The Groucho Marx Syndrome

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A friend of mine is the best literary agent in the business.


She is extremely conscientious, knows her chosen genres better than anyone else, and does that rare thing most agents choose to avoid at all costs.  She not only tells her clients what’s wrong with their stuff, she literally re-writes their material to show them how to fix it.

Telling a client what’s weak (the primary skill set of an agent and a crucial one at that) is so much easier than showing them how to actually fix it…You need more Oomph in your prologue and your sample chapter needs to hit the same notes, but reach a higher crescendo! Versus actually re-writing the prologue so that it has more oomph and then handing it over to the client to re-work, correct and make his own…

She works with her clients (mostly nonfiction) from muddy first idea through the final draft of their proposals.  She’ll edit the proposal until she is absolutely sure that it is the best that it could possibly be.

When she’s finished, the writer doesn’t just have a great piece of material to sell, but he’s got his marching orders to actually get the thing written.

She’s known for taking a “B” idea that would be interesting to perhaps one or two publishers to fill out the final slots of a particular season, and turning it into something that every one of the Big Five publishers will want at the top of their lists.

Every editor who works with her trusts her expertise and she’s able to submit a proposal on a Thursday and have an auction for it the very next day. Because she works so intently, she only submits perhaps 3 or 4 things a year, but the material is so outstanding that she makes a very nice living collecting her 15% commissions.

The other amazing thing about her is that she’s a lone wolf.

She isn’t beholden to a Big Agency and its internal politics (don’t get me started on those) and she’s not holding a lot of junior agent hands either trying to build a Big Deal Agency with her name at the top.  She loves to work Stories and so figured out how to build a business doing just that. With as few distractions as possible.

If I ever choose to take a crack at some big idea book, she’d be the first person I’d call.  And if she offered to work with me and represent it…I’d be honored.

So I saw her for lunch the other day and she tells me this story.

One of her clients is a very big deal at a very important magazine.  His previous books were all bestsellers and he’s recognized as the leading figure in a particular kind of form of investigative journalism.  My agent friend discovered him as a cub reporter and has worked with him from day one on his books.

So her client asks her if she’d be interested in taking a call with one of his colleagues who has an idea about converting some deep investigative work into a book.  She hesitates because she has a full plate of projects already and isn’t immediately overwhelmed with enthusiasm for the subject matter.

She explains this to her bestselling client but also agrees to take the call nevertheless.

Maybe there’s something there that she hadn’t considered?  Why not hear the guy out and see?

So my friend’s client tells his colleague that he’s pulling in a favor with his agent and that the chances are that she won’t take him on, but she’s agreed to do the call anyway.  If he’s lucky, my friend’s client tells his colleague, his agent will recommend him to someone else.

Now I’m sitting at lunch with my picked over Cobb salad and being the old dog I am, I think I know where this Story is headed.  The guy will call my friend and completely waste her time and then he’ll insult her saying that perhaps she’s just not smart enough to get the nuance of his brilliance…

I say this to my friend and she holds up her hand to stop me before I blather on in my Black Irish way…

No, that’s not what happened…

She continues with her Story.

So my friend emails the guy who wants to be her client with a time to call her and sends the guy a sample proposal that she thinks is applicable to the general idea that he’ll be pitching her.

I interrupt again.

So, the guy never calls right?  He reads the proposal and loses his nerve because he doesn’t think he has the chops to write like that, right?

No, that’s not what happened…

She continues with her Story.

The potential client instead, spends the entire night before the call writing a proposal in the way that my friend suggested with the sample.  He actually sends my friend a draft of the proposal before the call.

My friend is amazed by this behavior.

But his proposal sucked, right? I say.

No, that’s not what happened…

She continues with her Story.

The proposal is really quite good.  My friend thinks that there are some big flaws in it and there is way too much Inside Baseball that will be lost on editors looking for a Big Idea Cultural Gestalt Shift book, but my friend’s synapses are popping in her head and she’s piecing together how to take this Story to greater heights.

She’s excited.

Fantastic! So you had the call and you hashed out the idea? I say.

Yes! She says.

She tells me the gist of the idea and it’s stunning.  It’s so good that I want to read the book right now.

I don’t get it?  What’s the problem? I say.

Here’s what happened…

Well, the day after their call, my friend who’d agreed to work with the guy sent him her agency agreement.  An agency agreement is a basic document that writers sign so that the agent they work with will not be fired just after they do a ton of work.  It protects the agent and assures the writer of what the terms of the relationship will be.  Basic stuff.

The day passes and the guy does not sign the document. The next day, he sends an email telling my friend that he’s been premature opening up the idea to an “agent” and that he’s going to weigh his options and perhaps get back to her in the future.

My friend looked at me and I looked at her and we both laughed… It was textbook GMS, Groucho Marx Syndrome.

After he’d been accepted to the Friar’s Club in Beverly Hills, legendary comedian Groucho Marx sent them the following telegram.


It’s an unfortunate part of life that we all harbor such deep inner doubt that anyone who responds to our work we must somehow find suspect.  That’s just a fact of life.  Sharing that lizard brain thought though, or worse acting on it, is just the telltale mark of an amateur.

My agent friend was playing this potential client perfectly (even though she was sincere in her reluctance to take him on) when he got the message that she wasn’t interested in his work.  That disinterest motivated the man to such a degree that he banged out an entire proposal overnight to prove her wrong.

When my friend actually responded positively to his work, that’s when the Groucho Marx Syndrome reared its ugly head.

The potential client was probably over the moon happy that a big deal agent who represented his colleague’s bestselling books would want to work with him.  But then after having the reality of the situation sit with him…he lost his confidence.

And like Steve wrote about on Wednesday “Love in the Time of Resistance,” the potential client probably went around and asked his “friends” and loved ones their take on what had happened.

They all probably said, “Geez, is this woman such a great agent?  I’ve never heard of her. Have you done your research?  What if WME would take you on?  I have a friend who could introduce you to someone over there…etc. etc.”

I started ranting and raving about what an idiot the guy was and then my friend laughed it off.

“Look, if he’s that easily spooked by someone who thinks he has potential, I don’t want to work with him.  He saved me a ton of irritation by being so self-sabotaging.  Good luck to him, I hope he gets into that club he’s so desperately searching, but he ain’t gonna be working with me.”

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  1. Mary Doyle on April 3, 2015 at 4:28 am

    Great story Shawn – it made my day! I’ve heard that Groucho Marx anecdote before, but never in the writing/publishing context. What an apt fit it is – an important lesson to remember. Thanks!

  2. Yosi Ben Hanan on April 3, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Dear Steve,
    I wonder if you are somewhere close to Israel.
    Great story!
    Very typical.
    Happy Pessach.

  3. Debbie A. McClure on April 3, 2015 at 7:11 am

    I loved this! It’s just another example of the classic, “get out of your own way”. The entire writing gig plays havoc with a writer’s confidence, and sometimes people just second-guess waaay too much. Thanks for the post, Steve. It’s one I’ll remember.

  4. Leanne Regalla on April 3, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Great story, Shawn! I work with creatives – unfortunately it’s so common.

    I love what you said, though, about everyone having those sabotaging thoughts but that sharing them or worse, acting on them – is the mark of an amateur.

    Key distinction. 😉

  5. Georgia on April 3, 2015 at 7:48 am

    Give me her name. I’m not afraid of a chance like that.

  6. Dave Thompson on April 3, 2015 at 7:52 am

    Well Shawn, thank you for reminding me of the Groucho story… and for making me think about the level of confidence required to put your stuff out there.

    Perhaps it isn’t just confidence, but a certain degree of bravado… boldness, that just doesn’t give a f*(# what others think, so long as your stuff gets eyeballs and a chance of becoming something more than you expected.

    I’m thinking about this right now. I find myself in a place where I have to get my stuff out there so I can make a living. It’s a long story, made shorter perhaps, and I have yet to tell it in netspace. Maybe it’s time to fire up the weblog as well, and get some of my stuff out there through that medium.

    So many thoughts… so little time… 😉

    Thanks again for sharing this interchange!

  7. Erika Viktor on April 3, 2015 at 8:28 am

    I once dated a guy who told me he didn’t respect me. When I asked why he said “Because you like me.” We never could get off the ground after that. Poor fella.

  8. Mia Sherwood Landau on April 3, 2015 at 8:47 am

    I second what Erika Viktor said above, remembering the disgust I felt as a teenager when a guy I dated a few times said sheepishly, “You’re too good for me.” It made me sick. Great post, Shawn, and a perfect reminder to tread lightly at all times on that path between arrogance and humility.

  9. Maureen Anderson on April 3, 2015 at 9:03 am

    This reminds me of another gem from Groucho Marx: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

    Have you ever been upgraded to a special floor in a hotel, where you had to swipe your room key in the elevator before the button for that floor would light up?

    We learned years ago at a conference it doesn’t make you too popular with the other riders. If someone didn’t beat us to the…punch…my husband and I both did the same thing — we downplayed it. “I really don’t think there’s anything special about the rooms,” one of us would say. On this particular trip upstairs Darrell teased the person who was teasing us, something about why you’d want to belong to a club that would have you for a member.

    Which our daughter hadn’t heard, judging by the “What the…?” look she gave Darrell.

    “You know who Groucho Marx is, don’t you?” he asked.

    “Yeah,” she said. “He’s the guy who said he didn’t want to read on the inside of a dog.”

  10. A Foreigner (from Elea) on April 3, 2015 at 9:06 am

    Valuable post. Thanks.

    But if you are even less established than this guy with Groucho Marx Syndrome (who already has magazine and book successes), and you do get handed a contract that obligates you financially or otherwise, how do you avoid the Syndrome, and instead know when to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’?

    In other words, how to you gauge if an editor’s / collaborator’s offer (with protections for them) is one you should go for, despite the risk, the extra work, and the expected changes to your creative vision?

    What signs do you look for, especially if it is your first stuff, and you are ignorant of this whole process?

    To be clear, I’m not sympathizing with this particular guy. I take the point that his case involves obvious self-sabotage.

  11. Tom Asacker on April 3, 2015 at 9:59 am

    We obviously don’t know if the guy sabotaged himself until we see how his story plays out.

  12. Dick Yaeger on April 3, 2015 at 11:19 am

    Great story, but I’ll propose a different scenario/analysis. The genesis of the problem is the guy didn’t trust/value his friend’s (your friend’s client) advice that she was a great agent. If he had, he would have phoned instead of an email (always easy to misinterpret), or better yet, hopped on a plane and bought her dinner.

  13. Sonja on April 3, 2015 at 1:02 pm

    Wow! You had me on the edge of my hotel room seat…(traveling for Easter). I too thought this would end with the guy’s stuff not being very good, and him being out of his depth, but what a twist!

    Your friend, the super agent, is obviously a pro. Despite how much she loved the idea, she was okay turning it down, waiting for the next professional in line.

    I loved this. Thank you!

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