I was chatting by email with one of my clients last week. She mentioned that one of her friends had said that she would never choose me as an agent because I was too nice to be an effective contract negotiator.
I started laughing. I’m sure such an announcement would have been a big surprise to any editor who has sat across from me at the negotiating table.
Then I realized her friend was serious—that she actually thought that being nice and being a tough negotiator were mutually exclusive.
Obviously my client’s friend had never heard the adage, “you can catch more flies with honey.”
But seriously, being nice or being nasty isn’t what creates an effective negotiation. In fact, check out any of the popular books on the bookshelves regarding this topic and you’ll see what those titles espouse.
What’s effective is not necessarily one’s demeanor. Although one could argue that being nasty or overly tough is a detriment. After all, if someone is being nasty, I don’t know about you but that just makes me want to dig in my stubborn heels and not budge (I’m a Taurus after all). Same goes for the editors.
I’ve also heard interesting stories from editors who hate doing negotiations with certain agents who have the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde split going on. Nice as pie at regular times and nasty as over-spiked punch during negotiation. They’ll still deal with them but they hate every minute of it and are often disgruntled at the end.
Now, as an author, is that the environment you want to walk into right after your book has been sold? Editors aren’t going to take it out on the writers, they are bigger than that, but it hardly creates a lovely space to begin the relationship.
Once could also argue that being nice, as in a wet door mat nice, is also a big detriment. Such a demeanor isn’t very effective in protecting the client’s interest either.
The happy medium is where agents want to be. Nice but tough. Politely aggressive so I get what I need but the editor doesn’t feel like she has been ridden roughshod over.
So, what makes a good negotiator? Here are just a few thoughts:
1. Knowing what the project is really worth and holding firm on that.
A good agent will know what an editor/house will probably offer for a project. Every auction I’ve held didn’t surprise me. I knew the project was hot and would get a lot of attention.
Now, what often does surprise me is when a great project (at least in my mind) doesn’t sell. That’s always a surprise because of course everything I take on is worth publishing and those silly editors, they are just confused at the moment.
2. Knowing that both parties need to walk away from the table feeling like they got what was most important to them.
A good agent knows early on in the negotiation what the editor can budge on and what is impossible.
3. Knowing what is most important in the deal going down.
Good agents know the true deal-breakers—and oddly enough, it’s not always the advance offered as most writers assume. Of course I will always negotiate for the highest amount of money that is possible up front but that’s not always the most important deal point. It’s rarely a deal breaker.
Now, joint accounting, a stupid option clause, low-balling on the royalty structure, these can be points that would make it worthwhile to walk away from a deal on the table.
And just to point out, good agents don’t always win everything that we want in a negotiation. Depends on how much leverage is present. Don’t immediately assume that if, for some reason, you have joint accounting in a current contract, your agent is a bad agent.
Some publishing houses are sticklers for it. Good agents know which houses have that as a big issue. It’s why you pay us.
And one last rant. Look around. There are plenty of “nice” agents who, like me, get six-figure deals. (Jenny Bent, Roberta Brown, Deidre Knight & Co., Cathy Fowler, Randi Murray, Lucienne Diver, Jennifer Jackson, Jeff Kleinman, Helen Breitwieser, and the list goes on and on.) I know a lot of “nice” agents who are quite successful. I wish I could list them all here, but I only have so much time in a day.
Although nice, you can’t tell me that we aren’t tough enough.