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Is a Good Agent Hard to Find?
It's not your fault
There’s been a lot of talk on twitter about good and bad agents, how to tell which are which, and what anyone can do about it. There’s been a lot of talk—from me included—about what we as agents can do to be more transparent to authors and what the larger publishing community can do to save authors from bad actors. I have 1,000 thoughts on this, many that are not necessarily helpful, but I want to address a few things here, since my goal with this whole damn newsletter is bringing to light the things writers don’t or can’t know about publishing until they’re in the thick of it.
First, two things.
There is only so much research you can do. Not all information is available to you. Not all that is available to you will apply to you. And you will almost certainly encounter issues in your career that were not covered in the initial conversations with your agent and/or in some tweets or online interviews.
That’s not your fault.
That this info is hard to find is not a vast conspiracy to keep writers in the dark and take advantage of them. (Really. I promise.) I agree that there could be hundreds more resources for aspiring writers, small like mine, and from larger entities like the Author’s Guild or the AALA. Those take time to create, money to maintain, and campaigns to spread awareness. There will never be a perfect roll out of this information AND ALSO there will never be a perfect source that will cover all or even most things that apply to YOUR BOOK. I can’t stress enough how every book, every career is different. What is important to you in sending out your option proposal is immaterial to someone you know, even in the same genre! I know I give a lot of one size fits all advice here, and I know that many authors need the basics (like, what even is an option proposal) but bottom line, there is only so much you can prepare for and only so much any single resource can prepare you for.
And if you find yourself in a situation where things are going south, it’s likely not your fault. In most cases, it is not that you chose wrong, that you annoyed your agent so much that they stopped working for you, that you somehow caused this. Honestly, cases of true malfeasance are on the whole rare, they really are. And no agent is going to say in your initial interview I plan to tank your career for fun in 18 months! There is only so much you can do.
This does not mean that agents bear zero responsibility in being honest about their styles or communication patterns or timelines or contacts or whatever, whether they’re talking to a client for the first or hundredth time. If you’re writing a adult mystery, I’m not going to say to you omg I know so many editors who buy these books! Because I DON’T! I would be a Bad Agent if I did! Agents should not lie, obviously.
I am loath to use workplace metaphors in regards to agenting because they’re kinda gross and also not quite right. I am not my client’s boss. But if we take the weirdness out of that metaphor (bear with me), as a querier, you can ask all the questions you can think of in an interview, and still end up at a job with a shitty manager or horrible coworkers or toxic office culture. And that same job could be fine for someone else! That shitty manager could be just what works for someone else! I don’t know! That’s what makes this so hard, and what makes it even harder for writers in precarious situations, from any of the ways our society, and publishing, are inequitable. I know the stakes are higher for some more than others, especially BIPOC writers. I know writers do not have the time to wait and see if their agent is a bad one for them. But unfortunately, I don’t know the fix right now. I don’t think there’s a way to prevent any bad thing from happening in the agent/author relationship (though also I’m sure we all understand nothing is foolproof). I think that transparency, accountability, and honesty goes a long way to not only bringing bad actors into the light, but showing what kinds of things are beyond the normal hey some things just don’t work out situations in the course of a writing career. There’s no handbook for being an author. I know a lot of authors feel left in the dark. There’s no one way to fix this, unfortunately.
Readers come to this newsletter for advice and information, so I’ll give that here, too. I will be the first to say that it will be inadequate. It will not work perfectly for all authors. It will not apply equally to all authors or all books in all genres. But I think it’s a place to start, and a place to moor yourself in the chaos. A way to feel a little in control of something that is impossible to fully control. (What can we fully control, ever?)
I think (some of) the important things to look for in an agent are:
Do they represent books in your genres and have they sold books to publishers who publish a lot in those genres?
You can find this out, in part, by looking at deals posted on Publisher’s Marketplace and PW, checking the acknowledgements in the back of your favorite books in the genre, and checking agent’s websites. There is no single resource that complies this information, sorry. This is not an exhaustive list.
If they are a new agent, they should be mentored by an experienced agent.
New agents are great! They are hungry, enthusiastic, and often have a lot of time to devote. But they shouldn’t work on their own. They should have the ear of someone with a lot of experience to guide them. Agenting is an apprenticeship. This is really important.
You should feel comfortable talking to this person.
You may be intimidated. You may be nervous. But you should feel like you can talk to an agent. They are not your boss. They are your business partner. You are an equal in the relationship and I hope it feels like that from the jump.
They should be glad you want to talk to their other clients.
They should not steer you away from this. They should put you in touch or encourage you to reach out. You don’t have to if you don’t want to, but they should not stand in your way.
These are the things I don’t really think matter much when considering a new agent: (you can ask these things—that’s fine!! But I don’t know how useful the answers are.)
Communication style. I mean if you hate talking the phone and the agent ONLY wants to talk on the phone, then that’s probably not the best fit, but every agent I know tailors this to what the client needs. Some clients I text. Some clients I only email. Some clients I have to call to get things moving. It varies and it should. If you have special needs, an agent should accommodate you.
An agent’s batting average, or the percentage of sold to unsold projects. This number changes day to day, and it’s not representative of an agent’s success. An agent can send out three books a year and get a million a piece. Or 100 books a year and sell 75. Which is a better batting average? It’s understandable authors would ask this, but it’s not an across the board useful metric.
How many clients do you have? Ok, this is medium important, because it’s good to know how big a pond you’re swimming in, but keep in mind that the total number of clients is not the same as the number of active clients. I have a lot of clients, but a lot of them are in the middle of multi-book deals, are writing or germinating, are focusing on other things for a bit. Every client takes a different amount of work. An agent can have 5 huge clients or 50 small ones and be the same amount of busy. The context of this question (i.e. what does YOUR book need and can the agent devote enough time to that) matters more than the number.
I sure there are other things, but this is a start. I don’t have a big fix for this, and I’m not sure who does. And I’m not sure who has the resources to create a big enough fix to do what a lot of people think should be done. What we—agents—can do is try to get out the best information we can to writers who need it, so they can make as informed a decision as they can. It will not be perfect. There is no perfect source of information. There is no source of information that will directly apply to hundreds of thousands of different situations. Things vary from book to book even for the same author! I think the majority of agents are effective and honest. I think there are bad actors that need to be brought to light. I don’t know if twitter is the best way to do that, but also, I don’t have an alternative solution. I hope we can keep talking about it and normalize conversations about this. It’s not the author’s fault. They can’t prevent the bad actions of someone else. Most agents are trying their best.
I hope these things never apply to you, that the road of your career is smooth and straight. And if it is not, I hope you have trusted resources to turn to for help.
Get a vaccine as soon as you can.