Agents and Publishing in Film and Television…Ahem

Hi, Folks:

I went to see the film made from David Gerrold’s story “The Martian Child” last week. As I’m a diehard John Cusack fan, I enjoyed it. I also have known David for years, so I was curious about how his story would translate to film.

The story itself translated pretty well, I thought. But Hollyweird did its usual number in presenting the main character’s life as a writer, and his relationship with his agent and publisher. (In a word: unrealistic.)

As Michael and I left the theater, it suddenly occurred to me that Hollywood is at least partially to blame for the inordinate numbers of aspiring writers that are scammed by literary agents and publishers these days. The agents and publishers shown on the silver screen bear little to no resemblance to the way it really is, and that helps create a lot of confusion in the public perception.

In “The Martian Child,” the writer, “David Gordon,” has a close personal relationship with his literary agent. The agent comes over to his house frequently, they play golf together, they go out to dinner every few weeks, etc. And, of course, this high-powered agent lives in the same town where David the writer lives. The agent continually begs David the writer to let him read a bit of what he’s working on, giving the impression that if David handed him manuscript, he’d plop down on the curb without moving another step and read it then and there.


This is hardly an isolated instance of Hollywood’s skewed portrayal of the publishing industry. Remember Romancing the Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas? At the end of the movie, we see Kathleen Turner’s romance writer character sitting in her editor’s office, having just brought in the ms. for her new book. The editor is reading the last page of the ms., and crying like a wee infant. The editor looks up, eyes brimming with tears, and tells her writer that she’s wonderful, the story is wonderful, it’s the best thing she’s ever read, etc., etc.

Ahem. Ahem.

Need I tell you sophisticated folks who read this blog that these kinds of things are completely unrealistic? My agent and I have certainly shared meals on many occasions (I’ve been with her since 1984). We even went horseback riding at my house together on one notable occasion. But I’m a longtime client, and we get along well together, and always have. Still I suspect I could count on the fingers of one hand the social (not business) interactions we’ve shared in the 23 years of our association.

I believe that Hollywood’s distorted portrayal of agents and publishers inadvertently softens up aspiring writers, making them vulnerable to the blandishments of scammers. Imagine a writer who knows nothing about how things work in publishing (and hasn’t done a speck of research, of course). This writer may have submitted her book to a real agent or two, almost by acccident, only to receive cold form-letter rejections. Then our writer queries Bouncin’ Bobby or Cris Robins or Leanne Murphy or any experienced fee-charging bottom-feeder. And voila! The writer is suddenly told, in the warmest, friendliest possible terms that her book has “promise,” that the agent wants to “represent” it. Even if the scuzzball doesn’t say it right out, the implications are clear: “I like you, I like your book, we’re going to be good buddies and you’re going to have a career, just like those writers you see on television and in the movies!!!”

No wonder they fall willingly into those fee-charging arms.

There’s an old joke told among professional writers, one that aspiring writer types never “get.” Seems there is a writer who has (typically) missed his important deadline for turning in his latest book. This writer comes home from yet another session of procrastinating, rather than writing, to find chaos surrounding his house. Police cars are slewed all over the road, fire trucks are pouring water on his burning roof, his wife has a black eye, his children are sobbing hysterically. The writer leaps from his car and races over to the nearest cop. “What happened?” he yells.

“Well, sir,” says the officer, “it seems that your literary agent was here to talk to you about your missed deadline, and when you weren’t home, he went ballistic. Punched out your wife, terrified your children, and then set fire to your house. He’s still at large.”

The writer stares at the officer, his mouth agape in incredulous shock. For a moment he can’t even speak, then he whispers, “My agent…came…to MY HOUSE?”

-Ann C. Crispin
Chair, Writer Beware


  1. Hi Ann,

    Have you ever blogged about “Stranger Than Fiction”? According to my sister, the protagonist’s publisher sends out a “writer’s assistant” (Queen Latifah) to bully/motivate her into finishing her novel. And now my sister thinks that’s how it works. I’m pretty sure it’s not, but do you have something I can point to and say, “LOOK, PROFESSIONALS SAID SO”?

  2. This doesn’t just screw with writers’ heads, it screws with the heads of their friends and family. Some families/friends of authors hear that they sold a book then, a month later, ask why they can’t buy it yet. It’s done, isn’t it? So just slap a cover on it and a pretty author photo and zip off to a nationl book tour! That’s what the writing life is like, right?
    Uh… no.

  3. In movies and on TV, only some occupations involve actual labor: Policemen, firemen, surgeons, secret agents and soldiers.

    Other professions (such as writing) apparently involves hanging out with one’s friends all day, and getting into comedic situations…

  4. One of my “favorites” is in the new t.v. show “Men in Trees” where the author protag not only flies into B.F. Alaska for a book signing (yeah, sure), but at some point her pal of an editor(or was it her agent?) zips across the continent to talk to her about returning to civilization. The editor/agent ends up staying for a while too. I don’t know what happened after that, as the depiction of AK and a writer’s life pretty much put the kibash on my watching it again.

    Great joke. Even as an unrepped newbie, I appreciated it.

  5. just like love and marraige and politics and everyhting else in the world that’s presented via Hollywood really. Hollywood’s to blame


  6. I’d forgotten that joke, it’s been so long!

    I always thought: My agent CALLED me? should have been the punchline since phone calls are nearly as rare as visits.

    Hey, you mean all agents aren’t like Ari Gold on Entourage? lol

  7. I actually think alc’s point was the most damaging. People in books and movies are constantly writing a novel, sending it off immediately to an agent or publisher, and getting HUGE checks in the mail two weeks later. So that’s what a lot of people expect, I think. Remember the flap about the “For Better or for Worse” son selling his book?

  8. That joke is hysterical–thanks for passing it along. Am I the only writer in the world who was relieved to discover that agents DON’T hang out at our houses, waiting for us to produce inspiring prose? I can’t imagine how I’d function if my agent spent her life standing by my printer waiting for pages to come out…

  9. This post was excellent and so true. But then Hollywood always twists reality to suit their storytelling purposes.

  10. TV and film has suggest a great influence on people–more than we might think. I’ve critted a number of works where it was obvious the research the writer did was to watch a film. Even with action scenes, a lot of writers will recommend watching a film to learn how to do them. Watching a football game–real action, done in a real way–would be better.

  11. Well, my agent was at my wedding last week, but yeah, I get your point. 😉 I think book agents in movies are often portrayed like Hollywood managers, who DO practically live with their clients.

    The portrayal that kills me is the one in Cheaper By the Dozen. There, the writer mom finishes her book and then, about a week later, she is CALLED TO THE OFFICE in New York, where she is handed a HARDCOVER COPY of said book, then told that if she doesn’t leave on this LONG NATIONAL TOUR, that they will CANCEL THE PUBLICATION. Apparently, after already printing the book?!?!

  12. It does occur to me that I see a lot of writing in slush that clearly derives its idea of “reality” from what the author has seen in movies or tv shows. Bullets slamming people backwards, sounds in the vacuum of space, et seq. So perhaps I shouldn’t dismiss its pernicious effects so glibly.

    Really, people. Do the research.

  13. I know the Hollywood view is unrealistic, but I don’t entirely agree that it encourages the scamming of aspiring writers. I guess when I see a scam agent website, the first thing that strikes me is the impersonality of it all. A real agent’s site gives you information about a person, with history, accomplishments, likes, dislikes, etc. A scammer site gives a vague picture of a faceless agency, which will send you meaningless form letters while still assuring you that your writing is truly brilliant.

    So while real agents don’t play golf with you, they do interact with you personally. I would guess that it would be better to remind aspiring writers that success comes from people. When you get an agent or publisher, it will be a person who actually wants to work with you on your writing. Not a “New York Literary Agency” that expresses vague pleasantness. And once the editor/agent is truly interested, he or she will put forth the effort to show you that he/she is the right person for the job. Not just “Congratulations! We have accepted your book!” That’s a sign of a scam.

  14. For some reason, many people have an idea that if your willing to pay someone for their services, that person will automatically say yes. Witness someone attempting to hire a lawyer who is turned down because the case has no merit.

    Similarly, I have had many bosses who fail to understand why someone might turn down a job offer. I mean, we’re paying them, right, so they should be thrilled no matter how crappy the job is. Right? I mean, money is the ultimate way of assessing value, right?

    I was always a fan of Troy McClure’s agent (voiced by Jeff Goldblum), who was only interested in his client once McClure got good press. Granted, this was The Simpsons, and they were satirizing acting agents rather than literary agents, but I imagine the characture holds true across the board.

  15. Oh dear me, that joke!

    Meh, Hollywood isn’t to be taken seriously, surely? What weirds me out is when tv shows about tv shows get how tv works wrong. I mean, surely the people making the show should know…?

  16. I dunno, while the relationship isn’t remotely realistic, I can see its comedic value. Then again, I’ve done enough research to know that stuff like that isn’t close to real at all…

  17. The only halfway-decent writing-related movie I can think of is Pumpkin. And that one only because it’s a farce that presents a parody of the way writing and writers are portrayed in other movies.

  18. David Duchovny’s latest series, “Californication,” is the latest series to do something like this.

    Watching it, you’d think Duchovny was his agent’s only client. At least the couple episodes I’ve seen, anyway.


  19. Oh, and don’t forget “Throw Mama From The Train.” In that film Billy Crystal’s character is being dropped by his agent (played by Rob Reiner – did I spell that right) because after having represented him for years Billy’s character has never even written a novel. He comments on the novel written by Billy and stolen by his ex-wife and says something to the effect “Sure, you claim that YOU wrote it, but you never showed it to anyone so it’s your word against hers.”

    If this isn’t enough to completely mess with the heads of would-be writers everywhere, nothing is going to do it.

    I mean, come on!!! A movie that depicts a writer who has never even given his rep a finished product but still has a top-notch agent with a major firm?!?!

    That film should have come with a warning label: “Attention, would-be authors, please note that this movie IS a comedy and in no way represents any form of reality.”

    Also, I love how at the end of the film, when Billy Crystal’s character has finally overcome his writers’ block and is finishing his novel, we see him finish the last page, pull it out of his typewriter and put it with a perfectly neat stack of paper that, of course, must be his completed manuscript.

    I saw this as a young teen with aspirations of writing. This one aspect of the film gave me a writers’ block problem that took 20 years to overcome. I always had that illusion that a “real” writer just sat down and started writing that brilliant novel until it was complete. I never imagined all of the research, notes, scrapped sub-plots, re-writes, etc. involved. I just had it in my head that if I was any good I’d be able to just sit down and write it out.

    Silly of me, I know, but the subconscious can be a real stumbling block.

  20. Hollywood often fails to portray various careers accurately, yet it’s just odd when they are inaccurate about the world and circles that they themselves live in. I think ultimately they don’t care about being anymore accurate than whatever they can get away with in order to focus more on arranging story devices in such away to efficiently tell the story they want to tell.

    Ultimately in real life however, there is no one manipulating my circumstances in such away to best expedite the story of my life in a nice and clean direct manner like we see in the movies. Oh, I suppose some people see God in this role in our lives, but I am pretty spiritual person and don’t see God as someone who pulls all the puppet strings in our lives like a writer or movie director; I don’t think God moves quite so predictably in our lives or maybe not in that way at all.

    Anyway, I think having a better understanding of how story and narratives work in our various mediums might help people realize that these things only reflect life to a point and equip them better to be skeptical about details concerning how these stories portray how some things work.

    It was nice finding your blog, I read two of your Star Trek book years ago and loved them. To be honest they were the only Star Trek novels I really liked and never really got into any others. My dad is a big fan of your work too; I’ll have to check out some of your other work.

    Thanks for clearing up how the whole writer/publisher relationship works. 🙂



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