The One Behavior That Spells Doom for Your Editor/Agent Relationship

A top-shelf journalist, Dan Baum, recently Tweeted about his experience breaking into and then writing for The New Yorker. You can read the full account here.

It was fascinating to get an inside look at one of the most venerable publications in the world, but much more fascinating was the story—or lesson—of his dismissal. It was not related to his writing or performance, though that was the official reason given.

Here’s part of what he says (edited for space):

I wanted to write about Mexico’s disputed presidential election. A million people were demonstrating in Mexico City.

David said, “I guess if you want to write about Mexico, you might write about that mayor of Mexico City; he’s interesting.”

And here’s where it all went to hell.

I should have said, “Great idea, David. I’ll get right on it.”

Instead I said, “David, that’s the guy I’m talking about! That’s the guy who claims to have won the election! That’s the guy who everybody is demonstrating over!”

Now, what was the point of doing that? He was ceding me the chance to write about the situation in Mexico.

And if he didn’t know the details, he had more than the average American’s sense of Mexican politics.

But, believing we were two colleagues – couple of guys from New Jersey – hashing out what was best for the magazine, I made him feel uninformed.

Then I did it again.

He said, “How about the governor of Montana? He’s an interesting guy; you could profile him.”

Again, the correct response would have been, “Right away, sir.”

Instead, I said, “David, I proposed that story six months ago and you turned it down. Now it’s too late. Next week, he’s on the cover of the New York Times Magazine.”

The conversation ended amicably enough, but everything went to hell after that. I knew it at once. It all turned frosty.

… the real reason Remnick fired me was that he took a personal dislike to me after our conversations.

I was pretty bitter for a while. A New Yorker writer should be able to have a straight-up exchange of views with his editor.

And a guy as accomplished and powerful as David Remnick shouldn’t be so insecure that he can’t take some pushback.

… The biggest disappointment was learning that, after all, it’s not only about the work on the page. That the writing life is not a pure meritocracy, or a refuge from office politics. All that crap still matters. Even at the top of the heap. Perhaps especially at the top of the heap.

Like Baum, I’d expect a higher level of emotional intelligence from people at The New Yorker, and he blames not knowing the culture well as a reason for his misstep (he didn’t work at the offices or visit that often).

But it’s always a critical error to ignore one of the cardinal rules of human interaction: If you insist on being right, and/or make someone feel bad about themselves (especially when it comes to your superiors!), prepare to be disliked and lose opportunities.

Especially when it comes to superiors, we can mistakenly ascribe more confidence to them because we see them as successful, and as having accomplished so much. You might think your boss or CEO has the wisdom and knowledge to be reasonably and constructively challenged (isn’t that how we all learn?), but that’s rarely the case.

One book I love dearly is The 48 Laws of Power. Guess what the first law is (perhaps the most important of all)?

Never Outshine the Master.

Get a quick list of 48 laws here.

If David Remnick of the New Yorker is susceptible, I guarantee the editors, agents, and other people you work with—who wield some measure of power in your career—are also susceptible.

Are you telling them that they’re wrong, pointing out how they contradict themselves, persisting in an argument of why you’re right?

You’re not doing yourself any favors.

Editors/agents may not say it openly, but if this is your attitude, you’ll get the freeze-out, just like Baum did. It may be a quiet freezing process: perhaps they’re not championing you any more to their important contacts —something you could never know for sure.

Think about the contact you have with important people. Imagine how they feel when they see an e-mail from you. Will they have a bad feeling? “Oh no, now what’s wrong?” Or: “What will they complain about next?” Or: “How have I screwed up this time?”

I keep a quote from Jean Toomer posted in my office:

Thank everyone who calls out your faults, your anger, your impatience, your egotism; do this consciously, voluntarily.

If we can put aside our egos, we open the door to more honest conversation and an opportunity to learn.

Unfortunately, most of us know instinctively not to challenge the person in power.

Don’t we watch, very carefully, when a superior is challenged by someone with very little power? What happens to the challenger? And how does the person in power respond?

What happens when a mistake is made? Is there an acknowledgment of it? 

Leaders often make a show of asking for ideas, feedback, and constructive criticism, but so rarely know how to respond in a way that would encourage more of it.

People are afraid. They know about the First Law.

Dan Baum felt comfortable enough to break that law, because he thought the laws didn’t apply between two guys who were so much alike, with a leader who only benefits from employing people who are smarter than him, at least in some ways.

I wish Baum hadn’t been so wrong.

Photo credit: Manuel_Marin

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0 thoughts on “The One Behavior That Spells Doom for Your Editor/Agent Relationship

  1. Jane Friedman

    In regards to Tim’s comment, I have a feeling this is very much directed at a disagreement you and I had years ago, but speaking more generally:

    It takes a diplomat to navigate situations where your superior/master is in the wrong. Usually, it’s better to show through action (rather than declaration) what’s right, or find a way for the person to realize the right course of action is their idea.

    Harrassed employees? That’s not really what I’m talking about here. I would never advocate people keep their mouths shut during a serious breach of law. What I’m really addressing is how to build relationships on a daily basis; it’s the everyday interpersonal skills that have a cumulative effect on your longterm career; some people don’t realize what behaviors are preventing them from achieving greater success. Why take on battles that don’t have real meaning or deep value, or have a very short-term aspect? Be thinking 2-3 steps ahead of what might happen if you turn something into a really big deal. What do you have to gain or lose?

    I once had a colleague (editor) who had to be right on every editorial issue. And even though she was actually right every time, her attitude short-circuited her career in the business, because very quickly no authors wanted to work with her.

    So, in short, self-righteous attitudes need to be set aside in interpersonal engagements.

  2. Tim

    What about when your editor, agent, boss is — dare I say it — wrong?

    What if "Master" went back on his word, broke a contract, lied to you? Should you just keep your mouth shut, for fear of imperiling your career? From what I’ve read, the adage "Never challenge the person in power" has kept a lot of harassed employees in silence.

    To be sure, some writers will never think their editors, agents and sales reps do enough for them, and they are all too quick to fire off nasty emails. That’s being rude.

    But to extrapolate from that situation a general caution to *never* complain or challenge authority in defense of what you think is right strikes me as a "law" powerful folks invented to spare themselves the unpleasantness of dealing with people and being accountable for their own actions. It’s the attitude of "I’m the bigger fish here, so I shouldn’t have to deal with this. Why can’t everyone just be silent and obedient?"

    I try my best to be professional, courteous and considerate at all times — doesn’t always happen, and that’s my fault. But it ain’t my lot in life to "make people above me feel comfortably superior." If they’re above me, they’re already superior to me. I can’t make them "feel superior" if they consider superiority a feeling.

  3. GP

    My apologies then, "Always make those above you feel comfortably superior" certainly sums it up. Of course I believe that doing that helps to rot the institution, or nation as the case may be, from the inside out but that’s a whole other kettle of fish.

  4. Jane Friedman

    Thanks to all for your comments.

    To GP in particular, well-stated. There’s actually alignment rather than disagreement between your view and the first law. When you look closer at the law of never outshining the master, the first sentence says (in the book), "Always make those above you feel comfortably superior."

  5. Kimberly Davis

    This is a fascinating post, and illuminating in the context of the changing publishing world, where a scrappy web sensibility now regularly scrapes up against the dignity of those anointed by crumbling institutions (newspapers, magazines, book publishers). One can’t help but root for both sides. (I still love my New York Times and The New Yorker dearly, but I also do much of my reading online these days.) It feels like everyone is under pressure, and that it’s changing rather rapidly who seems to be in charge. Jack Shafer touched on this in his recent Slate article, Life After Newspapers.

  6. GP

    No offense, but I think you may have mistaken, and slightly over-simplified, Dan’s mistake.

    Dan did not attempt to "outshine the master", though that can be a cardinal sin in certain environments and with certain "masters". Dan’s error appears to have been that the so-called master wanted to be treated like a master but Dan was treating him like a peer.

    People like David are often fairly jealous of their power and position, they don’t like to be challenged. In particular they don’t like to be challenged by people like Dan who live and work outside the system. From David’s point of view he has worked hard within the structure and, apparently, feels that some deference is owed him because of the position he has attained. He wants to be respected and obeyed.

    Freelancers, people who people like David believe have succeeded without making the same sacrifices that folks like David have, are generally mistrusted and carefully scrutinized by people within the structure with whom they must do business. It’s a truism in the consultancy world: if push comes to shove you’ll be seen as the bad guy. And people in corporate structures are experts in and hypersensitive to "push and shove" situations.

    So, it’s not really a matter of outshining the master, it’s an issue of demonstrably showing your respect, bowing to the superior, making the prince feel princely.

    Dan’s error was in assuming he could deal with David as an equal when what David wanted was quite the opposite. Dan challenged the hierarchy while David appears to have wanted the hierarchy respected and observed.

    This from 15 years in corporate life.


  7. The Writer Mama

    What an intriguing book! I must get this book. Now adding it to my wish list.

    The stories about transparency that are surfacing, from this story that you’ve shared to the New York Times Bestselling author who recently shared a copy of her royalty statement, to whatever is going to happen next is certainly fascinating.

    It’s a very interesting time to be a writer, that’s for sure. Thanks for sharing this story.