How an Agent Can Kill Your Career: Death by a Thousand Cuts

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Winging my way to Atlanta for the International Christian Retailers Show

Agents seldom kill careers in blatant ways, with witnesses watching while the deed is committed before their very eyes. Writing deaths usually are slow and come from not one mistake or misdeed but from thousands (okay, it would probably be more like dozens) of small cuts. But they add up to the same result: a career done in.

What might some of those “cuts” be? Here’s a list:

  • Sloppy contract negotiating
  • Inability to brainstorm potential new directions for you
  • Insensitive to what makes a project noteworthy and what makes a project appear like same-old, same-old
  • Unhelpful in coming up with a strong title and subtitle (don’t expect a stroke of genius every time)
  • Doesn’t read projects before submitting them
  • Sends projects with a shotgun blast rather than a laser beam (to every publisher imaginable rather than to the most likely to be interested)
  • Doesn’t seriously enter into conversation with you about planning your career
  • Lacks the ability to be a mediator between a publisher and you
  • Doesn’t read much(!)
  • Can’t be bothered with keeping up with publishing trends
  • Doesn’t seem to be liked by editors
  • Isn’t involved in social media but thinks you should be (therefore doesn’t understand the dynamics of social media, the differences between Facebook and Twitter, etc.)
  • Fails to offer feedback on cover designs
  • Regularly drops balls that are important to you to be kept in the air
  • Disorganized and forgetful

As I said, the list could on.

But, before I give you a chance to add to it, I want to slip a P.S. into this post. And that’s the reality that authors sometimes commit suicide on their agent’s watch. They do so by:

  • taking a writing sabbatical at a critical moment in a career (unforeseen life emergencies not withstanding)
  • failing to come up with marketable ideas
  • blaming the publisher as the sole reason books didn’t sell while not doing her part
  • choosing to turn down contracts the agent thinks should be taken (Our agency lost $75,000 in advances one month this way. Some of the reasons for turning down the contracts were valid; others, not so much so. But the agent still did her part in getting a contract offer–without receiving any pay and instead having an author slice his own wrist.)
  • refusing to listen to your agent’s advice because…um, you think you know more about publishing than your agent
  • not honing the craft but thinking you can “get by” with rushing to meet deadlines at the last minute
  • consistently missing deadlines
  • believing that, because five years ago, studies showed most books sell 4,000 copies, and yours are selling 5,000, you’re a success. Not!
  • convincing yourself that the tide has turned and publishers, agents, and bookstores are obsolete (Stats prove this incorrect.)

Well, this list could go on as well.

As a matter of fact, I invite you to add to either list. What are additional ways agents can kill a career? What are ways writers can kill one?

7 Responses

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  1. For both, sending out material that isn’t ready. There aren’t a lot of second chances in this business if you didn’t get it right the first time.

  2. Peter DeHaan says:

    I might add to the author list, those who think their agent will do all the work, including turning a sub-par book into a winner.

    The first set of bullet points seems to apply to a second-rate agent, while the second set seems to apply to a second rate (or arrogant) author.

    I think that a professional agent working with a professional author would avoid almost all of these items.

    Janet, thanks for sharing these lists and for all your insight this week.

  3. Writers can kill their careers by not writing.

  4. Lee Abbott says:

    There are grumps, slugs and whiners everywhere. Thanks, Janet, for the quick look at places I don’t want to go.

    Enjoy your trip to Atlanta.

  5. I think writers hurt their careers by being hard to work with. If they are already best-sellers, they might get away with it, but if their sales are average and they are demanding or cranky or defensive or easily offended, who is going to want to give them more contracts?

  6. I would think it would be incredibly tempting for an author to rest upon his or her laurels, especially on a second book. The second project after a big success is often a failure, and one has to be incredibly careful to create a new product that’s innovative in new ways. MacIntosh’s Apple II was a runaway success in its day, but the Apple III was a flop.

  7. You mentioned agents not being liked by editors as being a way for an agent to hurt a writer’s career. I would add to that, a writer can hurt her/his career by behaving in a rude, petty, or arrogant manner.

    Publishing is a small world (I’m sure we all have stories to back that up) and you can’t afford to make enemies–of anyone. If someone is rude or hateful to you, apologize for what’s your fault and make an attempt to reconcile. If you can’t, then move on. Retaliation isn’t going to help you. I know it seems like some people really deserve a good tongue-thrashing, but do yourself a favor and put it in a book 🙂

    Jenny