Pub Rants

Joe Schmoo Agent

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STATUS: I feel great by getting a jump on the day by blogging early. Later it could be crazy. Hard to say. I’ve got lots on the To-do list but that’s always true.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES by Sinead O’Connor

I think Rachel Vater is one smart agent so I want to point people to her recent blog about ineffective agents. In fact, I’m even going to point to an article I read recently by writer Victoria Strauss as well. Excellent information and should be required reading for any new writer wanting to enter the industry.

There are such things as well-intentioned but ineffective agents (because any Joe Schmoo can hang out a shingle without ever having worked in the industry). These aren’t scammers, mind you, just folks who actually want to agent and have good intentions but not the background or the contacts to really make it work.

And can you imagine having an agent who has never negotiated the deal points or a publishing contract, has few or no editor contacts, has no idea how to run an auction, has no connections for foreign rights or Hollywood?

I mean, why bother with paying a 15% commission? You might as well do your own submission and contract for all the good this “agent” is going to do you.

And unfortunately, a lot of these “agents” do the conference circuit but not much else (like selling books). Although lately, I haven’t been seeing some of the ‘old regulars’ so maybe a lot of conference organizers have wised up.

So how do you know who these people are because I’m not going to list them here?

Easy. A look at their websites can pretty much tell you. And don’t fool yourselves, the websites are professionally done but where is the track record of sales? Most of these “agents” have been in business for years (by their own admission) but have only a few sales that can be found on their website or even by Googling. If an agent has been in business for 3 or 4 years or more, you should be able to find lots of book sales if they are an effective agent/agency.

Here’s another factor. Now that you’ve looked at the number of sales, who are the sales to? Are they just to small publishers (and let me highlight that there is nothing inherently wrong with selling to small publishers so don’t leap to any conclusions) but the number should not be disproportionately high in comparison to sales to major publishers. It should be balanced.

Why do I point this out? As agents, we make money off commission and the truth is that the main money comes from the larger publishers who can afford to pay decent advances. And yes, there can be some good money at smaller publishers. I’m not knocking them.

And you can tell who is a good agent by analyzing the website and how they highlight their books. Good agents want to sell more books so they spotlight them on their web page. Pretty simple.

Ineffective agents seem to bury the information. They might have only 4 or 5 covers on the website (all small publisher sales but not always) and other sales seem hard to find. They might list their “authors” and the author titles but there is no publisher info included so are these clients published or unpublished?

The website shouldn’t keep writers guessing.

Let me highlight some of the agent websites I just love so you can see what I’m talking about.

I actually don’t personally know Laura Dail but I love her agency website and always have. You can even click on a button that says “in stores now.” These are books that Laura or other agents at her agency have sold to publishers. She even has a nice news page with recent sales.

There’s no disguising what she and her agency has been up to. Speaking of, I need to snag that new Sarah Mlynowski novel…

My friend Laura Rennert works at the Andrea Brown Literary Agency and big thumbs up to their newly redesigned site. I like it! Once again, look at the home page. They even have a button that reads ‘Clients and Sales.’ You click on it and voila, lots of great sales going down (and why didn’t I see the manuscript for THIRTEEN REASONS WHY? Sounds awesome!)

And here’s even a website for a fairly new agent, Kate Epstein (whom I know). She was a nonfiction editor at Adams Media before going out on her own in 2005.

Click on her “news” button. Look at all these great sales in such a short time to such houses a Berkley, Wiley & Sons, her own stomping grounds Adams Media, and Kensington.

So in two years, she has more sales than some, ahem, “agents” who have been in business for years.

So that’s how you know if an agent is a “good agent” versus an “ineffective agent.”

The sales track record doesn’t lie.

Correction: Commenter is indeed correct. Victoria Strauss is a writer (and one of the lovely watch dogs of Writer Beware) and not an agent. My apologies for the mix-up.

24 Responses

  1. noagentbetterthannonagent said:

    So true. A gal announced on a large loop that she was opening an agency. I googled and googled – saw a law suit and a shuttered internet gift shop, nothing publishing related about her. Went to her site – bios that read like high school year book blurbs “We love to read!” Now many months later, the site still shows no sales and the authors who list them as their agents on their own sites do not seem to have sold their books. They talk about “finding a home” for their books or have e-books. Thanks to you and Miss Snark and the others for helping everyone learn how to choose an agent. Sometimes it makes no Cents……

  2. Anonymous said:

    I wonder if this post was brought on by the PPWC you said you just attended?

    Any thoughts?

  3. Judy Schneider said:

    Thanks for the informative post! I loved Sarah Mlynowski’s site. And I agree that THIRTEEN REASONS WHY sounds intriguing. I’m just sorry I have to wait until October to read it!

  4. Linda said:

    When we were at the tail end of submitting three years ago, we ran across a new agent’s site. He’d been in business only a couple a months and didn’t have a publishing background. He represented maybe a dozen writers and had their first chapters posted in Word files on the site. We read through a few of the chapters, were seriously not impressed–and truthfully, I thought he had posted them hoping to snag a publisher searching the Internet for the next best seller (not!).

    Recently, I ran across the site again. He no longer posts the first chapters of his authors, but he still has a list of them. And only about three sales, all to small press publishers. In three years.

    I’m very glad we decided not to submit to him.

  5. Anonymous said:

    (psssst! Victoria Strauss isn’t an agent. She’s a SF author who, along with AC Crispin, do us a service by exposing scammers. Just fYI-ing . . .)

  6. Ryan Field said:

    This is a good post because, like you said, anyone can hang a shingle and claim to be an agent. It’s frustrating, but that’s how it is. Interior desgin is a lot like this and you have to watch out for those who aren’t ASID. In some states you can actually hang a shingle and claim to be a therapist.

    But usually the imposters don’t last too long, even the ones with the best of intentions.

  7. Disco Mermaids said:

    You’re going to save a lot of authors a lot of headache and heartbreak with this post.

    When you’re unpublished, it’s so easy to jump in with any ol’ agent because you never know when a more reputable agent will come along. But sometimes, any ol’ agent is worse than no agent at all.

    – Jay

    P.S. Thanks for plugging Thirteen Reasons Why.

  8. Anonymous said:

    I was a little naive when I queried a brand-new agency last year. I’d heard about other “hungry” new agents who sold projects straightaway and thought maybe these people might turn out to be the next Kristin or Nadia Cornier.

    I talked to the agency when they made me an offer. Alarm bells rang when I asked about sales. They said they had nonfic sales but declined to discuss what sold and to which publisher as it was “confidential”. I haven’t seen any deal reports on these supposed sales.

    The final kicker was their agency agreement (the terms of which were actually fine). They’d inserted my address alongside another client’s name. I pointed it out and they apologized profusely. Still, I could only imagine what else might be overlooked on a publishing contract if they managed to wangle one for me.

    I think this agency did start off with the best of intentions. But their intention, networking skills and enthusiasm wasn’t enough to make up for lack of real publishing/agenting experience.

  9. Anonymous said:

    A very important post, Kristin.

    I know a few writers who recently signed with new agents. These agents, unfortunately, aren’t former editors from Random House or HarperCollins. One is a published author. The others are lawyers who “love books.” Like other new agents I’ve heard about, they’re actively building their lists, making contacts, and attending conferences.

    I feel bad for these writers because I know they were querying for a long time. But I wouldn’t want my book to be some agent’s learning experience.

    As for Anonymous at 8:15: I applaud you for listening to your instincts. I think you’ve saved yourself some heartache down the road.

  10. olmue said:

    Recently I looked at an agency’s web site where under “clients” they listed publishers they had “worked with.” No listings of authors or book titles. I think I’d add that to the list of things to beware of.

  11. WitLiz Today said:

    When I was a baby, not so very long ago actually, I remember how happy I was when I started to crawl. Things went down fairly quickly from that point, because I had a habit of snitching old lady purses, as I investigated the interesting trash that glittered like gold underneath various tables at Churches or restaurants.

    Unfortunately, for our local police constabulary, I then discovered the art of walking. Being very very small for my age, and quite the track star, I was able to get in and out from under the tables with my loot much more quickly.

    Eventually, my life of crime came to an end, but I must say I learned some very valuable lessons.

    Anyway, so finally I grew up, got a job, and quickly got fired. Why? Well, because I listened to my fellow co-workers bitch about the new management that had taken over. Oh yes, we dumped lots of coal over the new management’s way of doing things. So I listened, and started bitching too. I got fired. It’s a shock getting fired from your first job. After all, what the hell did management know?

    We’ve all been fired. We’ve all been the subject of horror stories. In fact, I’d go so far as to say, my mistakes are quite legendary. It wasn’t until I learned not to pour gasoline on a raging fire, that my mistakes dwindled to the point where they are basically mouth driven and not pen.

    It’s one thing to call the agent scammers to a public accounting, it’s quite another to call out other legit agents who are struggling to maintain a decent standard living, doing a job they love, just because they make mistakes trying to do it.

    It so happens Ms Nelson, that you described the website of an agent that is very highly thought of in this business. Is she perfect? No. But that’s a given.

    It’s distressing to me,when I read blogs like this. Very. If a writer bitches to a new agent about this and that, that should be a big red flag and not in the writer’s favor.I would never ever give reasons for switching. NEVER. Unless the agent asked. Then my response would be, I fucked up. Why? Because it was a fifty fifty partnership. It didn’t work. I fucked up.

    So let this be a lesson to you all you Agents, don’t listen to sorehead loser writers like me.

  12. Anonymous said:

    I just looked up the website of a well-known agent, one who participates in many SCBWI events and is on BEA panels, etc.

    Nowhere on her website does she mention sales.

    I checked agentquery and finally found a few sales. Yet this agent has been around for at least 10 years, maybe more.

    If BLOGs like this (and others) are going to insist that a legit agent mentions sales, this agent may be in trouble. May be trouble?

    How to tell?
    -librarian/ writer

  13. knowstoomuch said:

    It is very frustrating when you have learned how one of these wanna be agents opperate, and you know what they are doing and you can’t tell anyone any names. The are e presses and small agents who only do the work for you, and charge you far more than they are worth.

  14. Leena said:

    How about untested junior agents in big-name agencies? Is the agency’s reputation a guarantee of sorts, I wonder?

  15. Stephanie Feagan said:

    My agent has no website, and pretty much finds new clients by word of mouth or from queries, although she does attend a few conferences. She’s been in publishing for years upon years – was the driving force behind the start-up of Silhouette Books, back when it was under Simon & Schuster. She was with Writers House for some time, then went out on her own.

    My point? You can’t discount an agent because she doesn’t have a website, or you don’t see her name associated with lots of sales. Some are there, under the radar so to speak. If you’re interested in an agent, check out Writer Beware, or Preditors and Editors. Ask around – someone, somewhere on some writing list, will know something, and if you ask, will email you privately with their experiences. Most people don’t want to be ‘public’ with that kind of information, but they’re happy to share privately, to keep unknowing writers from falling into a bad agent relationship.

  16. kimadoresagenteric said:

    Stephanie, I agree with you. My agent does not have website. His agency has been successful for many, many years. When I signed with him a few looking out for me did some homework and said “Oh, yeah, good agency, good agent.” although his cyber presence is not huge. I had already done my homework and had the extra security of having met him at Backspace – and I trusted that Karen would only bring in quality agents. I get nervous when I do see a site but it appears to be fluff. And not the marshmallow kind! (Yum.)

  17. Stephanie Feagan said:

    It occurs to me I may have sounded as though I was arguing with Kristin’s post – definitely not! I mostly wanted to point out to anyone searching for an agent, lack of a website isn’t the kiss of death – doesn’t necessarily mean that agent isn’t reputable. Some agents just aren’t into the Internet, mine included.

  18. Angelle Trieste said:


    I think I know who your agent is from your description. She’s a superb one.

    I think that the Internet helps you research…weed out who’s new / clueless and who’s not. I read dedications, ask around, etc. Normally you find good ones even if they don’t have websites…but only if you know what kinds of credentials you’re looking for. 🙂

  19. Peter Allison said:

    Great post – something else to factor in when choosing an agent is not just their agenting experience but any other time they have spent in the publishing industry. I was blessed to be picked up by Kate Epstein and her experience as an editor was invaluable as a first time author (and due to her good work a second book is on the way).

  20. Kidlitjunkie said:

    Reading the slush pile, when I hit on a query letter from a so-called “agent,” I always have to fight the urge to track down the author’s contact info and send them a letter telling them to drop their loser agent like a hot potato.

    An agent who submits to slush is worse than no agent at all. If you submit to slush, you have a 1 in 50billion chance of catching my interest. If your agent submits to the slush, as soon as I see that it’s a loser agent, it goes in the trash.

    I once did some freelance work for a literary agent. The MSs weren’t very good, but I did the best I could to give them constructive critique. Afterwards, she said to me, “I’ve never submitted a children’s book before – do you have any tips for me?”

    It threw up every red flag that I had. Even though she was a paying customer, I never did any more work for her. It just felt wrong.