Well, I've got myself into a pretty pickle this time. A real dilemma. Perhaps you can help me. Do you have a few moments? Let me tell you about it.
I have never met Christopher, my literary agent. We do all our business by phone. Actually, he's not a literary agent, but 'Technical Writing Contract Agency Marketing Consultant' is such a mouthful that I just take the easy out.
Though I have never met him, I would know him anywhere. He has a gentle, well spoken, American accent, perhaps an educated East Coaster or Canadian. He is thoughtful, even kind I suspect, firm but not harshly so, about five-ten in the old numbers, upright, of medium build, brown haired and well-dressed, usually in a soft, mid-grey suit with pastel shirt and an interesting, but not overdone tie. I confess that everything apart from the voice is just a guess, and that I am notoriously unreliable in predicting appearance from phone voices. But for the moment, that's my image of him.
Christopher has a colleague in his office, who I have met, Janis. These days it's discrimination or harassment if you comment on the appearance or general desirability of a member of the opposite sex, even a compliment, which would have been the case. So I won't, and as I'm happily married, a quick change of subject is probably called for.
Yes, I know I digress. You had better get used to that. If this isn't an entertainment, what else can I use to coat the pill? The bitter pill. Especially for me. Generally, I like to make myself the hero of my stories, not the dumb bunny. But then, that's fiction for you. It just up and runs away in its own directions, and all you can do is watch and take notes.
Back to Janis. My first contact with her was when I was reading an email forum that I subscribe to, covering help systems, which are a key part of my technical writing. Among the letters was one from Janis, offering interested authors the chance to register for contract work. I was definitely an interested author, and so replied to the invitation, attaching my resume as instructed. The following day, my phone rang. A woman. She introduced herself, Janis, from the contract agency of course, then continued, "Peter, we thank you for your reply. We would like to meet you. When can you come in to an interview?"
That was fine. You can always wing an interview. Well, I can, anyway. "Any time you like. You've got my emailed CV. Would you like me to bring in a hardcopy of it, or some other samples of my work?"
"No, that's not necessary. Just yourself. We'll see you as arranged, fourth floor and ask for me at the desk."
Well, that had gone well. I might just be in with a chance.
When I appeared at the appointed time, suited, barbered and pomaded to a stand-still, ready for any interviewing committee they could throw at me, she sat me down with an application form and a personal profile blank so comprehensive that I was surprised there wasn't a place to enter my blood-type. I was later to find out how well they applied that data to my benefit, and now I am really glad that I limited myself to the truth, back then.
Well, when I had finished filling in the forms, Janis came back into the room. Now for the interview, proper, I thought. I stood up, expectantly. Janis was glancing through the forms.
"That's fine. If you would come with me, I'll take you through for the writing test."
Writing test? No-one had said anything about a writing test. Oh, no. Not a test. Anything but a test. Exams of any sort throw me. I don't become a blithering idiot, of course. No more than I am usually, anyhow. But somehow, in the 'exam environment' as they would call it these days, I can't hide the truth as well as usual, and then who knows what they will think. And I was going so well up till then, too.
Janis led me through to the outer office. Phrases like 'outer darkness' went through my scurrying mind, as it raced round in small circles, desperately looking for somewhere to hide. I was led to a typist's cubicle and invited to sit at a computer. On its screen was a typing program, fortunately one that I knew. Beside the keyboard was a sheet of paper, either blank, or face down.
"When you are ready, turn the paper over and begin. There is no time limit. Let Mary, at reception, know when you are finished; she will call me." And I was alone.
What ogre awaited me? My heart was still thumping away. I hoped my panic hadn't shown - not exactly a desirable professional trait - and waited until I felt calmer. Then I turned the paper over. "Explain to someone from the eighteenth century how to make a local phone call."
What relief. What joy. This I can do. I can have fun with it, even. Draw a little picture of a modern telephone. Write the text for a larger audience still. Include the disabled, troubleshooting, and any other add-on that I can recall of the support issues now included to fit user guides to the wider community. And best of all, I would not have to write all that material, it would be enough to put in references, at the obvious places in the text. I could even have a quick dig at Telstra, by the merest implication, of course, if the opportunity presented itself.
I pulled the keyboard toward me, and immersed myself in the task. Then I proof-read it as best I could (I tend not to see my own mistakes), saved the file and went out to reception.
And that's how it all started.
A few days later Janis rang me. "We have assessed your writing, and we think that it is very good. We would like to put you on our list. May we do that?"
"Oh, yes, thank you. What do you need of me, now?"
"Nothing for now. Whenever a writing contract comes up that matches your profile, we will let you know, and if it suits you then, we will put your resume forward to the client. If you get onto their short list they will generally want to meet you and if you are then their final choice, we all sign the contract and you start the work."
Several weeks later I was phoned again, went in for interview, and began my first technical writing project with their group. This was an agency project - where the agency undertook to produce the output documents under agency supervision, rather than a body contract, where the agency merely supplies the person, and the client provides the supervision. So at that point I had no contact with Christopher, for he runs the body contracts. Somebody else does the agency projects, and they are a whole other story in themselves. More about them some other time. I promise.
When my part of the agency project was complete, Janis had me add its details to my CV, and thereafter she would phone me every few weeks, to ask if I wanted my name put forward to this or that (confidential) client name, for the various projects that were coming up. Generally I said yes, except when I was going overseas for three weeks skiing with my cousin in Reno.
For some time, however, nothing came up for which I had the best matching skills, though I was occasionally short-listed, and even made it to several client interviews. Before each of those meetings, after Janis had told me the time and place, she would transfer the phone call to my 'literary agent' (my term, not hers) who turned out to be - you guessed it - Christopher.
The latest such interview was at BodyShop Software in Alexandria.
The first I heard of it was Janis's usual call, but with a difference: "Peter, we have another that we would like to propose you for, but actually it is a permanent position. How would that suit you?"
"Really, I am supposed to be retired, not getting established in a career path. I wouldn't say no, outright, at this stage, but it would be wrong to let them think I would be with them for years and years. About five months at a time is all that I'm looking for these days, allowing me a month skiing, twice a year, once in each hemisphere."
"Fine, but if you were short listed, you would go along to an interview?"
"Yes, of course, but might I then float with them the possibility of doing the same work on a contract basis?"
"I don't think we would have a problem with that, but if they short list you I'd like to have you talk to Christopher before we take it further."
And so we agreed.
Later that week the phone rang. It was Janis again. "You have been short listed for BodyShop Software. Their Manager Technical Writing, Sam Ferguson, would like to meet you. We have told him you would prefer contract to permanent, but when they went through your CV they decided they would like to meet you, regardless. He could see you at ten tomorrow. Would that be convenient? If you measured up in person they could have a role there, perhaps not the one they originally envisaged, for which some sort of compromise on conditions of work might be possible. Christopher is in at the moment, and if you are still interested I will transfer you to him now, so that he can brief you for the interview."
"Fine. I'll hold."
And so, once more, I had Christopher's nut-brown voice down the line: "You really prefer to work contract, don't you, Peter?"
"Yes, I'm not getting any younger, my cash needs are less, and there are other things I would like to achieve while I still have the time and ability to do them. Permanent employment isn't my best choice any more. That's why I signed up with the agency in the first place."
"Of course. Well, go and see Sam Ferguson anyway. He is a nice person and I think you two would get on fine. He has other projects that they are planning to start soon, but they are finding it hard to get the right sort of person for some of them, as they involve a degree of internal selling and fairly high level interviewing and analysis. The formal requirements include some graphics work, too." Well, I can mock up an attractive page layout, but I'm not an illustrator, and I told Christopher as much.
"Don't worry" he said, " I don't think they will actually have that in mind for your role, once they meet you."
Well, from someone who had never met me, Christopher was certainly sounding confident, much more so than I felt, for sure. "Should I take a small portfolio?" I asked.
"Well, if you would like to. It wouldn't do any harm." Damn it, he was humouring me. My voice must be giving away some tone of anxiety. What could have got me spooked? On the face of it the whole exercise so far was purely routine. For something to do, while I thought about this, I put together a few samples of my page layouts and graphics, photos of display stands I have designed, and my laptop computer, on which were some of the help files I have either written or converted from bare text for other authors.
The next day dawned grey and drizzling, and the weather steadily worsened from then on. By nine-thirty, when I put my samples and laptop in the car, the rain was blowing in sheets and as I drove to my appointment the roads were awash. When I finally got to BodyShop, their car yard was almost ankle deep in water, and I only kept my feet dry by walking on the tips of my toes, rain slashing under the umbrella and turning my once crisp suit into a damp accordion. I was feeling less than my best by the time I reached the shelter of the lift lobby, and I was not looking forward to the meeting ahead of me, as I went up, steamy and clammy, to the reception floor, where I was given a visitors pass and told to take the lift to the seventh. There, Sam Ferguson would be waiting for me.
I got my first glimpse of Sam as the lift doors parted. A comfortable, middle-aged, grey-hair, rather younger than me, with a warm smile that made my crumpled suit seem much less important. As I stepped out of the lift he grasped my hand, and his smile widened into a grin as he looked me up and down, "It's that sort of day, isn't it?" Christopher was right. I was finding this guy very easy to like. Already.
As he led me into a nearby office, Sam explained that it was not his - technical writing was not sufficiently important here to rate an office for its manager. Well, that's typical of most firms that I have worked for, though most of them have a woman in the position. All of which shows how little significance senior executives usually place on providing their customers with clear, well written, documentation. The glass ceilings are easy to see. You would have to be blind to miss then. The irony is that in most cases, despite down-grading the writing section, they still get quality output, because of the professionalism of their teams.
But I digress. Though I did promise to do that, didn't I?
Sam told me he was working to get a unified style across all their output - software, computer documentation and hard-copy. He discussed with me why they wanted permanent staff (to set up a growing centre of excellence) and how an intermittent contractor might have to be fitted into such a group.
He wanted to know what drove me to work at this sort of project instead of at the executive level, and why I preferred contracting. Generally, I told him, clients want the comfort of a large firm, large enough to be profitably sued, standing behind their major project managers, because 'key-man' projects need big liability insurance and at least the appearance of back-up teams in case of illness or if extra skills or effort are needed. Once retired from the partnership I lost that cover, and lowered my sights to suit. Had my superannuation been large enough I would have immersed myself in my short story writing, but I wanted my nest-egg to grow a little larger before I started drawing on it. Several short contracts each year would cover my needs, and leave me time enough for my own projects and skiing trips. Furthermore, some technical writing projects were so deadly dull that you needed regular breaks to preserve your sanity.
Sam laughed at that, and began going through my portfolio. When he came to the help files on my laptop, he observed that they seemed to have been written for technical experts (those ones were - good insight!) and asked if I could 'write down' to, say, a year five level. So I showed him one of my children's adventure stories, also on the laptop. He read the first few pages with care, then started skipping forward.
"Are you looking for anything in particular?" I asked.
"Not really, but I do want to know how it all turned out."
At that, we both broke into laughter, and then I gave him the synopsis. I won't say that he sat spell-bound, but my plot and writing had obviously fired his curiosity. Great. An author can't ask for much else, especially in a peer review.
The next question was whether I could write to a highly sophisticated audience, so I opened the file for 'Yvonne' a bleak, black, stream-of-consciousness, blank-verse styled short story. Sam read the first page, skimmed to the end, returned to the start and then carefully re-read it from end to end.
When he looked up again, I said "All the interview guidelines for technical writing say never to take to interview your crafted plots and florid prose." Again we both laughed, and he replied that he was starting to see a number of very useful roles that I could play, ideally suited to my skills, but which he did not need full time. Might I perhaps accept some sort of retainer to keep myself available, and then come in at intervals for medium-term projects? Exactly my aim. Of course I said yes.
Well, I had got what I wanted. We agreed that when he got budget support I would need to come in for a senior interview in about a week, with a final decision the next week after that. I think we were both well pleased when we parted, very amiably.
When I got home I reported back to Christopher and we discussed the meeting, as was our habit. Then he did his own follow-up call to Sam. As far as I knew, things were moving along very nicely.
On Sunday evening, at home, I answered the phone and was surprised to hear Sam. He had been thinking about our meeting, he said, and had a sudden thought, that I might be interested in an arrangement that would provide on-going copyright royalties. Nothing to do with either of our day jobs, which is why he was phoning in the weekend.
Well, that all raised more than a niggle of doubt. I prefer Christopher to make the early running, so I hadn't given Sam any way to contact me. He must have looked me up in the phone book, so this call wasn't the casual afterthought that he implied. I'm not a believer in the free lunch, either, and I couldn't see how I could get kosher royalties without going through the pain of the publication and launch cycle. But I accepted his suggestion that it would be nice if one could find such a short-cut, and agreed to our meeting one evening, some time later that week. I also wondered what was so urgent, that this couldn't have waited the few days until we next met.
I asked for the address where I was to meet him, and then had another fit of the alarm bells when he said he would rather come to my home, as he 'would be over that way' after an earlier meeting. I didn't want to risk my impending contract by offending him, however, and in any case it all seemed more bizarre than threatening, so I agreed and gave him the directions. We settled on Thursday evening at eight-thirty and I hung up and went back into the lounge to discuss this latest development with my wife. She was concerned too, "That's weird, and not at all proper, certainly while your relationship with him is still in Christopher's hands. And you wouldn't want to confront him about it, either, until you have your contract signed. Or not."
"Oh, I'm sure he intended no extortion. I could detect no edge of it, either in his voice or choice of words, but you're right, it would come to that quickly enough if he felt that I threatened or rejected him. Fortunately, Thursday is only four days away, so we will know the full story soon enough."
"Yes, Dear, and I'm going to put off my Thursday evening with the girls, so you will have company here just in case." Always cautious, my wife. Cautious, thoughtful and thorough. And she knew me so well. I would be far more comfortable with a witness on Thursday evening, whatever eventuated.
Thursday soon rolled round, the morning taken up with the next interview that Janis and Christopher had arranged for me, this time for a writing project that would also exercise my facilitation and negotiation skills. There were several different business teams who had to be helped agree to a common set of documentation for the work they all shared. I thought that writing up their procedures would be the easy part. The hard part would be getting them to agree on a single version.
After that meeting, driving home, I put the usual call through to Christopher. "This could be quite an absorbing project, given the undertones. But I would have to keep some distance from the personalities, and leave it all behind when I went home at the end of each day, otherwise I suspect it could get quite fraught."
"That would be wise. They have had a very heavy staff turnover in that section recently, and we don't want any of our people suffering from the stress they have laid on their own team. Are you sure you would be comfortable with it?"
I already said Christopher was a nice guy, didn't I? "I think I'm old enough and silly enough to take it on and come out relatively unscathed, but if I accept this one, I might miss out on the BodyShop retainer offer."
"Ah, well. We've had a call from BodyShop, and their priorities have changed again. They have taken the heat off finding their permanent writer, and we don't expect them to feel such urgency about the retainer arrangement, either."
When I got home and told my wife, she was intrigued. "I wouldn't miss the meeting tonight, for the world. What can be happening in the BodyShop offices? Coming and going on whether they want staff, managers who run the blind side of the scrum to new applicants, and who knows what else. We could have an interesting evening ahead of us."
Thursday night. Moonlit and mild. Eight-fifteen. House ready and tidy. Coffee things laid out. Lounge-room layout switched to 'meeting'. Fresh soap and hand-towel in the bathroom. "The first thing he will want, about this time of night, will be the bathroom."
Well, I'm a man, and my wife knows me well, and though most do get some prostrate problem later in life, it's by no means universal. "Bet you a fiver he doesn't."
Eight-thirty. Turn on outside lights, unlock security door. Wait.
Eight-forty-five. Wait some more.
Phone rings. "Sam here, I'm running a little late. Well, about three quarters of an hour, actually. See you soon." And gone before I can suggest abandoning the arrangement.
Well, that will be rather too late to start a meeting of any significance, and this one, with its undertones, is already far from trivial.
Nine-fifteen. Door bell. "Hello Sam. Come in. This is my wife. Dear, this is Sam, from BodyShop."
"Oh, but I'm not here about that. Not at all. We'll get to the point in just a minute, but first, may I use your bathroom?" and I'm down another fiver. Outsmarted again. What a woman I've married.
"Sure, this way, and, would you like coffee or tea perhaps?"
By the time he returns the coffee is ready and I carry the tray into the lounge.
"Oh, that looks good. I wonder, though, could we sit round your dining table. I need to draw you an illustration - a chart actually, and round a table we can all see at once, easily. I must say, you have a lovely home. What beautiful furniture, and those paintings. They are real oil paintings, aren't they?"
"Some of them. Look, it's getting late. What do you want to discuss with me, please?"
"Well, wouldn't it be nice if you could get ongoing copyright royalties, almost indefinitely, without having to go to excessive lengths to achieve that?"
"Sure, but what do you have in mind?"
"Well, suppose there was a street, with similar shops down each side," Sam was drawing a shopping centre plan as he spoke, "and on one side of the street you could buy at wholesale prices, but retail prices on the other. Which side would you shop?"
"Probably retail. The wholesale quantity price breaks are usually too high for our needs."
"But if they weren't?"
"I would certainly look, but the decision would be driven not by price alone, but also by other factors such as breadth of choice, service levels, delivery arrangements, personal relationships with the vendor - you name it. I can see you don't want to move on until I say - yes I would buy at the wholesalers. OK, for the purposes of the debate, so be it. Wholesale."
"Good. And how about if you actually owned the wholesaler, and sold to other shops as well, and they might wholesale to others, and you get a percentage of all their turn-over. How about that?" While talking, Sam has been drawing a pyramid chart.
"That, Sam, would either be Amway or someone who has adopted their methods, and I would be right out of there."
"What's wrong with Amway?"
"Nothing. Pyramid selling is illegal, but their methods and structure just creep in as what I would call a family-unit-based quasi-agency-franchise-sub-agency wholesaler system that is anathema for me. For us both. We don't go for the rah-rah scene; those motivational meetings can be a turn-off; neither of us at our age would want to be doing the hours or the sorts of things that getting started would involve. I've already plenty of projects right here that have got to wait till I have time to do them. I don't have the time to spare for all that hullabaloo. Amway? Amway's fine - for other people."
Well, that didn't even give him pause. How long ago had I formed that opinion? It had all changed since then. Did I know what the top earners made? How little time it took them? Why he, himself, had adopted this as his approach to retirement income? How much the catalogue had grown? What a wide range of products - quality goods, no rubbish - could be ordered? At every point I tried to disengage him, but he had put roots down into the chair, and his mind was in 'yes - but' mode.
My wife and I just sat, on either side of him, looked at each other, and nodded our private argeement to terminate this stream as fast as possible. We gave Sam all the 'No' signals. We both crossed our arms. Leaned back in our chairs. Pushed our chairs further back from the table. Said we weren't interested. Weren't at that point in our lives any more. Weren't big buyers any more. Children gone. No youth appetites, no youth clothes. House now well set up. We have our TV and freezer. It's getting late. Would you like some more coffee. We have a busy day tomorrow. I prefer to write for my fees, not be a wholesaler. I'm a writer not a shopkeeper. What a shame we got such a late start. We need to be finishing up now. Do you have to travel far to get home?
Of course I could have just turfed Sam out, especially now that I had heard his contract trail had gone cool. But I don't like offending someone I might later end up needing to work for. So we limited ourselves to the less agressive disengagement techniques, and tried every one of them that we knew.
None of it worked. Water off a duck's back. "Just look at this. How thick - and every page is quality goods. And the prices. All wholesale. What could be better. And you get the profit on everything you sell - or even use yourself. If you sell someone a larger quantity they get it at a better discount, and then they can sell their surplus at a profit, just as you do, and that's more profit still for you. Did you know you only need six customers like that and you can virtually retire? It's true. I know a couple like that. They are a level or two above me, and when I get my list working as they have, I will get moved sideways and deal direct with the office, but they will still get 4% of my throughput. I want to be like that, and I want you to have the same advantages too. Its all legal, and everyone benefits. I can't be fairer than that, now can I?"
"Sam, it's not our scene. We've sat through the Amway presentation before. Nothing has changed." He starts to list all the recent changes. The poor thing has got it worse than religion. How can I stop him without physically carrying him into the street? Maybe I can short-circuit this another way.
"Sam, what do you want to achieve here, tonight?"
"Well, we have really great, quite inspirational meetings. They really get you fired up and sparking on all four. You must come to one of them. Both of you, of course. You would see it all so clearly, then."
Perhaps I should have lied, and agreed, got the time and place and torn them up when he had gone. But it was getting late, and my mind was numb from the pounding. In any case, lying rarely works for me. He would be ringing me up before the meeting to check I hadn't forgotten it, and if I failed to show he would be on the door-step the next day, remonstrating, or worse, fronting me about it at work, if I ever got that contract and retainer. Though they were becoming less attractive with every passing minute.
Finally, my wife shrugged at me across the table and we agreed to let Sam run through the last few of his 'easy ways to success' plan. We had already had opportunity, cost advantages, lifestyle advantages, structure, catalogues and procedure guides, but we still had to sit through meetings, tapes, books, training, set up costs, handling objections and commitment. We had really thrown him by letting him see our hand (objections) before the bidding was over. When he reached that point, we had none left for him to handle. You could see his face fall with disappointment. How could he handle objections when there weren't any? Well, he wasn't getting commitment, either.
But we aren't cruel people. We did promise that if ever we thought about getting into Amway, we would keep him in mind. We didn't tell him how effective that would be in stopping us, though. Ambiguity has its uses.
After Sam had left, while clearing up the coffee things, I said, "Now, Sam has dealt with the easy issues. That just leaves us the hard ones. Does he recognise his conflict of interest? If so, does he care? He may just be an opportunist, and have no thought that he actually had me under duress and had coerced me into conniving with his sales pitch, which clearly he intends to be for his financial advantage, regardless of his claim that I could benefit too. If he is not aware, (the most likely case) does this make him so naive as to compromise his projects? Would I want to work on them, if that were so? I certainly would not want to work for him if he is knowingly exploiting our relative positions. Is his employer aware of his night job, and how he is misusing his position?"
"Of course not. Does Christopher know, do you think?"
"Most unlikely. Perhaps I should tell him?"
"Is it his business? He is in the position of a salesman, whilst Sam is on the customer's staff. Surely Sam's manager is the one to tell?"
"I can't do that. Propriety has me making all contacts through Christopher. We shouldn't have had Sam here tonight. He was wrong to phone me, and I am angry that he used the copyright and royalties metaphor to get herself in here. That one, there is no doubt, he did knowingly contrive. Probably rule four - use a simile or metaphor in line with the bunny's interests."
"Yes, and rule eight - get a look at their home. Are they people of substance, in a stable relationship, likely to be reliable with money? And I put fresh soap and towels out for him. If only I had known!"
"Simmer down, my love. For now, off to bed. We have a weekend at Canberra ahead of us. Let's see how we feel after a few days with our friends. We can talk of this again while we drive."
During the weekend, over drinks with our Canberra friends, we recounted this tale. Partly as an entertainment, but also to get some feedback. Graeme, with his usual sharp wit, suggested we could still benefit from the occurrence, whatever else came of it, by adopting it as a plot for my short-story writing.
And so it is.
That now leaves me with only two questions:
Logically, how can it be my agent Christopher's business?
If it isn't, should I tell him anyhow?
... what do you think?
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins