What Drives an Agent Crazy? Part 3

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

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

Lest you think, based on my posts so far this week, that only writers drives agents crazy, let me hasten to say that agents drive agents crazy!

A perennial problem among agents is a practice called “poaching.” Ew, sounds unpleasant, doesn’t it? “Poaching” occurs when an agent knows an author is represented by another agent and attempts to “steal” that client away.

Now, all agents know we don’t own our clients, and author-agent relationships don’t always work out the way we think they will. So there’s a certain amount of changing “dance” partners that naturally occurs. The agent might decide the client isn’t fitting into the agency well or isn’t producing salable manuscripts or barrages the agent with emails or some other crazy-making behavior. The author might not sense the agent believes in the writer’s work, is paying enough attention to the writer, or is found to be lacking in ethics. Whatever the reason, the relationship falls into the “irreconcilable differences” category.

But poachers (or bottomfeeders, as one agent describes them) are a whole different kettle of fish. A poacher sets his or her sights on an author and approaches the writer by saying, “I read your last book and thought  it was brilliant…just brilliant.” Or “You know, I’ve been watching what your agent is doing with your career, and I have to say, he just isn’t serving you well. I’d like to talk to you about what I could do for you.” Or “How much of an advance did your agent negotiate for you on your last contract?…Really? You’re worth so much more.” Or “You know, I have significant contacts in the film industry, and I have to say, your books are naturals.”

Here’s the thing: Most authors are inherently insecure; it seems to go with the creative mind. They need to hear how much someone believes in them; that their writing is appreciated; that their labors are worth serious money. So it doesn’t take a brainy agent to know the points of vulnerability most authors have. The poacher’s bait probably varies little, as he or she moves along, snatching up vulnerable authors with the same hook and line.

What’s wrong with that? Simply that the author probably was being served well by the current agent and won’t benefit from making the change. As a matter of fact, editors and other agents know which agents poach. Trust me, they aren’t the most respected in the biz. As a matter of fact, editors work with those agents only because the editors want the projects badly enough.

Now, do you want to be represented by someone with a bad reputation? What happens when that agent needs to work out a sticky situation for you? If the agent even shows up to deal with the problem, the publisher won’t be eager to work with that person. What happens when that agent negotiates your next contract? The publisher just won’t be in the mood to make the changes requested.

Poachers, when confronted by other agents, often describe their behavior as “just business.’ Perhaps to them it is; but to the rest of us, it’s distasteful and unethical.

Bottomline: Don’t be snagged by agents who are swimming down in the muck. Be discerning and ask around about an agent’s reputation.

10 Responses

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  1. Wendy says:

    Fascinating insider info. Sad it happens. Discernment is key. (Look how clipped I’m being today.)

    Saw you’re reading The Red Tent. Awesome book.
    ~ Wendy

  2. Lynn Dean says:

    You hit a nerve with this one, as I’ve recently had to deal with a poacher in my own profession. In the end, the clients came back after several months of wasted time and asked me to “fix” what little progress had been made. They would have been better served, in the long run, to have stayed the course, but they were anxious and insecure. Had they done just a little research, they’d have seen the pattern of legal and professional conflicts before they found themselves embroiled in a mess. It’s very sad.

  3. Lynn Dean says:

    I had a random thought after I hit send: Sometimes it seems like people just want to see some activity, something that looks like progress.

    Well, there’s a whirlwind of activity in a hurricane. They stir up lots of excitement, but the activity is not constructive, and forward progress is slow and erratic despite the great energy they expend going around in circles.

  4. “Most authors are inherently insecure; it seems to go with the creative mind.”

    It’s good to have this confirmed by a professional so I know it isn’t just me. I blame it on those little nasty critics sitting on our shoulders. We shut them up by writing something “brilliant”, but the moment we hit the save button the pesky critters raise their voice again.

    Who’s the best person to ask the question to about an agent’s reputation? Authors? Other agents?

  5. janetgrant says:

    Teri, good question about how to find out about an agent’s reputation. The very best people to ask are editors at writers conferences–or editors you work with. But you have to be sensitive in how you do it. After all, the editors have to work with any agent with a fabulous project; it just isn’t as pleasant an experience or one that is collaborative with certain agents.
    I’d suggest you ask the question in a positive way: Who are the top three agents you enjoy working with? If the agent you’re interested in isn’t on that list, it’s because the agent isn’t well-known (which is not a good thing) or is very well-known. :-\
    If you don’t attend writers conferences, it’s tough to get to the editors. Other agents will be reluctant to speak ill of an agent; it’s a professional courtesy not to. And authors don’t always know. They often think they know, but they aren’t on the inside of publishing. But lacking another source, I’d turn to authors–and I’d ask as many of them as I could to try to collect a consensus.

  6. Carrie Padgett says:

    I was a bit surprised by an editor on a conference panel who said, “I would recommend any of the agents here.” Even I, a newbie at the time, knew there were at least two there who should be avoided. It’s been a couple of years and I’ve seen those two lose clients and respect. I like your suggestion Janet, of asking an editor who are the top three agents they enjoy working with on projects. Thank you!

  7. Sometimes it happens when authors (friends) talk among themselves. One author, who frowns on another author’s agent (for whatever reason) is the one who, while singing praises of her own agent,suggests the alliance. Then, it becomes so easy to listen to another agent being so complimentary to you.

    You are so right about authors feeling insecure. That seed of doubt is planted, when really, would you be happier somewhere else?So many authors are so desperate to have an agent, they don’t always choose wisely when they come to this place of finding one. That makes the author vulnerable to such come hither looks from another agent!

    I keep hearing, “It’s business. It doesn’t matter if you leave.” But while it is business, it’s also a relationship built on trust is what I’m hearing you say.

    Wow, this has been a great series–talking about all of the taboo topics that usually is off-limits to those without agents.

  8. Lindsay Franklin says:

    “Most authors are inherently insecure; it seems to go with the creative mind.”

    I’m glad to know that we’re all in the same boat… the same extremely full boat. 🙂

    I wonder, is the practice of poaching itself enough to earn an agent a bad reputation with publishers? If so, I can’t imagine why anyone would do it! It seems mean-spirited and like something that would hardly be bolstering to an agent’s career. Why stoop to those levels? Blech.

  9. Wendy Lawton says:

    Crystal said she keeps hearing “It’s business. It doesn’t matter if you leave.”

    As she pointed out, nothing could be further from the truth. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to lose a client or to have to let a client go. At Books & Such we talk about this often– it hurts. Our other agent friends feel the same. Each one of us can tick off the clients we’ve lost. None of us lets go easily. You’ll find us still following those clients, still praying for them and even worrying about them.

  10. kim says:

    It would make me furious if an agent rejected me a year ago, someone else signs me up, then that same first agent SUDDENLY thinks I’m God’s gift to the world. No way, hosea. I will not play that game. I would be sending that first agent the same rejection letter they sent me the first time around or I wouldn’t respond back!! I would be just livid. 🙁 He didn’t believe in me the first time around, then when the $$ comes in, he wants to be my best friend?? Barf!! That is such a lack of respect!!