Confusing Agent Behavior

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Reader Laurie wrote: A friend of mine has an agent interested in her first novel, but the agent has not made an offer of representation.  Instead she has asked my friend to hire a book editor (done), beef up her blog and platform (done), and finally get blurbs from famous authors (on an unpublished manuscript, but this is done now too).  Today the agent said she has interest from two big-name editors and will hopefully hear back by the end of the week.  This seems really unusual to me — don’t most agents offer representation BEFORE going to publishing houses?  My friend is too intimidated by the agent to ask these questions.

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Dear Laurie,

The agent is certainly behaving as if she represents this author. Asking the writer to edit the book, beef up her platform and get blurbs would not be unusual prior to offering representation; however, I don’t think the agent shouldn’t be talking with editors about the project if she doesn’t represent it.

It sounds like the agent might be talking it up, trying to get an idea of whether she can get editors interested, before officially committing to representing the project. Understandable, maybe — but it’s not how we do business. Sometimes before offering representation on a certain manuscript, I’ll ask general questions in conversations with editors to determine if they’d be interested in looking at the genre. But without a representation agreement (verbal or written) ethically I shouldn’t be talking to anyone specifically about the book.

Of course, your friend might be thinking, “What’s the harm if the agent is going to sell my book?” But I think she should immediately ask the agent, “Since you’re talking with editors about my book, does that mean you’re representing me?” And she can ask questions until she’s satisfied she understands her situation. She is within her rights to ask that the agent refrain from talking to editors or anyone else about her project without a representation agreement.

All agents run their businesses their own way and I can’t speak for everyone. This is simply my viewpoint, but it’s only one opinion so don’t take it as gospel.

It seems your friend has another problem as well — and that’s her being too intimidated to ask questions. I understand how scary this can be for authors, but you’ve got to find your confidence and don’t be afraid to ask questions and speak up for yourself. At the very least, ask questions via email — it’s not intimidating like trying to talk to an agent on the phone.

Have you come across any agent practices that confused you or didn’t seem to fit your understanding of what agents do?

Tweetables:

Agents behaving strangely – and how to deal with it. Advice from @RachelleGardner. Click to Tweet.

Never be too intimidated by agents to ask questions and speak up for yourself. Click to Tweet.

 

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41 Comments

  • Rachelle, I don’t have experience with agents … my only experience is this blog and learning from you all.

    But I can understand that feeling of being at others’ mercy and afraid to speak up, afraid of losing hopes of representation. But that is one of those circumstances where you have to do the right thing (speak up) and leave it in God’s hands to open or close the door.

    I’m learning we have to be careful in all areas. This is off topic, but recently I decided to look through who I followed on Twitter. I shockingly came across a name that included “Satan.” I would never have chosen to “follow back” that or chosen to “follow” that. I am assuming that it appeared reputable … and after they had so many followers, they completely changed their name. How else could that happen? So bizarre. I wonder if this has happened to anyone else (I am a Twitter newby, as well). Either way, it let me know that I need to be extra cautious.

    • I’m very choosy as to who I follow on Twitter. I mean, what do the first 4 letters spell?
      I don’t follow everyone who follows me, and some are on probation. It’s MY Twitter feed, right?

      As to speaking up, I try to be as insanely diplomatic and polite, (Canadian?) as possible. Until I get to know the person. Then, well, hello, someone pass this girl some duct tape.

      I recall the day at ACFW when I was offered representation, I was *somewhat* excited. Like, 11 on the Spinal Tap scale, if ya know what I mean…and as I was chatting with several of our beloved Books and Such agents, I said “I promise to behave on the blog for a whole week.”
      To which I received a resounding “No! Just be yourself!”

      • Good advice, Jennifer! I always look to see what someone writes on their twitter page before I follow back … but I sure got one pulled over on me … just creepy.

        And definitely be yourself … your self is a good one … you teach us much with sprays of humor! I love it!

    • Thanks for bringing this up, Shelli. I should probably take a look at my Twitter account!

      • You are welcome, Jennifer! My nonfiction definitely steps on the enemy’s toes … and I was soon to speak to a ladies’ group on the topic … I had a feeling the old enemy would be raising his head. But … it was a creepy feeling.

  • Most of the agents I read online, have heard about from friends, or have met with at a conference follow very similar practices, from what I can tell. That being said, I haven’t come across many odd practices. I appreciate agent blogs like this one. Through you ladies, I have learned a lot about what to expect during agent interactions, what the norm looks like in agent practices and the broad picture of how the publishing process works as it relates to agents’ role (and an author’s role) in it.

  • If an agent says “Who luvs ya, baby?” Run.

    The only agent behaviour I cannot comprehend, I mean, really? A certain agent I love dearly likes DARK chocolate.

    EWW.

  • I had a friend go this exact same thing. It seemed like an odd way to do business to me. The contract is there to protect both parties.

  • Rachelle, I certainly agree that this agent’s behavior would make me wonder. I can identify with being a bit hesitant to approach an agent. Frankly, I’ve had representation by a fantastic agent for years now, and together we’ve seen seven of my novels published, but I STILL feel hesitant to bother her. That feeling has got to be magnified if a writer is just on the cusp of representation.
    I’d like to think that I would have asked for clarification before spending money on an independent editor, but then again, an editor did the same thing to be (before I had representation) and then didn’t offer the contract he implied was coming.
    As always, thanks for sharing.

    • Richard, it’s good to hear the perspective of a successful, multi-published author. As an unagented writer, I would be more in the camp of, “I don’t want to bother her with my newbie questions…..” I guess confidence in the relationship/possible relationship probably plays a role in being bold enough to ask questions.

  • Here’s one.

    After querying, I received a response, several months later, for a full (paper – this was 2008).

    Sent it, and got a letter from the agent’s assistant, saying that the MS needed work before the agent would look at it, and if I sent $150 she would help me ‘polish’ the MS.

    This I did, and duly received the MS back with corrections, most of which did in fact help.

    I made the changes, printed off a fresh copy, and sent the MS back, along with a prepaid FedEx slip if it was going to be returned.

    And a couple of weeks after THAT, I got a letter from the agent herself, saying that she didn’t need to read the MS, that she wasn’t interested, and that the MS had been recycled. The missive was hand-written – rather, scrawled – on the letter I had sent to accompany the revised MS.

    This agent didn’t appear on any of the Internet ‘caution lists’ at the time. I did check every one I could find.

    I guess the $150 was money well-spent, since I did learn something.

  • Jim Lupis says:

    A writer needs to “grow” in many areas to succeed. There is more to being a successful writer than just writing a good sentence. One of the many ways a writer experiences growth is in dealing with other people involved in his profession. Being able to communicate effectively with an agent is one of those areas. We will all encounter opportunities for growth, dealing with an agent is certainly one of them. Good question for thought, Rachelle.

    • Good point, and it’s important to note that we come to writing through backgrounds that are sometimes quite singular. I would have trouble understanding someone raised in a Quaker household; they would certainly be aghast at the prospect of trying to understand me to understand me. (Not that it hasn’t, and indeed hasn’t worked…but it was tough.)

      Puzzling behavior may only be thorough misunderstanding.

      • Hmmm…

        we all want to be understood, but “to understand me to understand me” may be laying it on a bit thick.

        Either that, or I have a future in writing country music.

      • Go for it, and get one of those belt buckles you can serve Barb her dinner on, y’all.

      • That is hilarious, Andrew!

        And I’m so laughing at the “y’all,” Jennifer.

        If y’all could just hear me talk! And I’ll take all the contractions I can in 110 degree Texas temps! Oh, it’s nice now, but it won’t be long. We tend to skip fall and spring here. Whatever you say, though long and drawn out, southern style, make it as few words as possible! Hee hee!!

  • I had a friend briefly go through something similar, where an agent talked about her project to editors before offering to sign her — though she talked about my friend as if she already represented her. The agent did offer representation afterward, but my friend decided to go another direction. Still, it’s always made that agent’s reputation a bit muddied in my mind (not that agents don’t make mistakes too, especially when they’re newbies themselves).

    I’m so thankful to have a lovely agent who has taken a chance on me. I appreciate it more than I can say — and I intend to work hard to prove her faith in me was valid. :)

    • It’s always a game changer when someone acts out of what expected parameters dictate. Even if that person, whatever their profession, comes around to almost normal, there’s always the wee little voice in our mind “hey, remember???”

      And you are blessed with the agent God chose for you, as I’m sure that agent blessed by you.

      Once lost, trust is hard to rebuild.

      • Brings up an interesting question…

        When Peter denied Jesus three times in one night, it was certainly a betrayal.

        But then Jesus turned around and gave Peter the keys to the church, saying, in effect, “OK, lesson learned, move on, I trust you with my flock and my temporal legacy.”

        Makes me wonder if trust and forgiveness are more linked than we thought – that accepting sincere repentance means having to bestow trust, that otherwise the forgiveness is only conditional?

  • Angela Mills says:

    I haven’t yet started submitting to agents, but I identify with the being a big chicken thing. I could see not wanting to upset the agent, but at the same time, do you really want an agent that is so high strung they get mad and drop you because you ask them to clear something up? That is what the logical part of my brain says, anyway.

    The shy, timid part of my brain would probably win out and I’d ask as non-threatingly as I could in an email. What did we introverts do before email?!

  • Rick Barry says:

    The behavior of the agent in question also seems risky in another way. Without offering representation, she is spending time giving advice and evidently testing the waters with at least a couple editors. Yet, many writers attend conferences where authors can sign up for one-on-one chats with multiple agents. I can picture a scenario in which this agent invests time and thought, only to have a different agent study the proposal or full m.s. and email the author a quick offer of representation. With not promise of a contract from agent #1, the author might jump to accept agent #2′s contract.

  • Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    Your friend is blessed to have you defending her and asking questions for her. Way to go. Makes me think of the good friends that I have in my corner pulling for me. We shouldn’t have to do this alone.

  • That’s like a real estate agent putting your dog’s house on the market to sell when your dog doesn’t even want to move.

  • Debra Englander says:

    I’ve been editorial director at a large publisher and also have been a freelance editor and writer. While an agent may recommend an author make changes to a proposal before deciding to represent that author, asking anyone to spend additional money, resources and time without signing the author is not the norm at all! I agree with some of the other comments that authors need to be able to openly converse and ask questions. Yes, the agent is the expert, but ultimately the author’s reputation and income is at stake so author must be willing to ask questions and learn. Finally, the old gut check–if someone makes you uncomfortable, walk away.

  • Linda says:

    I am gleaning lots of good information reading your blog posts Rachelle. Thank you so much. I am an absolute beginner and just learning about editing and agents and platform. It can be a little intimidating – or a lot intimidating actually. I am benefitting from your willingness to share.

  • Thanks for sharing this story, Rachelle. It’s always good to know what to expect and to know when to ask questions.

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