Are Agents Narrow-Minded?
- By: Jessica Faust | Date: Aug 17 2015
Is this something you believe to be true about agents?
I’m not sure literary agents are the right way to go, as their interests are bizarrely narrow, and seem to be looking continually for exact replicas of successful works from the past, rather than compelling untold stories.
Not in the least. Any agent who fits this description is a bad agent and probably won't be in the business long.
I get the nagging feeling that this comment is sour grapes.
I agree with Elissa. It isn't true as far as my experience goes.
I disagree. In fact, I suspect most agents (worth their salt) are seeking new, fresh and creative stories.
I'm sure it can seem that way, especially for those querying the wrong agents or misinformed/confused about an agent's role in publishing. But really, does it matter how bizarrely narrow an agent's interests are? There are loads of agents who only represent one or two very specific things, but are successful, because they know how to take care of their clients.
I suspect everyone's take on this will hinge on how they feel about agenting in general, because there are some fairly emotion-grasping words used (e.g., "bizarrely").
Take the emotion out, and yeah, while I'll argue that the comment is painting with way too broad of a brush, it is borne out by many agents' "submissions" policies that I've read. There are many agents who seem to have written their "what I'm looking for" purposely in obtuse language with very narrow interests.
And who can blame them? I've seen several posts on this very blog discussing — some might say complaining — about the volume of submissions agents get. The logical answer to that, then, is to crimp down on the pipeline coming in, right?
So then doesn't that logically lead to those standing on the outside looking through these overcrimped gateways suggesting that they're "bizarrely narrow"?
It's just the nature of the beast, I think — the ever-growing war between gatekeepers and content producers. I doubt it'll get any better anytime soon, though the even tone of this blog helps.
Aww, sounds like someone has received too many rejections. It's tough to land an agent and can be very discouraging. I remember those days. There were lots of jokes about papering bathroom walls with rejections.
I have had four agents and can say that not all agents are equal! But I don't think this claim was true for any of them.
Not at all in my experience, though I've only had one agent for the past 14 years. I have to agree with Elissa M's comment.
(Sorry, forgot to include one thing in my previous comment):
Regarding the assertion that agents aren't looking for the next great thing but are instead looking for repeated success — yeah, that's true. It's absolutely true, and it should be true. Agents don't run the book industry, editors do. Editors in general are looking to appease their shareholders by repeating triumphs from the past. Agents, meanwhile — at least, those who know what they're doing — know that to succeed in traditional publishing, they have to appeal to this.
So yeah, true, but it's only a bad thing to those who don't "get" what book publishing is like.
The Other Stephen King has a point about the pressure coming from editors. At least, the few editors I interacted with at a pitch conference I attended had to know exactly what other books each book was "like" and exactly what category it could be slotted into ("I only like cozy mysteries; can you put a knitting shop in it?"[actual quote]). All wanted me to tie up my open-ended literary mystery (NOT an oxymoron!) by using a gimmick like having the main character discover he was already dead (have we seen this before?). I couldn't get past the "but what are comparables?" question. My hope for an agent would be someone who could help me make something different appealing to understandably commercially minded editors like these.
Everyone's reading choice narrows as their reading time does. So yes I imagine an agents does as well, most will only want to represent the type of work they themselves enjoy reading.
Who wants to spend hours reading a book they don't fully enjoy, and could they honestly represent it their best if they did?
My first thought on reading the question was "excuse me?" but after going back a few times and thinking about it. I wouldn't submit to an agent who didn't have limitations. I want an agent who loves fantasy and can love the world my characters live in as much as I do.
Sounds like someone's "…rather compelling story." is having a hard time finding an agent. Maybe it isn't as compelling as the writer believes it to be.
Only if I'm throwing a particularly extravagant pity party. Trouble is, the more I get to know agents, the less believable statements like that become.
No. Agents are looking for something unique, original and marketable. Not the same old thing. This does sound like sour grapes.
Just by looking through client lists and reading clients' books you'd quickly come to realise that isn't the case at all. It's certainly not something I believe – in fact, I've often read posts by agents explaining the reason for rejection isn't always the work isn't good enough, it can be other reasons like already having similar work in the pipeline.
This writing gig can be really hard and I can imagine the frustration the writer of that statement must be feeling. But stick at it because one day your ms will land on the right agents desk at the right time. Good luck!
Mr. King, you took the words out of my mouth, edited and improved them, and left me useless. Still, I had to comment at least to say "hear hear" because: that. Every point.
Reading back through, I notice many commenters making the same mistake I did: glomping all agents into the same bucket. There are thousands of agents out there. Some of them, like our friends at Bookends, do fine work. Others, not so much. The quote at the top is absolutely correct in regards to some, and completely wrong about others.
Trust me, I now have nearly 150 agents in my "have queried" list. Some are still in the business. Each one has a unique, sometimes interesting, sometimes insightful, and too-often supercilious manner of setting his or her own submissions bar. Some have told me I need to use my real name; others told me the opposite. Some tell me the concept is good; some say it's not interesting. Some just tell me that my ability to write marketing material like a query letter isn't good enough. Most just silently move on, assuming I'll go away and not bother them again, and that's fine. I'm doing fine without, honestly. Someday I'll probably decide otherwise and turn my attention to trying to develop marketing writing skills (as opposed to the fiction writing skills I've been developing for years), but in the meanwhile, I wish all agents well in their efforts.
Like I said, though, answering anything using the word "agents" in general is doing a disservice for other agents who don't fit that description.
I guess I must be getting to know all the right agents… 😉
I think this is true of some agents, yes. I'm sure all agents want something new and exciting, but like everyone else they have to eat. So they will sign up nine sure sellers — even if they are stale retreads — for every one risky book they take on.
I can see why some might think that, and part of it surely stems from hopelessness. But it is a business and an agent is more likely to take on something that's a guaranteed win than something that's more of a risk, if given the choice. It could be that the people who believe this whole-heartedly have been rejected from agents due to other reasons but they don't realise (or want to accept) that fact and put it down to their story being too 'unique' instead.
As far as I'm concerned, a lot of books I read (mostly fantasy) all seem to be quite similar to one another, and that makes me wonder if my work could ever get anywhere. I'm quite confident that my own fantasy writing is different, but if I was to be rejected time and time again for a number of different works, I think I'd start believing the same thing.
But there are so many reasons people get rejections, as you have continuously informed us, and it could be that these people keep making the same silly mistakes, and agents don't tend to tell us what those mistakes are. I understand, of course, that they can't give us a list of problems if they have no intention of taking it on, it would take up so much of their time, but that can be a little frustrating.
At the end of the day, I believe that if you've put that much work into a book and it's rejected, you can always self-publish it if they were rejected with comments like 'very readable' and 'clearly talented' – if agents have already turned it down, what's the harm in trying it that way? Stories don't have to be forgotten because a handful of agents said 'no', and if your story is that good, and that unique, maybe that's the road to take if all others have failed. I'm daunted by it, but if my current book gets rejected, that's what I'll likely do with it.
A Blackbird's Epiphany
First of all, the hundred or so agents I've dealt with–both in person and online–are really, really nice people. There was one total jerk of a guy at a BackSpace Conference several years back, but he is the only unpleasant individual that comes to mind.
But here's the caveat–Writers always hear it's about the writing: oh, it's all about the writing, my goodness it's about the writing, and if one writes well, agents and publishers (well, agents anyway) will realize your worth. The truth as it comes to me–at least in the romance genre–is that it's not so much about the quality of the writing, as it is the writing style. And I suspect that may be true in other genres. Agents are not risk takers by nature. They weren't born to be Navy Seals or fighter pilots, and as much as they all say they want something fresh and different, most are perfectly content to offer the same books over and over to publishers. I don't blame them. It's job security, and I'm not criticizing their business plans. I'm just saying that what they say may not be what they do.
And FYI: I do have a long list of awards. Just say'in.
Thanks for the terrific comments everyone. You've given me a lot to think about and it probably warrants another post. As soon as I recover from vacation and the email load I'll follow-up on this post.
I'm confident that if you did a cross-section of twenty agents they would take a percentage of both. I think agents are looking for something they love and something they can sell. It doesn't matter if it's a replica of successful books or if it's a compelling untold story. If it won't sell then it's of no use to either the agent or the author.
But, I'm a realist. I wouldn't want an agent to take me on if there's no chance my story would sell. Too much heartache all round. This gig is already hard enough.
I think, the main feature of a good literary agent should be ability to find out a talent.
Miss snark is dead. She died when that fraud AC crispin died.
Miss Snark is and will always be part of the Bookends and other cyber bullies fraud.
I suppose I should have left a name. I don't know who the 'Miss Snark' Anonymous guy is, except that I know he's naturally a trendy literary fellow. Unfortunately, I'm not that trendy or literary.
My point, in the comment two paragraphs previous, was that literary agents in the romance genre tend to be from the RFD Planet (no, not Rural Free Delivery, but Roberts, Freethy and Day). That's my acronym for the genre style. There are others on the planet too numerous to name, but these three impart the general nature of the style. And unless one writes along the same lines–with variances at the edges–literary agents do not connect. It's simply not what they are used to reading, and thus the writer is apologetically informed (sorry about the adverb)that their submission is 'Just not the right fit for our agency'.
Again, I do not fault agents for staying within their comfort–and selling–zone. The great irony is that they all say they are looking for the overlooked blockbuster, the heretofore undiscovered talent, the J.K Rowland, if you will. The true is, few look outside the RFDs.
Anonymous #2. I can absolutely see how you feel that way. After attending RWA this year I started to feel much the same way about editors. That being said, we came back to the office after RWA and decided that we were going to acquire whatever it is we wanted to represent and we would just search for a home for it later.
The truth is that the RFD planet (as you put it) is fairly new in publishing. Just three years ago all anyone wanted was paranormal and for a while it was erotic. When I started representing erotic romance it was all anyone wanted and you couldn't sell a Freethy style book to save your soul. In fact, when I started selling pitching erotic it was an incredibly hard sell. Only two editors would look at it.
Times changes and opinions change. Agents, believe it or not, tend to be looking for a variety of things, but they also need to be reasonable about what they might be able to sell. If historical romances right now aren't selling then I'm going to be very, very particular about what I take on, especially since I already have three historical authors I'm trying to sell or keep in contract.
Is that a nice way of saying keep working hard, it really is worth all the effort? Because I really could do with hearing that this week.
hard work is always worth the effort. Each rejection, each seemingly step backward is always a step forward if you choose to make it that way. Let those rejections renew your determination. It's always worth it when it comes to achieving a dream.
*Bows to the pretty agents*
It's my own rejections that have pulled me down this week. Usually I'm a silver lining type of girl, but sitting back I've been to hard on myself.
This is my 1st MS there is going to be faults and I should expect to find major ones, but instead of the usual "oops you messed that up" Ive been a lot harder on myself.
You girls are amazing, you are encouraging and positive, I hope one day to have the chance to meet you. Like I said this week I need that encouragement. Next week I start again, but I'll be nicer to myself, it's much more productive.