What exactly is a bad agent? What is a good one? A group of authors spent weeks considering this question. Here’s their answer.
(Part 1 of a 2-Part Series)
Recent reports of unprofessional behavior in the agenting community have been all over author social media. One thing that I (Sabaa) kept seeing over and over was this idea that no agent is better than a bad agent.
But what is a bad agent? What is a good one? How is an un-agented writer who is new to the industry supposed to know the answer to those questions? A few authors reached out to me, and I reached out to some others. As ever with Anonymous Author, these authors represent varied races, religions, genders and socio-economic backgrounds, and write different genres and for age groups. Some are NYT bestsellers, some are not, some have been with one agent their whole career, others with multiple. I’ve compiled their advice into the article below.
It is by no mean exhaustive — but we hope it’s a good start for writers out there who are seeking a bit of guidance.
Great, great thanks to the many writers who helped with this.
- 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.
There have been many necessary conversations lately among writers about the author-agent relationship. But conversations sparked by one incident in publishing often overfocus on issues specific to a particular author, publisher, or agent instead of addressing bigger problems within the industry.
Most of us begin our publishing careers as newbies. We want to share our book with the world and we’ll need an agent to help us sell it to publishers. Things like contracts, marketing, publicity and what to expect are unknowns. Often, the way an author-agent relationship should work is also a mystery.
This article is not about what an agent does — for agenting 101 you can google and find countless articles. This piece is from writers who have spent years in the industry diving deep into what we wish we knew when we started out.
What is a Bad Agent?
A bad agent is one who:
- Does not communicate or encourage open dialogue.
- Does not offer advice or try to help you understand the publishing industry.
- Does not discuss your career or future with you.
- Does not listen to your opinion on your books, career, deadlines, etc.
- Tries to lock you into a predatory contract.
- Has conflicts of interest that affect your career.
- Does not advocate for your career.
- Does not return calls or emails in a timely manner.
The power dynamic of the author-agent relationship usually starts off lopsided. Remember: The author hires the agent to do a job, not the other way around.
When we send off our manuscript to prospective agents we are eager to see if we’ll get offered representation. Because this is how the dynamic is set up initially: we query and hope and await an answer and as we do so, it can seem like the agent is the one hiring us. But, in fact, we are hiring them. We are asking them to sell our book for us. They are paid for this. (Usually 15% of whatever you earn.)
We ask them to sell the book for us because ostensibly, they have the connections. They can give us feedback editorially (not all do this), they choose which editors to send the book to when it goes on submission, they negotiate for the best advance, push for the proper marketing and publicity. An agent is our advocate. They work for us to get us the best deals and to help us get our books out in the world.
But because the relationship starts off with the agent doing the offering, it can get misconstrued as one where we feel we should not complain or question too much. This is a comment we see over and over with author friends.
But don’t lose sight: Agents work on behalf of authors.
Before you sign an agency agreement, review the agreement carefully.
Because so many authors are thrilled to be offered representation, we often quickly sign whatever agreement comes our way. But an agency agreement is a contract and you will be stuck with it for better or worse. When worse comes along (as it does for some authors) what you unknowingly signed away could haunt you. Many authors we know (including one of the people contributing to this) did not read their contract. When it came time to part ways, the contract’s predatory terms caused a LOT of issues.
While lawyers may be able to help you fight a predatory or problematic contract (for thousands of dollars, most times), it would be far better to address issues at the outset.
There is inherent privilege in the knowledge that one should hire an attorney to look over your contract. We are aware of that — and not all of us knew we should have done that. Which is exactly why we’re sharing that suggestion. While it is complicated and expensive to get an attorney to read your contract, it is money well spent. If you really like a particular agent but don’t like the terms, you can ask them to revise the terms. And you can walk away. If you’re wondering what type of lawyer you’d need, an entertainment lawyer who is familiar with publishing is best. You’ll likely have to do some research to find one. Calling your state’s bar association for recommendations is a good place to start.
While it might feel daunting to walk away from a bad contract (What if I never get another offer!) it’s dangerous to be tangled up in a predatory one.
This is a business relationship.
The author-agent relationship is an intimate one. Often they know your ideas before most anyone else does. They give you advice about your career. There’s a sense of gratitude; they took on your book at a time when you had no track record; they believed in you and gave you your start. Over time, authors develop trust and even friendship with their agents.
Gratitude and friendship are wonderful. But both can become insidious. They can engender a sense of loyalty that undermines the primary reason for the relationship in the first place: business. From one of our contributors:
Publishing is a business. I’ll say it over and over again. Your agent is your rep in that business. When they are no longer doing their job, and you have to fire them, there are often emotions involved on both sides. But it’s essential to remember that for an author, the business relationship often has to take precedence.
You can remain grateful for what an agent has done for you (and often, they’ll keep collecting money from the books they repped for you, ) and still realize it’s time to move on. You can also end a business relationship and maintain a friendship. But if you can’t, that’s OK too. It probably wasn’t a true friendship to begin with.
The author agent relationship is a business relationship first and foremost. If we feel we are not being heard or valued, or simply don’t feel like we’re on the same wavelength, we can leave. Many authors stay far too long because they don’t think they can leave without a good reason–you being uneasy, uncomfortable or simply not happy anymore is a good enough reason.
Hopefully you’re able to part amicably and with open communication. But sometimes, things can get ugly, and you can be manipulated back into staying with your agent out of guilt or fear. If that’s the case, it can be helpful to keep everything in writing— you do not have to get on the phone if it makes you uncomfortable!
Communication and feedback is part of the job.
The number one issue we found that most authors complained about with agents is the lack of communication and feedback. Agents are our advocates. But because of the lopsided power dynamic that begins the relationship, we often don’t ask for what we need because we don’t want to nag or bother or annoy.
Have clear expectations outlined. Ask your agent questions about this at the outset and let them know your preferences to ensure it’s a good fit. If you’re several years into your agent-author relationship, you should still have this conversation. Some questions that matter:
**What kind of turnaround time can I expect from an email sent to you? What about a phone call?
**If I send you a manuscript for your feedback, when will you get it back to me?
**When we go on submission to editors, will you give me feedback after every response or summarize them?
For every question you ask, be sure to also outline your desires and needs. If your agent says it takes five months to get back to you on a manuscript, and that is too much time for you, let them know. Tell them what you’re hoping for. Maybe there’s a point of compromise. But remember: as long as you are upholding your part of the business relationship, you deserve to have your calls returned, your emails responded to and your manuscripts read.
If your agent is not following timeframes that work for you in these areas, you can follow up, but you can also leave.
Talk to people
This is a very opaque industry. We don’t know what’s normal in an agent-author relationship. We don’t always know what kind of advances we should get for our books or what kind of marketing and publicity plans are possible. We don’t know what is normal as far as feedback from agents.
This is where community within the publishing industry is critical. It feels very vulnerable to put yourself out there and to share your concerns with author friends, but it is important. There are authors who have thought they were in happy and productive relationships with their agents for years who only realized that things were not okay once they began comparing notes. You don’t know what you don’t know until you know.
Reaching out to friends is a start. If you don’t have publishing friends, start with your publishing acquaintances, or people you trust in the industry even if you don’t know them well. You can simply ask for advice, which allows you to maintain some privacy while also getting a little insight. Fellow authors have helped some of the writers of this piece and guided them through situations even though they were not friends — simply out of good will. It can require vulnerability and being open about what you’re dealing with, but it is worth it if it helps you understand what is and isn’t OK.
Thank you so much for reading, and we hope you found this article helpful. Part II, which will be posted in the next week, will be about gaslighting, agent recommendations and red flags.