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Are You High Maintenance?

What does it mean when an author is classified as “high maintenance” by an agent or a publisher? The more I think about the question, the more I realize 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 (“Do this, or else”).

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” to a “veteran.” 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 10 am on a Sunday morning is unreasonable. (Hopefully, your agent is at church!)
  • Expecting your publisher to fly you, at their cost, to Germany to research your next novel is unreasonable.
  • Demanding that your agent drop everything to read your sample chapters and respond–in the next hour–is unreasonable.
  • Arriving unannounced at a bookseller convention and expecting your book will be displayed in the publisher’s booth (even though the book is not a new release) and then yelling at everyone for disrespecting you is unreasonable. (No gold coins for you.)

Each of the above examples are actual demands and expectations that have happened. Lest you misunderstand, it is okay to ask; but don’t expect a yes to every demand 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? Each of the above examples are actual situations I have personally experienced, either as an editor or an agent. Every agent and editor in the business has shocking stories of unreasonable authors. Please note, they are the exception–and that is why they are memorable. Ninety-nine percent of the time everything is peachy. Okay, 97% of the time.

Don’t Become a B.E.N.

When Karen Ball worked for our agency, she asked 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 a 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 whom 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 also say, “The pushy bird gets the boot.” I’ve been in meetings or on 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 sap the pleasant tones out of what’s written; you will always sound stern. (I am guilty of this.) 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 people who work with you on the defensive. They are your in-house advocates. Without them on your side, nothing will get done.
  • Be reasonable with your expectations. And if unsure, ask your agent if something is normal or not.

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

[An earlier version of this post ran in June 2012. This version has been thoroughly revised and updated.]


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