How an Agent Can Kill Your Career: Involuntary Manslaughter, Part 1

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Home for the Fourth

While we agents like to think of ourselves as career-makers, unfortunately, we can also be career-killers. I’ll explore that concept this week; I hope the postswill alert you to ways that even good intentions can go so wrong.

But first let me say that the author-agent relationship is based on trust. I don’t intend my posts to instill paranoia in all writers but instead to show you a downside to publishing that we agents seldom talk about because it’s…well, kinda embarrassing. But I figure you’re reading our blog to gain an education. You’ll want to take notes. With that in mind, here we go…The first way an agent can kill a career is through involuntary manslaughter. The agent doesn’t set out to murder a career, but circumstances line up in such a way that the deed is done before anyone had time to realize what was happening. In this case, the agent made an educated guess and it was wrong. Here are some situations in which that can happen:

  • Sent projects to wrong publishers and couldn’t garner any interest. Publishers are constantly changing what they’re looking for. Oh, sure, the basics of a publishing house remain constant (some won’t publish anything that’s too sexy or too graphic or too coarse in language while others won’t publish fiction set in a foreign country).But everything else is pretty much up for grabs in terms of what a publisher wants.

How to avoid this murderous mistake: Agents need to stay in constant communication with editors. Sometimes projects are placed because of a comment made during a phone conversation. A few months ago, I was talking to an editor about a project she was making an offer on. As a side note, she asked me, “Do you happen to have anything to submit for our e-book debut lineup?” “No,” I responded. “I’ve looked through everything I have, and nothing seems like a good fit. I do wish I could submit this suspense novel I have that centers around a banker stealing from his bank, but it’s not the kind of suspense you publish.” “Send it anyway, just in case,” the editor urged. I did; Cash Burn by Michael Berrier just released with Tyndale–all from a sidebar to a conversation.

  • Chose the  wrong publishing house when other options were available. We agents love it when we have more than one publishing house interested in a project. That is to say, we love it while the publishers are competing with each other by increasing what they’ll offer. But then cold reality settles in, and the agent realizes, “Oh, oh, I have to decide which publishing house. The choice I make can mean all the difference in the world to this author.”

How to avoid making a mistake: Being a good agent often resides in making the right choice, but that choice can sometimes be quite nuanced. Knowing what weight to give each reason to decide on a publishing house is where the career-killer agent and the career-maker agent are likely to make different choices. The easy way to make the decision is to go with the guy with the most green out there on the table. But the publisher offering the most money isn’t necessarily the best choice. It might be publisher #2, which is known for having tis ability to place this type of project in significant retail outlets. Or it might be publisher #3, which has the best marketing director in the business. Or it might be publisher #4, which can release the book at a crucial time that the other publishers can’t match. See what I mean? The right choice often is tucked away rather than standing in the middle of the street screaming, “Choose me, you doofus!”

  • Miscalculating the future. The future has turned into a dark alley for everyone in publishing. What will the future hold for the industry as a whole? What will it look like for a specific publisher? Who’s poised to maintain strong growth? Who’s being imaginative and gutsy? Who’s paddling as fast as possible but barely keeping up with change? And perhaps the most important question of all: Which publishers are making a commitment to deal fairly with authors in the new frontiers? The agent who doesn’t know the answers to these questions is one likely to commit involuntary manslaughter by placing projects with publishers who aren’t going to be key players. Where a publisher goes, so also tend to go its authors.

How to avoid this murderous mistake: Agents have an obligation to their clients to stay on top of what’s happening in the industry and to be proactive by clearing the way for their clients. An agent needs to understand how e-books are created; what expenses are involved in making them; and whether a client should self-publish or go the traditional route. Once again, the answers are nuanced, not obvious. Keeping up also means understanding what publishers are putting in their contracts. I negotiated a contract with one publisher who insisted on keeping multimedia rights with e-books. I resisted. We talked. Turned out no one in the contracts department knew what that phrase meant. Hmm. That could be a major miscalculation about the future, if the agent just let the contract move forward without challenging why a publisher should have certain rights.

So, you see what I mean? Agents don’t intend to kill careers; that’s really hard on our business model. But these mistakes can take down a career, sometimes in one fell swoop; sometimes  over time.

As a writer, you, too, have to make  nuanced choices. Which ones cause you nightmares? For example, which project to work on? when to give up on a project? how to approach an agent? which publisher to submit to?

26 Responses

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  1. Thanks! Great insight. I have to admit, when I first started trying to get published I didn’t care or do research – if an agent was going to be interested – I was in. Now I’ve learned to do my research and ask more questions because this is an important decision. Just as there’s an onus on the agent to be informed, the writer also must be.

  2. Sarah Thomas says:

    I think this really highlights the importance of having the kind of relationship with your agent that’s built on trust and respect.

    As for nuanced choices, I have two projects underway and two more in the hopper. It can be SO tempting to jump on one of the new ideas because it feels fresh and exciting (and it might be better than the old stuff!). But I’ve invested too much time in the current projects to just leave them hanging. Of course, the absolute worst thing I can do is dither. That’ll eat up time like crazy! I think the trick is coming up with a thought-out plan and then sticking to the plan (applies to much of life!).

  3. One of the biggest clues in determining whether an agent is right for you is whether you sense they are most interested in helping you to build your career–or merely in selling your book.

    Thanks for your insight, Janet, and for the link to Michael Berrier’s new novel. I’m excited for Michael and just downloaded it to my Kindle. I think readers are going to discover a fresh, new talent.

  4. Janet, you hit on two of my great bugagoos: Which project to work on? When to give up on a project? I’ve quite recently been torn by a project that begs me to work on it, while my current WIP is the one I should be writing. And when to give up? That’s like asking me when to abandon CPR on a patient. The doctor in me just doesn’t want to give up…ever.

    You’ve made some excellent points, all of which make me appreciate agents that much more. Thanks for sharing. Happy Fourth.

  5. Like Lisa, back when I first started to seek publication, I wasn’t wise about it at all. I now understand the phrase “but for the grace of God” 🙂

    The current nightmare inducing decision isn’t so much how to approach agents but how to know who to approach. Even when you do your research, you can find conflicting reports at times. I’m a very logical, detail-oriented person, but I’m wondering if a certain amount of gut instinct doesn’t go into decisions as well.

  6. Janet Grant says:

    Thanks for your comments. Michael, that’s a good point: Is the agent interested in selling your book or on building your career? Each way of thinking about a writer results in a very different approach to relating to that author.
    Richard, I hadn’t thought about the parallel to CPR, but yeah, stopping work on a project is tough–but not nearly as final as ending CPR would be. That’s why many writers have their computers loaded with abandoned projects that can be revived at any given moment.

  7. Peter DeHaan says:

    This insight is most helpful. Thank you for your honesty.

    While it is critically important for agents to keep abreast of what’s happening in the industry, I think writers can help their agents by likewise being aware of changing conditions and new opportunities.

    I believe that an informed author will aid an informed agent at doing an even better job.

  8. Janet, you and the other agents in Books & Such I’ve met all have integrity, compassion, and common sense and you know the industry well. That’s the most anyone can expect.

  9. Sherri says:

    I had to smile when I read this. It’s such a reminder that agents are human, too, and hard working individuals, not miracle workers. I always think about writers as being the nervous ones, but agents have a huge responsibility as well. I am looking for an agent right now, and my biggest fear (after the #1 fear of not finding one at all) is that the only one who will be interested in my work with be the wrong one – a bad fit. I will continue to leave that in God’s hands and do my homework, but it’s nice to know that writers aren’t the only ones who worry. Thank you. I think this will help me to be more aware of my role in supporting and working well with my (future) agent.

  10. That was a great eye catching title 🙂

    That is part of the reason I like to go to conferences, to meet potential agents and publishers. There is something about meeting an agent, dining with them, and getting to know them, both professionally and as another human being. You can never do this just by looking up their website.

  11. Janet Grant says:

    Morgan, you’re so right. It helps immensely to meet agents face-to-face and to have real-time interaction with them. You can learn a lot. But it also pays to check out their reputation in the industry; after all, agents have to present themselves well, or they’d never get past printing up agenting business cards. This week I’m talking about the behind-the-scenes stuff, the results of which usually come into focus only long after the agent has made wrong moves for his or her client.

  12. Good question! Which project to work on, or step to take, is a big one for me. As an aspiring author, the timing of everything is crucial. I’ve been redrafting my first novel, getting ready to send a partial to an agent I really feel drawn to. But timing being so important, I wonder should I first get my next project started so she’ll see career sustainability, work to increase my followers in social media to demonstrate a solid online presence, or send the proposal when the manuscript is ready and trust God’s timing as I build those other things in the meantime? Will a misstep cost me?

    I think prayer here is vital, but these questions still rattle around in my mind often. Fear of making a mistake can be paralyzing, and doing nothing is a sure way to kill a career before it begins. So after gaining knowledge, then praying, you have to step out in faith and trust God with your future and career.

  13. Agents have more on their plates than most people realize. The constant change in industry..new publishing houses popping up and technology changing the industry must keep you all on your toes.

    I don’t have an agent yet. I am still working on my technique and voice but I have researched agents and have learned some of the most sought after with the best reputation and the ones to stay away from.

    I love this weeks blog! Can’t wait to hear more. 🙂

  14. Bonnie Leon says:

    Janet, one of the reasons I wanted to work with Books and Such was because of the emphasis my agent had on career building rather than “just” the present project. And I’ve seen this at work.

    But a misstep being a career killer is a frightening idea. Trusting God is in the middle of it all and He’ll bring about His will, not mine.

    Grace and peace to you.

  15. Larry Carney says:

    The one that causes me frustration is the “what type of fiction to write” question.

    It seems the only way to get into an acclaimed literary journal is to find the bottom of the depravity barrel. Used to be mostly an American thing; the French literary journals especially used to be open to more abstract fiction, yet in recent years they too require fiction which is brutal to read, much less write.

    So literary short fiction is a no-go. What about Sci-Fi / Fantasy?

    Alas, I don’t feel quite like writing about Martians or Morlocks. Don’t have anything against the genre, I just don’t feel pulled in that direction.

    Mystery? Now we’re getting somewhere.

    Guess I should dust off the old cloak and dagger 🙂

    Though I am wondering, what do you as an industry insider hear the most often as being what worries writers?

  16. Lori Benton says:

    Thank you, thank you, for all that you and Wendy and the Books & Such agents keep abreast of in this changing business. Frankly, most of it would have me curled into a ball under my bed, if there was room under there amongst all the out-of-season clothes and old files and whatnot we keep stored there. 🙂

    I don’t fear a misstep, because ultimately I believe God is in control. The mind of an agent (or writer) plans her way, but the Lord directs her steps.

  17. Lynn Kelley says:

    Thank you, Janet, for this enlightening post. I’m so glad you shared this glimpse into an agent’s decisions with us. With the industry changing so drastically, it kind of goes back to that old saying, You snooze, you lose.
    Decisions, decisions.

  18. Lenore Buth says:

    Lori, I love that verse, too. That’s the bottom line of life, isn’t it?

    Janet, I appreciate your honesty and your willingness to let us into your world.

  19. Wow, if that isn’t an attention-grabbing blog post title, I don’t know what is. 🙂

    Excellent information here, Janet!

    As for your question about which project to do next, it often becomes clear to me based on feedback from others — contest judges, publishing professionals, mentors, fellow writers. And then after I assimilate all of that, I move forward with the burning choice and write. Otherwise, I’d get paralyzed and not write anything. 🙂

  20. Definitely true.

  21. Janet Grant says:

    Michelle,I’d say the most important item for you to concentrate on is writing a stellar first novel. It’s the key to open the gate to an agent; if the writing isn’t there, regardless what your next great idea is, the agent and you will never enter into that discussion.
    I would suggest you have a sense of what your next book will, but you don’t have to start writing it.
    You do need to be building your social media presence now, while you’re working on your novel.
    Larry, as for what question I find uppermost on writers’ minds, it’s what to write next. Trying to listen to your heart and to the market at the same time can be a very hard balance to find.
    Thanks for all your comments; it helps all of us to hear where each author is and what that person is struggling to decide.

  22. Karen Ball says:

    Janet, intelligent and insightful, as always. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  23. Thank you, Janet! Follow up question: Once that stellar first novel is complete, is it better to pursue representation right then, or obtain X number of social media followers first? Is there a magic number of followers that agents want to see, and is that ever the deal breaker?

    Hope everyone is staying cool this week!

  24. Cat Woods says:

    Thanks for being so straightforward about the process. Your candid posts help soothe the fears that many new writers have.

    ~Cat

  25. Caroline says:

    Lori’s point is great. And a needed reminder. I’m praying to trust His leading and act in obedience (not just sit and worry).

    Janet, thank you (and the rest of the team) for always sharing such honesty on this blog.

  26. Shawn Lamb says:

    My agent kill our relationship and that of mine with my publisher when, unknown to me, she forwarded a private email I sent her expressing my frustration as a new author with marketing and trying to understand the responsibilities of each party.

    The next thing I knew, the head of my publishing company sends me a nasty email. I was stunned and livid. One thing lead to another in a series of exchanges that resulted in me firing my agent for breech or confidentiality and I haven’t had any correspondence with my publisher since.