Editors at Work: When a Writer Gets an Agent

By Jack Limpert

We had a very talented freelance writer at The Washingtonian who couldn’t meet deadlines. If he hadn’t been so good we’d have cut ties with him months earlier, but we kept trying to be positive, giving him monthly payments of $2,000 to keep his rent paid, promising him even more money if he could get his stories in on time. You’ll get $2000 a month now, we said, but in six months we’ll raise it to $2200 and in a year even more. Please keep writing.

Promises of more money didn’t work. Just as we were losing all patience, we got a letter from a New York agent on very nice bond paper telling us he now represented the writer. After a Dear Jack and the usual pleasantries, the agent said:

The approach you’re using, i.e., the escalated increases in Bill’s monthly payments, is a solid one, if a bit conservative perhaps. However, I can understand and appreciates the reasons for the conservatism. Also, I genuinely appreciate your good words about your feelings for Bill and his work.

But the fact is that Bill’s negotiations with The Washingtonian have been unagented in the past, and now that he’s asked us to carry the ball for him here (relieving you of the sometimes discomforting job of dealing directly with the author) he’ll be realizing less than before. Our commission is 10 percent, which means that if you up his monthly payment to $2,200 next March, he’ll wind up with $1,980: $20 less than before he got the raise.

I’d like to propose beginning the escalation at $2,400 a month in March, rather than $2,200 — and I think everyone will be happy. I know that there’s a great big area of dealing with Bill that we’ll take off your shoulders, and I’m certain you’ll find that things will run very smoothly and according to your wishes.’

I’ll look forward to hearing from you; and, in the meantime, all best wishes.

I  underlined the “you’ll find that things will run very smoothly” sentence and sent it on to the savvy old editor who handled most of our dealings with the writer. My note said: “Dick, do you believe any of this?”

His response: “He must think he’s dealing with Andy Hardy and his sidekick Sparky.”

As you might guess, the New York agent had zero success solving the writer’s deadline problems, the writer soon became “unagented,” and we continued the rocky but often satisfying relationship with him. In the end Bill’s heart failed him, not his talent.

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