For writers it’s all business, for editors and agents…not so much

In an online group, a writer asked “How do I turn down an agent who I’ve decided not to go with. I’m worried about offending them!”

Predictably people were like, “Don’t worry, they’re a pro, they know it’s just business!”


LOL. It’s never just business! That doesn’t exist! The business world would collapse if people only made decisions for reasons of pure self-interest. And publishing is even less of a business than other businesses. People take stuff so personally! During my most recent round of querying I sent out a query to an agent whose offer I’d turned down once, and they sent back a super-snarky response refusing to even see my manuscript. I kind of respected them more for it! At least my book had mattered to them. It hadn’t just been a commodity.

In a similar vein, I’ve never again been given the time of day by an editor whose offer to publish my book I refused. And when I encountered the program director of an MFA program I’d turned down (they offered half the money Johns Hopkins did), he was so terse: he acknowledged me, clearly remembered me, but barely said three word (last time we’d met, we’d talked for two hours!)

You know for whom it is just business? Aspiring authors. If you have no power, you can’t hold a grudge. My current agent rejected my manuscript the first time I sent it to him. No rewrite request, nothing. I’ve been published by editors who’ve rejected over a hundred short stories of mine. You can’t afford to hold petty grudges. Writers get that it’s hard out there. But other people in the business don’t necessary feel that way! They kind of get used to the position of being gatekeepers, and they feel like if they put in the time to read your book, then they’ve given you something, and if you didn’t accept their offer, then you’ve almost stolen that time from them.

So no, it’s not just business, and there will frequently be hard feelings. There are of course lots of real pros who get it, but they’re not the majority (although they do tend to be overrepresented amongst the upper echelons of any profession). It’s true everywhere. Like if your boss lays you off without notice, that’s just business, but if you take a job and leave him without notice then you better not ask him for a reference, because you left him in a lurch! Never mind that he harmed you personally, by taking away your livelihood, whereas all you did was slow down some project he was working on. Doesn’t matter! People have no sense of perspective.

OH WELL. There’s nothing to do about it, except this. Whenever you’re in a position of power, remember that it is just business. If you’re an editor and someone pulls a story from you because it got accepted elsewhere, well…what, where they supposed to do you a favor? If your nanny quits at the last second, well what…was she supposed to work someplace she didn’t like? If your advisee wants to switch labs, well guess what…it’s just business. They’ve got to do what’s best for them.

My personal feeling is it’s dumb to say it’s “just business”. Instead people should look at the combined good that arises from a decision. Like if you switch jobs, leaving your boss in a lurch, they lose little, but you gain much. Whereas if you’re the boss who refuses to give that person a reference, you gain little, but they lose much. Just have a sense of perspective!

But of course, the system works exactly the opposite. The powerful consider only their own needs, which forces the less-powerful to account for those needs as well. However let’s at least not lie about it! For the people above you, it’s never just business.

And of course here’s the obligatory plug for my book! You can preorder The Cynical Writer’s Guide To The Publishing Industry here! It’s coming out in two more days!