Pub Rants

The Flipside of the Group Hug

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STATUS: Feeling upbeat. How can I not with Mary J on the stereo? I’m working on contracts, which is always labor intensive and detail-oriented. An editor also called to make an offer for one of my projects.

What song is playing on the ipod right now? FAMILY AFFAIR by Mary J. Blige

I’ve spent the last two days talking about the huge hug fest I’ve got going on with all my agent pals. You have to know there is a flipside—the nasty agents who don’t operate with impeccable integrity or a strong ethical code.

Agents are still a microcosm of the society at large, which means there are always a couple of bad apples in the bunch (and I’m not talking about scammers or faux agents. I’m talking about real agents who walk some very fine lines in their relationships with other agents).

It’s called agent poaching or in other words, agents who deliberately steal clients from other agents.

We agents all know who they are but I wonder if the general writing world at large has any idea.

Just to be clear, I’m not talking about authors who have become unhappy with their current representation and decide to make a change. That certainly happens often enough. The author independently has made the decision for the change.

No, I’m talking about the agents (and they all have solid reputations and good sales records) who deliberately target the clients that other agents have built to a high enough level to be poached. Then this poacher sidles up and promises the world. Promises such as “I can get you significantly more money than so-so has done for you” and “I can build you to the next level and so-so can’t” and “I can get you on the NYT list or USA Today.”

Sounds awfully good to the author. So what’s the problem?

Poachers can’t always deliver. Then they do one of two things: 1) drop the client faster than a bad hot potato when reality doesn’t match expectation (because the author’s career hadn’t built to that needed level yet and now they’ve just shot themselves in the foot) or worse yet, 2) start ignoring the client and the author ends up low on the totem pole with the new poacher agent whereas two months ago they were getting tons of attention and now, when expectations haven’t been met, are suddenly getting none.

If the Poacher does manage to fulfill the promises, then good. I guess both parties got what they needed. The stories you don’t hear are all the authors who left the poacher agent after getting burned.

I’m a big believer in world karma and what goes around comes around.

Publishing is a small world. If you’re an author listening to a poacher siren song, make sure you’re really not getting what you need from your current agent. Talk to him or her before making the leap.

Be sure to talk to the current clients at the poacher agency but also be willing to dig a little and talk to the former clients. You might be surprised at how revealing that can be.

But most of all, you need to be willing to pay the price if you are lured to another agency and it goes sour. There’s no going back to your former agent (who’s now looking like the world’s greatest agent)—although many have tried.

14 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    Though I’ve not experienced this from agents, I have been on the receiving end of poaching from publishers. My first book, released in ’05, got some great reviews — including a starred review from PW — and my small publisher put quite alot of money into a huge marketing push. Several larger houses acted like sharks in freshly chummed waters. I got notes and emails, gifts, and eventually offers to jump ship. Most of these did the end run around my agent, which royally ticked her off. It was all to no avail. I stayed with my small publisher; now, my first book is headed into paperback, my second book is scheduled for a fall release, and I have one more book to write in my current contract with them.

    My belief is if the offers were sincere, the sharks can wait and bid on the fourth book in ’07 or ’08.

  2. Dana Y. T. Lin said:

    What’s worse are those who believe the poachers and leave their wonderfully perfect agent for something they think is better. It’s a lot like cheating on someone – and yes, what goes around comes right back at you smack square in the face.

  3. pennyoz said:

    There’s a bit of “if it ain’t broke, why fix it?” here.

    I’ve heard enough scary agent stories to know that if I think mine is the ant’s pants, then I’d be humungously stupid to risk being poached.

    I wonder what I would do if a poach agent sidled up to me and said:

    “I’ve got a six figure three book deal and an interest in screen right deal ready for you if you sign up with me. How about it?”

    I love my agent but when I next look in the mirror, I look like a poker machine. Dollar signs where my eyeballs used to be.

    I don’t really like the new poach agent. We aren’t anything more than politely polite to each other, but we seem to have hit it in the hip pocket.

    What do I do?

    Gosh I’m tempted…

    I’m forgetting how much faith and effort my cherished agent put into me and my m/s’s. How he/she patiently edged or egged me on scolding and pushing me like a mother duck and her chicks into the water…

    And did that patiently with the next book that really got noticed and was what has attracted the sharks to start nibbling with interest…

    What would I do? Gosh it’s so tempting. What to do? What to do?

    Temporarily I have forgotten that my next book and the next one will be with somebody I really don’t have a relationship with; and I don’t know or remember just how much that Mother Duck had facilitated my growth as a writer and an identity…

    There’s something niggling inside me. Commonsense. Darn, it’s getting in the way. It always does in my case. It’s quite a nuisance really because I am so sorely tempted by this six figure supposed deal and film rights deal.

    So stupid stupid stupid commonsense wins of course as it mostly does.

    I pick up the phone and call my agent.

    I am shocked when my agent laughs. This is serious!

    “Oh I know who that is! That publisher is currently under negotiation from the BIG THUNDER EAT ALL PUBLISHING HOUSES INC. The word on the street is that they are closing all lists in your genre and going into non fiction!”

    And you nearly jumped.


    “If it ain’t broke. Don’t fix it.”

  4. Penny Dawn said:

    As a writer of often-times erotic romance, I have to draw a parallel, here. A good agent is like a good man. You don’t want to leave one who works for you just because another *might* be good with his mouth.

    You’re right, Kristin. What goes around, comes around. Good Karma.

  5. doc-t said:

    this sounds a bit like… well, every other field.

    Whether you’re a consultant, Medical Doctor, attorney, mechanic, or factory worker, you work for a living. You’re paid to produce a product and that product may take the form of manual labor, a healed patient, or a won case.

    it is normal, and appropriate for workers to want to be paid what they are worth and then some.

    In todays market, engineers, nurses, and consultants have to change employers every 2 to 5 years to increase their payrate in accordance with the experience and talent. it’s sad but true. They are hired in at a position, and tend to be viewed that way regardless of the time they are with the company.

    Now, sometimes the move people make going from one employer to another is good, and sometimes it is bad. One must use a little common sense, make the best decision they can, and then pray to God they’ve made the right decision. Most of the time you CANNOT go back… That’s life. But sometimes staying where you are will suck the life out of you…

  6. Bruno said:

    Hhhmmm. Sounds a bit like you’re speaking from experience, Ms. Nelson. And, yes, I agree wholeheartedly that for an author to jump ship like that is karmic suicide. I think, however, that this would be more symptomatic of established authors than newer ones. If an agent takes a new author under his/her wing and gives them a chance to enter into the published ranks I would suspect that such authors would be more inclined to show loyalty (at least the intelligent ones). Whereas, a veteran author at the top of their game may feel like they’re sufficiently well known enough to get away with such behaviour. I think it would be prudent for agents and authors to remember the following.

    “If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you; that is the principal difference between a dog and a man.”

    –Mark Twain

    Now, if you’ll all excuse me, I need to go and chase a few squirrels. It’s the first warm day we’ve had in Ottawa in months.


  7. David Baker said:

    Avoid temptation. If you’ve got a good agent, treat her with deference, respect and great care. I was naughty and now I’m agentless. Crying on my stacks of out-of-print novels buys me no solace. I’m forced to teach at a writing program, which is the moral equivalent of the DC lobbying industry, but let’s avoid politics. Be good to her, friends, be good to her.

  8. Nephele Tempest said:

    The fact is that, as tempting as a poaching agent’s offer might be — big money for a book deal — they have absolutely no way to make that sort of promise. It’s not the agent coughing up the money for an advance, it’s a publisher, and publishers really don’t say to themselves, “oh, I’m holding out on this author because they don’t have a big enough agent.” As Kristin said, publishing is a very small world. Poacher agent isn’t going to have an in with some mysterious huge publisher that your current agent is unaware of. The only solid reason to shop for a new agent is that your current one isn’t doing their job.

  9. Vivienne King said:

    call me naive and ignorant, but I’d honestly hoped that agents would treat one another with respect and leave taken authors alone. sad.

    I love my agent. And like someone else mentioned, she’s my first. I’m so proud and happy to have gotten her I’m not going anywhere. I lucked out and I know it. But this is definitely food for thought. Thanks Kristin.

  10. kathie said:

    I agree Karma is in effect always. I just wish I was such a hot comod. that I would be approached by a poacher–only to let her know, I’m very, very happy, etc., etc., etc. I came across a list of recent acquisitions and I know you said you were in a selling frenzy, but I no idea how many books you’ve been placing. Great work. You’re Karma must be way up to par!

  11. Nonny said:

    Wow. I’d never heard of agents like that. *shakes head*

    Personally, if I were to sign on with an agent, the professional relationship is very important to me. If I’ve got an agent I like and work well with, who is doing good things for my career, then why the hell should I pull the plug?

    Frankly, my long-term career is more important to me than promises of six figure advances in the present. It’s not always a good thing for a new writer to get a six figure advance. The publisher’s just put a lot more at stake, and if your book doesn’t sell well enough, you’re screwed.

    Money’s great, but I’d rather have a solid, stable career and get less for advances than jump off a cliff.

    And well, it strikes me that these poacher agents are like scumball bullshit artist men — full of ego stroking and promises, saying all the right things, but the moment it comes to the test, they leave you in the lurch.

    No thanks. I’ll pass.

  12. Sandra Richards said:

    I guess there are jerks in every industry. It just goes to show you that people are people no matter what they do.

    I view any business relationship where creativity is involved like a marriage. I may look at someone else, admire who they are and what they look like, but that doesn’t mean I consider leaving my marriage or cheating for one nano-second. In fact, the one time someone made subtle overtures to try to start something extra-marital with me, I stopped talking to her.

    I don’t have an agent currently, but I’m fairly certain I’d react the same way if one of these poachers approached me.