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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Good Business Thru Politics

I don't know how the health care debate going on in Washington will play out. I've come out clearly in favor of liberal non-market approaches. And I'll admit that I want very badly for some kind of reform to get passed, please please please. My insurance carrier will be telling me soon how much the JABberwocky premiums will be going up come March, and in the meantime I've gotten the good news in a letter entitled "Supporting member health and affordability" that they plan to make our coverage worse. With that title to the letter, on the outside of the envelope, what else could it mean! Copays will go up. If I need a wheelchair or other orthotics, prosthetics or durable medical equipment, I'll get to pay 20% of the cost, and there doesn't seem to be any limit to the size of that co-pay. There are new co-pays for ambulances chemo, and radiation.

If I need a wheelchair and have to pay 20% of the cost, it's safe to say I'll look to go to Joe's Pre-Used Wheelchair Discount Emporium unless I'm rich enough to buy the best wheelchair money can buy. No, that's not rationing. Because that's just screwing people who can't afford 20% of the cost of the nicer wheelchair. We're happy to ration care in this country based on ability to pay, and somehow or other that isn't rationing.

But that's not the purpose of this rant.

The purpose here is to explore why it is that some senators have such outsize power in the negotiations over the course of the health care bill, and the simple reason for that is that they're the ones who are most willing to say "no." Which means that I and all the other people on the side of making good health care a right, privilege and responsibility (yes, responsibility as well) of citizenship, who want to do something, don't have the leverage. It's the people who are "differently principled" to try and put it politely who have the power, because they're willing to say "no."

And this is a good lesson for any author.

When a publisher offers to buy your book, they are saying your book is something they want. If you ask for a better deal, maybe they'll say "no." But very rarely will they say "oh, well, if you don't like it exactly the way it is then we're going to withdraw it." Because if the offer will go away that quickly, then it's clear that they don't really want your book all that much. And if they want it that little, maybe you should'nt be selling it there anyway.

So don't be afraid to say "no."

That being said, there are right ways and wrong ways of saying no.

Much as Ben Nelson isn't on my Christmas card list this year, I can respect that he's always been opposed to abortion and is sticking up for a clear and consistent conviction. If I had a client like that, my one big thing would be that the client have expressed early and often and clearly any kind of deep-seated belief like that instead of discovering it only after the 4th round of back-and-forth between me and the publisher on the contract. The "I was for the Medicare buyout before I was against it" approach isn't so OK with me.

If I find a contract that's running up against one of the JABberwocky convictions after the second round with the publisher... Well, let's say the publisher is intent after I've tried a couple times on having an out-of-print clause that doesn't have a clear exit path because of the theoretically perennial availability of an electronic book. That's when I need to get the client on the phone, explain why I'm worried that we're two rounds into the negotiation, the publisher isn't budging on this, and it's a problem to me because... and then need to find out just how far the client will go in saying "no" to something I feel passionately about.

These games of brinksmanship don't have a clear set of rules. Sometimes problems come up in unexpected times in unexpected places. But I do feel very strongly that the health care debate does offer a powerful example of what can happen when you have something other people want, and you are willing to say "no" longer than those other people are. A good agent should be able to give you good advice on how badly other people might want what you have and how long you can or should say "no." A good agent should also pick up the cues the client gives on core convictions. And both client and agent should be more afraid to give those cues too softly or too inconsistently than to give them clearly, convincingly and (absent changing circumstances) consistently.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What an interesting blog. I would have never thought to tie the healthcare debate with publishing, but your argument makes sense. I paused to consider if I, as a newbie, would have the intestinal fortitude to say 'no' to some demand of a publisher. Given how difficult it is to break into this industry, I fear my response would be a watered down "give them what they want", and sadly, that's pretty much what's happening in Washington D.C.

Thanks for a thought provoking rant.