What exactly is a bad agent? How does gaslighting work, and what type of agent behavior is abnormal? Part 2 of a 2-part series.
Welcome back to Anonymous Author. In Part 1 of this series, we talked about what it is to be a bad agent , and made some suggestions about what to remember as you either seek out an agent, or seek to re-evaluate your relationship with your current agent.
This article will expand on those topics. We’ll take a look at gaslighting — both by agents and by ourselves, agent recommendations from others, conflicts of interest, and what is “normal” and “not normal” when it comes to agents.
As ever with Anonymous Author, the contributing authors represent varied backgrounds and write in different genres and for age groups. I’ve compiled their advice into the article below.
- This article is NOT for agents. It is for writers and authors!
- Professional etiquette from author to agent is a whole different article. There are absolutely examples of authors behaving badly and overwhelming their agents with calls or emails, making unrealistic demands, being unkind or abusive. It is essential to remember that agents are people, too! They have feelings and while you should have a professional relationship with them, that doesn’t mean you can walk all over them.
Be aware of when you are getting gaslit
Because at the start of our careers, agents know way more about the industry than we do, we trust that what they say is the unequivocal truth. If they tell us a certain advance is all we can get, we believe them. If they tell us we can’t fight this particular clause in the contract, we roll with it. They’re the agent. They know.
Sometimes, they do know! And sometimes — not so much. Over time, you’ll learn more and more about publishing. You’ll start to develop an instinct for things. How a cover should look; how an edit should be handled; how a marketing plan should go. It’s ok to share these things with your agent. And if they don’t agree, but your instinct is strong, it’s ok to listen to your instinct. Don’t gaslight yourself and quiet your own doubts because “the agent knows better.”
In addition to not gaslighting yourself, do not let your agent gaslight you. For example, there have been times that authors will read an email word for word and approach their agent to address it, and the agent will tell the author they are misunderstanding things. Sometimes you might be misunderstanding things, but that is not for your agent to be the final arbiter on. Ask trusted friends for their thoughts — ask people in the industry with greater experience.
From one of our authors:
A reasonable concern an author may have: “How do I know I’m being gaslit?” That’s a natural question because the point of gaslighting is to make you doubt yourself. One suggestion is to keep a log of the moments when things seem “off”, however small they might seem, and even if you ended up blaming yourself. Over time this can help you see if a pattern is emerging.
Gaslighting authors into believing their perspective is incorrect is not uncommon and keeps many authors in agent relationships far longer than they want to be.
Regarding agent recommendations
A very natural thing to do when you’re looking for an agent is to ask your friends about their agents or to check the social media of agents in the industry to see if they’ll be a good fit.
Recommendations are fantastic, but be mindful that oftentimes authors, particularly those on their first agent experience, may not know that they are in a subpar relationship. Some of the writers of this piece frequently recommended friends to their agents because they did not know that the treatment they were receiving was not okay. They thought it was how the industry worked. Along this line — if something feels awry, don’t be afraid to talk to other authors represented by your agent. You might see a pattern. If you do this, be thoughtful about who you trust.
Do NOT choose an agent because you like their tweets. Do NOT choose an agent solely because a friend of yours works with them and loves them. Do your own digging and due diligence. Ask your own questions and trust your gut.
A few red flags from authors in the industry and what they wished they’d known:
- It is not normal for an agent to go weeks without replying to your email. You are not nagging or pestering if you follow up and if you’re made to feel that way, or if this remains a pattern despite nudges, this is a warning sign.
- It’s not normal for months and months to go by without your agent reading a manuscript you submitted for feedback. Ask for a time frame for when you’ll hear back. Sometimes things come up and an agent can’t read in the timeframe they promised, that’s life. But be wary if it becomes a pattern.
- It is not normal if your agent refuses to update you on submissions that are out to editors and to provide you feedback. Some agents offer feedback as the editor responses come, others in a summary. Some give a lot of detail, others keep it minimal. Either way, this is information that can be helpful to you and your agent should provide at least the basics if you ask.
- It’s not normal if you want your agent to read your books, but they don’t. Note: some agents don’t read their clients’ books by mutual consent. But generally, in order to promote your work and advocate for you, they need to read your books. This also comes into play if your agent is negotiating film rights for your book. To effectively sell film rights, your agent (or a film agent) needs to be able to pitch your book with authenticity and passion. That usually requires reading the book.
- It is not normal for an agent to belittle you and say “you aren’t [insert famous author]” as they explain why you can’t ask for something from your publisher. Respect is a baseline.
- It is not normal for an agent to be confused or opaque about the financial side of publishing. An agent should be willing to talk to you about it, and explain it to you. From one of our authors:
My agent explained early on that while an author might make $.50-$2 from every book (depending on format, size of book, age group, price, etc.), a publishing house can make anywhere between $2 and $8 a book (again, depending on the above). Which means the publisher can start profiting off me, the writer, long before I earned out my advance. This knowledge allowed me to have a clearer understanding of what a fair advance was, based on how many books I’d sold in the past.
But other authors had been told that unless they earned out their advance, they weren’t an asset to their publishing house — and continued to sell books for far less than they were worth.
- It is not normal for an agent to not understand how the business in general works. If you are having to explain things to your agent such as how marketing works, the NYT list works, etc. this is a big red flag. Sometimes we can outgrow our agents. They may have been exactly who we needed when we began our careers, but if you reach a point where you are guiding and educating them on the industry, this is an issue.
- It is not normal if your agent is making excuses for publishers. If your agent is defending a publisher dropping the ball on marketing plans they committed to or other breaches, and then acting powerless to hold them to account, this is a huge red flag. It indicates that the agent values their relationship with the publisher over their relationship with you.
- It is not normal for the author to have to point out specific terms of your contract to make sure they are honored. (Bonuses, etc.) You *should* know and understand your contracts! But at the same time, this is a key part of the agent’s job: to ensure that their clients are getting paid. You wouldn’t believe how much this happens; when authors are forced to put the agent hat on in addition to writing books. Your agent takes a commission for doing the job of an agent. You should not have to do their job!
- It is not normal to chase your agents for royalty statements months after they were due to you as per schedules outlined by the publisher. Sure sometimes payments are late. If that happens, you should inform your agent and they should get on it right away.
- Agents should also review your publishing contracts with you and not simply give them to you for your signature even if they’ve been “vetted” by others. From one of our authors:
I spent 2 hours on the phone with my agency’s lawyers talking over my first contract. My agent encouraged this, because it was important to them that I walk into the deal educated and with eyes wide open. A good agent wants you to be armed with knowledge. A bad agent wants to keep you dumb and dependent on them.
- You should never feel uncomfortable in your agent/author relationship. Disagreements certainly happen. You might have a difference of opinion and that is normal. It is also normal to be able to talk about that difference of opinion like adults. Your agent should not make you feel stupid, low, or bothersome. Nor should they ever expect any other compensation than the industry standard 15% commission on books that they should earn from your contracts. If they make you feel like you owe them something more, that’s a huge red flag.
- If you part ways with your agent, it is not normal for them to withhold their sub lists or claim it’s company policy not to share where they are subbing *your* books. The lopsided dynamic that we begin these relationships with affect many authors for far too long.
Conflicts of interest are not okay.
If you feel your agent has a conflict of interest, you should be able to share/explain that to your agent without them gaslighting you. An example of a situation where conflicts of interest may arise are if you have an agent who is also an author or editor. In and of itself, this is fine! There are lots of wonderful agents who also write or edit books.
But before you sign with any agents who may have other feet in the publishing industry be it as a writer, editor, marketer, publicist etc. make sure you ask them how they prioritize their client’s work and how they avoid conflicts of interest.
- Does your agent’s agent sub their work to the same editor/imprint your agent is subbing yours to and at the same time? If so, that’s a conflict. They’re directly placing their work in competition with yours.
- Does your agent have the same editor as you and therefore seems reluctant to intercede on your behalf when conflicts arise with the editor for fear of ruffling their editor’s feathers? If so, that’s a conflict.
- Does your agent appear to be leveraging their authors against each other so that one gets a higher advance? If so, that’s a conflict.
Again — there are agents who are also writers who are perfectly fine discussing all of this because guess what — they are good agents! Just make sure they’re willing to have the conversation.
Client Lists and Reputation
Do NOT assume that an agent is above board and wonderful because of the agency they work at or the client list they have. Some of the agents the authors of this piece have dealt with are agents you likely know. Simply having a great client list or being at a good agency doesn’t guarantee that they will be an exemplary agent.
Bear in mind that different authors can get different treatment by agents and agencies — just because a “top client” has only positive things to say about an agent doesn’t mean others on their list would necessarily agree. Even the authors of this piece who have great relationships with their current agents would agree with that. Ask multiple people about an agent, and trust your gut.
Thank you again so much for reading this Anonymous Author column. We hope it was helpful. Educate yourself and trust your instincts when it comes to agents. If something doesn’t feel right — listen to that voice. Doing so will help you protect your career and yourself!