On Entitlement

I know. I still owe you the third part of my discussion about copyright and the internet. In my defense, I have to think to write it, and at this moment all spare brain cells (all three of them) are devoted to writing books. In the broader sense, this is good for me and you, but not so good for my discussion of copyright.

But I have something to say about entitlement, and I don’t even have to think about it to write it down, so here goes.

In the last handful of weeks, I saw an instance in which an agent accused a writer of “entitlement.” The agent in question is Lori Perkins; the post is here if you are interested. I mention this, but I don’t mean to single out Lori Perkins in this post as the sole source of bad behavior; there were a number of people who have done similar-ish things in the past that have grated on my nerves. This is just the one that pushed me over the edge.

In any event, in the post in question, this agent labeled a writer as “entitled” because he sent two polite inquiries about a partial sent out in July. One inquiry was sent in November, at which point he was told that he would get a response sometime in December. The second inquiry was sent in February.

“Entitlement” is one of those words that has a certain morality embedded in it by implication. That is, if you say someone is “entitled,” in modern times we mean “this person is acting as if they are owed something, when they in fact are not.” In other words, when we say someone is “entitled” we usually mean that they are falsely entitled. Leaving off that modifier in regular speech means that certain things often go unspoken. That is: if you say someone is “entitled” you should also explain what is false about their sense of entitlement. Because there is nothing blameworthy about someone acting as if they are owed something, when, in fact, they are owed something.

In this case, the gentleman in question had not heard anything on the pages he sent to the agent for over six months. He did not insist that the agent in question read them instantly; he asked instead for an update on his status, and was roundly berated for that. And I just want to take a step aback and say… wait, what? In what sense is a person ever not entitled to ask about partials sent at the request of an agent, and not answered? How is asking for a status update, in a polite manner, ever indicative of a false sense of entitlement? And what does it say about the agent in question, that she thinks that the author did not deserve even this bare courtesy?

So let’s start with the basics. No, you are not entitled to be a diva. You should not expect agents to drop everything to meet your every need, before you’re signed as a client–but we’re not talking about that kind of person. We’re talking about the average writer. We’re talking about someone perhaps like the gentleman featured on Lori Perkins’s blog, or maybe someone like you.

You wrote a book. You submitted it to an agent. Now you’re getting a little worried. Maybe your book isn’t there yet. Maybe your characterization is not zipping. Maybe your plot could be more original. Maybe your query letter has a howling clunker in it. Maybe it does. The last I checked, those things didn’t turn you into a piece of granite, unworthy of basic human civility. And an agent–a good agent–knows that even if this book isn’t there yet, you might move on to book #2 or #3 or #4, and one day, your book will be there. In any event, at a bare minimum, you are one of the very few people who had the courage and stamina to write a whole book.

You are entitled to someone who thinks of you as a potentially valuable asset, who starts off what might be a long, profitable relationship with a sense of professionalism and respect. It is not too much to ask that if an agent says she will get back to you in ten weeks, that at the end of ten weeks you can send a status update asking for more details. And if she responds, “I haven’t gotten to it yet; give me another month,” it is not completely beyond the pale to ask for another update several months later, and if that person fails to respond that time, to e-mail her boss to see if she is still around. You are entitled to civility and professionalism.

You get what you see with agents. If someone doesn’t treat writers with respect on her blog or on twitter, chances are she doesn’t magically morph into someone who treats her clients with respect once she signs them. And yes, you can tell. My agent? She respects writers–even the ones who aren’t there yet. You can tell from her blog, and the effort she goes through to educate people about the query process and the business of publishing. She’s not the only one. Take the late, lamented Miss Snark (aka Janet Reid, aka the Query Shark). She respects writers, too, and you can feel it, even though her tone is quite different. Nathan Bransford? Ditto. Jim McCarthy? You betcha.

Want to know how to judge an agent? Pay attention to how they make you feel as a writer. And anyone who makes you think you’re an insignificant worm, and you’re falsely entitled merely because you think you deserve common courtesy?

Run away. Run away now.

Because if there’s one thing you are entitled to, it is an agent who thinks you have something to offer her.

16 thoughts on “On Entitlement

  1. I agree with you 100%, Courtney. When I read the original blog posting you referenced, I thought, “If anyone sounds entitled (and overworked and overwhelmed) here, it’s the agent. And wow, WAY UNPROFESSIONAL to post exerpts of his emails online – even with info redacted.

    In any business but this one, the author’s requests for status would be considered polite, businesslike and appropriate. And I have to say it – in no other business but this one would this turnaround time be considered anywhere close to acceptable.

    I don’t blame him for pulling his manuscript. Thanks for speaking up.

  2. I could not agree with you more, Courtney. Writers are not supplicants, and should never be treated as such. We are partners in this business. Everyone is busy. Everyone’s time is valuable. That man was polite, patient, and professional, and I was shocked when I read the blog. It was chock full of “Just who do you think you are?”

  3. What Anonymouss and Victoria said. Plus this: Agents should not run/invest in/acquire for publishers. Sorry, the conflict of interest is just so blatant, I can’t believe Ms. Perkins asserts so proudly that she does so. It’s…mind-blowing.

  4. Count me in as another person who couldn’t agree more with you, Courtney. Before I signed with my agent, I sent inquiries to her about the status of my full. Not one time did she ever write back with a rude response. If she had, I would have run for the hills. The agent/client relationship is one of trust and respect, and if you, as a writer, don’t feel you have that from the get-go, don’t sign with that agent.

    It left a very bad taste in my mouth what Lori Perkins did. And I think a lot of writers, who are unagented, learned that day to stay away from her. I hope.

  5. Wow. This only underscores the fact that a bad agent is worse than no agent. All you writers out there: listen to Courtney. You deserve the best and that includes professional courtesy!

    Kudos for that gentleman for pulling his ms. His emails seem like those of a newbie and it’s just too bad that Lori didn’t take the opportunity to kindly “mentor” him since she says she likes to do that. Even so, he got an education that will undoubtedly help him in his agent search.

  6. I hadn’t seen that, but…wow.

    I find the whole trend of agents publicly bagging on writers’ submissions/correspondence on Twitter, blogs, and the like to be disturbing. Sure, there is something to be learned from examples of “what not to do” – but it’s one thing for authors to voluntarily submit their queries, pages, and pitches for public snarking, and another for agents to take private correspondence and post it without the author’s permission.

    Doesn’t it feel like things have changed since a few years ago, when we were querying? Ah, the pre-Twitter world. Back then, I never would have worried that my directly-emailed query would end up as blog or tweet fodder. Now, it seems writers have to start from that assumption. Which is kinda sad. Posts like this would make me consider returning to paper queries, if I were querying today.

  7. Thanks for this post, Courtney. It seems so basic that common courtesy and professional respect should prevail on both sides of the equation.

    And, yes, Tessa – I think you’re correct. Some days I think we’re nothing more than cannon fodder for the internet.

  8. I think the most illuminating this Lori Perkins said was in the comments to that blog post:

    When writers treat me and my agency like some run of the mill agency, I get pissed. And anyone who doesn’t understand how busy (and generous) I am (and by extension how busy my associates are), should NOT be sending me/us queries. I don’t have time for whining, and nether do my agents.

    I guess my understanding of “generous” and my definition of “whining” are out of whack.

  9. Oddly enough I just unfollowed an agent on Twitter because I was so sick of snide remarks about poor idiot writers who dare to send stupid queries to this incredibly important person. Excuse me, this agent makes money by taking 15% of the earnings of writers. It’s nice to think she has such a high opinion of them.

  10. Darcy, I completely agree with you! An exercise in compare and contrast: Lori Perkins’ post with what Jim McCarthy wrote about Darcy on his blog.

    One of the things I loved about that post was that it showed that he was thinking about you as a writer and as someone with something valuable to offer, even before he offered representation, instead of having an attitude that since he represents several New York Times bestselling authors, everyone should just get out of his way.

  11. Tessa, yes, it’s really weird. I just don’t get it. There are some agents who I think really use twitter (and blogs) well. And there are some who… don’t. Oh well!

    And Vanessa, Christina, and Miranda, I think you’re all highlighting the most important point: an agent-client relationship is a partnership. It’s an odd partnership in formation, with the agent (usually) having the upper hand. But it’s a partnership nonetheless.

  12. Interesting that this should be on your blog this week…I subbed a query to an agent (not this one) and got an immediate request for a full. The timeframe on the website says 4 weeks for a reply and feel free to query…I waited 8 weeks, queried, got no answer, updated the agent just this week (around week 13) that an editor had expressed interest in publishing the book and inquired whether she was still interested in representing the novel. This e-mail update/query is still unanswered. Now, I don’t expect her to jump on a manuscript, but I do expect a polite answer. Needless to say, this particular agent has been cut from my list — and despite the fact that I don’t even want to tell her to take it out of her pile, I will withdraw the manuscript politely — because it’s the right thing to do.

  13. “Not to mention the entire industry makes money off the blood sweat an tears of the WRITERS!”

    Barbara, I think it’s an important point, but I just want to point out that other people in the industry besides writers are putting in blood, sweat, and tears. Editors are not known for being particularly well-paid, either. Same holds true, from the copy editors to the cover artists to the very dedicated people who sell books to the accounts.

    Publishing receives an enormous subsidy in the form of people who love books, who are quite intelligent, and who choose to work with books when they could make scads more money writing ad copy or whatever it is that they could have done instead. Writers aren’t alone by any stretch of the imagination, and sadly, there are many segments of book publishing that would be quite pleased to make nominal profits.

    And Ericka–depending on the agent, it could be that something has come up, like a health issue or a family question. If this is someone who otherwise has a reputation for timeliness, I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions yet. But yes, that’s usually a red flag–especially if you’ve gotten publisher interest & haven’t heard a response.

  14. Yeah, Lori Perkins was way out of line. I left a comment telling her so, basically repeating what you’ve said here. Also, she seems to think her agency was doing this man a favor (pointing out that Sandy was reading in her free time), as opposed to doing her job. That’s what she’s SUPPOSED to do for everyone from whom she requests material. It wasn’t a very special just-for-him thing, and he had a right to know his status.

    “Barbara, I think it’s an important point, but I just want to point out that other people in the industry besides writers are putting in blood, sweat, and tears. Editors are not known for being particularly well-paid, either. Same holds true, from the copy editors to the cover artists to the very dedicated people who sell books to the accounts.”

    I don’t disagree. But without writers, none of those people would have jobs. Editors would have nothing to edit. Cover artists would have no covers for which to create art. People who sell books to accounts would have nothing to sell. I’m not saying they DON’T put in long hours, blood, sweat, and tears. But without writers, they wouldn’t be doing any of that.

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