(Friday, when I should have been posting my latest Retro-Friday, I had a rather annoying incident involving a rental car, a taxi dispatcher, inadvertently placed keys, and the last flight of the day. Never fear though. This week we'll do Retro-Tuesday and Retro-Friday. Bonus!)
Back in what feels like an entirely different lifetime, I opened a couple of computer stores in Northern California. For a variety of reasons I won’t go into here, I failed pretty miserably inside of a year. Suffice it to say that I was a great salesperson, an inexperienced manager, and a terrible accountant. When the dust had cleared, I found myself in a position where I would be forced to close both stores and lay off all of my employees in only a few days.
At the very last moment, a possible miracle arrived in the person of two men who offered to take over the stores. A meeting was set up where we were to discuss various options over lunch. My first clue that something was not entirely kosher should have been the restaurant. It was a dimly-lit, rather shabby, Chinese food place (and no this is not a kosher restaurant joke) where the men seemed to be very well known. Clearly this was not a real top-notch place, and just as clearly, they were regulars here. Imagine one of those Italian places mob leaders meet in all the movies, but change the ethnicity of the food.
At first they said all the right things. We want to keep the stores open. We don’t want to lay off any employees. We have lots of experience doing this. You didn’t do anything wrong.
But the longer we talked, the more uncomfortable I began to feel. They seemed . . . slimy. They didn’t answer my questions openly. They avoided specifics. They didn’t have any references I was comfortable with. Under ordinary circumstances, I would have walked away immediately. Except these weren’t ordinary circumstances. If I didn’t work with these men, my stores would close and my employees would be out of work. I had to decide if this solution was better than no solution at all.
I recently read this article http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/69474/ about an author who reminds me a lot of these men. He appealed to authors who felt desperate. They had no money, no prospects of getting published, lots of debt. He seemed like a way out. And not only that, but he was a smooth talker. He knew people. He offered “connections.” The only catch was that essentially you had to give him all recognition, all control, and your complete trust. The students he spoke to had to decide whether signing a contract to write for him was a better choice than signing no contract at all.
A lot of times the publishing world feels this way. Do I sign the first agent to offer me a deal—even if I don’t have a good feeling about her? Do I publish my book with a publisher who has a terrible contract and a bad record? Do I go with the publisher that maybe even charges me to publish my book? Do I give up on publishers entirely and create an e-book on my own?
What makes these decisions so difficult is that often there doesn’t seem to be any alternative. If you don’t go with the agent who doesn’t seem like a very good fit, you may not get an agent at all. If you don’t publish with the publisher who wants a $3,000 deposit, maybe no one will publish your book. At least if you create an e-book it will have a “chance” of someone buying it.
The thing is, you have to step back and look at the big picture. If your book really is good enough that a legitimate publisher will accept it, there’s a good chance another publisher will be interested too. If not this book, then maybe the next one. If one agent thinks your writing is good enough to sell, isn’t it likely others will too?
On the other hand, if the publisher isn’t legit, or the agent isn’t very good, are you really better off signing your baby into their hands than not signing at all? Once you’ve published your book with a publisher who may sell only a handful of copies—if that—or who doesn’t do any marketing, or who may never pay you a cent, you’ve lost the chance to sell it to anyone else. Once you’ve had a bad agent get rejections from all the major houses, it’s difficult or even impossible to resubmit to them. Not to mention the time and energy you’ve wasted.
Going back to my original story, the men at the meeting pushed me to sign a contract then and there. When I told them I wanted to think it over, they began threatening to cancel the whole deal. That was enough for me. I got up and left the meeting. Of course, once they realized I was really going, they made me take the contract with me. Looking it over later that day, I realized I was giving them all of my inventory and assets, while they were guaranteeing absolutely nothing. They didn’t guarantee to keep the stores open. They didn’t assume any leases or debts.
As I talked to other people, I discovered these men had pulled this same scam many times. As soon as I signed the contract, they would have taken all of my assets and disappeared. Signing a deal with them was actually worse than not signing anything at all. Any time a publisher or agent asks you for money up front, I guarantee that you are better off with no deal at all.
I’m not saying all bad fits are scams. There are lots of smaller publishers who just don’t have much in the way of resources. There are agents who are simply not the best fit for your work, or don’t have the types of connections other more successful agents do. And maybe they will work out just fine. You might do perfectly well in either of those situations. Sometimes an imperfect fit is better than no fit at all.
But if you decide to sign a less than ideal deal, make sure you are doing it because it’s the right solution for you, and not because you feel it is the only solution. A good agent once told me that when you reach a certain point of writing, you are publishable. Then it’s just a matter of finding the right fit at the right time. Don’t be wooed by someone telling you how incredible you are, or how you have to sign right away. Of that this is your only chance at success.
If this opportunity you are considering isn’t the right one, have the confidence in yourself and your work to walk away—knowing that down the road you will find the right fit, and that by saying no now, you are getting that much closer to the yes you are looking for.
So how do you feel? If you had the chance to sign with an agent, even of that agent wasn’t very good and didn’t have the best contacts, would you do it anyway, figuring, “Hey, at least it’s an agent.” If you got an offer to publish your book by a publisher most authors were unhappy with, would you go ahead anyway? Or would you wait for the best match for you and your work?