Whenever a new story breaks about an established literary agent behaving badly, I cringe. Although I’m not personally responsible, it’s another black-mark moment for this profession that I love. So what responsibility do agents have to protect writers, and what can writers new to the publishing world do to protect themselves?
The answer is surprisingly simple: be armed with knowledge. Agents with integrity should provide information in a public sphere whenever possible, and many do via Twitter, blogs, and newsletters. Writers should gather all they can but also know that things change. Be kind to yourself, as it might not be possible to have “known better” if an agent partnership does not go as planned.
As an agent who has spent the last fifteen years putting information out there for writers (since I started Pub Rants in 2006), I hope to arm you with info about agent types you might want to avoid. By the way, I highly recommend that writers looking for an agent have a subscription to Publishers Marketplace, where you can do your research. A lot of heartache might be avoided with a little time spent there.
This type of agent is easy to define. This scammer pretends to be an agent, charges fees for everything a normal agent just does as part of the job (i.e., reading fees, submission fees, marketing fees, etc.). The red-flag word here is “fees.” When writers spot that, it’s an instant tell that the agent isn’t legit. In 2013, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware and I were expert witnesses for a lawsuit to take down a scammer masquerading as a literary agent. This person fleeced unsuspecting writers out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (It’s lucrative, which is why there are so many schmagents out there.) It’s a bit like whack-a-mole, but we put this one out of biz. By the way, Victoria is a tireless advocate for writers, and she doesn’t get enough props for everything she has done and is currently doing. Send her a note, or better yet, buy one of her books. It’s thankless, time-consuming work, and she is an amazing human being. In the internet age, this type of agent might be easy to spot, but scammers still snare unsuspecting writers all the time. If this describes your experience, don’t spend time berating yourself. Scammers are pros at what they do.
This type of agent might mean well, but they pursue this profession for the “celebrity” of the job. This might not make them a bad agent per se, but it also means they probably aren’t a great agent either. How do you spot one? Well, this can be tough. The Hobbyist might have a great presence on social media, but if you dig in to the research (thank you, Pub Marketplace), the Hobbyist will not have a strong track record of sales or will only do deals with small presses or for digital rights only. And so I’m clear, there is absolutely nothing wrong with doing deals with small and digital publishers. I’ve done many in my career, but they should be balanced with regular/bigger deals to Big Five publishers and the well-established indie publishers.
Some agents might have integrity but are simply too green (and don’t have access to mentorship) to be able to advocate for a client.
Back in 2008, there was an agent who racked up many six-figure deals under her own shingle. She came on the scene quickly, and after two years, exited quickly and without warning. She looked hot on paper with all those deals, but her clients were signing boilerplate publishing contracts with no negotiated changes. This agent had no prior experience at another agency, and it was a nightmare for those clients later in their careers.
For the Greenie, the key is to look at the agency itself. How long has that agency been in business? What is the agency’s track record as a whole? This will help you determine whether this newer agent is in a place where they will receive guidance from a more seasoned agent.
This is the agent that all the research in the world can’t predict. This agent might have a terrific beginning to a career, and then that career publicly derails. You will never be able to spot this one coming. Writers, go into an agent partnership expecting the best. But if the worst happens, try and let go of any self-blame. You did the best you could with the information available when forming the partnership.
Also keep in mind that some agents are acting with integrity but might simply be a bad fit for certain authors. Communication styles or personalities don’t mesh. My client Courtney Milan tackled this convo recently on Twitter, so give it a look in case you find it helpful.
As an agent, I’ve put many an article out there trying to assist writers in arming themselves with knowledge. I did a whole series of articles on what makes a good agent well as an article on 5 Questions Authors Don’t Ask but Should when considering an offer of representation.
One final comment. As an agent, I wish for no more black marks on my beloved profession, but I’m also practical. Another news article will probably be just around the corner.
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Nenad StojkovicTags: Writer Beware
Great post. I like the titles given to the various “types.”
Kristin, even though I’m a seasoned writer with an agent, I look forward to your emails SO much, because I always learn something new. I just passed this great post on to a couple of friends searching for agents, and I wanted to thank you for the wonderful service your agency and your newsletter provide. I hope every writer finds an agent as wonderful as you and the other agents on your team!
You are so welcome! We have to keep helping those new writers. I hate black marks on my beloved profession.
Thank you. I dearly hope this reaches the many who need it. I have seen, and even been, on the receiving end of agents who don’t or can’t live up to the expectations of this profession. I’ve seen, too, many a writer thrilled by the prospect of a “finding” an agent, and finding those hopes dashed, too. Just last year, I was asked for pages, but I looked and asked and found they were fronting a mill that wanted manuscripts to flog overseas. Again, Thanks!
Thanks for this post. Lots of great info here. I’ve had two agents and am on the hunt for my third AND FINAL agent!!! My second was a Greenie who is now kicking a** at her agency. It’s impossible to predict what will happen in the future. As with any relationship in life, you have to trust your gut.
Thanks for always being a great support to me and so many writers. You help us navigate this sometimes tricky world.
My pleasure Debbie. I was a “greenie” at one time. : ) I still marvel at the clients who took a chance early in my career–like Jana DeLeon,Sherry Thomas, and Ally Carter. Bless those ladies.
Thank you for another valuable post. I signed up to receive Pub Rants in 2010, when I started writing my series, and have appreciated every post and the tactful way you provide timely and useful info. to writers. Thank you for doing so!
This was an incredibly helpful post. Thank you
I don’t always comment, but I never miss reading your posts — I always learn something of value, and I so appreciate your respect for writers and all the professionals involved in creating good books.
This is so heartening to hear!
I thought I had an agent in Tucson, but she ended up conning me into reading manuscripts for her. She kept putting me off, and finally I gave up. Silly me for trying to be helpful. Wish I’d seen your post back then.
Don’t kick yourself. You learned a hard lesson. Now you are wiser. Pay it forward to other new authors who might fall into that same trap!
Love how you narrowed your advice into meaningful chunks.
I’m still amazed when I hear about people paying agents to look at their work.
I appreciated your sharing your insights into the lit agent world. Thanks for your support for first-time novelists.
Am very grateful to read your very informative article. Am a your author on the verge of pitching a Literary Agent. Your article is timely and absolutely appreciated. Thank you!