knowledge of how the industry works, going without an agent might make sense. Those writers have a long track record, and established relationships within the industry.
But for the rest of us, I wonder how hiring a lawyer to look over contracts gets a writer access to acquiring editors. You can’t just fire off an email to an editor at Orbit or Daw or Tor, and say “Hey, I have this great book. Let me send it to you!” My agent can do that. I can’t.
I’ve gotten the speech that all I needed was a contract lawyer from more than one friend. Not one of them could explain to me how to get my work in front of an editor if I didn’t have an agent, or how to get editors to take me seriously in negotiations. I don’t think they had a clue.
I’m not at all against self-publishing. My ultimate goal is to be a hybrid author, and I’m going to put out a novella later this year. But I know I don’t have the experience, the time to do all my own promotion, or the money for editors/copyeditors it would require to dump my agent.
May 31, 2018 @ 2:20 pm
Way back in the eighties when I was first getting published, there were people advocating the same thing — steer clear of literary agents, for they are all corrupt and take a percentage of your earnings for doing no work; just hire a lawyer instead! But in addition to the fact that a lawyer is not going to research markets and submit your manuscripts for you, and does not have a track record with publishers, lawyers don’t know the book business. Several of my acquaintances did, for various reasons, hire a lawyer rather than an agent to go over their contracts, and the lawyers invariably missed horrible clauses that should have been argued over and argued aggressively over clauses that were no big deal.
May 31, 2018 @ 9:41 pm
For DAW, they normally are open to un-agented submissions, as it happens! (They’re currently closed to all submissions, according to http://www.penguin.com/publishers/daw/ , as they transition to accepting electronic subs.)
Orbit wants an agent. Tor will take unagented novellas, sounds like? (Could probably parlay some of those into an unagented “hey, you’ve liked my novellas; would you like to see a novel, too?”) And, of course, there’s Baen, which doesn’t seem to care about agents either. From what RandomHouse isn’t saying on their website, I think they want agents for the paper imprints (Del Rey, Bantam, etc.).
It does limit the options, but it doesn’t exclude everyone! (If I decided to make a go of hybrid, I’d probably talk to DAW first anyway. I suspect my style and theirs would be the best match.)
But yeah, I’d say if going the agent route, then understanding your contracts, and making sure that they don’t entangle your rights messily with your agent’s property, is a good thing. In my first work-for-hire contract, I talked with the other party (Steve Jackson, of Steve Jackson Games) about something that was silly and trivial but also important to me. His response was, “You should be able to be happy with this contract even if we were bought out by TSR tomorrow. Let’s add the clause.”
If your agent is hit by a bus tomorrow and their heir is a slimy jerkface, you should have a contract that will protect you and let you get the heck out of dodge with as little legal and financial pain as possible. And if you can get it into the contracts that the publisher divides the agent’s fee and sends you and the agent separate checks? Removes at least some temptation for Agent’s Slimy Sibling to run your agent over with a bus.
June 1, 2018 @ 3:06 am
And lawyers never embezzle, nor have employees who do so? Facepalm, indeed. I think the real takeaway for authors should be that, whether you’re represented by an agent or a lawyer, you still need to keep an eye of your own on the business end of your writing biz.
June 1, 2018 @ 8:04 am
Back in the 80’s, my first agent embezzled a few thousand dollars from me. Luckily I got that money back and moved on. I went for a few years without an agent, selling books on my own, but eventually I came to see the value of a good agent. 23 years ago, I signed with an agent who transformed my career. The very first contract she negotiated for me increased my usual advance by a factor of 50. Yes, that’s FIFTY TIMES what I was negotiating on my own. Over the years, she has been my fiercest advocate, in publishing, in film, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without her.
So I completely agree with you. It’s wrong to condemn all agents because of one bad apple.
June 5, 2018 @ 10:00 am
Good points, Jim. As usual, the answer is nearly always “it’s complicated.” 🙂
I tried reading the original article, but I had to give up by the 2nd or 3rd example of:
“(Important and relevant question here.) I don’t know the answer, I’m not an expert. But here’s my opinion stated as fact anyway.”
Didn’t help when I came across one where I actually knew the opinion stated as fact was plain wrong. Not very encouraging for the quality of the rest of the article.
Then reading the Twitter exchange, yeah, life’s too short to waste time listening to crusaders. Far better and more informative to listen to those who acknowledge the complexities and nuances.
June 15, 2018 @ 12:35 am
I have decades of business experience in three different major industries other than publishing. In none of those industries would a literary agent’s standard expectations even get off the ground. The most basic business practices go completely opposite to what agents present as “normal.” Starting with: your employee pays you? Based on raw data you never see? Straight out of Cloud-Cuckoo Land.
All the sweet, trusting authors lining up to have a share of this make me wish I didn’t have a conscience.
June 18, 2018 @ 2:41 pm
A fair point, Hannah but lots of businesses have distinctive rules that a crook can exploit. It’s standard practice for people having a home built to pay the builder, who then pays the subcontractors. Crooked contractors simply pocket the money. As the homeowner is legally the one paying the subs, they go after them, not the contractor.