Agent Braggadocio

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

One of the things we value at Book & Such is our reputation for truth-telling. Saying it like it is. In deference to members of our own profession, we sometimes shy away from being truth tellers about the claims and practices of literary agents. That’s not fair. If you are trying to choose an agent or an agency, you’ll hear all sorts of claims. If we don’t ever criticize our own ilk, how is a writer supposed to tell the good from the bad or the ugly?dreamstime_xs_18617946 So today I’m going to address some of the things I’ve heard agents claim and talk a little about each claim.

Let me state at the outset that I am not immune from pointing out the good things about our agency and may have fallen into the trap of bragging, bombasticating or being a bit expansive at times. For that I beg forgiveness.

But let me address some of the things I’ve heard so that when you go looking for your perfect agent, you’ll have some context. Here are some blusters I’ve heard recently:

“If your agent has not also become a publisher in these changing times, he’s shortchanging you.” This is ridiculous. There are enough newly-minted indie publishers out there to populate a small town. Some agents may decide to dip into publishing in this new climate, and that’s okay.  Others are working hard to chose non-affiliated, reputable publishing options for their hybrid authors. Agenting and publishing are two separate professions, and the jury’s still out as to whether they can reside comfortably in the same firm.

“I happen to know how much money every agent makes.” A small group of agents were talking together at a conference when this bombastic statement was made. The inference here was that this agent made more money than any other.  The conversation stopped cold for a moment. It was a ridiculous statement. If the agent meant he was following sales on Publishers Marketplace and trying to assign a dollar figure to them, he still didn’t have enough data to make that statement. And some of us– like the agents at Books & Such– purposely do not report sales to Publishers Marketplace. Our sales data are confidential. No one but the IRS knows our bottom line.

“If your agent is not selling to Hollywood, he’s not representing you well.” Yeah. Yeah. We all option books and some of us have properties already in production or getting mighty close, but when an agent on a panel starts talking about the books he has sold to Hollywood, he’s just playing to writers’ unspoken dreams. Each novelist can envision the very actors he’d like to see for each character in his book. But optioning a book for film is a far cry from seeing that book played out on the big screen. The movie industry is built on hyperbole and wild dreams. We agents all work hard to identify and take advantage of real opportunity, which is a lot rarer than it seems. Most of us also partner with superb film agents who specialize in this segment of the industry.

“If your agent is not actively selling your foreign rights, he’s leaving money on the table.” This may be something you hear more often in ABA than in CBA. The truth is, all agencies exploit as many rights as we can, including foreign rights. In the CBA, we’ve found that most of the publishers do a far better job of selling those foreign rights than we do. A whole-world outreach is often part of their mission statement, and most have longtime relationships in each country with dedicated salespeople on staff who actively sell rights at BEA, Frankfort, Hong Kong and all the important rights shows. Retaining and selling an author’s foreign rights often only makes sense for internationally-known authors. Otherwise, the publisher does a better job and ultimately makes more money for the author. In one of her early jobs in publishing, our own Rachelle Gardner sold foreign rights on behalf of a publisher. She knows the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t.

“I’m doing more deals than any other agent in [name the category].” This bit of bombastery is pretty meaningless as well. An agent who says this may be coming to this conclusion because of sales posted on Publishers Marketplace. Trouble is, as I’ve said already, many agents don’t post sales. Some only post significant deals or deals they want to bring to the attention of the industry. Others post absolutely every deal including deals struck for meager or no advances just to reach that #1 spot in a category. Don’t be fooled. Some sales will actually damage the writer’s career. The quality of the sale made by an agent and the way that sale advances a writer’s long-term career becomes the hallmark of a significant agent.

“Your agent is in the publisher’s pocket.” I’m so tired of hearing this. There are a handful of agents who are proud of the fact that they have made enemies among publishing houses by “sticking up” for their clients. Yawn. An agent can be tough on behalf of his client and still be respected by publishers. A year or so ago, one of our colleagues, Steve Laube, a fine agent, was lambasted for this very thing on a blog written by a self-appointed self-publishing industry “expert.” As we later teased Steve about it, we all had a good laugh about how the publishing houses who’d had to negotiate with Steve would feel about hearing that he was their lap dog. Steve has always been tough on behalf of his clients yet still respected by publishers.

I could go on and on. I’ve had potential clients tell me that they chose another agent because they “wanted a shark” out there working on their behalf. Or that a certain agent could get them so much more money. Or that they needed someone willing to really fight for them, even taking a publisher to court if necessary. Yikes.

I guess what I’m saying is, choosing an agent is a tough decision. It’s a path marked with many pitfalls. Go beyond agent self-statements and braggadocio. Do your due diligence. But I don’t need to tell you that. The fact that you regularly read agent blogs and are willing to go deep already means you’re probably inoculated against bombastic rhetoric and grandiose claims. Being an agent is not a contest. We don’t compete in literary agent olympics.

You need the agent who is focused on your career, not his career. You need someone who is going to guide that career, keeping an eye trained on  the long haul not the short term.

Okay, your turn. What impresses you about an agent? What have you heard on agent panels that has given you pause? Is it all just plain confusing? Sound off in the comments.

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51 Comments

  • Great post, Wendy. It’s interesting to hear what some agents say about themselves and/or their abilities. I guess some bragging comes in an attempt to impress, and some bragging is done to gratify self. That’s just my limited-knowledge theory. :)

    Things that impress me about an agent are depth of character, integrity, having a broad knowledge of the publishing industry and a willingness to work with their clients at the level their clients need (meaning, they know their clients’ writing abilities and are able to help them further their craft, if that makes sense). Numbers of sales are not the first thing I look at.

    I have heard some agents brag on themselves in agent panels. I’ve also heard a couple agents pick arguments with other agents (CBA, mind you) on a panel. This tends to drive me away from an agent like that rather than yearn to have them represent me.

    Thanks for the insider’s look, Wendy!

    • My goodness, if they were publicly picking arguments, that would drive me away, too!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      The truth is, most of us are friends with each other. There are a few out there who make the most outrageous claims but few of us would be willing to start that debate on a panel. (Just look for the telltale eye rolls.)

  • Thanks for the insight, Wendy! I think agencies having blogs is a great way to see what they’re about. If the posts are just a big bragging fest, that’s a huge warning sign. But blogs like yours are informative and fun. We get to know you all through your posts. You’re always professional and polite. Many reasons why you are at the top of my dream agency list! Keep up the great work! :)

  • Wendy, being new at all this, it is all still a little just plain confusing. I admit, I don’t wander over to other agent blogs much. I have so much respect for what you do here at B&S. I appreciate how you “want” to inform writers. I have a friend agented by you all, and it blessed my heart to hear that you take the time to help direct her path. You advise her. She’s not left out there to figure it all out on her own. You want her success. That is priceless.

    I’m just really stuck in a spot now! I feel like my work is middle grade, and it doesn’t look like any of you represent that category. Fiddle diddle! I think it would be mighty difficult to find another group like you all.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      As soon as middle grade begins to find a place on the shelf again, we’ll be there. It’s just difficult to place right now.

      And I feel your pain because middle grade fiction is what I wrote and love. And it does sell. It’s evergreen. My own series keeps selling year after year. I’m closing in on a quarter of a million books sold in that one series alone. Now if we can just get publishers to see the potential.

  • Wendy, thanks for this post. I appreciate the honesty, helpfulness, and friendly humor I consistently find on Books and Such. I’ve come to admire all your agents!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Thank you. The nice thing about us is we are five different voices and though we are colleagues and friends we are not shy about holding each other accountable. We can’t go too far afield before someone pulls us back into the fold. ;-)

  • One claim on which I was burned (in 2008) was –

    “It’s a new marketplace – we HAVE to charge a reading fee.”

    It is really, really embarrassing to say that I bit on that one. The agency did claim to have represented a book with which I was familiar, and that helped me think they were legitimate.

    Oh, well. It’s only money.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      We used to adamantly state that a good agent never charges a client for anything. In fact, it is part of the AAR guidelines of which Books & Such, through Janet, is a member. The only checks that have ever come to us are from publishers. Clients never pay the agent. The commissions only come when we sell your book.

      But the publishing world is changing. We still abide by that stricture but if we were ever to expand to, say, coaching self-pub authors, we would need to charge that kind of client.

      But charging a reading fee– never. It’s part of our job. After all we are looking for that next great book. It is our privilege to consider possible manuscripts. That’s what the eventual 15% commission is for when we sell the book. And yes, we may read a number of books that are not quite ready yet but that’s part of the job.

      So sorry you got caught up in that scam. There was an interesting book written about some of the most notorious “agencies.” The book is titled Ten Percent of Nothing.

      • I can understand having to charge a SP author an up-front fee – that makes sense.

        I had checked a website that listed scam agencies at the time, but the one that bit me wasn’t there. I think that “whistleblower” website went down later, though.

      • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

        Those whistleblower websites are tough. You have to be a fighter and be willing to entertain lawsuits, frivolous or not.

  • I used to tell my kids, “You don’t make yourself look bigger by putting down the other guy.” I guess that applies to agents too.

    I’d expect the changing marketplace to generate some humility. Keeping up with all the changes could be a full-time job, leaving no time for agenting. Balance is beautiful.

  • Lori says:

    I want an agent who is a “real person” not someone who thinks they are a “celebrity” or God’s gift to the agent or publishing world.

    I know I have an impressive resume but I don’t brag about my credits in fact I actually tone it down and people keep telling me not to. Now I work with people who have, I think, a more impressive resume than me yet they down play their credits too.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I think that’s a good rule of thumb– to let people discover who you are gradually. But one of the things agents (and editors) have to contend with are panels where our job is to differentiate ourselves from the other agents on the panel– to help give writers an idea of who we are and what we do.

      It really encourages a bit of one-upmanship and I think we’ve all been guilty. (Think what it would be like if your next job interview was via a panel of competing applicants. Not the easiest way to present oneself.)

  • Angela Mills says:

    I will be pitching to my dream agency soon, and if they turn me down then this post will help me as I start to look for others. I’m wondering, are all of these problems as frequent in the CBA?

    Also, I love the word Bombastic.

    • Angela, what attributes have helped you determine what agency to pitch to?
      I’m excited for you, and wish you success.

      • Angela Mills says:

        Thanks, Jenni! I read a lot of agencies blogs and kind of stalked the couple that interested me the most. Most are so open on their blogs about their practices and my first choice is the one that seems to greatly value writers and be involved in several aspects of the publishing process. Integrity and kindness go a long way, too. An agency that is open about their faith and God’s hand in all we do was important, too. I wouldn’t want one where you couldn’t tell the difference between them and a secular agency.

        It’s nice to be in the fantasy stage where I can pick and choose. It’s quite a long shot and I’m pretty sure I’ll hear a “Thanks, but no thanks,” but at least with the agency I’ve chosen, I know they’ll let me down nicely :)

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I think it may be a little less in the CBA, especially because many of us are friends across agencies. And, of course, because we answer to a Higher Authority. That said, we are not immune.

  • One of the things I appreciate about all of you here–in addition to how helpful and honest you are–is your humility. Could I find information on these topics elsewhere? Probably. But I trust my gut. The way all of you approach these topics, it is evident your words come from the heart. Never once have I felt anyone at B&S boasts, even when discussing their sales or clients. That’s why I stay and read, despite the fact you don’t represent my current markets.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Than you so much, Cheryl. I pray that it is true, but we have all strayed. Happily we have good friends who call us to task.

  • What always impressed me about Books & Such was how often others bragged about you. I still remember telling an author at a conference that I had an appointment with a B&S agent. He said, “Books & Such is the best in the business. If you can get signed with them, you’ll be set.” And this author was NOT a client of yours, either. That spoke volumes to me! I’ve rarely heard a negative word about any of your agents, just lots of praises.

    I remember hearing an agent claim, “I have a 100% success rate–I’ve placed every single author I represent.” I really struggle to believe that, and it also made me wonder if this agent encouraged writers to accept questionable deals.

    I also heard a bookseller mention a specific agent (different one) and claim that said agent was the most successful one in the business. I kind of wondered what that claim was based on. Perhaps Publisher Weekly, as you suggested, or that agent’s word on the subject.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      It’s interesting that you are able to discern those unbelievable claims. Good! As for most successful agent in the industry? It’s not possible to know that. I’ve worked with one agent who most publishers wouldn’t even know because she handles only a handful of settled clients. But let me tell you– financially, she is without peer because of who her clients are.

      Another funny thing. . . sometimes an agent who seems wildly successful may be caring for his own career at the expense of his client’s careers. We’ve seen that as well– contracting clients way out there (not smart if the writer is on an upward trajectory) because the agent was in it for immediate money.

  • Annnnnnnnnnnd here’s my FOURTH try leaving a comment!!

    I’ll bullet this…

    -everyone else harshed my Zen
    -I’m ecstatic to be a Bookie
    -my agent makes me feel like I can do this, yet helps me stay grounded
    -I can’t stand bragging
    -I’m ecstatic to be a Bookie

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Sorry you had so much trouble today on our site. but thanks for persevering. I’m guessing your agent is pretty happy to have you as well. :-)

  • I want an agent (and agency) with a solid reputation for knowing the business and the players within, and can be trusted by all. And if they trust God as their ultimate source of direction, hmmmmm, I don’t think I could ask for more. I will count myself blessed!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Good list, Connie. I think it’s interesting that so few writers ask for an agency’s mission statement.

  • The few agent panels I’ve been to were informative and revealing. The interactions between each agent gave me a glimpse into their unique personalities. I think we get that same insight here on the B&S blog.

    I’m impressed by an agent who’s willing to adapt to the changes in the industry with discernment. An agent who invests not just in projects, but in people. One who has a keen business sense, and humbly admits when they’ve gone wrong. One who comes alongside a client who’s discouraged and doles out a healthy dose of reality with candor.

  • I met you, Wendy, at the first OCW convention I attended. After attempting to pitch my book to you at the lunch table, (with a lot of help and coaching from you), you suggested Etta Wilson as a better fit. She was sitting two tables over. I’m not sure I ever thanked you for that recommendation, but I loved her. I’ve yet to recover from her retirement!

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      I miss Etta as well. We were blessed to work with her. She embodies everything a good agent should be. I used to drool to see the client list she had over the years– she represented some classic children’s books. (Remember the book, Twig? That was hers.)

      We ought to twist her arm to write us a blog or two about children’s literature.

  • Anna Labno says:

    It’s important to know who’s selling foreign rights or who doesn’t at all. I’m bilingual. To have one person on stuff who deals with foreign rights isn’t enough. Don’t you believe in your authors enough to have their work published outside USA?

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Our clients books are sold all over the world. The question was whether the agent does a better job of selling those rights or if the publisher does. In the CBA market– generally speaking– our publishers do an excellent job of selling foreign rights.

  • Hi, Wendy. I’ve been wondering if at some point agents would make themselves available to self-publishing writers. I think doing so would be piled high with problems for writers and agents.

    1. It seems the cost an agent might need to charge to justify the time taken from agented writers might be prohibitive to an unagented writer.

    2. It might be difficult for a writer to work with someone who had already chosen not to represent (translated–didn’t believe in) his or her work.

    3. Whether or not the writer would be expected to pay a flat fee or a lifelong percentage for a limited service would make a difference, too.

    I think it would be difficult for an agent to take on self-publishers and stay true to the “rules” for being a good agent.

    It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

    By the way, thanks for pointing out that bragging agents exist. We ought to be as aware of them in our industry as much as in any other.

    • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

      Excellent points, Sylvia.

      We are constantly trying to stay open to new avenues for our clients and even exploring ways we can extend help to the pre-agented– like this blog. But we need to weigh each decision, especially when it comes to our commitment to our clients.

      Just a point regarding your #2. Many times we have to pass up a potential client for representation not because we don’t love their writing and their work but because there is no market for it at the present time. (Like our discussion above about children’s authors.) We may adore someone’s work, say, a literary novelist, but know that we’d be highly unlikely to successfully place that manuscript in today’s climate.

  • I was going to name my dog, Braggadocio, but now I’m really glad I didn’t

    Ever so humble Dinozzo is also glad.

  • The “selling to Hollywood” comment cracks me up. As if that’s all it takes. Just get an option for a movie and ta-dah. Your dreams come true. One of the first things I learned about writing was that much to my dismay Oprah didn’t call and Johnny Depp did NOT want to star in the film version. LOL. As one who has had a book optioned for a film and then got “the call” that it was “a go” with a recognized actress in the lead role & filming “on location” in Paris & etc. … only to have “upper management” change over and the new people say … “never mind” … this bit of braggadocio would go a long way toward making me think that the person who said it has no idea what they are talking about, is about getting business by making promises they can’t keep … and not someone I’d want to entrust with my career. And THANK YOU for this post. Great thoughts to ponder.

  • Darby Kern says:

    So many of these comments seem so offended I can’t believe you aren’t telling us about more knock-down, drag-out fist fights when they were made. I won’t make any claim to understand how an agents world turns except for the thing I know to be true: an agent doesn’t make a nickel if they’re not busting their chops to sell a client’s book.

    As a pre-published, agented writer I know that (1) I need to write something worth reading and (2) trust my agent to do what’s right on my behalf. I pretend that I’m her only client and wonder if she is able to put food on her table. I don’t sit and wonder if she’s “doing everything she can;” of course she is. If she doesn’t she better hope that box of Y2K Trisquits hasn’t gone stale.

    It’s a symbiotic relationship and my responsibility is to pull my weight, write something worthy and trust my agent. And I’m happy to say I do.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    I appreciate your post Wendy. It is good to know what to look for and to really see what is there underneath the surface bravado. I’m a long time Seahawks fan and I know that after watching sports and seeing some of the “killer” agents at work, that is not what I want. I am seeking balance. Someone who is honest and firm and working for me, yes. But I think one can be good at her job without causing others to fear and tremble at their presence.

  • Peter DeHaan says:

    Wendy, most of these agent claims and boasts would immediately turn me off. I’d never consider an agent who made them.

    And specifically, I don’t want an agent who is a shark or litigious. I’m all for building positive, long-term relations with agents — and publishers.

  • Excellent post Wendy. There is a big difference between confidence and bragging, the latter being unattractive and often unbelievable. I think this is true whether we are talking about agents or writers.

    Out of curiosity, in a literary agency, if one agent doesn’t feel like he/she is a good fit for a particular author, would a proposal ever be passed on to another agent within the agency?

    Thanks for the informative posts!

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