Are You High Maintenance?

by Steve Laube

Last week I was asked to define what is meant when an author is deemed “high maintenance” by an agent or a publisher. The more I thought about this the more I realized how difficult it is to quantify. Any attempt to do so is fraught with potential misunderstanding because most people are looking for specific rules to follow.

Normally “high maintenance” is a description of someone who is difficult to work with or is constantly in need of attention. It can be anyone from a “diva” to a “rookie.” The best way to express the issue is in the following word picture:

When you contract with an agent or a publisher you are granted a large measure of “Good Will” in the form of a bag of gold coins. You are free to spend these coins however you wish during the course of the business relationship. The cover design is completely wrong? Spend some coins. The marketing plan appears weak. Spend some coins. And as time goes by and positive things happen you receive more gold coins for your bag.

However, many authors make the mistake of spending their entire bag of coins the first time something goes wrong. And then the next time they need a favor or a special dispensation there isn’t any “Good Will” left.

I think there are three areas where these relationships can break down.

Unreasonable Demands/Expectations

Remember that publishing is a business and should be treated professionally. Each author comes into the business with their own understanding of the industry and therefore with their own set of expectations.

  • Expecting your agent to answer their phone at 10am on a Sunday morning is unreasonable.
  • Expecting your publisher to fly you to Germany to research your next novel is unreasonable.
  • Demanding that your agent drop everything to read your sample chapters and respsond…in the next hour.
  • Arriving unannounced at a bookseller convention and expecting that your book will be displayed in the publisher’s booth (even though the book is not a new release) isn’t going to earn good will coins.

Lest you misunderstand, it is okay to ask, but don’t expect a yes to every demand that you make and then be petulant when you don’t get what you want.

Unreasonable Behavior

  • Going ballistic and screaming on the phone at an editor about your manuscript edits is unreasonable behavior.
  • Sending a barrage of emails to your editor every day is unreasonable behavior.
  • Shouting angrily at an editor and declaring that he is obviously not a Christian because the art department created a weak book cover is unreasonable behavior.
  • Asking your agent to lie for you with your publisher is unreasonable behavior.

You get the picture? Every agent and editor in the business has shocking stories of unreasonable authors. Be aware however that they are the exception…that is why they are memorable stories. 99% of the time everything is peachy. –?– Okay, 97% of the time…

Don’t Become a B.E.N.

Karen Ball asks that her clients not become a Black-hole of Emotional Need (what I call B.E.N.). This is a delicate area to navigate because a writer’s life is full of disappointments and frustration. Your agent should be safe place where you can vent. But too much drama can become a challenge for any relationship. Becoming overwrought over every issue and constant complaining can be draining to all those with which you do business. As with all things, use discretion and lots of communication to make sure any lines are not crossed. I addressed some of this in the post “Never Burn a Bridge.”

I’ve heard it said that if you aren’t demanding and in the face of your publisher or agent, they will stop paying attention to you. Sort of like saying “the pushy bird gets the worm.” There may be a measure of truth to that. However I can say that many times “the pushy bird gets the boot.” I’ve been in meetings or conference calls where the publisher says it is no longer worth the expense of time and emotional energy to continue working with a particular writer. Let me simply implore you, “Don’t be that author!”

Coin Collecting

To counter those times where you must spend your Good Will coins to get something fixed there are some things you can do.

  • Remember to say thank you when a job is well done. Everyone enjoys being appreciated.
  • Remember to always speak with grace in your email communication. Email can suck the pleasant tones out of every note; you will always sound stern. If you’ve got a tough letter to write your publisher, run it by your agent first to make sure you are not out of line.
  • Try to avoid personal pronouns when writing your publisher if you can. Not “you messed up”… instead “the team failed to get this done right.” Avoid putting your in-house advocates on the defensive.
  • Be reasonable with your expectations. And if unsure, ask your agent if this is normal or not.

By the way, I know what some of you are thinking. “Steve is writing about me!” Let me assure you that I’m not. It seems that each time I write a post like this a client or a person in the industry writes and says “I hope you weren’t writing about me!”



29 Responses to Are You High Maintenance?

  1. Avatar
    Kathy Eberly June 4, 2012 at 3:47 am #

    Thank you so much for this post. As I was reading this, the Bible verse popped into my mind that says to treat other people as we would have them treat us.

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    JennyM June 4, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    Amen Kathy!

    Many of these qualities point to terrible business sense and very narcissistic behaviour. A new author will need some gentle guidance in certain areas that are purely unknown until one is inside the business. That is when I’d pull out the notebook, then just shut-up and listen. But if yelling, berating, demanding and all around diva behaviour are carried out on people who are trying to help the writer, what happens to those who get in that writer’s way? Or that writer’s family?
    I’d prefer to be the one who sits in the corner and is known for getting her work done, sending thank you notes and being fun to work with, than the one who’s photo is on the back of Steve’s office door, attached to the dart board. By the darts.

  3. Avatar
    Lynette Eason June 4, 2012 at 5:08 am #

    Great advice. I figure if you’re doing your job writing your books, you really don’t have time to be high maintenance! LOL. And I don’t think I would like to be a high maintenance author anyway, looks like it would require way too much energy. But it’s good to be reminded about how to build (and keep) a good relationship with your publisher. Thanks for the post.

  4. Avatar
    Patricia Zell June 4, 2012 at 5:08 am #

    Kathy, you took the words right out of my mouth. In relating to another person, I try to envision how I would feel from his or her point-of-view. After all, we are writers, and as such, we should understand the different POVs people have. Diplomacy and tact are two important tools to use in our dealings with others. Thanks, Steve, for your post.

  5. Avatar
    Sherry Gore June 4, 2012 at 5:20 am #

    This is by far one of the most helpful posts I’ve read on any blog in regards to writing. And I think I’m hearing a little jingle in my coin purse, yet. As a rookie, my new goal is to let it be so a year from now. Thanks!

  6. Avatar
    Robin Patchen June 4, 2012 at 5:22 am #

    I can’t help but think of 1 Corinthians 13: Love patient and kind, it is not arrogant or rude, it doesn’t insist on it’s own way, it’s not easily provoked to anger, and it rejoices in the truth. If we lived that way all the time, all of our relationships would be improved, including our business relationships.

    • Avatar
      Marji Laine June 4, 2012 at 9:36 am #

      Oh, I was thinking the exact same thing, Robin! And the premise to that section of verses should be what naturally comes out all the time. In business, at home, on the road, and in stressful situations.

  7. Avatar
    Jill Kemerer June 4, 2012 at 5:53 am #

    Excellent post. I think it’s easy for authors to get into a mindset that publication will make all of their dreams come true. Then, when things don’t feel magical (the editor isn’t a best friend, the art isn’t perfect, etc…), insecurities can cause bad behavior. We have to remember this is business, we’re professionals, and not everything is going to be rosy!

  8. Avatar
    Esther Thompson June 4, 2012 at 6:35 am #

    Thank you. Your posts are so helpful.

  9. Avatar
    Meghan Carver June 4, 2012 at 6:54 am #

    I’m shocked! Do authors really behave that way? I cannot imagine treating another person like that. And I agree with Lynette — if we’re busy writing and living interesting lives, we shouldn’t have the time to be high-maintenance.

  10. Avatar
    Melissa June 4, 2012 at 6:58 am #

    The wonderful Rachelle Gardner pimped your blog this morning — I’m very happy to discover yet another agent blog that gives us writers practical advice. I am a debut novelist, and I always feel like I’m “taking up” my agent’s time (or the time of editors and other publishing professionals), even when we’re just doing business. This is something that I’m working on, but it’s very difficult for me. I don’t have crippling self-esteem problems, but my ego could be a little healthier … 🙁

  11. Avatar
    Katie Ganshert June 4, 2012 at 7:30 am #

    The whole time I read this, the thought scrolling through my head was, “There are authors out there who really DO these things?”

    • Avatar
      Steve Laube June 4, 2012 at 9:06 am #

      As I mentioned, these examples are memorable because of their flagrant nature. Most of the time people do not act this way.

      But it does happen. I couldn’t make up some of the shenanigans that have occurred.

    • Avatar
      Sherry Gore June 4, 2012 at 10:26 am #

      Same here, Katie. I had no idea.

  12. Avatar
    Jeanne June 4, 2012 at 7:37 am #

    It’s pretty amazing to think that there are people who truly treat others in the ways you described. Wow.

    I’ve learned that some tact mixed in with grace goes a long ways in interacting with others.

    Thanks for sharing “dont’s” and “do’s.” I appreciate your post, Steve.

  13. Avatar
    Ruth Douthitt June 4, 2012 at 8:19 am #

    Wow! I mean, WOW! There are authors out there that do these things??

    Scary world.

    Nope, I am low maintenance. Just ask my husband. I shop at Wal-Mart for clothes, get my hair done at Fantastic Sam’s, etc. I don’t expect to get more than I give.

    And when I do? I am eternally grateful. However, that said, I do probably send my publisher a few too many emails asking about my latest submission. Ha ha!

    Great post. Very humbling!

  14. Avatar
    Shelly King June 4, 2012 at 8:32 am #

    That’s quite a list! When I first read it, I thought maybe this behavior comes from these writers having never worked in an office job where you can’t behave like that and be successful. Then I smacked myself upside the head because people behave that way in the office all the time! I used to do high tech consulting work here in Silicon Valley and used to run into clients like that constantly. Actually, I had lunch on Saturday with a consultant friend whose phone was constantly wringing with client calls. It’s exhausting! And you can’t fire them when you’re working for a start-up, you really need them. Oh the stories! Gotta go write now;-)

  15. Avatar
    P. J. Casselman June 4, 2012 at 9:53 am #

    “Hi, I’m a Christian author. Now wash my feet and bring me a cookie!” Really? Mark 10:44-45 says, “And whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Obviously B.E.N. is serving others by helping them become slaves to all…well, at least one. 😛

  16. Avatar
    Sybil Bates McCormack June 4, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Oh, all right, Steve. If you’re not going to accept my Sunday morning calls, the deal is off! (As if. LOL!) Great post. I’d like to print this one out and frame it, and I promise to try REALLY HARD not to engage in behavior this heinous once I HAVE an agent and a publisher. 🙂

  17. Avatar
    dalesittonrogers June 4, 2012 at 10:06 am #

    Thanks for the good advice. We can apply it to other areas of our lives as well.

  18. Avatar
    Carrie Turansky June 4, 2012 at 11:00 am #

    Great advice! I shared this on Facebook. Thanks for helping us learn how to get it right.

  19. Avatar
    sally apokedak June 4, 2012 at 11:04 am #

    Wonderful post.

    Now you know what pastors feel like. They always make me squirm in the pew, though they always assure me they don’t have me in mind when they prepare their sermons.

  20. Avatar
    Karen Ball June 4, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    Steve, love what you’ve said here. Happily, none of my clients have fallen into the B.E.N. category. They’ve been amazing and patient and wonderful partners in this crazy adventure called “publishing.” Now, my BOSS at this agency, that’s another kettle of fish n’ chips. Who knew Steve spelled his name B.E.N.?

    (Insert evil laughter here.)

    • Avatar
      JennyM June 4, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

      Oh Karen, now I love you even more.

  21. Avatar
    Mary Hunt June 4, 2012 at 12:43 pm #

    Wait. Are you saying I have the option to contact my agent? To thank him for the Christmas gift? And I can question my editor’s edits? Really? It’s okay to do that?

    Well now, makes me think I might have a nice little accumulation of good will coinage in my account, minus a hefty penalty for being so late with “Thanks for the See’s.”

  22. Avatar
    Diana Harkness June 4, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    If you become my agent, I promise not to be high maintenance. My husband, friends, and clients can testify that I require very little attention and am patient. I’ve waited more than a month to hear about a decision on my novel from a publisher and I’m willing to wait 5 more, if necessary. I have plenty of other tasks to fill my day while I wait. Who has sufficient time to be high maintenance?

  23. Avatar
    Susan Bernhardt June 4, 2012 at 1:51 pm #

    This is amazing to me also, that anyone would act like this.

  24. Avatar
    Jennifer Dyer June 4, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

    Thanks for the words of wisdom. I remember the first time we sold a house, I spent too many of my gold coins with my agent too fast. It was hard not to take everything personally. I know writing has similar pressures. Thanks for being willing to teach, so more of us can avoid falling into those dark pits of BEN-ness…

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