The Business Rusch: Responsibility
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Recently, a major agent in the science fiction and fantasy field died unexpectedly. Many of you know who I’m talking about, and many of you don’t. I’m not naming him here because his death—sad and surprising as it was—is not the topic of this column. In fact, I’m not mentioning his name because I don’t want you to think I’m writing this column about him, his clients, or anyone he’s associated with.
It was just that his death, coming while I’m focusing on business for the completion of The Freelancer’s Survival Guide, put me in mind of my mother. Seriously. My mother was a housewife. Technically, she didn’t have a career. But she had a partner—my father—and they split the tasks of their lives rather ruthlessly.
My mother took care of the house and the children. My father financed all of our lives. Part of his job, as head of the household (which was how they both referred to him), was to manage the money of the household.
By today’s standards, my parents never had a lot of money. They didn’t really have a lot of money by the standards of their friends, either. As I mentioned before, my father had a major career reversal around his fiftieth birthday—he was, in modern terms, a whistleblower (although that’s not quite how it functioned then)—and he became unhirable, except by an old friend. My father eventually turned that new job into something quite positive. He got hired away by the university of his dreams, and in the last years of his career, the incident which caused the reversal forgotten, garnered the respect of his friends and colleagues that he had craved.
He also rose to the top of the university pay scale, and my parents, for the first time in their lives, had extra money. My father saved much of it, invested other parts of it, and managed it as best he could. Because this was the 1980s, saving money in savings accounts actually had a point—you got interest on your accounts (good interest). For the first time in their lives, my parents’ money made money.
Then, in 1990, my father died.
He had done all the right things. He had a great life insurance policy. His pension included my mother and would continue until she died. Because he never took a sick day, she got some kind of extra financial benefit from his health insurance plan, which also continued for her.
But the investments…
To call my father disorganized isn’t fair to disorganized people. The only time I can recall my mother taking care of the family books happened when I was about fifteen. I came home early from school to find her at the kitchen table, cursing. She had one of those gigantic 1970s calculators beside her and she was punching in numbers like the calculator itself offended her. All around her were pieces of paper with scribbles on them.
It seemed that my father had “balanced the checkbook” in his head for at least a year, and it had caught up with them. Mother found out before he did, and started to work on it. He came home and told her that, as a mathematics professor, he was better suited to repair the damage. Then they launched into a quite memorable fight, which she won. Or lost, depending on your point of view. She ended up being the one to balance the checkbook.
Fast-forward fifteen years. Dad’s gone, and Mother’s left with piles (and I do mean piles) of paperwork. He had a filing cabinet next to his desk, with actual files in it. And sometimes he would put the proper pieces of paper into the files and sometimes he wouldn’t.
To my knowledge, he never told my mother what he had done with all of their money. He had taken care of it—and her—for more than fifty years. He didn’t expect her to worry about it.
But she was on her own now, and she was the most organized person I have ever known. She dove into those piles of papers, made lists, discovered where the money was, and thought she had it solved.
Until the end of the first month after my father died. Bank statements from accounts she had never heard of showed up in the mail. She took care of those. Then at the end of the full quarter after he died, she got more bank statements. And then at the end of the calendar year. And intermittently throughout the rest of her life as certificates of deposits became due or as other things, needing someone’s signature, happened.
My mother died in 1997. A year after my mother died, my brother, who was executor of the entire estate, was still discovering accounts my father had opened.
My mother, my siblings, and I had no idea what my father had done with his earnings in the last decade or two of his life. I doubt my father remembered it all either, given that balancing-the-checkbook-in-his-head incident. For all I know, there might still be money out there that belongs to our family, but there’s no way to find it and no way to know where it is without a lot of work that I am not willing to do. If I were to mention it to my brother, he would probably run away screaming. Managing my parents’ estate, filing and refiling, cost him a lot of gray hairs.
Why did the death of this agent make me think of my mother?
Because of all those agent myths out there. For those of you who are not in the writing business, let me tell you how this goes. New writers—and established professional writers—often let their agent handle all aspects of their business, from the marketing of books to the receipt of checks to accounting—everything, in short, except the writing itself.
I keep track of my agent. I know where my manuscripts get marketed. I know what deals are on the table, who owes me money when and when royalty statements (accounting from the publishers) are due. If my agent were to leave the business suddenly—and agents do that a lot more than they die with their boots on—then I would know everything that he has done for my business. I would also know where to check on things I was uncertain about.
I also know what would happen to my agented works. One of the first questions I asked my agent before I hired him was what happened to his small agency if something happened to him. The agency, a corporation, was a strict separate legal entity, and would continue. He told me about the contingency plans, and they sounded sufficient to me. But my agent also happens to be a lawyer, so he knows the importance of estate planning.
Most agents are not lawyers. Many have not given this side of their business any thought. I have heard of elderly agents dying, owners of agencies bearing their names, with no estate planning in place, even though the elderly agent was ill for years before passing away. I was still editing when one major agent passed away, and the conversations I had with the other agents in the business were terrifying. They asked: Did I have any manuscripts on my desk from that agent? Did we owe the agency any money?
That agent—and that agency—apparently had adopted my father’s record-keeping methods. I’m sure the clients of that agency never got all the money due to them.
It’s not just about money, however. It’s about career management. So many modern agents promise to take care of their clients the way that my father took care of my mother.
Assume that all went smoothly during life. Assume there was no embezzlement or impropriety. When an agent—or anyone, really—who “takes care” of clients dies unexpectedly, those clients find themselves in the exact same position my mother was in. And in these cases, it concerns the entire career.
Which editors are considering your latest novel? Which overseas markets have asked to see the latest manuscript? Which Hollywood producer has nibbled on a novel published five years ago? Who hasn’t sent royalty statements even though they’re owed? Which contract is fully negotiated? Which isn’t?
And who takes over for the newly deceased agent? Someone else in the agency? One agency I know, with three agents plus the principal agent, disbanded immediately. Those three agents wanted to hang out their own shingles and didn’t want to be tied to the agency. At least, that was the cover story. For all I know, the agency itself was tied to the deceased agent’s personal finances and those other agents didn’t want to wait for probate to continue with their own careers.
Most writers have no idea what will happen to them if their agent dies. This isn’t just a problem of small agencies. Large ones have the same issue. A friend of mine got assigned a new agent when her agent suddenly left the business, and was told that no other agent in the same agency would take her on. In other words, take this new guy whom you don’t know and haven’t vetted or leave now. And leaving would cause bad feelings, so getting answers out of the existing agency without a liaison would become difficult. She stayed, but was extremely unhappy with the new agent.
Writers aren’t the only ones who face these issues. The September issue of Vanity Fair has yet another article about rich people getting screwed by their financial advisor. This guy wasn’t Bernard Madoff. In fact, the article’s teaser says this:
“The shocking thing about Kenneth Starr’s alleged Ponzi scheme wasn’t the amount–$59 million, pocket change by Madoff standards—but his client list.” It goes on to detail names you would recognize, including reporters like Barbara Walters and Tom Brokaw, people who should know better than to hand their money over to someone without doing due diligence. Considering all the stories about financial malfeasance they’ve reported over the years, these folks should also know to keep an eye on those advisors at all times.
But, honestly, it’s easier to have someone take care of you. My mother did it. Writers do it. Rich people do it. Middle class people do it.
And not just with financial advisors, but with lawyers and accountants, with housekeepers and caretakers, with anyone who promises to take the burden off and to make life easier.
Let’s assume that everything goes well. Let’s assume that the person who takes care of you does a good job. My father left my mother in very good shape financially. She got a lump sum upon his death that paid off her house. She got enough money every month to pay her bills and to have a lot left over. She had health insurance. She was fine with just what she knew about.
But she had so much more. Investments, savings accounts, certificates of deposit, things she didn’t even know she had.
So many writers are in my mother’s position whenever an agent dies or quits the business. So many people are in my mother’s position when their financial planner or the person who manages their household dies.
I’m not saying here that you need to do the job yourself. At a certain point, you can’t do everything yourself. But I’m going to say what I always say: be informed. Just because someone promises to take care of you—just because someone is taking care of you—doesn’t mean you should let them be the sole keeper of knowledge about that aspect of your life. My mother could have asked my father about the finances. Or, better yet for both of them, she could have offered to do his filing for him. That alone would have saved the headaches that existed for more than a decade after his death.
One more note: my parents were not wealthy people. My father was a university professor whose family did not have money. Take this situation and multiply it by hundreds or thousands of details, and you have the situation of a wealthy person. Or add that level of detail and you end up with the career of a long-term working writer.
If you don’t monitor these things, no one will.
Ultimately, you’re the one responsible, not just for your career, but for the details of your life as well.
Keep track. So that when something happens to your caretaker or your spouse or your agent, you know what is going on. You may not have all of the details on the day the circumstances change, but you know how to find those details—and that those details even exist.
Right now, there are a lot of people who let their agent take care of them whose careers are stalled. I’m sure there are even more people who are in my mother’s situation because of the death of the person who handles the money in their families.
You might recognize yourself in this picture. You may trust the person who takes care of you—and that person might be worthy of that trust. But what happens if, God forbid, that person dies suddenly? What happens to you?
That’s a question you need to answer, and you need to answer it now.
As you can probably tell, I’m one of those people who likes to take care of herself. But I’m not above asking for help when I need it. And I do need to fund my new nonfiction habit. So if you like this piece, please hit the donate button. Don’t forget to share the blog with friends and anyone who might need to read it.
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“The Business Rusch: Responsibility” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.