Tuesday, November 02, 2010

"You Say Pushy Like It's a Bad Thing," Janet Reid

I was recently pointed to a blog post that really has me irritated for a number of different reasons. Many of these reasons have already been articulated by Janet Reid perfectly, but since this is an issue I feel is important, I wanted to have my own say.

The blog in question was written by someone who calls herself (I assume it’s a her based on the picture) Agency Gatekeeper. In it the blogger suggests that any agent who wants to know who else has offered representation is “pushy, rude and breaching etiquette.” Which is wrong, completely wrong.

What concerns me most about this post is the sweeping generalization that one simple question from an agent means run. And I don’t get that. It’s a question and I think we are all smart enough to know the difference between someone asking a question and rudeness. Most certainly, asking a question about who else is offering representation is not a breach of etiquette.

When an author comes to me with an offer of representation already on the table, it’s only natural I would want to know who made that offer. It’s the same with a publisher; it’s only natural that a publisher is going to want to know who else is offering for a book. Whether or not you answer that is entirely up to you. When offering representation I’ve had authors who are completely up front in telling me every agent who is still interested, and others who won’t tell me even after a decision is made. That’s fine, it’s really up to the authors. And yes, I suppose there are agents out there who might use that information to present a pro/con list to the author of why she’s better than the other agents. Doesn’t that only give you more insight into how this agent works? If that sort of pitch makes you uncomfortable then you know she’s not the agent for you. On the other hand, it might also help you determine what other questions you might ask the other agents. Heck, you could even ask the other agents what they know of each other and how they differ if you really wanted to. Why not? You’re the one doing the hiring.

So why would an agent ask? Well certainly there’s simple curiosity. Wouldn’t you want to know? There’s also power in knowing who your competition is and what they bring to the table that you might want to highlight in your own sales pitch, because it’s true, when you’re offering representation to a potential new client you’re selling yourself.

One of the other things Agency Gatekeeper said was,

The minute an agent asks this question, he/she is placing you in the middle of what may be an ongoing debate/competition/industry question/drama--it's pulling you into a situation (perhaps a fight, if for some reason the agents don't get along) that just isn't fair. That's like two old friends bringing you into a generations-old battle--and you just met them. It'll cloud your judgment and make it all the more challenging to make this already difficult decision.

Which I don’t get at all. Placing you in the middle of what? I have friends who are agents and I suppose there are agents out there I don’t like very much, but we are not going to stand you in the middle of a room and start taunting you, and I don’t have a “generations-old battle” to fight out with anyone. In fact, I’m not old enough to have a generations-old battle, thank you very much.

What I really don’t like about this blog by Agency Gatekeeper is the sense that authors aren’t smart or savvy enough to think for themselves. Are you not able to tell when an agent is being rude or making you uncomfortable? I also don’t like this sense that authors are just a pawn in a giant agent game of tug-of-war. There’s no doubt that when I make an offer of representation I want to be the one the author chooses, but it’s not because I want to “get one over” on my fellow agents. It’s because I feel so passionate about that book that not being the one to help present it to publishers actually makes me want to cry.

So, here’s the thing. When interviewing an agent for representation there are no wrong questions you can ask, and hopefully when the agent is talking to you there are no wrong questions she can ask. You’re getting to know each other, and the more you talk the more time you have to get a sense of how you will work together. If an agent asks a question you aren’t comfortable answering, simply tell her so; if she pushes and bullies then she’s probably not the agent for you, but asking the question itself isn’t the problem, how everyone reacts to the question can be the problem.



Loralie Hall said...

A very common question in professional job interviews is "what other jobs are you considering". And the follow-up "Do you have any other offers?" For those of us hiring the employees, it's a great way to tell so many things. For those of us looking, the option is always there to give a vague response. It doesn't hurt the situation.

I guess it just makes sense to me.

Jane Lebak said...

My agent asked who else had offered when she was looking at my material. I figured it was a veracity check than anything else: hang around a writer's forum long enough and you'll hear a story of someone who made up an offer of representation in order to get agents to look at his or her material. (Yes, everyone agrees that's stupid.)

For that reason, I told her without hesitation because if she wanted to check up on me, she should feel free to do so.

Artemis Grey said...

Wow, I am SO glad that I've never even heard of this Agency Gatekeeper. They sound like a spurned/bitter/un-agented writer more than someone with any real advice. They also sound like a bad business person.

I can totally understand a prospective agent wanting to know who is behind other offers on the table of a prospective client. It's a very reasonable question.

In the horse world, if you've been given more than one offer to ride more than one horse for a specific event, there's no hiding what owners/trainers had made the offers. The entire point is to get the most competitive combination of horse/rider/trainer arranged so that you have the best chance at winning. There are a lot of factors involved and trainers/owners want to consider them all.

To me, an agent would be the owner/trainer in this analogy of the book world, and your book is the horse. Nobody is trying to suck you into any arguments (like a stranger's opinion would matter in a 'generations-old battle' anyway) and agents have a right to ask any questions pertinent to offering us representation, just like we have the right to ask agents any questions about an offer for representation.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Gatekeeper said...
"that just isn't fair".

That phrase is the phrase of children fighting over who gets to sit in front, who gets the biggest piece, who gets school shoes first.

Boys and Girls nothing in life is fair, nothing, nothing, nothing. It's either right or wrong.

Ms. Trite says: ask me what you will, the only dumb question is the one not asked.

Will I answer...let me sit in front, give me the biggest brownie and a new pair of Niki's and I'm all yours...I'll even make up an answer if you give me another brownie.

Creepy Query Girl said...

I hadn't heard of the gatekeeper before Janet's post but I don't think it's a blog I'll be following anytime soon. It's one thing to give your own opinion on how to do business. It's another to make such a huge incorrect generalization.

Mark Terry said...

I would think that if someone came to you saying "I've got another agent who's made an offer," that asking, "Oh, who?" is a fairly reasonable question on the part of an agent (or any business representative, for that matter).

Philangelus calls it a "veracity check" which seems reasonable enough to me. The author is, to some extent, saying, "Hey, hurry up if you want to work with me." That can be BS in so many ways, that a simple, "So who's the other guy?" seems to me to be due diligence, if nothing else.

I was in that situation once and I told the agent and she said, "Oh, okay." Why not? If you're not lying, what difference does it make?

Alexis Grant said...

I'm actually a fan of Gatekeeper's blog. But I understand your point. I think there's a solid middle ground between each of your points: letting the author know that it's okay to *not* tell the agent who asks who else has offered representation.

I'm all about asking for what you want -- because otherwise you'll never get it. So from the agent's point of view, it can't hurt to ask. But I think a lot of authors are so eager to land an agent that they're nervous to say no to anything, especially at the point where an agent is showing interest in them and their work. It's good for authors to hear that it's okay to say no in this instance, that it shouldn't ruin your chances of representation (and if it does, you didn't want to work with that agent anyhow).

D. U. Okonkwo said...

So who is Agent Gatekeeper and which agency are they from? Never heard of them. That alone makes me wary.


Lisa Blandford said...

I read Janet's blog regarding this issue and I'm glad that you posted on it as well. I've never heard of The Gatekeeper. I have, however, heard of you and Janet Reid. This is why I follow both your blogs and love your advice, and I don't follow The Gatekeeper.

Thanks Jessica

ryan field said...

Evidently, the Agency Gatekeeper highly underestimates authors.

Thanks for weighing in on this. I see so much bad advice on blogs like Agency Gatekeeper it's nice to see a balance with good advice.

Marsha Sigman said...

I think everyone is really blowing that blog post out of proportion. The Gatekeeper was giving her opinion based on her own experience and some horror stories she heard. She ultimately said it was up to the author to decide the best course of action in this situation but it was ok to say no.

I read/follow several agency blogs every day, including this one and Janet's, and so should all aspiring writers. Hopefully we are intelligent enough to make our decisions regarding situations like this.

But I don't think it's cool to keep calling out a specific agent or blog because they have a different opinion. I mean, it kind of makes the Gatekeeper's point for her.

Anonymous said...

I actually agree with Gatekeeper. Sure, it may seem like a harmless question but you never know when it could open up a Pandora's box. We all know agents love to gossip--who doesn't?--even if they're careful not to name names (just follow their Twitter accounts). Besides, giving out this type of info could haunt you later.

What if the writer did reveal the agent and the first agent found out and withdrew the offer? I say that's offering too much information. I've had agents ask me which agents were considering my ms. before they'd even read it--why should I bother? We don't ask agents whose work is under consideration, do we? I'm sure they'd say "It's none of your business." Likewise.

Deborah J. Ross said...

It seems to me that Agency Gatekeeper is expressing discomfort with the question. So another response might be to say, "Why are you asking?" Just walking out means sacrificing a chance to understand not only the agenting business but this particular agent. It's an opportunity to establish open communication and trust.

Spy Scribbler said...

Not to point out the obvious, but if I have more than one agent offer on the table, I'm naturally going to want to see evidence of each agent's sales and negotiating skills. Frankly, if one sits back all quietly and politely, and one asks for whatever information that will help her make the "sale" to me, then I'm going with the proactive one.

It's how I'd want her acting when she's selling my book! I mean, duh! LOL! :-)

Anonymous said...

I’ve actually been in a situation where agents who have offered rep asked about the other agents who offered. 5 of 6 had good intentions, but there is always one bad apple in every bunch, no matter the business. One agent in particular hung up on me when I told him/her who else had offered. They later emailed me a two sentence message saying that they just didn’t think it was going to be a good fit after all. No kidding. I later found out the agent who hung up on me was a blabber mouth who had blabbed about losing a particular best-seller to their competition, who they claimed was ‘an incompetent buffoon’. After nearly two years, the author is still living off of that advance, but, I digress.

In the end, I think it all depends on the intentions meant and results followed. If asked in a manner of curiosity so that the agent can in turn tell you what they can offer that the other agent(s) can’t, such as superb editorial skills and/or specific names of editors at various houses that would love what you have written--in other words, an agent guaranteeing something so that you are not waiting for months on end with no responses from either end--then that is totally different. That is the kind of agent I would want! But to ask with just the intention beating the competition while offering nothing to me in return, then no thanks. I'll stick w/offers 1-5, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I mostly agree, but there is one thing that would make me hesitate to give the offering agent's name.

What if it somehow got back to the agent that I was using her offer to try to get a better offer?

If I asked a guy to the prom and then I found out he was using my invitation as leverage to get another girl to agree to go with him, I'd be pretty pissed.

That's my fear...not that I'd enter into some age old controversy by dropping the name, but that I'd hurt the original agent's feelings somehow.

Anonymous said...

I still think Gatekeeper has a very valid point (and is entitled to her own opinion), but at least you responded to her post without resorting to name calling and obscenities.

Good on you!

Nicole said...

Ditto to Marsha's comments.

Anonymous said...

It's actually good to be having this conversation as it allows all opinions to be heard and considered, leading to a better understanding of the process.

Here's my two cents...I think in any relationship, personal or business, it's always important to take the high road; act in an honest, upfront, and professional manner. Ultimately, you cannot control the behavior or reactions of others, only that of your own.

Thanks, Jessica (and Janet)...great post.

jjdebenedictis said...

The Anons seem awfully paranoid about this.

Why would an agent, genuinely in love with a book, withdraw their offer of representation after discovering another agent is interested too?

Either they're (1) too insecure to be a good agent, or (2) they think the other agent would be a better match and are doing the honourable thing for the writer's benefit.

If it's (1), then good riddance to that agent. If it's (2), then they're a saint, which is weird, because saints are rare and you don't generally find many of them working in sales.

In other words, this scenario is not one we need to worry about.

Unknown said...

@ A. Grey

In fact, Gatekeeper is a fairly well known, though somewhat younger agent; and a lovely person. I've been following that post and its comments, and found nothing particularly objectionable--just a differing opinion.

May I add, she's not the only publishing professional to use a pseudonym, as Editorial Ass, Editorial Anonymous, and Evil Editor can tell you.

I do however, appreciate Jessica's reasoned approach to disagreement.

L.C. Blackwell

Anonymous said...

As a design professional, it is perfectly reasonable to ask if other groups are also pitching for a project.

It is pushy, rude and breaching etiquette to ask WHO else is pitching.

Meagan Spooner said...

To me, the moment where you contact other agents with the news that you've received an offer of representation is really powerful. It means that other agents might hurry to read your manuscript, looking at it as a commodity. If just anyone could say "I've received other offers" but don't say from whom, it means that anyone could bend the truth (or outright lie) to achieve that powerful position. It makes perfect sense for me from all angles to be honest about the offers you receive.

After all, if the offer is from a "bad" agent in some way, or you're embarrassed for whatever reason about that agent, you shouldn't be considering their offer anyway.

Abby Gaines said...

excellent post, Jessica

Renee Miller said...

I don't understand the big deal in an agent asking who else is interested in my work. If they are the type to decide not to work with me because Agent So-and-So is interested, then I'm sure I don't want to work with them either.

I have an issue with all of these anonymous bloggers writing about publishing, agents and writing. It makes me wary, as another commenter pointed out, and just doesn't make a lot of sense. Perhaps this particular blog isn't so anonymous, but many others are and I don't understand the need to hide behind a pseudonym if all you're offering is 'good advice'.

By the way, should multiple agents like to be interested in my work, I will happily provide a list for each. Generational battle, Pandora's box, or catty bitch-fight, I could care less. Have at it, as long as in the end, someone represents the damn book.

Anonymous said...

To me, it's just like the whole "exclusive" issue -- the agent is not a bad person for asking it makes good business sense to ask! -- but you, the author, get to decide what your response is going to be. I had multiple offers and felt perfectly fine telling the agents who else had offered; they were all respectful and friendly about it. But a simple "I don't feel comfortable giving out tht information" is just fine too.

There's one very practical reason for agents to ask, which is that some share office space even if they're not at the same agency, which isn't as obvious as it used to be now that we're mostly querying by email and don't always know the physical address.

Anonymous said...

To me, it's a simple solution: If you're comfortable giving out that type of info, do it--if not, don't. Personally, I wouldn't reveal that info until I'd def made up my mind--and I'd think twice about signing with an agent that demanding.

I'd say I'd rather not "jinx" it or "Why do you want to know?" Agents just want to make THEIR lives easier, not yours.

Sari Webb said...

Thanks for the breakdown Jessica. I do agree with your point of view on this one.

I would like to point out to some of the commenters who haven't yet read Gatekeepers blog, but are denouncing it solely based on Jessica and Janet's responses, GKs blog is actually a very informative and helpful blog. Just because you don't agree with one blog post don't cut it out forever. I've read a lot of interesting advice there, just as I have on Jessica and Janet's blogs.

Seems to me that one of the most valuable pieces of advice I've read time and time again from industry blogs is to get as much advice as possible. Read as many industry blogs as you can find. Make your own decisions on what advice to follow.

Sheila Cull said...

I think that you're being too sensitive Jessica! It's a subjective opinion different from your own and lots of others, that's all.

E. Martin said...

I'm with Marsha on this one: the defensiveness with which agents are circling the wagons proves Gatekeeper's point.

Once a regular peruser of lit blogs of all sorts, I became disgusted with this defensiveness among industry "pros" primarily because it is so often deployed against the interests of writers and the health of the community as a whole. And, every time I venture back, this assessment is quickly reconfirmed.

There is no good reason to ask specifics about other offers. To what purpose, exactly, could an agent put this information that is simultaneously ethical, beneficial to the writer, and beneficial to the agent and his/her agency?

Sure, some writers may lie, but the idea that such a question is a "veracity check" is outrageously disrespectful in the way it lumps all writers together in the dishonest category.

There's a word for this sort of gross generalization: prejudice. Lit agents expressing such an insulting prejudice against writers deserve empty inboxes -- or at least inboxes filled only with garbage writers who have no respect for themselves or their profession.

The Swivet said...

JJ -

The Anons of the world have always seemed paranoid about something.



Anonymous said...

I *love* the Gatekeeper's blog. I love her enthusiasm for the industry, her passion for agenting, and her helpful advice, opinions and insights.

Not to mention her recipes!

I also don't see how it really helps agents to know who else is offering on a project, most especially due to the power imbalance (at that point of the process) in the relationship between agents and writers.

Perhaps some agents aren't assigning proper weight to the result of years of rejection upon writers -- and how, for some writers, when finally faced with a chance of representation, saying no to ANY request from an interested agent can feel quite daunting.

And on that note, why put a writer in that position in the first place? Why make it about the agent in that hallelujah! moment? How about making it about the writer, *finally*? The whole process is stressful enough.

I just had five offers of representation last week, and not one agent asked me to divulge the others offering. I thought it quite classy of all five.

Now, as for a writer lying about receiving offers? I think the proof will be in the manuscript. I know I had agents saying to me, "I can understand why so many agents are interested in this ms ..."

Do agents get curious about their competition? Sure. But let's call a spade a spade, and admit that curiosity is just that -- curiosity -- period.

The only question I was asked, in the end, was if I'd divulge the agent I'd decided upon. I had no problem, in that instance, sharing that information.

Just my two cents.

JVRC said...

In the first place, Ms. Reid's blog about the subject was just rude and unprofessional. The work in two different agencies but there should still be a line of professional courtesy that one shouldn't cross. IMHO, Ms. Reid crossed it. I would never consider her as an agent for that reason.

Why is the Gatekeeper wrong? Because you disagree with the practice that makes her "wrong?" Why can't we just say, "I disagree" and leave it at that.

I, personally, see no harm in the practice of being asked and answering the question. But then, we seem to be assuming that the Gatekeeper and her agency don't have a justified reason for the policy. I think before we start pointing fingers and saying, "you're wrong" or "you're an idiot," it would behoove us to ask why. And still say, "I disagree."

Valerie B. said...

*congrats to emilymurdoch!*

That said, I am in total agreement with Jesse. If an author wants an agent, they will do all of the necessary research in going about doing so. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that one agent is more right or wrong than another in this business. It was built on varying opinions, correct? If an agent asks what other offers that author may have and who those offers have come from, as said time and time again, it’s up to the author to divulge that information.

In my opinion, I owe you nothing but my best work until I have made a final decision and all the contracts are signed. If anytime I feel bullied or pressured by an agent to give an answer about something I don’t feel comfortable with giving, do you think I’m going to let them touch 15% of a regular commission plus foreign rights if I’m lucky? I think not. On that note, I don’t necessarily have a problem with asking, depending on intentions, but I do agree that continuously stating how wrong the Gatekeeper is just proves her initial point.

As I said, this business was built on varying opinions. If you all thought the same and loved/read/only wanted to publish the same books, none or all of us *struggling writers* would be published by now. I believe in agreeing to disagree, but in this case, it just seems a bit much. And in Ms. Reid’s case, I’m sorry, but her reponse was just extreme. The swearing didn't bother me, it was the tone. What the Gatekeeper said was a ‘crock of ****’ huh? Spare me. And that’s my two cents.

Anonymous said...

I do know who Agency Gatekeeper is, but I guess to divulge that information would be rude right? Or would it? *Chesire Cat Smile* Her blog persona is different than her in-person persona. I never would have imagined she would stir up this kind of controversy. My, my. Didn't know she had that in her.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the congratulations, Valerie B! Very kind of you. : )It took many years of hard work to get here, and I'm savoring my cloud nine.

I have to agree with you -- stating differing opinions in a respectful, professional manner is a wonderful thing, but condemning those with differing opinions in the way done on the other blog was unprofessional and crossed the line, imo.

Janny said...

After having read both this response and Janet Reid's (which was over-the-top rude on its face), I respectfully have to disagree.

It's not "paranoid" to wonder why an agent asks who else is interested in the work. Nor is it "paranoid" to think that that question is inappropriate; to my mind, it IS, for a couple of reasons.

Yes, of course, when an agent represents you and two or more publishers are interested...of COURSE you want and need to know who's offering what. That's the marketplace at its best. But if I understand this dilemma correctly, it's presented as an agent offering representation and being told that someone else is also interested...at which point they want to know who.


So they can compete, comes the answer. But then the only legit response to that answer is, "This isn't supposed to be a competition of you against other agents. This is supposed to be an indication of what YOU think of MY WORK. Period. It's supposed to be about the author and about the work...remember?"

So what does it say to you if an agent only "pulls out all the stops" when he or she thinks someone else is gonna waltz out the door with you? What was their first offer, then? What they figured they could get away with? Something less than their best? And if so...how much do they really want to represent you in the first place?

How did we forget that an author is working WITH an agent...not FOR him or her? How do we forget that, in the end, the author's paying the agent...not the other way around? Why do we even, EVER, feel the least hesitation to shut this question down AT ALL?

Frankly, it's none of your business who is also interested in my work. You're supposed to be interested in my work enough that you'll put your best shot out on the table. If someone else is interested, that's both a compliment to you and to the author. But it's not your right to know who, and the terms involved. It simply isn't.

If I interview at a prospective employer, it's a given that other people are also interviewing for that position. And yes, we all bring different things to the table. But if I asked that employer, "Okay, I know other people are in the running. Who are they, and what are they offering you?"...the answer would be what it should be: that's none of my business. And it isn't.

Can I "compete" better if I know that the other people have MBAs, but I have strengths they don't? Of course I can. But it's not about me and whether I can "win out" over someone else at that point. It's about the fit I have with that employer and the employer's needs.

Just like it's not about whether you can compete better for my work over another agent if you know their weaknesses and your strengths. Because...guess what? It's not about YOU. It's about ME, as the author, and about MY WORK...and the fit YOU are with that.
Not about whether you're better than someone else at some particular aspect of the publishing biz.
Not about whether you can warn me away from a scammer or not (although that is a nice, altruistic way to look at the question).

The bottom line is...it's about fit. It's about how much YOU love MY work. Period. Not about how much other people love it, and why. Not about what they can, or can't, do for me. If we're still in the situation where you're in effect "bidding" for me to agree to a representation contract, put your best stuff out there from the beginning. If you don't bother to do that until you know someone else wants me, then you didn't want my work badly enough in the first place. I do owe you the courtesy of telling you others are interested, if I'm seriously considering them. I don't owe you their names.


Anonymous said...

I know I'm late to this, but I still have something to say. Everyone who is saying Janet and Jessica are wrong for saying the "agency gatekeeper" is wrong are, well, wrong.

As Janet made very clear in her post, she objects to the term "we", which the "gatekeeper" used repeatedly. She made it sound like all agents felt the same, and that is clearly not the case. Seeing as they don't think like the "gatekeeper", not all agents do.

So, in saying the "gatekeeper" is wrong, Janet and Jessica are actually right.

Also, there wasn't a huge uproar over this, as people seem to suggest in these comments. All I know of are two agents who say she's wrong. That's hardly "proving her point" for her. They're not calling her out because she thinks differently. They're calling her out because she made incorrect sweeping generalizations, and the other side deserves to be heard and have their reasons heard as well.

It's not something that "keeps" happening. As I said, the only two blogs that seemed to have done it are Janet's and Jessica's, and I think they did the right thing. Authors are not to stupid as to be unable to decide whether or not to give the information, and they need to know it's not a sign to run for the hills of they are asked.

The reason they are asked is so agents can better tell them how they (agents) can help them (authors) in the long term by offering something they can't get anywhere else. It's a win-win.