If you've ever done any sort of agent research at all you should know to be aware of the scam agent—those “agents” who prey on unsuspecting authors for money only. People in the publishing business preach constantly about scam agents. You can read in-depth on how to avoid them on Preditors & Editors, the amazing Writer Beware blog, and of course the esteemed Miss Snark. What I don’t think we talk enough about, though, are bad agents. Not the “agents” who are looking to scam you out of your money, but the agents who are just incompetent. While one will take your money and make you feel the fool, the other has the ability to cause some short-term damage to your career. While the damage is rarely irreparable, it is harmful nonetheless.
An incompetent agent is much more difficult to spot than a scam agent because she usually follows the rules. In other words, it’s unlikely she asks for reading fees, or “suggests” you hire outside editors. No, Bad Agent often has the best of intentions. She really does want to sell your book, she just doesn’t know how. She doesn’t have the contacts, the knowledge, or the publishing experience to truly be what an agent should be for you. If she does sell your book it’s probably a fluke and unlikely that her contract negotiation skills are really going to benefit you in the way an agent should. In many instances the author could have done just as well negotiating the contract as Bad Agent. Bad Agent also fails to realize that her job doesn’t end there. In fact, there’s a lot more she needs to do than just sell a book. Bad Agent doesn’t have a clue when it comes to marketing, market advice, or strategy, and rarely can she advise you on where you should go from here.
And what harm can Bad Agent do? Well, like I said, it’s not necessarily irreparable, but it can be endlessly frustrating. Since Bad Agent doesn’t have contacts within the industry she doesn’t know where to even submit your book. In fact, in all likelihood she doesn’t know much more than you. What she does know is what you already know—what editors are buying according to their listings on Publishers Marketplace. While that's a good start to making new contacts (and editors contact me through my posts all the time), it can't be your Rolodex. Contacts are those people who call you back and read work quickly simply because they know your letterhead. Any agent who tells you that Publishers Marketplace is the key to her selling strategy is not the agent for you. No good agent is going to start her submission process by posting your listing on the Publishers Marketplace Rights Board. She doesn't have to. She knows that she'll be more successful sending your work to her contacts. Bad Agent doesn't have contacts, and that's evident by the fact that her submission process means first posting your book on the rights board. She doesn't know how else to do it.
If Bad Agent does sell your book, it’s probably a fluke, and since it’s a fluke, it’s unlikely she has any knowledge of contracts. Any agent should know how to successfully negotiate the obvious things, like your advance and royalties, but Bad Agent thinks it stops there. She doesn’t have the proper understanding of things like option clauses, warranties, or subsidiary rights. She doesn’t think she really has to. While none of this will kill a career, a badly negotiated contract can certainly slow things down considerably. Bad Agent’s strategy is probably to negotiate the advance and maybe royalties, talk about the option clause, and add her agency clause. That’s it. In fact, in most cases Bad Agent’s “boilerplate” looks very similar to the publisher’s.
Publishing experience would probably have helped Bad Agent. If she had worked for a larger agency or a publishing house she would know who to call and how to negotiate a contract. More important, though, she would understand this very bizarre business. Do not be tricked into believing that because Bad Agent took a publishing course she knows the ins and outs of the industry. While publishing courses can be helpful, they do not teach the things an agent should know. (I’ve never taken a publishing course, so maybe someone can chime in to talk about what they do offer. I do know from talking to others that the biggest benefit was getting a job.)
So how do you avoid Bad Agent? How do you know, when there aren’t distinct warning signs like there are with scam agents? By carefully checking out every agent you query.
The biggest warning sign is that no one knows who Bad Agent is. When asking your writing groups (RWA, MWA, SFWA, etc.) about Bad Agent, you’ll get nothing but silence. Bad Agent doesn’t have a reputation, good, bad, or otherwise, because no one knows who she is.
References for Bad Agent will also be nonexistent. While no agent will give you contact information or a list of references, with a good agent you should be able to find a reference easily. A quick Internet search or a review of an agent’s Web site usually gives up client names. Once you find that, it’s not difficult to find an author Web site and contact information. Clients of good agents will happily give references. Clients of Bad Agent will be very, very difficult to find. If you do find clients of Bad Agent, pay attention to what she’s sold. Bad Agent will often claim client sales that were previously sold through another agent. Make sure that you ask references not only if Bad Agent sold the books for them, but if they were happy with the contract.
Bad Agent also won’t be able to tick off the publishers or agents she’s worked with, because they don’t exist. In fact, she’s likely to tell you more about her previous career as a marketer or car salesman.
Most important, though, with Bad Agent you’ll get Bad Vibe. It won’t feel right and yet you’ll do it anyway.
The worst part about Bad Agent is that by the time you realize you have one, you’ve probably already signed with her. My advice? Get out while you can. You know who she is and it’s important to remember that no agent truly is better than Bad Agent. The minute you know you have Bad Agent, there should be no looking back. Chalk it up as experience and move on.