Agents Doing You a Disservice

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Oct 31 2007

It would be great if writers had the power in deciding the agent/writer relationship. Some writers do. Most don’t. Agents will tell writers, “It only takes one yes.” But if that one yes is all a writer gets, options are limited. While Jessica is, commendably, afraid of doing a disservice to a writer she’s not 100% behind, which is worse to the writer’s mind: a disservice or no service at all? If options are running low, I’ll take the disservice any day.

And I agree with you . . . to a point. I suspect it is very rare that an author gets the benefit of having multiple agents vie for her attention, or more important, her contract. I think that most of the time the author gets one agent interested and that’s the one and only person who offers representation. That being said, it does not mean that a bad agent is better than no agent. An agent who does you a disservice could damage your career. Having no agent just means it’s going to take you longer to find someone willing and able to work with you successfully.

I think that many readers can easily share (anonymously of course) stories of when they thought exactly as you do (and I hope they do). Grabbing that agent was the most important thing, no matter who the agent was. In the end, though, I think many can tell you they would have been better served to wait a little longer for someone who could actually do the job right.


36 responses to “Agents Doing You a Disservice”

  1. Doesn’t this all come down to research? Investigating the agent who works with your genre and has a good track record? I was at an author talk last week with Jonathan Mayberry. He said he went through all the books at the store in his genre and read the dedications to find out who their agents were and thats who he queried.
    Now, what about the question of whether one needs a New York agent over one in another part of the country? Would a NYC agent have better connections? The only ones who I’ve heard say it doesn’t matter are those agents not in NYC. But I have to wonder???

  2. I’ve always believed finding an agent is a cross between finding a husband and finding a good pair of jeans. You need to find one who loves you, who feels lucky to have you, and at the same time they gotta fit “you” and make your butt look really good . . . to editors. You have to respect them, trust them, but never be intimated so much that you don’t state what you believe in or what you want concerning your career. (It also helps if they don’t leave the toilet lid up.) The funny thing is that I have friends who have divorced certain agents and have dubbed them bad agents, and then I know someone else who is with the same agent and thinks they are better than sliced bread.
    Hey, how many of us have divorced a spouse and someone else came along and married them? (Of course, we think they are idiots, but the truth is . . . maybe they just weren’t the right one for us.) And I think the agent/author relationship is just like a marriage. You have to be honest about what each of you want and expect from the other.

    Christie Craig

  3. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Good points, Christie.
    No one ever knows what happens inside any relationship except the persons involved, and that includes writer/agent.

  4. Avatar bran fan says:

    No, no, no to what the anonymous writer said. Yes, yes, yes to what Jessica said.

    I used to think that any agent, any at all would make me happy. I was wrong. I went through two agents who were poor fits before I found the right one.

    Funny, the whole time I was going through the bad agents, I was still writing, still learning, still working on my craft. By the time I was done with bad agents, I was on book #4. That one got mulitple agent offers right away, when my previous books had gotten only one after a long time.

    So, keep writing, keep querying. Your next book will be better and the next one even better. Sooner or later you will write a book that is so good it will practically sell itself and you won’t have agent agony issues.

  5. Avatar Kristina says:

    Research doesn’t tell you if your personality will mesh well with an agent. Some agents are more hands on than others. Just because an agent has a bunch of sales doesn’t mean that agent will be a good fit for you…and how do you know until you sign on the bottom line? I can see how some authors go through a few agents before they find one that suits them.

    Imagine deciding that a random person will be your best friend. Does that mean you will instantly get along and see things eye to eye? No. I would guess the same would be true with an agent/author relationship. It is two strangers coming together for a rather intimate thing…writing. And if that intimacy is awkward, well, another agent would probably better suit.

  6. I learned the hard way that the only thing worse than not having an agent was having an agent! A “bad” one that is.

    I got my agent at a screenwriting conference – he requested fulls from a lot of attendees, but only took on a handful of clients from that group – including me.


    Had to be one of the happiest days of my life – getting that phone call – it was a Saturday afternoon and I remember doing the “happy dance” in my kitchen! Of course, I was too naive and giddy to ask
    him any of the questions I should have (I know better now).

    He was new to agenting after having just left Hollywood to move to FL. As the son-in-law of a Hollywood legend, and a former film producer – he was the real deal, alright – not a fake or a scammer – but after I signed the contract, he made it seem like he was doing me a favor just by taking my calls, never kept me posted on any submissions, never sold the script.

    Out of frustration, I started sending out my script myself (!) and got a serious bite from Aaron Spelling’s film production company – they gave me a “slow pass” – Hollywood speak for “Almost but not quite good enough.”

    It took me years to agree that my script was less than perfect, and accept the fact that screenwriting is the toughest of all the writing gigs to crack – so I moved on to writing novels, and eventually severed my contract with my agent.

    It’s not that he was a “bad” agent, like many are, but just not
    in it with me for the long haul – since my script didn’t sell in the first submission – he lost interest in me and my MS pretty quick.

    Lessons learned, and an important rite of passage to have gotten through. I am all the wiser for having done so.

  7. Avatar ara says:

    Regarding legitimate agents, there aren’t many complaints from writers whose agents have done what the writer wanted — i.e., sold the book. Most complaints are from writers whose agents have not sold their books, or don’t communicate.
    (There’s a whole side issue about writers and agents who grow apart, have personality conflicts, or split for business reasons.)

    Perhaps the agent recognized raw talent, but the book didn’t sell. The writer gets frustrated because his hopes were raised, and the agent, who for other clients is terrific, is suddenly a bad agent. It’s much easier to blame the agent for not selling the book than blame the book.
    It takes growth, like the poster above commented, to see deficiencies in your own work.

  8. Avatar Kim Lionetti says:

    Jeez, Christie. It’s hard enough to find jeans that make MY butt look good!

    I’ll get right on it. All in a day’s work….

  9. Avatar Chessie says:

    The most frustrating thing for me is not to use up all my bridges. What happened to Angie is rare, but luck favors the well prepared.

    I don’t want to query all the editors I could, because if they all pass, there is no place for an agent to send it, but I don’t want to query all the agents I could because I do have two requests out with great publishers, and if one comes back with a contract offer, I want some of the agents on my A list to still be there for me to contact about it.

    It is the worst kind of catch 22, and at the same time, I’m happy for it, because I’m so very very close I can taste it. I have a book I can sell. Now it all feels like a big chess match.

    The question is, do I have the guts to “reject” a good agent if it is the only offer if I get a bad vibe about it? I hope I’d have the strength to break up later if it doesn’t work, but when you are a girl and prom is only a week away, and no one has asked you to the dance, well…

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    STRONGLY disagree with you, Ara. As a multi-published author, I can tell you selling is not the end-all in the agent/author relationship. There’s a whole other aspect that kicks in once you’ve made that sale. And how are “growing apart, having personality conflicts, or splitting for business reasons” a side issue? It all comes into play and, believe me, I’ve known more authors who split with their agents because they’re bad after the sale is made, not before.

  11. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I agree with Anon 9:43. A bad agent is someone who has the unique ability (even after they’ve sold your book) to treat you dismissively, talk down to you, and make you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing. Slowly they chip away at your confidence and make you second guess every damn word you put on paper.

    A good agent is someone who (before and after a sale) treats you with respect, and more importantly respects your WORK. To be able to communicate with you on a professional level during revisions or rejections is absolute gold because then you are learning more about writing as you go instead of just being tossed around in the winds of someone else’s bad personality.

  12. Avatar Erik says:

    I think that what this comes down to is that agents are asked to be the “Gatekeepers” for the industry, and the resulting workload is simply unreasonable for them to sift through.

    The process of identifying talent is left to a few sentences, which really doesn’t make any sense at all. Identificaton and development of talent are one in the same.

    In baseball, this is handled through the Minor League system. An agent’s role is not as large, and therefor they can do it well. There are coaches that handle the rest.

    In the current system, people who (for whatever reason) are hellbent on being a published author won’t wait for the right agent. If you get your foot in one door, after many years of knocking, you won’t take it out. It doesn’t matter if it’s the right agent or not, really. Getting an audience with one is very difficult to start with.

    I think that things are broken enough that it is essential for us to start to think about what tasks are essential and who can do them the best. The system as we know it has produced a rather sick industry. Someone is going to shake it up one way or the other eventually.

  13. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    I have to agree entirely with what Christie said, in her own inimitable style! And to take her analogy even farther, (further? WHEN will I get those straight? Thank goodness for copy editors!)there is a definite honeymoon period followed by the reality of marriage. I was lucky enough to find an agent who is a good match for my rather warped personality, but there are so many intangibles that make an author/agent relationship work–very much the same as a marriage. And, as with any long term relationship, it takes work from BOTH parties, but when it does work, it’s wonderful.

  14. Avatar Queen Bitch says:

    The question is, do I have the guts to “reject” a good agent if it is the only offer if I get a bad vibe about it?

    Chessie I HEARTILY disagree… continue your analogy, do you really want to go to the prom with the guy who has sweaty hands and picks his nose? NO NO NOOOOOOO

    I recently had this conversation with a friend who met an agent this last weekend at a conference. She said she didn’t really think this particular agent was the one for her but if she offered…and I said to her what I’m saying to you…DONT DO IT! This writing life is hard enough without a bad agent fit dragging you down.

  15. Avatar Anonymous says:

    The system is bad.

    Agents, good, bad or indifferent, work on spec. They put in hours of free labor, and even if there’s a sale, fifteen percent of the average sale doesn’t compensate adequately for what a writer expects in terms of service.

    How can you expect Nora Roberts’ level service if you generate a $1000. book advance, and paid your agent $150. of this?

    It makes sense that if agents catch a whiff of a manuscript that might be a “big” book, they’re going to leap, especially if others have the manuscript. Even agents gotta eat.

    It’s the only system in place, and it sucks.

    There’s got to be a better way.

  16. Avatar Chessie says:

    Yeah, that is what I’m saying. I have to have enough confidence in my own work to reassure myself that I will find someone who loves it as much as me and that I’ll be able to work well with.

    If I get the vibe that I wouldn’t work well with this person, I’m the type that is crazy enough to reject an offer from the only agent that has called.

    That said, I’m pretty darn easy to get along with, so I’m not skaird.

    Okay, maybe a little. Which is where the prom analogy is. No matter if you are the type of girl who can haul up your bootstraps and go by yourself, (or with a gay guy *cough* Shoot, I’m not complaining, he was fabulous.) It still absolutely stinks not being asked to the prom, and it hurts like Hell, especially when you know you have a rockin’ hot dress.

  17. Kate . . . you are so right. There is a honeymoon period with an agent. The first few months you walk around with a silly grin on your face, thinking…”She loves me…She really loves me.” Then you spend time getting to know the other’s style of doing business. And not everyone’s style is the same.

    I remember one of Jessica’s blog about how her relationships with her authors vary from author to author because each one has different needs.

    I think that’s a sign of a good agent. Look at Kim, she’s out trying to find me a pair of jeans that does wonders for my backside. (smile) (Kim, make sure it makes me look a size smaller, too!)

    But seriously, I think when you research agents, you need to get insights to how they do business. Ask questions so you’ll know how they work and what you should or shouldn’t expect. And be careful that your expectations are realistic. I know some authors who have moved around to a lot of agents, looking for the perfect one, only to learn that their expectations were not reasonable. Not that the fault lies with only the writer, I’ve heard horror stories of bad agents, too. I think what you hear mostly is about two people whose views on how the career of the writer should go just don’t mesh anymore. Or two people who didn’t understand the other person’s expectations in the beginning. That’s why communicating is so important.

    Faye Hughes and I are doing a workshop for RT about the Great Agent Hunt. We’ve interviewed a lot of published authors about the right questions to ask before signing with an agent. We’re also going to be talking to agents about the right questions to ask, and how to best make the author/agent relationship work.
    Great post Jessica.

  18. Question:
    If/when the day comes that an agent actually loves my work and wants to sign me: What are the questions I should ask her/him before I sign???
    Recent sales?
    Length of contract?
    Favorite color?
    I have a feeling my mind would go blank when I finally get that call. I was tongue-tied enough when I met Jessica at the NJRWA!

  19. Avatar Anonymous says:

    To me, one of the most important aspects of the relationship is communication. Too often I think that authors think agents are doing them a favor and are afraid to speak up and be clear about their expectations or to ask questions. No one wants to be the problem client who is always badgering the agent, but authors need to treat the relationship professionally. I think that a lot of authors who leave agents or who sign with bad agents do so because they don’t communicate properly.

  20. Avatar Anonymous says:

    After being contracted and burned by a small publisher, I was determined to get the “right agent” for my next project. Unfortunately, I was being too cautious and wasn’t thinking clearly because of fear of making another mistake.

    In the end, I did my research and went with my instincts in choosing an agent.

    So far it has worked for me. I only queried two agents because I did not want to have to choose between many agents (should I be so lucky). Also, I wanted an agent to have enough desire to represent me without her having to compete against other agents.

    My agent did sign me quickly and so far I’m pleased with the results. She has a great personality and a great track record. Did I get lucky? Yes.

  21. Avatar Jeannie says:

    If writers tend to look at their novels as “babies”, who can imagine letting just anyone help you raise that baby? I certainly didn’t settle for just “any” father for my son, and I’m not going to settle for just “any” agent to help guide my novels and my career.

  22. Avatar Anonymous says:

    If/when the day comes that an agent actually loves my work and wants to sign me: What are the questions I should ask her/him before I sign???

    Aimless, BookEnds covered this topic on September 26. I believe that Kristin Nelson at PubRants has covered this, as well.

    As for the main topic here, I appreciate everyone who’s chimed in. This is such an important subject.

    The problem is, it’s so damn hard to get an agent, that even if you’re not sure you’ll be a good fit, you still say “yes.” After all, the agent looks good on paper: she’s experienced, works for one of the big NY agencies, loves your novel, and has a track record in your genre.

    But when your novel doesn’t sell and she stops responding to your emails–of course you wonder if you should have listened to that little voice.

  23. Avatar Don Martin says:


    Maybe I’m out of line asking this, but could you give us a feel for the percentage of clients you take under contract whose work you go on to sell to a publisher?

    Maybe someone needs to create an independent, self-reporting database for authors to register their sales success rates with various agents. I’ll consider hosting it if enough people think it’s a good idea.

  24. Avatar Angie Fox says:

    Note to self: don’t read Christie’s posts while drinking Diet Coke. I should know better.

    I agree that it doesn’t make sense to sign with an agent you don’t think you’ll mesh with. Don’t even query anyone you’re not sure about, or you might just get a call from your ideal agent a month after you’ve signed with a not-so-perfect choice.

    And, I know this part is painful because I’ve experienced it, but if the book doesn’t find its way to the right agent, perhaps the next one will. This past spring, I’d written a mystery that I think is pretty darn good. I sent it to my dream list and received a lot of requests for fulls, and lots of lovely personal rejections. An agent I really respect wrote an epistle of a rejection letter, citing what he thought I needed in the book and ending it by saying the book would probably be picked up by an agent and it might even sell, but he didn’t think it would be the breakout book I needed to launch a career.

    I could have kept sending it out, maybe signed with an agent lower down on my list. But a horrible thought kept niggling at me – he was right. Darn it all. For all of the agonizing it cost me, I knew I had to stop submitting that book and fix a few things. But first, I had to finish this paranormal that I’d fallen in love with.

    The paranormal sold, the mystery is still in my back pocket. But when you’re a writer, you have to keep writing, keep believing in your work and keep submitting to agents that will give you career the time and attention it deserves.

  25. Just a few of observations:

    –As part of your research, talk to some of the agent’s clients. This is especially true if you actually have an offer in hand. I think most writers are willing to help.

    –As I think we’ve said here before, not all writers want the same things in an agent. Some want hand holding, some want a agressive salesperson, etc, etc. What is important is what YOU want.

    –The first contract is just the tip of the iceberg. Jessica never actually sold one of my manuscripts–I came to her with (second) contract in hand. Career planning and management is MUCH more important, IMHO.

    –Communication is key.

    Okay, back to the book that is, mysteriously, not writing itself.

  26. Avatar Hathery says:

    What do you think most commonly makes someone a “bad” agent (other than shady business practices)? Would it be just your initial first impression, the amount of time it takes to return your calls, how agressively they market your manuscript, etc? I know all these things come in to play, but I’d like to know what one thing most people commonly encounter in a “bad” agent.

  27. Avatar Julie says:

    Bran fran…I agree. I am on book #3 and even “I” love my writing better, so keep writing and the best is yet to come…

    aimless writer….I agree with doing your homework researching agents.
    Going with the agent that accepts your query first is not necessarily the way to go. It’s like the old saying….anything that’s worth having should never come too easy.

  28. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I don’t understand why anyone would query an agent one wouldn’t be thrilled to have represent them. What is the purpose? Practice? I wouldn’t waste my postage.

  29. Avatar Chessie says:

    Of course you query people that you think might be good for you. All the agents on my list have fabulous reputations and track records, but what if when talking to one of them I think, “Oh my God, she’s my Mother.”

    That is not a professional dynamic I want to get going, even though I love my mother very much. I’m not sure I’d want to step into a relationship where I got a vibe that I wasn’t a full partner, but a child that needed her head patted and to be told what to do.

    Now this is all speculative, because it hasn’t happened, and I don’t know if any agents out there are like my mother, but I’m still pretty young, (30) and often people I’m trying to develop a professional relationship with have a couple of years on me. I deeply respect those years, but I don’t want to be dismissed because of them. I want an agent to trust that I’m strong, capable, and smart. I want to feel like my agent believes I can handle things.

    If I get head patting, it’s going to turn me off, big time. Any one of my agents that I query could be a head patter. I don’t know, until I can talk to them personally. And some authors are looking for a good head patter. More power to them.

    It isn’t right or wrong, it just doesn’t work. In that situation, I don’t know what I would do. I’d have two choices, try to establish the dynamic I want with the agent by being clear what my needs are, or not sign with that agent at all.

    You can probably make the relationship work by being clear and honest about what you need as a writer, but if the agent turns out to be a consummate head-patter and there is no getting around it, for me, it probably isn’t a relationship that would last. I’d have to be wary of that.

    But none of it has happened, so I can only think about it so much.

  30. Avatar Anonymous says:

    A “bad” agent is worse than no agent, because a year later my book isn’t sold but it went out to at least 20 publishers so I’m sure there’s no point in shopping it around to other agents because they won’t want to take on a book with a history of rejection. Even though it’s fabulous.

    Was my agent a bad person? No, of course not. I think maybe he just didn’t have great relationships with editors, and was unable to make the right match. Happens every day.

    But if you are not 100% excited about an agent, don’t sign with them. (This situation was a little weird because he took me over from the agent I’d originally signed with, who left the business. I had the choice of being switched or looking for someone new.) The wrong fit is WAY worse than continuing to look for representation.

  31. Avatar Anonymous says:

    “a year later my book isn’t sold but it went out to at least 20 publishers so I’m sure there’s no point in shopping it around to other agents because they won’t want to take on a book with a history of rejection.”

    Uh, have you considered it might be the BOOK?

  32. Avatar Deb says:

    An agent can get your book read.

    Your agent cannot force an editor to buy a book. Your book must sell itself.

  33. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I don’t understand why anyone would query an agent one wouldn’t be thrilled to have represent them. What is the purpose? Practice? I wouldn’t waste my postage.

    Of course you research the agent’s client list and sales, check out online interviews, and troll the Absolute Write boards for tidbits. But this kind of research can’t tell you whether or not your personalities, working styles, and goals will be a good match. Talking to the agent is the only way to find out. And you can’t talk to the agent until they’ve offered representation.

  34. Interesting point about the fabulous book that went out to 20 editors and didn’t sell. Some posters seem to think the book isn’t all that fabulous and that may be true. But I think it’s quite possible it’s the most wonderful book ever written and was the victim of a poor agent.

    I’m no expert, but my limited observations are that many fabulous books probably don’t sell–you need a fabulous book in front of the right editor at the right time. Your agent is a big help in getting your book to the right editor. (No one can do much about the zeitgist–however you spell that–unfortunately.)

    Here’s two ways I think the scene could play out:

    Good agent–Hey, this is a fabulous book. It’s a killer (ha,ha) romantic suspense. House A, B, C, etc. publish RS very well. Hmm. I could send it to editor Z at house A, but the book has a cat in it and editor Z is allergic to cats–she breaks out at even a feline thought, so I’ll send this to editor Y. (Well, maybe first I’ll call and feel Y out.) But the book is also a bit cutting edge. I think I’ll send to three good houses now and see what they say. (Later, after three rejections, good agent is on the phone to fabulous writer.) “Fabulous,” good agent says, “I’ve submitted your book to House A, B, and C and all my contacts say that it’s great, however, it has too many aliens. Aliens just aren’t selling. What do you want to do? I can submit to E, F, and G, or you might think about toning down the aliens and going for for something else…talking radishes maybe…” Or maybe it’s time to put this fabulous book away and and wait for the market to change, meanwhile working on even more fablulous book.

    Bad agent: Hey, this is a fabulous book. I bet I can sell it in a snap. Let me get down my Writers Market. Hmm. Twenty houses sell RS. Why waste time? (And hey, I have to pay the cat food bill, so I could do with a quick sale.) I’ll just send this out now to all twenty. One of these houses is sure to buy it. And one editor is as good as another, right? A sale’s a sale. Let me just package this up and get it in the mail… After 20 rejections, bad agent doesn’t respond to email or phone calls.

    Just saying…this business can be a little crazy. Oh, and communication is key.

  35. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Oh, it’s absolutely possible the book didn’t sell because it wasn’t good enough. But if the agent can’t explain why they choose to send it to one editor over another, and can’t produce any feedback from editors other than “they didn’t think it was quite right”, even after 20 rejections, I think it’s also absolutely possible that the agent didn’t have the right relationships to get editors to give it a serious read. And now I’ll never know whether it was the book or the agent, but if I’d done my homework better, maybe I’d be able to tell.

    Don’t worry, whether the agent was weak or just not a good communicator, I do recognize the mistake was still my mistake.

  36. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Aimless, if you don’t know what questions to ask, you haven’t been in the business long enough to be submitting to agents. I don’t mean that in a mean way–you’re asking here, which is the right thing to do, but the point is that writers who have not yet learned what questions to ask should not be submitting. If you don’t understand the rules of the game, don’t play. Sit on the sidelines and watch until you learn.

    There are a lot of questions to ask:

    Will an agent do split payments? (Why should your agent pay you? Why should you be the one to wait for the money?)
    How does the agent handle day-to-day communication? Email? Phone? Blackberry?
    What can the agent do after the sale? Have them walk you through the process and give examples.
    Contact other clients of this agent and ask about the above.

    Someone asked about agents who don’t live in NYC. My agent is in California. I’m multi-published and have hit both the USA and NYT lists. My agent’s location only means I take business calls late at night. Otherwise, who cares? In today’s world of internet and frequent flyer miles, location makes little difference.