What Drives an Agent Crazy? Part 1

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Location: Books & Such Main Office, Santa Rosa, Calif.

Every job has its drawbacks. You know, the stuff you’d just as soon not have to deal with but put up with for the inherent rewards in what you do. When I was an editor, proofreading was the do-I-have-to-do-this element of the job for me.

Agenting has plenty of rewards: working with clients for decades and seeing the long-term payoff for lots of dreaming and doing the hard stuff everyday; introducing a writer to the reading world; celebrating with clients when they hit the best-seller list or receive a notable award;  reading lots of great books before anyone else sees them; and developing strong relationships with publishing colleagues (editors, other agents, marketing and publicity folks, the publishers themselves).

Okay, that’s the good news. Now for the bad. Agenting has its share of crazy-making scenarios. To give you a glimpse into our world, I’m going to disclose a few of those circumstances this week.

Unagented people who ask for free advice.

Some authors hold out and refuse to sign with an agent, even though the writer has been in the biz for years–or even decades. They believe they’re doing just fine, thank you very much. That is, until they encounter a sticky publishing situation. Without anyone to turn to and to help figure out how to respond to the delicate circumstance that could radically affect the writer’s career, these careerists turn to an agenting buddy to bum off of him or her free advice.

Novice writers also turn to agents for free advice. Agents can encounter these individuals at writers conferences, neighborhood parties, weddings, church…pretty much anywhere people gather. Once individuals find out you’re an agent, they reveal that, wow, they’re writers and need some advice. I’ve been assailed in airport shuttles, restaurants and even elevators.

In this sense agents are like doctors: We aren’t comfortable being asked for free career advice any more than a physician is. Often the writer’s circumstance is complex and requires careful examination, diagnosis and treatment–in other words, some serious time and thought needs to be invested to figure out the next best move for that person.

Bottomline: Don’t assume agents are eager to dispense free advice. Respect that it took decades for them to know how to handle a variety of tricky publishing scenarios.

Now, lest that sound as though you should approach agents with fear and trembling, when have you received some good, free advice from an agent? What made that time appropriate?

19 Responses

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  1. Lori says:

    I get my free advice from agents by reading their blogs. 🙂

    In the same vein as to one of your pet peeves, I was asked by my church to write a large section of a brochure that they wanted to create for free and I accepted. They wanted something different than the usual and I obliged. I spent some time on it. When I saw the final brochure, they didn’t use much of anything that I created or wrote. I should of charged them or at least told them that if you don’t use it, you owe me 100% of my time, if you use half, you owe me 50%, if you use all of it, you owe me nothing.

  2. Well, I’ve received a lot of good, free advice from this blog! Also, those 15 minute appointments are also good times for getting advice from professionals.

    I do understand what you mean. Since I teach a creative writing class to homeschool students, folks want free critiques from me. I had another call this morning asking me to give a free critique for a book!

  3. Lynn Dean says:

    Exactly one year into my fiction-writing adventure, Rachelle Gardner gave me excellent free advice during an agent appointment at the ACFW Conference. She said, “You show promise, but you’re not ready yet.” And then she told me what to work on next. It wasn’t what I’d hoped to hear, but it was the best thing she could have told me.

  4. We have a “celebrity” doctor who has a spot on the local evening news. People are always watching every bite he eats at restaurants and coming up to him asking about symptoms. Recently a friend of mine was standing beside him in an elevator when a stranger started describing a condition she had.

    “I’m sorry,” he said, “but if I’m going to do an exam you’ll have to take off all your clothes.”

    (Don’t know how that would help you, Janet, but there’s a lesson in there somewhere.)

  5. It’s tough when others view you as always on the clock (I’m a pastor). It’s especially hard when I’m with my family and want to focus on them. It’s extra-especially hard when people who attend other churches ignore their own pastors to seek out my counsel. I know it comes with the territory, and I accept it. God sets up divine appointments, and I need to be open to that.

    At the same time, I need to have boundaries to protect myself and my family-time.

    I’d be interested in a few strategies you’ve used to deflect what could be an evening-busting counseling session when you just came to party. How can you honor your own boundaries while still communicating graciousness and care?


  6. janetgrant says:

    It sounds as though several of us are vulnerable for being asked to provide a skill for free. Any insights you have on how to handle that graciously will be gladly received by Bill and me.
    When I feel my personal time is being infringed on, I say something like, “That’s a complex topic I’m not sure I can help you with in such a short time. Might I suggest you go online to a writers’ loop to pose your question or read some agent blogs for help?” Or I might think of a book that could help with the issue. It’s not as clever as the doctor’s remark in Latayne’s story, but it points the person in a direction and requires them to work at finding the answer. I suspect the quest for that answer is an education in itself.

  7. Janet, I particularly like your comparison between agents being asked for free advice and the same request being made of doctors.

    We (doctors) can point out–and rightly so– that it’s difficult to make a diagnosis without an exam in our office. What agents need to do is tell the questioner he/she will have to come to your place of business, take off their clothes, sit bare-bottomed on an exam table, and they’ll probably be out the door before you finish talking.

  8. Like others pointed out above, great free advice right here!

  9. Kirk says:

    Nice post, Janet. Maybe it’s just me but I consider it so very rude to approach an agent hoping to get something for free. It continually amazes me when I hear/read so much about writers STILL approaching agents while on conference restroom breaks and other inappropriate times. There really is no excuse for this type of behavior.

  10. Carrie Padgett says:

    So, Janet… I’ve got a question about what publishers to market my Quaker zombie chick lit. Really, it’ll take just a moment. My ‘real’ agent will take care of it after that. See you at Starbucks, right??

  11. I’ve been a witness (and stood by waiting) while many people approach my husband, or even call him on the phone at home.

    After 29 years, I’ve even learned to run interference for him. (He’s an ER doc.) Sometimes when he’s on the porch of his mother’s Victorian house in the hometown he grew up in (we live in this community, too) I would joke about the “porch consults.”

    I have become a target, too–“Could you ask Chris…” Or worse, “You’re married to a doctor, what do you think about…” as if I absorbed his medical education and many years of practice by living with him (though I have picked up a few things on my own because he was always too busy for us at times!) 😉

    I think it says something about being “approachable.” And you really want to help others, but only have so much time. Plus, it’s dangerous to give such important advice or opinion on the fly.

    Smile, warmly touch her arm and suggest a literary attorney to contact, who would really be able to give her the time and concern her problem needs.

    My husband has to say sometimes, “You should go see your doctor.” (Although he ran across the road to help up our 95-year-old neighbor whenever his wife would call us.)

    I smiled at all the comments!

  12. Lindsay Franklin says:

    This must be an issue for so many professionals – agents, doctors, pastors, as mentioned. I imagine lawyers get bombarded, too. We have a general contractor friend who has had members of our church family ask him to do work on their houses for free. Yikes!

    My husband gets his fair share of requests for free service, too. He works in IT and has even been approached with specific error codes. “My computer says this. What’s wrong with it?” He handles it in a variety of different ways, ranging from simply saying he doesn’t know (which is true, until he sits down to look at it), to launching into lengthy, tech-jargon filled explanations (zzzz). But some in his field take a blunter approach. You can purchase t-shirts that say, “No, I will not fix your computer for free.” Maybe one needs to be designed for agents, too. 😉

  13. Lucy says:

    Unfortunately, public shame has disappeared so far that it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that the lady in the elevator DID take off all her clothes!

    I don’t know what to add, except that it’s not easy to turn someone down. I usually plead an overfull schedule (which is true); and Janet may be able to direct people to her blog and the links to other blogs. But Bill is in a different position altogether. I’m not sure if there is a solution for pastors, short of vacationing without a telephone in another state. 🙂

  14. Lori says:

    I know how Lindsay’s husband feels, in a former life I worked for years in the IT industry and I would get many questions about my computer from people. At least for now, the questions I get are currently from family.

  15. As a counselor, I frequently have people ask for advice outside of the office. “I don’t want to bother you here, BUT …” “Oh, you’re a counselor? Maybe you can help me with …” I try to listen but not let them go too far in the conversation before I interject. The more details they share, the harder it is to step back. “Sounds like you need to talk with someone and obviously this isn’t the best time or place. Why don’t you call my office and we’ll see if we can get together or I can give you some referral information.” If I detect a real emergency, then I’ll do what I can to stabilize things and suggest a place the person can get immediate help. If a humorous approach is fitting, I sometimes say, “Awe, too bad I’m off the clock!” (Then I suggest they call me or someone who can help – during my business hours.)
    It’s tough but we do need to set boundaries, out of respect to ourselves, our clients and to the person approaching us.

  16. I had been doing my own agenting for a lot of years and a lot of books. the best info an agent gave me was “Lauraine, it is time you get an agent.”

    I did and she was right.

    Lauraine Snelling

  17. Marti Pieper says:

    I’m in a somewhat unique position as an unagented ghostwriter for agented authors. Although my authors’ agent(also an attorney) doesn’t believe he can ethically represent the authors I serve and me, he’s offered to look over contracts and made other career suggestions. His help, however, flows from the relationship we have as working professionals, not because I presumed he should assist me.

    The best advice he’s given me echoes Lauraine’s post: find my own agent. He’s made recommendations and sent letters on my behalf. I don’t have an agent yet, but I couldn’t ask for more from my agent/non-agent friend.

  18. Sarah Sundin says:

    This post made me smile. I know it’s even worse for an agent, but I get similar questions as a pharmacist and now as an author. Worst case – my daughter’s English teacher sent me his YA memoir – without asking! He held my daughter’s grade in his hands. Thank goodness it was well written. I gave him ample praise, made a handful of suggestions, and told him I know nothing about the YA memoir market (ie, I can’t find you a publisher!) This is the only problem with an information-based rather than a product-based profession. All info is free…right?

  19. kim says:

    My favey as a writer is: I have an idea for a novel. Will you write it for me? I’ll give you 10% of the proceeds. What???