Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Bad Agent

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.



Anonymous said...

For me, it's harder to determine when an agent is going to help you advance your career. I've been with my agent for almost a year and while she is very savvy with contracts and negotiation, I get very little in the way of career planning. The agency is very reputable (people have heard of them), but sometimes I wonder what I'm missing out on. I am newly published (1 out, 2 scheduled), so I wondered if you could share what sorts of advice you would give your clients in terms of career advice.

Writer, Rejected said...

Sometimes you even need to steel yourself against the good ones! Even the ethical, professional ones can be FAR FROM HELPFUL to the writer. Not necessarily their fault due to pressures of the book business. Check out my site in part on the topic at

Anonymous said...

And I think it might bear saying that one person's Bad Agent could very well be another person's Agent God(dess) was the case with my first agent. I'm not the only writer who had a bad experience with her however she's done real well by 3-4 other writers (that I know of).

Diana Peterfreund said...

Anonymous at 10:04 has a point. One person's dream agent could be another person's nightmare, which is why I don't believe in the idea of ONE "dream agent" that a writer is desperate to get.

However, there are also Bad Agents who are bad for EVERYONE. They have no record of sales, no contacts, no whatever...

Kimber Li said...

Good point, Diana. Having researched tons of agents, I've noticed that.

Anonymous said...

I met a 'bad agent' at a recent conference. I felt sorry for her, really, because you could see that the other, good agents, didn't want to be associated with her (though none were rude or anything -- it was in their eyes, their posture). At the same time, I also felt for the many attendees who flocked to her, excited when she showed interest in their work. Nice lady, without a doubt, but she seemed pretty darn clueless about agenting!

Anonymous said...


I think I was at that conference, too!

I met one of the writers the "bad agent" had signed. And the writer was at the conference (having traveled from another state) to pitch her own work!

Uh, excuse me, isn't that what your agent is supposed to be doing?

I then was eating breakfast with a group of people who said "bad agent" was interested in their work and wanted to sign them. And they were so excited! Oh, dear.
Research any agents sales carefully, was all I could say.

Anonymous said...

Good, good post on Bad Bad Agent. Been there, done that, got out.

Bad Agent isn't necessarily a bad person. Bad Agent often has the best intentions. Bad Agent is a bad experience for everyone involved...including Bad Agent. But is it also a Learning Experience? That's the most important thing, IMO. If Bad Agent = Magnifico Learning Experience, the chances of winding up with Bad Agent #2 diminish considerably (unless Eager Writer needs more than one lesson).

Also, as others have said, sometimes it's not a case of Bad Agent. Sometimes Baddie is simply Agent Wrong.


kris said...

Anonymous 3:22, sometimes authors will choose to pitch their own work at conference even if they have a fabulous agent. I've done it at times, even since signing with Jessica, simply because it's a nice way for me to meet the editor myself and see if we click at all. Usually we spend, oh, 30 seconds on the book, and the rest of the time simply chatting about industry doings, the conference, whatever. It's still all good.

And I'd like to add that in some ways, Bad Agent can be worse than a scam agent, simply because she truly does want to help. She's earnest and well-meaning and often a very lovely person, and that makes it so damned difficult to walk away. It's very easy to talk yourself into giving Bad Agent one more shot, just a few more months, simply because she's so sincere and seems to be trying so hard.

(And trust me - in this case, I am NOT talking about Jessica!)

Anonymous said...

and triple Hah!
Fie upon agents!

None would take me. But I "Have a voice." Lalalalal

I would rather have a good editor but since I can't get an agent thats out. Actually I have a book coming out in October and I had an editor for that. The twin of bad agent probably.

Bookends - you rejected me but I will triumph!



Anonymous said...

Kris Fletcher --

(I'm anon 3:22)

For sure if you were going to the conference anyway, pitch away -- I get that. But this agent had her client fly from the east coast to the middle of the country to pitch her own book, because said "agent" thought that'd be best, even though the agent was attending the same conference and the author had no previous sales.

Plus, she was pitching it as the next HP, I kid you not.

Anonymous said...

Just to keep you up to date, Miss Snark is no longer posting.

Anonymous said...

Yup Yup, I agree. I was just posting about "bad agent". An agent should be able to do something you cannot. Why else would you pay them?

Anonymous said...

I wish there was a way for the good agents to really expose the bad agents - w/o feeling like a-holes, y'know? Like maybe we could take some super serious oath, raise three fingers (or one!) in the air and promise not to stick out our tongues or roll our eyes or point and snicker, just to avoid (quite charmingly) signing with Bad Agent. Then maybe Good Agent would give us a list of names - or at least initials.

Anonymous said...

What I find more difficult to discern is this: When is a good agent just not the right fit? I've been with my agent for two years. She tried without success to sell my first manuscript. While she was doing that, I wrote another. Now she's submitting it to editors, most of whom are saying they love the book but it's "just not right" for their house. I've recently finished mansucript 3. Do I send it to her or try for a different fit? I personally like this agent very much and she loves my work, but I wonder if something about the combination of my work and her agenting just isn't gelling.

Anonymous said...

I've been with my agent for a year now and have been feeling that she might qualify for the "Bad Agent" label for about six months. Kinda worrisome. Since we've already submitted my ms. to several bigger houses, I feel like I'm stuck with her at least for this book. I can't imagine another agent wishing to take on a book that's already been shopped around, thus narrowing the already competitive field. I wish I could leave, but I think it would be jumping out of the kettle and into the fire.

Anonymous said...

I have written four novels.

Two are online. 2006 2007

Out of Dust
(1981) -First

Gold In The Morning Sun
(2008) - Last

I'm looking for someone to believe in me....

Kay Hardy Campbell said...

Thanks for this post - I had a 'near miss' with someone and so many of those subtle and not-so-subtle red flags were there. Including the feeling in the gut that things weren't right. I've felt so strange ever since, and love your advice to just keep going, to move on, chin up and all. Reading this helps a lot!

Anonymous said...

If your work was any good it would be bought, no matter who your agent was. Your work stinks, so you have to blame someone for your own failures. Even if your agent sells it, you still blame the agent when your publisher doesn't bring in any money royalties or they give you the heave ho for all the returns they have to take back on your lousy books because the customers think it stinks, period. You are failures and don't want to admit you stink and the crap that you write is not fit for humans or insects. So you blame innocent agents when you should be kissing their feet for taking your crap. Do you ever hear people ragging about their real estate agents? Not as much as they rag on literary agents, because houses and real estate bring in value, but the crap that comes out of some people's heads reflects their own garbage way of thinking, a bunch of whiny losers blaming somebody else for being such failures because you are lazy fatasses eating chips all day.

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