By now, probably many of you have heard the news about Donadio & Olson, the New York–based literary agency, whose bookkeeper stole $3.4 million (or more) from the agency’s clients, its writers. One of these writers is Chuck Palahniuk, who has written 24 books so far, including Fight Club, which was turned into a film. None of the royalties, advance monies, or film-option payments were turned over to him, leaving him “almost broke,” he says in an incredible and heartbreaking blog post.
I briefly had an agent at one time, and I never had to get into trust issues with her, because she never sold the book she’d taken on for me. But I’d wondered about the language in the standard contract she sent—how your royalties or advances go from the publisher to the agent, who takes her cut and then sends the rest to the writer, supposedly in 10 days or two weeks or so. You really have to trust the agent, I thought, but because this woman was a friend of a friend, and because she’d signed on with all the usual agents organizations, I did trust her.
And so did Chuck Palahniuk, and all the other writers at D&O, trust their agents.
Kristine Kathryn Rusch has written three posts that I’ve caught (here, here, and here) that discuss how she thinks this kind of theft is more common than you’d think. But authors don’t monitor their agency accounts because monitoring is complicated—and they trust their agents.
Rusch’s posts about agent chicanery are sobering. I don’t think I’m mischaracterizing her views if I say that she feels that even if writers want to go with traditional publishers, which she doesn’t advise, they don’t need agents—that writers are better off with a good literary attorney. And from my personal experience, as an unagented writer, when I was offered a contract from a small publisher and read one clause I knew I didn’t like, I sent the contract to a literary attorney. She found something to worry about in every clause. I offered revisions to the contract, which the publisher declined, so I passed on the contract. And felt mightily relieved that I’d called that lawyer.
There’s been a fair amount written about the current situation at D&O, given the amount of money stolen, the stature of the agency, and the fame of the clients. For a more legal discussion (and more links), you can check out the post on The Passive Voice, which parses the phrasing of the press release about the investigation and raises the question of whether the agency principals were victims or somehow involved in the theft. But the money for all the writers is probably gone forever. And even if the agency principals are unwitting victims, the reputation of the agency is probably trashed. Who’d trust them now?
It’s particularly unnerving because so much of the business world depends on trust. Even an indie career depends on relationships with other professionals that you expect to do their job properly. And you don’t have to look very far to find examples of rip-offs in indie publishing, too.
So—does anybody out there have an agent? What do you think?