Do Personality Traits Have Any Business in Business? The Authoritative Agent Says Yes


When The Gatekeeper Works For You

There are many agents who are absolutely lovely people but who don’t command authority naturally.

Why should you, as a writer, care about this?

Literary agent Kristin Nelson doesn’t make you wait long for the answer:

It’s simple: Authors with strong contracts have more successful careers.

And say what you like about gatekeepers, a good agent is guarding the gates to your rights as an author. You want him or her to be a damned good gatekeeper when it’s your profits and prosperity on the line.

“Publishers (who are not evil, by the way),” writes Nelson, “want the most they can get out of a contract (which is often not in the author’s favor), and the agent’s job is to grant only what won’t be detrimental or disadvantageous to the author so that the author gets the fairest contract possible.”

In the second monthly issue of her new series of columns on what makes a good agent, Nelson minces no words about what she sees as crucial to the best representation for an author. The piece is called Commanding Authority: An Agent’s Negotiation Edge.

And shortly after I had tweeted a line from the piece, I got a surly reply from an author who didn’t think much of Nelson’s write-up:

First time I’ve heard of hiring an agent for a personality trait.

That reaction brings up an interesting fact of life about many things in creative professions and one that you’d expect authors to comprehend more quickly than some of them do: a great deal of success and failure, of forward movement vs. backsliding, can be affected by personality traits. It shouldn’t surprise an author that personality would factor into the business consideration of how a good agent works.

After all, regard for a book, a painting, a sculpture, a slapstick comedy or a kick-ass CD can’t be based on some independently demonstrable standard. This is why something that’s wildly popular with a large section of the public can’t be certified as excellent simply because money rolls in. No matter how many opinions might make that thing a hit at the box office or in cash registers, it may be — to the most practiced eye, or the most biased opinion — a victory much more of personality than of quality. Put another way, this is why bad stuff, mediocre content, sometimes rises to the top, and why good work can be eclipsed by it.

During a London-based #FutureChat discussion for The Bookseller, I found myself pointing out to someone that even what’s considered “subjective” can be a subjective call, especially in arts and entertainment. Whether in the eye, the ear, or the bad dreams of the beholder, the very assertion that something’s quality is “a matter of opinion”? — is a matter of opinion.

You get this, of course, in much of the conversation around traditional publishing and self-publishing. Proponents of both approaches can be heard making loud proclamations with apparent assurance about their preferred mode or someone else’s. The idea is to make whatever point they’re offering sound indisputable, as if it’s not a matter of opinion but fact.

The aura of authority can go a long way toward making someone listening buy into whatever opinion someone wants to put across. Watch out for the person who likes to tell you that a concern of yours is “just your opinion” but asserts that her or his ideas are “just the way it is.” You’re being treated to a gambit based in authority, feigned or otherwise.

An author’s “author-itative” bearing is challenged in an everybody-can-publish world — something we’ll focus on in a special Town Hall session at Grub Street’s The Muse and the Marketplace conference on May 1. We’ll be discussing how the traditional “author-ity” shifts under digital pressure. Is it even desirable today?

But for agents working these digital days, Nelson is saying that authority can be the advantage a good book needs.

She writes:

  • Agents who command authority naturally get their projects read more quickly.

  • Agents who command authority naturally get higher advances and better royalites for their authors’ work.

  • Agents who command authority naturally are granted more compromises during negotiation, making sure contracts are advantageous for the author.

  • Agents who command authority naturally get more leverage when dealing with conflict (for instance, over a cover image or something else in the author’s career). By the way, this doesn’t mean that the agent will always get her way. But it does mean that the editor respects, values, and weighs seriously the agent’s opinion. And sometimes that translates into swaying the editor on the issue.

  • Agents who command authority naturally are just better at the job of agenting. And in my mind, if the agent is better at agenting, the author is going to have a stronger, more successful career.

When Authority Triggers Trust

Where this really becomes interesting is in a question of negotiated wins vs. trust in business relationships.

Not surprisingly, Nelson sees the value of a good agent’s authority on the bottom line:  how much can she capture in a contract for a client? As she notes, there are agents — QueryTracker these days is following more than 1,300 of them — who don’t even negotiate; they accept what they’re handed. In those cases, your gate has not been well kept at all.

But Nelson’s associate in this series of columns, Backspace’s Karen Dionne, has an interesting companion view on why and how a good agent’s authority can work.

In her parallel essay to Nelson’s, Commanding Authority: An Agent’s Negotiation Edge 2 — Backspace Perspective, Dionne writes about exchanges between editors and agents at various Backspace conferences.

She tells an interesting anecdote:

[In a panel discussion, an] agent told the audience that if he thinks a book will generate interest from multiple publishers, he likes to send the book to editors on a Thursday. Why Thursday? So the editors can read the manuscript that night, get their colleagues on board the next day so they in turn can read the book over the weekend, and the following week the agent can hopefully set up an auction.

“We hate when agents do that!” the editor said. Dropping everything she had planned and reading is the last thing she wants to do at the end of a busy week. But because she respects the agent, she trusts that when he says the manuscript is hot, it really is, and he’s not lying in order to get the project read quickly. So she reads the manuscript right away.

This is the kind of insight that moves the question of authority in a good gatekeeper beyond the idea of snarling tension at the conference table with the publisher. Here, Dionne is describing a case in which an editor is willing to let herself be inconvenienced by an authoritative agent’s tactic with a strong manuscript he wants to take to auction.

If you’re lucky, you may also have a few colleagues for whom you’ll drop everything as this editor said on Dionne’s panel that she would do for that agent’s call about a manuscript. People of such caliber are worth the hassle to us because they make us richer, in one way or another, on the other side of the inconvenience.

An agent just said to me the other day that she would love to have author Emily St. John Mandel as a client because her novel Station Eleven is such a transcendent work. Mandel — we wrote her up for Thought Catalog here and here — has just been named to the long list for the prestigious Baileys Prize Women’s Prize for Fiction for that book. Mandel’s agent, Curtis Brown Ltd.’s Katherine Fausset, was able to parlay the excellence of Mandel’s manuscript into the sort of trust and respect that commands terrific support for a book — in this case both at London’s Picador (Pan Macmillan) and New York’s A.A. Knopf (Penguin Random House).

Authority, then, works in different ways on behalf of an author — maybe as a set of brass knuckles in contract negotiations, maybe as a comforting understanding that a call about an important new manuscript is to be trusted and handled fast.

As Nelson writes:

The goal is to meet in the happy middle, where both the publisher and the author feel satisfied.

And the way to that “yes” in the middle may well be through a lot of trust — in authority.