Doing business in the public eye

business in the public eye

  Image courtesy of Mompes

Most of a literary agency’s business is conducted quietly, behind the scenes. Attempting to bring any of it to light is difficult, because significant context often is missing. Every profession shares this quandary. Looking in from the outside, observers are forced to oversimplify and stereotype other occupations and businesses, because it’s impossible to experience all of them firsthand.

My work as an agent is neither routine nor boring, which makes it fun. After five years, I no longer feel like a novice, but that doesn’t mean I can ever stop learning. Most knowledge workers recognize that continually educating ourselves and monitoring industry intelligence are necessary aspects of our jobs; otherwise, we’d consign ourselves rapidly to obsolescence.

Many of us have been watching and commenting on the latest machinations of big corporations. Because of their size and reach, the largest companies involved in publishing and bookselling must contend with heightened public scrutiny. That’s good, because we need to be reminded that these big corporations establish de facto standards for balancing competition and cooperation, which other businesses in the industry then will emulate. If the biggest companies succeed by dodging taxes, being aggressively adversarial, poaching talent, emphasizing volume over quality, crowdsourcing free content, eschewing customer service, and exploiting their employees, then every other businessperson within the book publishing industry’s entrepreneurial ecosystem will begin to see value in those strategies. Ruthless tactics can appear much less unethical when they’re necessary for survival.

The outrage and dissent, even when inarticulately expressed in debates riddled with inaccuracies, help to reassure me that we haven’t completely lost our ethical sensibilities. And by the way, in the grand scheme, I really enjoy being in a position to advocate for the artist.

Exactly when did kindness and courtesy became unbusinesslike and unsexy? Certain old-fashioned business practices are worth reinstating.

7 thoughts on “Doing business in the public eye

  1. meganorussell

    I was offered a publishing contract,which I declined, with a publisher that went out of business a few weeks later. I then took a contract with a publisher who has since closed under strange and unknown circumstances. Now I have a new publisher that I’m getting along with really well, but it’s still tough to trust. In a business where you work for people you don’t really need to meet, it’s easy to dehumanize and abuse your employees.

  2. Robin Mizell Post author

    Right. Kindness, at least, is equated with vulnerability, but it needn’t be. When I deal with people who are polite and courteous, I don’t assume they’re pushovers, but I do remember them and prefer to do business with them. We should stop rewarding narcissism. When we do, we’ll get more of it.

  3. Robin Mizell Post author

    Megan, I don’t think a lack of face-to-face contact is the main cause of unkindness. It might create callousness in some people, but I don’t feel it.

    What I see frequently is a kind of desperation, often related to finances, that pushes people to do ugly things they wouldn’t have dreamed possible. In the wrong circumstances, anyone can become ruthless. However, for a smaller number of people ruthlessness is not a temporary state but a character trait. It’s much easier to avoid the person for whom it’s a character trait, the narcissist, because there will be evidence of past performance. We just need to look beyond the charisma to see it. I consider even small and relatively insignificant instances of deception as part of a larger pattern that should be considered before doing business with someone.

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