Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Personalities and Professionalism

Every once in awhile, mes auteurs, I post about the little dos and don'ts of interacting with agents: what to say and not to say, how to go about saying it, asking appropriate questions without driving your agent up the wall, &c, &c. After having read Bill Clegg's Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man, however, I must ask: what kind of behaviors would you and wouldn't you tolerate from your (hypothetical) agent? How far would you go to preserve your working relationship?

If you haven't read Clegg's memoir, allow me to summarize: for reasons that aren't made entirely clear, Bill Clegg decides to throw away his relationship with his family, flagrantly cheat on his live-in boyfriend, and abandon his career (deserting his pregnant business partner and dozens of clients in the process) so he can blow through $70,000 worth of savings smoking crack. (He relapses or drops out of rehab more than once.) Clegg portrays himself as not very nice and not overwhelmingly intelligent, though he does (pre-crack binge, at least) sound funny and fairly charming. That aside, however, he sounds like someone of whom I wouldn't even want to be a friend of a friend of a friend, much less someone I'd want to work with. (Full disclosure: I have never met Bill Clegg in real life.)

Here's the kicker, though: after he finally cleaned up his act, Clegg—who never actually apologized to the the aforementioned abandoned business partner—didn't seem to suffer at all from having burnt nearly every bridge he had. He not only got a pretty cushy job with William Morris Endeavor Entertainment, but even got many of his former clients back. Clients he had abandoned with no explanation so he could smoke a bunch of crack, drink liver-brittling amounts of room service vodka, and have sex with $400/hour prostitutes.

Granted, this is far and away an outlier in the Realm of Recorded Agent Behaviors, but I think it warrants attention not only because of Clegg's high profile, but because of the relative lack of professional repercussions he seems to have suffered.

This might be an easy one, but prithee, inform me: would you have gone back to an agent like Bill Clegg if you believed (s)he were the best fit for your work and/or would get you the best deal available? What would and wouldn't you tolerate in a relationship with your agent?


  1. I think it depends entirely on circumstances and a combination of objective and subjective considerations. And I mean that unequivocally.

    "Liver-brittling" is a terrific descriptor, by the way---may I steal it?

  2. That's a lightning-rod of a question. After the controversy of who's your favorite agent, I think many would be afraid to respond.

    I'm interested in turning it around to an agent, and asking what they would and wouldn't tolerate in a client relationship.

  3. Questions to ask before making a decision: Did Clegg screw me in some manner to feed his addiction? Did his absence negatively impact me or my career in such a way that was difficult/impossible to repair? Is he committed to staying sober? Was he good at his job when I was his client? Have I found equally competent or better representation since his departure?

    Depending on the answers to those questions, I might take him back.

  4. This sounds like the classic description of addiction. It is a horrible, narcissistic disease and while I would not want to be involved personally or professionally with anyone in active addiction, I'd be comfortable with someone who had established a good track record in recovery. That applies across the board, not just to agents. To my family, my physician, kid's teachers, etc.

    That being said, I'd have a low threshold for user behavior in someone with this background. Unfortunately, I speak from experience.

  5. Of course agents cheat on their spouses/partners. They don't get along with their families. They drink too much. They use drugs. They've been to rehab. They've dropped out. They've been with prostitutes. They've stopped responding to their clients' emails and disappeared. So have stockbrokers, teachers, dentists, and circus clowns, just to name some others. Oh, actors and politicians too. (It's really common with them, and they all come out just dandy once they clean up.) Screwing up is universal.

    Would I re-sign with someone like that? No. Am I surprised others have? No. Forgiveness tends to be universal too.

  6. My experience is to give people a second chance. We all have a time in our lives when we fall down or hit rock bottom.

    Although there is a line I draw when it involves my income.

    Would I resign with an agent like this: No.

    He's too weak. He gave into the control the issues had over him. He couldn't control the issues.

    Will it happen again? The odds that it would happen again are higher for this person than for someone else who has never been there, done that.

    Besides, with the current climate of publishing, why sign with any agent? Why sign away your rights? Don't let anyone with or without issues be in control of your work.

  7. I don't think I would take someone like that back as an agent. I've been burned by users before in real life, and being dumped like that would destroy the crucial trust between me and my agent. If I couldn't trust him anymore not to just decide to leave and smoke some crack, I couldn't work with him.

    I think addicts deserve second chances, and can recover. But that trust would have to be earned back.

    I also think taking someone like that back encourages this sort of behavior. Celebrities do it all the time. They drink, they drive, they do drugs, all sorts of terrible things people aren't supposed to do. What happens? They go to rehab, say they are sorry, and suddenly all is forgiven. Where are the consequences to their actions if they are better off than they were before, because of their bad acts?

  8. This memoir sounds rather dull. It's a continuation of the same sad addiction story that has touched lives across the globe, filled bookshelves, and danced across movie screens. So what made this story unique enough to get published?

    Is this story remarkable because he "didn't seem to suffer at all from having burnt nearly every bridge he had."

  9. I'm with terripatick, and maybe we should stop rewarding horrid behaviour.

  10. The CEO of the $100B+ company I work for was recently ousted by the Board for having a questionable personal relationship with a small vendor and showing her preferential treatment. (He walked away with a golden parachute, but that's another topic.) In the grand scheme, a minor ethics violation. He's landed a top position at a large rival. My company's stock took a hit with his departure, the competitor's jumped when he signed with them. Businesspeople tolerate a lot.

    I've walked away from a couple of jobs where the company showed poor business ethics. Being able to live with myself has always trumped a paycheck. In any relationship.

  11. I'd have to have an incredible relationship with this agent to go back. Even so, if I'm established with another agent at that point, the answer would be 'no'.

    I would have concerns about this agent's ability to do the job. Not just recidivism, but whether his abrupt departure and the negative press associated with it would have soured some editors and publishers from working with him.

    And, like someone else said above, turn the question around. This is a business. If I didn't finish a contracted book because I was out feeding my addictions, would the agent take me back a year later for another project?

  12. Thank you for this most astonishing post. Clegg is less offensive to me than the embedded language inside your post -- language that actually asks people to quantify the levels to which they will willingly whore themselves out to an agent, to even carve out a bottom point certain at which they will suddenly cease to be groveling, toadying masochists in a grossly abusive relationship that could not exist as flagrantly in any other industry or profession (and since I come from careers in academia, law and medicine -- all areas known for their own forms of hubris and insularity -- I think this speaks volumes. Tenured university professors, attorneys and physicians are well known for their powers of abuse.) Instead of using Clegg for an occasion of discussion (and thereby validating his intolerable behavior) I would think that respectable agents would be too embarrassed to shine a light on this arrogant little bug and might even, had they any chutzpah, give this man such short shrift that he would be left spinning in the dust. Perhaps (and maybe this is a real stretch) agents might begin to adhere to a true code of professional standards -- one that would raise the bar far above Clegg's slithering head. And BTW: I think this more than adequately seques into a discussion about why so many writers are fleeing into independent publishing.

  13. I would like to think that if an agent like that was the best fit for my work, I'd burn my work. I find it very difficult to believe that someone who has that kind of reputation would be capable of getting me the best deal possible. I couldn't trust him, and I don't see how an editor could either.

  14. The questions Joseph Selby posed above are the ones I'd be asking myself. If the answers to any of these were yes, and the agent hadn't yet proved that he's recovered from his addiction(s) and become a reasonable, trustworthy, and responsible professional once again, there's no way I'd entrust them with my work.

    If the agent had somehow established that he had conquered his demons and would be reliable in the future, then maybe I'd reconsider. And part of establishing that would be apologizing, at the very least, to all the people who suffered because of his actions. That's not just an issue of professionalism, it's being a decent human being. And I want to work with someone I can trust at the very least to be professional. I want to trust my agent not to burn me for selfish reasons.

  15. If my agent could afford $400 per hour prostitutes, I'd be excited. You have to be doing something right to be able to afford $400 per hour prostitutes ;) :p

  16. I have to say that I've not read the book or met him, but based on the info given in the post, I'd say I wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole. I have several good friends who were former addicts. That's not the issue. In my experience, those who do not even attempt to atone for their past actions frequently repeat the same mistakes in a far more bombastic fashion.

  17. I believe that any working relationship needs to be mutually beneficial- it just makes sense to work with people you respect and who respect you. Am I old fashioned, here?

    Thank you for posting, and I understand the sometimes controversial nature of your comment sections (and thoroughly enjoy taking part!)

  18. although you're careful to say, "I've read the book," you don't discuss the book, except the most sensational (and reductive) points.

    of course, this gets good pages views, but it's fundamentally dishonest. you've mislead readers by leaving out the reasons WHY he ended up where he did, smoking crack and hiring hookers.

    Since you won't / can't / don't care to, Clegg's endpoint has much to do with childhood trauma.

    Circling back to YOUR predisposition, specifically to your coded homophobica: dude, straight people have done far worse, IMO, and gotten a pass. Would you even be posting this, were he not gay? It's too big a part of his story to leave out and, again, the fact that you don't place his story in the context of a heteronormative culture i.e., America, where queer people are pretty much treated like SH*T growing up, is very telling.

    As for the apology, I believe you are wrong: he did attempt to contact his former business partner, and she declined to speak with him (as was reported in the New Yorker Observer, a few months ago.)

    I've read enough dedications to Clegg (and know one of his clients), that your "question," while relevant, reads - to me - silly/insulting.

    The question I'm more interested in asking is: why do so many agent/publishing blogs seem to come from a place of assigning shame? If not to writers who think - outrageous! - that an agent might respond to their query. Or, that an agent might be human, and not entirely your "cup of tea"? ie., inappropriate by way of Nancy Reagan, and her b.s. phrase d'jour, "appropriate."

    Guess what, Eric, life is messy, books are messy, PEOPLE are messy. While some ask for whom the bell tolls, please tell, who lives in a glass house & who ... doesn't?

  19. @Right When...: Wow, you have serious issues, friend. "Coded homophobica?" "Would you even be posting this, were he not gay?" Please, point us directly to the homophobia in Eric's post. I've read it three times and detect absolutely zero. His post is about bad behavior and professionalism, not sexual orientation. Oh, but I guess you've covered your bases here: it's "coded homophobica."

    You speak as if you personally know Clegg, yet admit your knowledge is restricted to "read[ing] enough dedications to Clegg (and know[ing] one of his clients)." This doesn't give you any more authority on understanding what drove Clegg's addiction than anyone could glean from reading his book.

    You sound like someone with an axe to grind. Please take it elsewhere. It's highly--well, unprofessional of you.

  20. @Leah, oh Leah. Newsflash: it's different for gay people growing up in this country. Like, harsh. What you read in Eric's post is a lot different than what I and others read. To wit, how many stupid books by straight girls who get drunk and then fall asleep in their vomit get a pass? Trust me, darling, if Don Simpson was still alive and he - straight, hiring hookers, and doing blow 24/7 - called you about buying your cozie romance novel, and turning it into a huge movie, you would immediately drop all your notions of propriety at the door.

    Subtext aside, it's ridiculous for people to pass judgment on a business person who - knowing them personally or not - has been incredibly effective on behalf of his clients. Clegg's record speaks for itself. Does yours, Leah?

    I'd daresay that working writers ultimately care less about pearl clutching notions of addiction and recovery derived from reality TV shows than you might think. While you're polishing your silverware, and making sure it looks nice and perfect, other people are doing business.

    So if those statements makes me an axe grinder (isn't that an Apple App? able to detect stupidly within a five mile radius?), then I guess I'm also slated to star in the remake of "The SHining," directed by the ghost of Stanley Kubrick ...