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Columns by Eric J. Adams

The Cost of Selling Out

Beyond the Fruitcake: Holiday Gift Giving Tips for IPs

Sizing up Your Clients

Beyond the Honeymoon: How to Nurture Client Loyalty in the Age of Corporate Infidelity

Protect Yourself From Finger Pointers: Blaze a Trail

Crossed Wires

How to Build Winning Recommendations

Battling the Deadline Blues

Handling the End of the Relationship

Dealing With Nightmare Clients

Tips for Successful Meetings

Break It Down



Visit our regular Doing Work columnist, Peter Economy


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"Yes. No. Well, maybe. Sorry, gotta go, I have a client on the other line who actually makes me money."

You have to learn how to distinguish between routinely accommodating your clients and selling out on the core issues.

The Cost of Selling Out

This is the column I wish I never had to write. It's about the biggest client-relations mistake I ever made, one that wakes me up at night in cold sweats and causes me to murmur obscenities when riding alone in elevators.

It all started with a mass-market novel I wrote and was calling True Crime (the novel is out of print, so there's no self-promotion, shameless or otherwise, here). It's about a True Crime author whose son is kidnapped by the subject of one of his books. As ransom, the kidnapper wants the author's hands as a pledge that he'll never write again.

Okay, Jane Austen it's not, but St. Martin's Press loved it and bought it for its mass-market paperback list. My editor (who shall remain nameless) suggested a few text changes, all of which improved the story, and he scheduled the book's release for the following spring. I was in heaven. Visions of dollar signs danced in my head. "This book business is easy, " I said. "Why do so many writers bitch about the impenetrable world of New York publishing?"

Now, some may argue that a major publishing house doesn't quite fit the description of a typical client. But publishers are typical in many ways -- big, finicky, impersonal, consumed by internal politics, happy to use your talents when it suits them and even happier to dump you later. And, of course, their checks invariably arrive 60 days late.

Five months before publication, word came out that another book called True Crime was about to hit the stands, written by a popular novelist, Andrew Klavan. To boot, Clint Eastwood had already bought the rights to the book, so a major motion picture was sure to follow, which, of course, it did.

"Okay, no sweat, just change the title, " I thought. "I'm a pro, I can go with the flow." I suggested Hands of Stone, an obvious double entendre based on the protagonist's last name.

No, said my editor. He had checked with the marketing department (that should have been my first clue) and they liked the title Plot Twist.

Plot Twist? The title stuck in my mouth like cold porridge. I had to repeat it twice, three times, when I mentioned it to family and friends. Their blank stares told me this title was no winner. Besides, I hated it.

So I called my agent for warm and fuzzy advice (another mistake altogether, but that's a different column). He told me that my contract clearly stated that both the author and the publisher had to agree on the title, so if I didn't like Plot Twist, it was dead.

"But should I go with it because that's what he wants?" I asked.

"Yes. No. Well, maybe. Sorry, gotta go, I have a client on the other line who actually makes me money."

I called back my editor. He hemmed and hawed about Hands of Stone and reiterated his allegiance to Plot Twist. "After all," he said, "the marketing people have to sell it, so it's best to give them a name they like. Plus I'd love to establish a working relationship with you so we can do further books together." (Notice the little implied threat here.)

I asked for a day to think about it. And I did think about it. I thought about those intrepid marketing people selling a book they could really get behind. I thought about all the story ideas I had waiting to be turned into novels. And I thought that I had a sure buyer in my editor.

So against all my better judgment, my wife's counsel, my mother's advice, and worst of all, the clear and persistent voice of my inner being, I made the biggest mistake of my professional life.

Plot Twist it was.

And here's the clincher, and the moral of this woeful tale. The moment I said yes to that godawful name, I sensed immediately that my editor had lost respect for me. I felt it in his voice, his attitude. Moreover, I realized that there probably weren't going to be additional books with this editor: my decision indicated that I didn't respect myself or my work, so why should he?

Now, had the book done phenomenally well and become a major motion picture staring Ashley Judd and Kevin Spacey, would I be cringing at the decision? Certainly not as much, but still some, I swear it, because that book was my baby and I let someone else name her.

As it turned out, the book did reasonably well for a mass-market novel -- perhaps as well or even better than if it been called Hands of Stone or True Crime. But after a short stint, St. Martin's pulled the book from its list to make room for new mass-market titles. And I went on to publish again with another publisher, so all was not lost.

But a lot was lost. I was left with the legacy of the world's most inane title, and a constant reminder of my foolishness.

You have to learn how to distinguish between routinely accommodating your clients (which all successful independent professionals must do) and selling out on the core issues (which can destroy you). You may be asked to promote a product or a candidate you vehemently oppose. Maybe a client will suggest something illegal, such as ignoring a non-disclosure agreement or designing something slightly out of code. Whatever the situation, don't do it. Aside from the lost of self-respect, which is the greatest loss of all, you'll lose the respect of your client co-conspirators -- and if there's a problem, they'll saddle you with the blame or cast you off to ease their conscience.

Yes, compromise with clients. Take on projects that are excruciatingly boring. Write stuff you know is bullshit, but not if it gives you that same queasy sensation you felt shoplifting in the seventh grade. Listen to your gut -- it knows.

I'll go further and say that the mere act of turning down any spurious proposals will actually enhance your reputation among your clients and provide you the type of grudging respect that leads to long-term relationships.

But don't do it for these reasons. Do it for yourself. Believe me, I've broken this client-relations commandment, and I feel ill every time I think of it.

We'd love to hear your feedback about this column, or put you in touch with Eric J. Adams if you like. You may also like to see his biography.

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