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An agent’s responsibility

When I was first contemplating making the switch from editing to agenting, one of my concerns was the morality of the profession. Now, I’d worked with agents for years, and not once did I ever encounter the classic agent stereotype—you know, the fast-talking, cigar-chomping, ready-to-sell-his-mother-down-the-river-for-a-quick-buck shyster. And indeed, I’ve found that, at least here at DGLM, we make it a point of conducting our business as honestly and responsibly as possible.

Still, it’s with a bit of unease that I want to talk about yesterday’s kerfuffle over Dara Lynn-Reiss and her book deal for her Vogue article. If you haven’t read it, it’s basically about how she shamed her 7-year-old daughter into losing weight. As a parent, I found it to be a terrible story, and one that I frankly don’t want to read more about in book form. But as an agent I did find myself wondering about the sale, and whether I would have taken this project on myself.

Certainly, the article is controversial, and controversy sells. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with that—when I help a writer put together a proposal, say, for a narrative or a memoir, a key question is what “newsworthy” content (i.e. controversy) might be included. Moreover, if an agent’s primary role is to sell books, how much do I have to like or approve of the material?

But ultimately, I’d like to think I’d pass for the reason Mary Elizabeth Williams lays out so convincingly in Salonit’s just a depressing way to sell books. It’s cynical and potentially exploitative—and even if it isn’t, I just don’t see how I would be proud of myself for repping this book. I’d like to think Lynn-Reiss’s agent had a different take on the material, and he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. But if his calculations lined up with Williams’ reading of the sale—well, color me depressed…

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this—both on Lynn-Reiss’ situation and where an agent should draw the line on what material to rep.

 

3 Responses to An agent’s responsibility

  1. Anonymous says:

    I was hoping one of you would tackle this question. As a collaborator I’m constantly checking my personal biases at the door, but I operate from the basic principle, “First, do no harm.” Is this book a cynical appeal to skinny-obsessed parents? Is it a morality tale? Is it an opportunity for discussion? Is it garbage? Will it create a new trend in starvation diets for toddlers? I don’t know the answer, but I do suspect that the motivation for publishing it and making a buck off the outcry did not originate in a particularly high-minded place. If I were the editor, agent or author involved in this deal, I’d be ashamed. There has to be a line, right?

  2. Catherine Whitney says:

    P.S. The comment above is mine. I didn’t mean to leave it anonymously. My new operating system “forgot” my name.
    Catherine

  3. Julia Pierce says:

    First off, I want to applaud you for discussing such a touchy topic openly! I have often wondered, when I see things like this, how a person can wake up one day and think this was a good idea. Much more controversial topics get published all the time (or given media attention, etc.).
    It is really refreshing to see someone on the business end of things question it. I think there should definitely be a line. Of course what you think is right and what someone else thinks is right may be entirely different things. But at the end of the day, would you be proud to be involved in that sale? Would you want your child to know you had anything to do with it? If you would be fine with that, you have your answer. If you are less than thrilled by the thought, well…

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