Monday, April 30, 2007

Jane Dystel talks gossip

The publishing business is a multi-billion dollar industry that still manages to be small, insular and somewhat incestuous. Indeed, that is one of the reasons I love it. The biggest publishers and agencies are primarily based in New York City and my colleagues and I all run into each other constantly – at lunches, at publishing events, at temple or church, on the street, etc. Even on the weekends when we are out of town, we often share the same neighborhoods. Through the internet and the numerous writers conferences that have sprung up all over the country, our community has grown to include thousands of established authors and potential authors. But, it’s still a small community where rumors fly and gossip is a favored pastime.

And so much of this gossip hurts. Recently, at a writers’ conference attended by many perspective authors looking to find out if they needed an agent and the ways they could benefit from having one, one of our agency’s clients gossiped about how ineffective our agency was in some very specific ways. He was speaking to a large audience of people who were truly there to learn. It so happened that in the next room was one of our senior agents who was horrified to hear these unprofessional (to say nothing about untrue) comments. And of course, when our agent reported back to us after the conference there was enormous shock, unhappiness and disappointment among our staff – especially because we had worked so hard for this particular client over the years.

Mean-spirited gossip is, indeed, destructive and in a business as small as ours it hurts the person responsible for it more than anyone else. That writer, or editor or agent is noted for what they say and colleagues tend to avoid future serious dealings with someone they can’t trust will be discreet and professional behind their backs. I try to encourage our staff – all wonderful, very able agents and support people – to be caring and careful of what they say and how they comport themselves – especially at writers’ conferences where so many aspiring authors are eager to learn about our wonderful business.

I do admit, however, that having had more than one unfortunate experience with the kind of gossip that flies in these venues, I am less likely to attend these gatherings (to which I am invited often) than I was in the past. This is truly unfortunate as I love to teach people about the business I have worked in for so long and help writers become successful. I would much rather follow a constructive path than be confronted by this kind of destructive, hurtful behavior and so I stay in my office and conduct my business from there.

And so, I pray that those of you reading this will stop and think the next time you are tempted to gossip about an editor or an agent who is only trying to help move you and your career forward. Know how your words and behavior will affect the person you are talking about. Also be aware that, because of the very small business we operate in, this kind of behavior will most likely adversely affect your future in the publishing world.


  1. Thoughts...

    If the comments he made were true, they're constructive criticism; they should have been shared with the agent in question at your agency first.

    If the comments he made, or the complaints he had, were shared with the agency and then ignored by the agency--something I can't picture happening in your case, but occasionally, it does occur!--then to my mind, if he shares these things in a public venue, it's with the spirit of "buyer beware," so to speak. It's a case of the agency having "done him wrong" first. But, like I said, I can't imagine that that happens all that often. :-)

    If, however, he just chose to talk off the cuff--or imagined he was talking off the cuff, even though the situation sounds like it was very public indeed!--you're right, this isn't something that would endear him to most people.

    I do think we need to temper our remarks, at times, and keep in mind where we are and to whom we're speaking...but I also think that at times, in this industry, a lot of what is considered rude, hurtful, or "gossipy" is, in the end, only shared information one person to another. It has no evil intent. If anything, the intent is the opposite: to warn those who come after to beware of something unpleasant, unprofessional or uncalled-for, something that's happened to one of us or a dozen of us, and something we hope to spare any more of us.

    My frustration has come from the exact opposite situation: a so-called no-holds-barred, unrecorded, closed informational session that then won't name names, won't cite specifics, and won't give even anecdotal evidence when something is "rotten in Denmark." Saying to people, "A bad agent is worse than no agent at all," and having published authors all bob their heads in agreement--but having none of them willing to give so much as initials of guilty parties, with no repercussions forthcoming--helps none of us.

    Having been through several of these sessions that were complete wastes of time, I wish there was a little less concern with "hurting feelings" and a little more concern with sharing real, solid information...information that might help prevent a lot worse situations than mere hurt feelings.

    No, I don't believe in willful destruction of anyone's reputation; but neither does a "conspiracy of silence" do any of us any good when there may be issues that are worth raising, and going public with them may be the only way to get things to change...

    My take,

  2. I agree with this post, and it always seems as though these things come back to bite the person in the ass eventually.

    But more than that, people should also be careful about the comments they leave on blog threads, too. It is a small world and you never know who's reading what you've written.

  3. I think people need to remind themselves before they speak publicly that they are being judged as professionals, and should behave in a professional manner. I am in the education field, and never cease to be amazed at the banter and commentary that flies out of the mouth of my colleagues in plain hearing of others. It reflects badly on all of us in the field, sadly.

    Great post!

  4. Boy, it is a small world and it's filled with alliances. I've learned that you have to be careful about saying anything negative because you never know who knows who and if people are going to repeat what you say.

    I think that people forget that they can do real damage to their career and their online friendships when they start badmouthing someone.

  5. For what it's worth, I've seen your agency listed on several blogs as a great resource. I'm clear over in Washington State so I'm nowhere near in the thick of things, but from a social media perspective, you seem really well respected.

  6. Publishing is a tiny world. I don't gossip. I don't say anything mean. I don't worry. But I was reminded how small the publishing world is when I queried an agent and mentioned in my query that a certain editorial assitant at a certain house had shown a lot of interest in my writing. The agent got right back to me and said, "Is that so-and-so, by any chance?" It was indeed that person. And guess what? That person is not only an editor, but a writer and the agent I was querying was HER AGENT! I had nothing to worry about because I had not stretched any truths and had only said nice things about her, but it's a small, small world, and if that doesn't bring it home, not much will.

  7. I once listened to a newly published writer go on and on to a bunch of newbie writers at a conference about how lame her agent was and so they'd parted ways. She then went on the bash the agency for how they handled her and said she was now agentless and doing just great. She didn't name names, but guess what? If you looke on Publishers Marketplace, you can see who takes credit for selling her first book and then you know who she was bashing. Not only that, but everything she said made her look like the idiot to anyone who knows anything about the agenting world and only the newbies were impressed by his "experience".

  8. In addition to speaking at conferences, I coach writers in manuscript completion, editing, and submission. One of the most fundamental bits of advice I offer is for writers to maintain a professional attitude. I tell them that it's easy to stand out by simply being considerate, cooperative, attentive, and above all by meeting their deadlines. So many writers nag their agents, stomp their feet when asked to revise, and allow important deadlines to pass, that an agent's model client becomes simply the professional one.

    I hope this bashing author has a second career in mind. In this small business, as Ms. Dystel points out, news travels fast.

  9. Jane—

    I’m not sure who your client was, or which conference he attended (in fact, I don’t care), but I’d like to offer my own perspective.

    My perspective is only relevant because I’m also a DGLM client.

    Short version: You rock.

    Longer version:

    Besides giving wonderful editorial feedback on everything I write, besides pitching my work to top editors, besides setting up meetings with publishers, you also do all the other things agents do, and beautifully.

    Your advice is relevant.

    You get back to me promptly.

    You don’t wait for me to get in touch with you.

    You don’t pull punches.

    You send me ideas; you don’t just wait for me to send you ideas.

    You’re still teaching me the ins and outs of this business (whether or not I want to learn them).

    You always, always, always remember that I’m the client.

    To the newbie writers out there who read this blog: You know by now that publishing a book is a team effort. Your agent is the first person you choose for your team, and the most important.

    As a writer, DGLM was the best choice I ever made.

  10. I agree, of course, that gossip, within this industry or any other, is completely objectionable and in the end helps no one and hurts all kinds of people. But I do wonder how those with legitimate complaints do go about getting themselves heard. No agent is perfect, just as no author is perfect, and though there is much advice out there telling authors how to be a good client, it's not always easy for an author to know how his/her agent should behave. We know agents are busy and we don't want to bother them unnecessarily, but when we have an actual question or concern, how long should we wait for an answer? If we call once a week for a month with no response, do we have the right to be annoyed? Similarly, if one sends his/her agent a new manuscript, what is a reasonable time to expect him/her to read it in--two months, three months, six months? It's not always easy for an author to know how these things work.

    I am not a client of this agency, but I enjoy reading the blog and would appreciate (maybe in a future posting?) insight into realistic expectations on an author's part.

  11. Jane,
    I have never, nor do I ever plan to say anything negative about someone assisting me with my career. I currently don't have an agent but I still won't say anything negative about agents who have rejected me. I received a rejection for a full from your agency yesterday but I still won't say anything negative about your agency and I will continue to read this blog because I am a professional who is looking to be published by professionals. You have a well-established agency and that writer who made negative comments apparently did not appreciate what you did for him whereas someone like me would have...

  12. I believe I was at that conference this past weekend. That gentleman was the one speaker whose talk I chose not to attend--I had heard more than enough from him at mealtime, when I found myself seated at the same table as His Royal Highness. His ego was so big, there was hardly room for any of the rest of us to breathe.

    I did listen to your agency's rep at that conference, and I found her presentation wonderfully informative, helpful, engaging, and encouraging. I was dubious about the need for or the value of having an agent until I heard her cogent, kind presentation. I'm sold!

  13. Janny: The Editors & Preditors site has excellent information on truly fraudulent agents. They do name names.

  14. Yeah, gossip sucks.

    What I've learned in business is that no matter how well-intentioned you are, people will have their own perception and often, unvoiced desires. It's unfortunate that your client chose to relieve his tension in front of a large audience, rather than make an appointment and talk to his agency in person. It's sort of a literary version of Dr. Phil.

    One way to examine this from a 'customer service' p.o.v. is to figure out the source of his unhappiness. Did her make his expectations clear to you all along? Did he know what he should expect from you? Were his calls returned in a timely manner? Were you aware of his unhappiness? Once you do this, you can figure out if it was a failing of the agency, or if it was the Jerry Springer phenomena that took over him.

    Whether or not you want to keep him as a client, I'd call a meeting. Tell him that you hope you have the sort of relationship where he can talk frankly with you. You have to do this because he's liable to repeat his story again.

    After the meeting, you can decide whether or not he and the agency can have a business relationship.

  15. If your client was so unprofessional and malicious, and hurt your agency's morale, I assume you got rid of him/her. Unless money is more important.

  16. I'm reminded of the wise words of my mom, "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all." Words to live by...especially in business!
    I can't think of any reason not to want an agent. (especially one from the Dystel agency! :)

  17. I think this happened...

    I was standing in the reincarnation line. There's a paper mix-up at check in, (outbound), the line backed up and you should've heard what Socrates said about Aristotle!

    And they're both published! I tell ya, burnt my tender ears...

    Haste yee back ;-)

  18. I am sorry for your pain and the utter shock you and your agents felt. Your words give me a sense that you are a first rate writer in your own right and with a good, pure heart looking out for your clients best interests. Indeed, your agency is top notch. And from what I have read, been told by other fine long time agents, you run a tight, right ship. I don't know your father but I suspect he is proud of you. I was told by another agent that he was number one in his own time and indeed your agency is among the BEST there is. Therefore it will stand the test of time, period.
    While reading your Post what came to mind was "to pray for that person" and then just let it go like dust in the wind for Dystel & Goderich Literay Management will remain strong and still be standing after the gossip dies down.
    Believe it or not, this will make you stronger in the end.
    May God bless you and all of your agents today and always.

  19. My own two cents...

    I'm reminded of one of the things my mother used to say: "Don't expect people to sink to a certain level, but don't be surprised by it when they do."

    It's kinda sad when somebody has to yammer on in a destructive way about others. To my way of thinking, the behavior is usually because that person can't help themselves from regaling their audience with yet another verse of "The Song of ME" to bolster how they are feeling about themselves, even if only subconsciously.

    I spent a long time working in the theatre business and I saw this kind of thing all the time, but I didn't engage in it then I wouldn't now. For one thing, I was raised right, not by wolves.

    From my perch overlooking the City of the Mini-apple,