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What Authors Need to do to Stop Bad Agents

As conversations about bad agents** have increased, so has the call for industry-wide changes to protect authors from these agents–agents who aren’t necessarily operating illegally, but also aren’t operating ethically. While I can’t argue that there needs to be more in place to protect authors, I can argue about who is best suited for the job.

I would love to see organizations like AAR work to take a stance against unethical agent behavior, but the truth is AAR is an organization for agents and not for authors so it might not be the best place for us to look. Instead, where we need to be looking for protections is to the authors themselves. The authors are the ones on the front lines of relationships with agents. They are the ones with the experiences and stories to share. Typically agents and editors know nothing. Especially agents. Obviously I interact with the agents at BookEnds on a daily basis and have set a system of values for us all to work under, but I can’t tell you much about the day-to-day operations of other agents or agencies and, in fact, don’t typically talk to other agents outside of the very occasional call for advice or meeting at a conference.

If authors aren’t reporting agent behavior to other authors the behavior will continue. As long as these agents are getting queries and signing clients there is really no reason for them to work in any other way. It’s up to authors to put the heat on. To report bad and unethical behavior to places like Query Tracker (assuming the agent/agency won’t insist it be removed), Absolute Write, and writers organizations. I know for a fact RWA has a protocol to investigate agents proven to be behaving unethically and report their findings to the membership. And yet, it’s been years since I’ve seen any real reports (unless as an associate member I’m not privy to that knowledge).

Recently I heard rumors of another agency behaving badly. Out of curiosity, I did some sleuthing and I found a whole lot of nothing. While authors were complaining to their publisher and each other, no one was sharing the information with the greater author community. No one was building the very protections so many are asking for. Nothing was on Absolute Write, nothing was on Query Tracker and to the best of my knowledge, nothing was on RWA. Even this agency’s website was sorely out of date (a clear red flag something was wrong) and yet, no one was reporting that to other authors.

Now I realize there are private author groups that I’m not invited to (and there should be), but sadly there are a lot of newer writers who aren’t invited to these groups either. Writers who probably need the most protection because they don’t yet have the knowledge of the industry to read the red flags themselves.

I know there is sometimes a fear that speaking out will get you in trouble, but in trouble by who? Sharing your experience of having felt unsafe in an author/agent relationship is a reasonable story to share and no other agent, should they happen across that, will judge you badly for a situation you had no control of.

I am sad when I hear stories of agents behaving badly, and I wish nothing more than to help protect and empower writers, but to really do so it takes the full publishing community and a strong voice from all.

 

 

**more on my definition of bad agents can be found in a previous blog post on what a bad agent is.

 

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22 comments

  1. I’ve seen unflattering comments about various agents repeatedly deleted off QT, so it’s not a question of not sharing. I don’t know why they were taken down and for what reason, but I’ve seen it happen.

  2. Have enjoyed your comments and videos, yet here, I think you fail to realize how hard writers work to be agent ed, and how precious that connection feels once made. Many of us don’t know what to expect, and must rely on instinct when hunting for and maybe, finally, if we’re lucky, finding representation. I’m shocked more agents don’t talk among themselves, and have professional organizations, or, as u say, “hear things” about colleagues. Please be careful not to blame the victims here. Most of us are grateful for a personal response to our manuscripts; most of us don’t even receive that anymore. A yes to represent feels like heaven.

  3. This kind of conversation does happen among authors, but unfortunately it doesn’t help those who aren’t authors yet. Unpublished writers are aware they’re in a very competitive field, and so the temptation to sign with any agent who offers is high.

    Some writers will even say, in effect, “Any agent that will have me is the right agent for me.”

    Most of these writers aren’t going to be party to private author discussions and so they won’t hear about bad agents.

    But for authors, the risk of going public and naming names is too high. Agents may be naturally reluctant to take on an author they see as potential trouble. And there’s always the possibility that one may unknowingly be querying one’s former agent’s BFF. It’s a small industry.

    The only solution I can see is a public but anonymous review site; the problem is that that would have abuse potential.

    Although I suppose a system of verifying that the reviewer really was represented by the agent would help.

    Still, I don’t know if many authors would want to take the risk. It’s not like we have any job security.

  4. Oh dear. My comment disappeared.
    TL;DR: We can’t afford to have these conversations in public, because we have no job security, but unpublished writers need the conversations to happen in public. Catch-22.

  5. As someone who recently left her agent, this strikes home. Over our 18-month relationship, we had a terrible run of communication in which any direct questions regarding submissions in emails were left unanswered, or emails and texts themselves ignored as a whole. Communication was so bad that I actually thought I was on sub TWICE before it actually happened. And once it happened
    there was a total lack of transparency in submissions. It took me weeks to see an accurate (or what I thought was accurate) sub list. I never saw a single editor response despite asking for them repeatedly. And when I finally saw my pitch letter after it had been sent out to dozens of editors, it contained an inaccurate description of one of my pb stories. The agent also apparently sent out submissions that are not marked on the spreadsheet that I received, which is… frustrating.

    This experience has left me diacouraged and heartbroken. I am not a confrontational person, but I ended up firing my agent. Close writer friends and other clients (some of whom have also fired this agent) know who this agent is, and the agency in general apparently has a sketchy reputation among industry-insiders (although you won’t see that anywhere online). Personally, I don’t want to speak poorly about the agent in public because as a *person*, I like the agent. As an agent? Not so much. Additionally, I don’t want other agents considering my work in future queries to think I am high maintenance or vindictive if things don’t go my way. It’s a total catch-22, because I also wish someone had given me this information before I signed on. Now I have several PBs out there with who knows how many editors and very little chance of them getting sold. I can’t even be sure that all the subs listed on my spreadsheet even happened, and I can’t ask the editors themselves if they received anything on my behalf without looking sketchy.

    So, here I am, starting back at square one with querying. At least I’m wiser about the industry now, so there’s that. But I think it’s asking a lot for writers to blast out negative info on agents, especially with their name attached to it. To an agent, it might not seem like such a big deal. But speaking from experience, it is a terrifying notion.

    Btw, if you have any suggestions on how I can verify that editors actually received the supposed submissions sent out on my behalf, I’d be all ears to hear them.

  6. What Sage said. It’s a small industry and I’d hate to be caught out (no matter how factual) in commenting negatively on an agent. Snapshots can be taken from comments and the whole picture lost. No agent would want to take on a “trouble maker” and I imagine an unpublished author’s reputation would be easily lost and impossible to gain back.

    It’s why resources such as Writer Beware are so valuable!

  7. I commented on the Twitter post but will also say here–talking has consequences. Trident Media are blocking any authors who retweet negative author stories or speak out against Mark Gottlieb. That means the price for speaking out against one agent is not being able to query the other 10 in that agency, even if they’re all good agents who you trusted.

    I have friends who are still waiting for payment from editors; friends whose books were sunk or tanked by small presses; I’ve seen agents crush the spirit of many authors, intentionally or unintentionally (ie through carelessness, not maliciousness). I’ve had stories published which were published without notifying me, and edited or changed without my permission.

    We say nothing. If I complain about my dealings with a ‘zine, it’s a guarantee they won’t pick me up again. Same deal for authors struggling to get the payment they deserve. Go public, and you potentially go down in flames. Have a bad experience with one agent, and the whole agency is closed to you, even if it is 100% not your fault.

    TLDR: We do not feel we can speak out, except to somewhere like Writer Beware, in private, and even then details are sometimes traceable.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I also commented on your Twitter post.

      Being blocked on Twitter has absolutely NOTHING to do with being able to query any of the agents at Trident. What it means is Trident doesn’t want people to find your negative comment or see it. But that won’t stop any of the agents there from offering representation if the book is good enough. I think authors would be surprised to learn how individual an agent’s decisions are from even the other agents within their own agency.

      I think waiting for payment is a problem. That’s a clear breach of contract and something that should be reported to organizations or otherwise. As for a bad experience with one agent and the whole agency is closed to you. I’m not sure that’s really the truth. It certainly wouldn’t be at BookEnds. And I guess my question to you is, have you asked?

      I understand what you’re saying. I hear your fears and hesitations. I get it. I hope these fears of being blacklisted and shut out are something I can help dispel and change for writers.

  8. In light of the recent stuff with Mark Gottlieb, though, authors ARE “putting the heat on.” We’re getting blocked on Twitter not only by him but BY TRIDENT and we have small followings, so our voices make no difference to anyone anyway. We’ve done everything you’ve suggested here and look: nothing’s happened.

    I have a friend whose career was ruined by him, and she’s just trying to scrape together what’s left and get started again. It’s not on her to protect other authors from him. Where would she even begin? She has no platform, no credibility. To suggest that this is now her responsibility is kind of absurd.

    As for your assertion that “typically agents and editors know nothing,” this is not true in a lot of cases (I heard an agent say on a podcast that she’s well aware of which agents in the industry should be avoided—it’s also widely reported that editors don’t even read submissions from Gottlieb anymore, punishing not him but his authors). And even if it is true for you, couldn’t you still be a safe space for writers to come to you with their stories? Because you do have a platform. You do have credibility. And when I started querying years ago, it was places like this I went to for information, not authors with <200 followers on Twitter.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment.

      Authors are speaking out and it’s fantastic, but there are other agents out there who still have pretty quiet comment sections on places like Absolute Write or Query Tracker. I wouldn’t say “nothing has happened” these voices are raising awareness with authors. It doesn’t mean the agent will be shut down, at least not right away, but by speaking out and protecting even 1 author you have made a difference. As for your friend, I am so terribly sorry about that, but I wouldn’t say her career was ruined. That’s a tough thing for an agent to do. I would say she hit a roadblock and will write her next book and get a new agent. There are a lot of authors with great agents who need to move on to the next book. It feels devastating and I feel for your friend, but I would encourage her by saying her career is definitely NOT ruined. Not even close.

      I am a safe place for people to come with their stories, but I need the authors to come with their stories so others can know.

      1. As an aside, it’s my understanding that Mark runs the Trident twitter account, so when you’re getting blocked by them, it’s really still Mark. Or so I’ve been told. I’ve been blocked by them too.

        And this isn’t specific to your point, but one thing that I’ve seen coming up repeatedly is the idea of being blacklisted or getting the reputation as a troublemaker. Frankly, other than the agents at BookEnds, a few long-time friends, and at conferences, most of us agents don’t do a whole lot of talking with one another. Even if I had a terrible experience with an author, unless they actually threatened me or started stalking me, I wouldn’t call up any agent friends to warn them about that person.

        I do understand the fear of speaking out, but please rest assured there is no agent blacklist, and you’d really have to do a helluva lot to get yourself a reputation as being difficult.

      2. Thanks for your response. I’m definitely not an argumentative type, but this whole conversation (not your blog post, but the one that has been continuing for the past couple of weeks) has me pretty…invested? I’m not a newbie anymore—I’m an agented author, but I remember being new to the community. I didn’t know about “author Twitter” or Absolute Write or Query Tracker. I researched the best I could, but…I wasn’t in touch with other authors. Even if I had been, I wouldn’t have considered them an authority. I think it’s telling, too, that all of the people commenting here and on Twitter feel the same way. We’re all authors who are afraid to speak up, and we have seen that nothing happens when we do speak up. In a perfect world, all victims of any kind would be able to tell their stories and it would result in change. This isn’t that world, and so we need someone to speak on our behalf. There is a power imbalance in play here. It’s true that there’s no ‘author blacklist’ but when you’re just starting out, you have no power. Agents and editors do. Don’t you think it’s messed up that editors receiving Mark’s submissions just ignored them? Or that he’s still invited to do interviews and speak at conferences? Or that other AGENTS are afraid to speak out about him but encourage authors to? Our voices can’t fix any of this. Our voices are simply not considered “important” enough.

        (And, a granular point: perhaps I shouldn’t have said my friend’s career was ruined—just one book. I know it’s true that for some authors this could be considered a roadblock—though that even feels too flippant a word for it. But for others this is the thing that ends them. We don’t all have it in us to say, “Okay, I’ll just consider those years a wash, write some new stuff and get on with it. Hopefully this doesn’t happen again and I don’t lose more years of hard work.” Not to mention, a lot of us can’t AFFORD (financially) to keep chasing this after a few years. If you read through a lot of the comments about Danielle Smith and Mark Gottlieb, you’ll find quite a few others who have quit writing completely after dealing with bad agents.)

        1. Thank you, anonymous! A book can take ten years to write! Most agents just don’t seem to understand this. You can tell by their flippant “Write this book!” Tweets on mswl. No I’m not spending years writing a book for FREE that has zero guarantee of not only a sale but rep. This whole “oh sorry this agent casually blew your chance for this book but just get out there and crank out another “ is absurd. (Phone responsible for all typos! Sorry!)

        2. I do agree that there’s a problem in the publishing community as a whole that there are no reporting agencies or otherwise for authors to go to. I understand your frustrations and appreciate the discussion. I have actually spoken to AAR in the past about establishing a place for not just authors, but younger agents, to go when they feel like they are being treated unfairly. Unfortunately, that’s a task that isn’t easy to take on. Few organizations can handle the workload that would be required for investigations into bad agent behavior.

          I’m afraid I don’t have any perfect solutions. Right now the best I feel I can offer is to try to empower authors to do know their rights when choosing an agent and working with an agent. I will continue to do so and while I know some of these agents still operate, I also know that thanks to the work of places like Author Beware, many no longer do.

  9. I’ve been in this business for a very long time, had four different agents for four different projects, and have experienced varying levels of unprofessional behavior. I’d recently thought about earning writers about one particular agent who did something extremely dicey. After the Danielle Smith revelations, it seemed more imperative that writers ban together to warn each other of bad apples. However the dicey thing he did was so specific that if he ever ran across it he’d know the poster was me. Cut to recently when I went to a book event. Who did I run into? This agent. He had contacts everywhere and I’m currently on submission. Right there I was relieved I hadn’t posted anything anywhere. It’s a demoralizing situation but newbie writers just don’t have enough power to make change. We need the Stephen Kings and JK Rowling’s of the world to speak up just as it took several high profile celebrities to bring down Weinstein and kick start MeToo.

  10. I had a bad agent and it wasn’t Mark or Danielle. When I went to query again, half the responses I received from agents wanted to know the whole story of what happened with my last agent. And they didn’t ask in friendly, understanding terms, either.

    This is what writers are afraid of, and with good reason. I don’t think you’re hearing us when we say we can’t talk without consequences.

    1. I can’t speak to your experience and maybe those agents you spoke to had different motivations, but when I ask writers about their past agents (which I typically only do in the context of offering representation myself), what I really want to know is what are the author’s expectations in an agent and can I meet them? It helps to know what went wrong with the last agent. I’m never looking for the author to bash the previous agent, but to tell me if communication was a problem between them, or if they didn’t share the same vision for the author’s career, or whatever. If I have that information, I can better gauge whether I’d be a good fit for the author. Though, usually when I ask about past agents, I try to explain why I’m asking and I certainly hope it doesn’t come across in an accusatory or antagonistic way. In these calls, I’ve never been told that the agents are “bad” or unethical or anything like that, just that they weren’t good fits with the authors for whatever reason. And that might be because authors don’t feel comfortable sharing, but I really do think the truly BAD agents are few and far between.

      But on this overall issue, I don’t know what the solution is. The fact is, the majority of us agents don’t know about what other agents are doing. We have a better idea about publishers and editors. Editors are aware of some things, but they don’t see the full picture either. They know which agents they don’t like to deal with, but they won’t know which agents are misrepresenting offers to their clients or if there are accounting problems on the agency side. I understand the fear to speak up, but, unfortunately, the authors hurt by these agents are typically the only ones truly in the know. I wish I had a solution that would save authors from these bad agents before it’s too late, but I really have nothing beyond encouraging you to utilize those resources available–even if you do it anonymously–like AbsoluteWrite, Writer Beware, QueryTracker, AAR, RWA, etc.

  11. As a former TMG “client” i can say to those who have quit, those who have given their beloved manuscripts up for dead, take heart, and keep an open mind.

    And to agents who are receiving queries from casualties of Mark’s practices: Please keep an open mind.

    I was part of MG’s spaghetti slinging.

    I had the good fortune of finding a new agent who is abreast of this situation. This agent backtracked through my previous “submission” list and found that the majority of the editors never opened, or have no recollection of receiving my MS. Many of them, when approached by my new rep, were receptive.

    Yes, I had to go back to the beginning. But it turns out that someone spamming out emails doesn’t necc bring you to the next stage anyway. Keep your chins up. There are good agents out there, as evidenced by this blog.

  12. I almost cried when I read the comments on this post, so glad I’m not on my own!! I was approached by an agent after I self published my first book. I was ecstatic, and had no grasp of the relationship. I didn’t understand “no agent is better than the wrong agent” – and what’s actually happened is I’ve been “gaslit” – (term suggested to me by another agent). I’ve terminated the contract but it’s hell. I can’t go into specifics as it’s ongoing.

    There is nowhere to complain to, we don’t have a voice, there’s a serious power imbalance and we are too often manipulated and exploited. There is no way to speak out on social media as the ramifications would be huge. There is nowhere to go with this to warn other authors.

    As a result I don’t feel I have a way forward with my writing career in this genre because he is so appallingly duplicitous verbally. Who is going to pick up a MS by an author that an agent has bad-mouthed?!

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