Can You Be a Nice Agent?

Awhile back, someone I was trying to sign as a client was on the phone asking me questions about what I was like to work with—how I liked to stay in touch, what houses I sold to most often, what degree of editorial involvement I have, etc. The usual. Then came a question I never thought I’d get.

“Your reputation is for being really nice,” she started. At this point, I’m feeling pretty good about where things are going. She continued, “So how can I trust that if I need you to fight for me, you actually will?”

Well, I never.

I kid. It was a huge surprise, but looking back, it’s a fair question. We’re in the business of being demanding. In some ways, our jobs are as professional advocates willing to do the dirty work so that the author doesn’t have to go through the nitty-gritty business side of things and can focus on their writing.

On the other hand, it’s a business of relationships. Authors also count on us to have a stable of editors who know and trust our taste…and actually want to work with us.

I like to think I’ve struck a balance over the years. At the start of my agenting career, I admit that I was tentative to ask for things. I still did it, but I was perhaps a bit meeker than I should have been. Growing as an agent, at least in part, has meant locating the balance between authoritative and rude, demanding and pushy.

Have I hit that sweet spot? You can ask the person who wanted to know if I was too nice to be an agent. She signed on. I still got it!

As a side note, the reason my blog entry is later than usual this week is that the first one I wrote was struck down by two people here. The reason? They thought I was too mean. Those bitches.

9 Responses to Can You Be a Nice Agent?

  1. Barb Riley says:

    Jim – I “met” you at RT 2011, during your synopsis hands-on workshop, and you were definitely not too nice! 😉 Not that you were mean, but you certainly gave it to her good. Errr, the synopsis critique, that is. I am pretty sure your clients have nothing to worry about.

    I recently stumbled upon the blog here, and I am having a grand time checking in every day. Thanks for the entertainment and keeping it real!

  2. Christine Sarmel says:

    So when a writer goes out of her way to make sure her agent isn’t “too nice” is she surprised if he’s not nice to her? Paging Dr. Jekyll…

  3. Catherine Whitney says:

    Jim, you’ve always seemed nice to me. However, nice is not really the point. What I value is integrity, honesty, insight, and respect–which I normally get from you people. “Nice” people protect others from the truth and they’re afraid to deliver bad news. Not a good way to be in this business! I don’t always like what the agency tells me about a treasured project, but I know that if you say you love it, I can take it to the bank–and I only have that confidence because of all the No’s.

    I’m certain that none of us could make it in publishing if we were too mushy or terrified of rejection. Many “nice” people are like that. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with being KIND.

  4. Donna Hole says:

    LOL. I’m still stuck on the last line.

    I work in social services – need I say more about balancing nice and authorative?

    If you have a successful career while being a “nice guy” then IMO its safe to assume you’re not just a guy with a pleasing smile.

    Today I was talking with a day job collegue and she mentioned her friend had self published several poetry books. I commented that I thought poets did better in inde-pubbed markets – in person self promotion and online venues – than any other genre writers. She responded, hmm, I agree, but why do you think that. I elaborated my opinions and stated that I wasn’t a poet so couldn’t be an authority.

    Throughout the mostly one sided discussion she nodded and agreed. I’m not sure how the comment came about (like getting bonked on the head and remembering everything but the actual cause of the incident) but she stated that she pretty much just went along and agreed with everything a person told her and thereby avoided confrontation of any type. Arguments never solved anything.

    I felt as if she didn’t agree with – or listen to – a single concept I proposed

    I think you can be a “nice guy” in such a way that your disagreements/arguments don’t leave the opponent feeling walked on or left out. That by the end of the discussion, everyone has walked away with some benefit to the situation, or at least agreed on another discussion at a later date. Being a nice guy doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a push over.

    I’m sure your prospective client asked her question in order to ascertain that you were, in fact, of the breed that acted with integrity in their politeness, and didn’t just agree with whoever was currently standing in front of them.

    I like nice people who know how to get things done in a congenial, mutually beneficial manner. I really can count on them when it matters. Being agreeable to avoid confrontation isn’t the same as being a nice person.

    I’m glad the two of you signed on together. The interview sounded well thought out.


  5. Now, now, Jim. Nice agents don’t call ladies bitches.

  6. Miriam says:

    Who’re you calling a bitch, McCarthy?

  7. Nice try, Jim, but your pretend nastiness just didn’t fly.

    FWIW, I think being nice is a good thing, though the word itself is pretty bland. The world doesn’t need more aggressive, pushy, win-at-all-cost people. Respect and courtesy can get things done just as well, if not better.

  8. You can be nice and not a pushover. Moreover, you can be nice while still setting forth reasoned arguments and being passionate for your cause (in your case, promoting your clients). Niceness is about the attitude you employ as you do your work: courtesy, respect, consideration, and so on. It doesn’t have to suggest complacency or weakness.

    The last line still has me laughing, btw.

  9. LOL! Loved this post, especially the last line. And I can attest that, in addition to being nice but not TOO nice, Jim also plays a mean game of Rock Band. 😉

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