Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Are you unhappy with your agent?

I’ve been thinking about this as the result of several comments by different people in the past few days – some on blogs and some in person – and wondering why. After all, getting an agent, we’re told, is the key to being published and successful these days. (If you disagree, great, but that’s not what this is about.) In the US, the standard perception is that if you don’t have an agent, particularly in the area of adult fiction, you have very little hope of getting your book in front of an editor.

How to get an agent is the focus of many articles. I even wrote one myself after interviewing two agents at a conference. A lot of agents, such as Janet Reid and Kristin Nelson, have blogs where they give a truckload of advice on how to be professional and get an agent, and what an agent will do for you. But lots of writers are saying, behind closed doors where no one can hear them (or out loud when they want to complain to the world), that they are unhappy with their agent.

And all the writers who don’t have an agent yet wish they’d be grateful they’ve got one at all and shut up.

Why the complaints? I suspect it’s for one of the following reasons:

·       *   The agent was new or starting out when they signed on, and now the agent is really busy and doesn’t have the same amount of time to spend on each writer anymore. Or that early enthusiasm and determination the agent had has been worn away by the ups and downs of the traditional publishing world. 

·      *   The writer thought they’d be getting a combined cheer squad/friend/supporter/partner and their agent believes it’s a business and the writer needs to find that stuff elsewhere.

·   *      The writer thought their agent, who genuinely loved their book, would sell it in a flash for big dollars, and the agent either hasn’t been able to sell it to anyone, or for a much lower advance than hoped for.

·   *      The writer didn’t get any of the “dream” agents he/she was hoping for, but they got this agent (who was better than no agent, right?), and now they’re thinking it was a bad move. Why? For any or all of the reasons above. Most agents only take on books and writers whose work they love, but sometimes it doesn’t happen the way either of them hoped.

· *        The writer didn’t really investigate well enough how this agent operates. Some agents work on your manuscript with you (often they’ve been editors before), some expect you to give them perfection, more or less, that they can sell. Some agents see it completely as a business, and you make appointments like everyone else if you want to talk, and some agents are much more about career-building with some hand-holding added in. The spectrum of how an agent likes to work with clients is vast. Writers need to know this stuff.

Over the years, I’ve realized that many writers have no real idea of what agents do, or are supposed to do, for the percentage they earn. They also don’t know or accept that a bad agent, or an agent unsuited to the relationship they want or need, is worse than no agent at all. Once you have an agent, you can’t keep sending your own novels out, and the agent probably won’t want you self-publishing willy-nilly either. It is a business relationship. Yes, you make money and then your agent makes money. A good agent will want to make you lots of money, for obvious reasons. They may not want you calling them every week for an encouraging pep talk when you have writer’s block. Or maybe they’ll be OK with that. But you have to know that upfront or you’ll be disappointed.

There are plenty of ways to find this stuff out. All over the net are interviews with agents, to start with, plus the information on agency websites. It’s no longer a guessing game. But like anything, you’ll get out of your research what you put into it. Since getting an agent is an important career move for many writers, it pays to put a LOT into it.

I’d love to have a discussion about this – if you’re one of those unhappy writers, you might like to take advantage of the Anonymous option and comment.


Sharon L Norris said...

Sherryl, thanks for this article. I'm one of the hordes of published authors trying to get an agent, and frankly, I'd be happy to land a 'bad' one and work hard to make it work than have no agent at all. (Presuming I could tell the difference between 'bad' and 'good' at this stage!) I also admit to not really understanding what their role is, so I intend to educate myself further about this.

Sherryl said...

Sharon, I think the "bad" agent is one who doesn't really love your writing, and so doesn't push it 100%. And because you can't do anything about it except wait (and often you have no idea what they're doing) your hands are tied.
You see people saying "you must ask your agent who they have submitted to and what response they got" but most writers are too shy or scared to do this, so they have no idea.
It's a problematic area - and there are more scam agents out there than we realise. It can be a real education to look at sites like Editors and Preditors and see what goes on. Thankfully we don't have anywhere near that problem in Australia - we're a bit too small. Still ...

Kristi Holl said...

Some of the "good agent/bad agent" definition has to do with expectations. It's like a marriage. One man might be perfect for a woman who wants hovering and hand-holding and constant togetherness, but he would be the wrong guy for an independent gal who can function well by herself. Same with agents. Some authors want hand-holding, and some authors want to do the submitting themselves and let the agent do the negotiating.

While I wouldn't classify an author/agent relationship as a marriage, you could avoid lots of the problems if you got to know each other well ahead of time before signing on the dotted line.

Still, there will be disappointments in both. Even with good intentions, not everyone can--or will--live up to their initial hype that hooked you.

Sherryl said...

Kristi, you do need to know who the agent is and how they work, which is where those online interviews are so useful. They can give you a real sense of what the agent is like and how they work.
I think anyone who reads Janet Reid's blog would get a very clear idea, for example - an agent who has a shark as her "thing", plus a dark sense of humor, gives clear signs!