What Drives an Agent Crazy? Poaching

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Yes, sometimes agents drive agents crazy!

A perennial problem among agents is a practice called poaching.

Poaching occurs when an agent knows an author is represented by another agent and attempts to “steal” that client away.

Now, we agents know we don’t own our clients, and author-agent relationships don’t always work. So a certain amount of changing dance partners naturally occurs.

For example, 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. The author might think the agent doesn’t believe in the writer’s work, isn’t 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.

How poaching works

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 thoughtΒ  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 all the effort. So it doesn’t take a brainy agent to know most authors’ points of vulnerability. The poacher’s bait probably varies little, as he or she moves along, snatching up vulnerable authors with the same hook and line.

A couple of poaching examples

Recently a variation on this approach was used by an individual new to agenting. This person is moving from working at a publishing house to hanging up his agent shingle. He announced via email to all the authors of that publishing house about his new business and invited them to contact him if they thought he could help them. He then sent a link to his new website. The approach was general and soft-sell.

But he used his current position at that publishing house as a springboard to invite authors to work with him. He used the publisher’s author email list, which I’m guessing was done without anyone’s permission. Nor did he likely show the email to anyone at the publishing house before it was sent out.

Some of our clients were among those who received this missive. They were disturbed that they were approached in this inappropriate way. One of them told me about the email and then said, “He knows you’re my agent. Why would he even put me on his list?” Why indeed.

As a matter of fact, this sort of approach has been used by agents in the past. One individual, who had decided to leave the agency he was with to start his own, used the agency’s letterhead to write to all the clients. He explained that the president of the company was going to pursue another career path. Then the agent writing the letter offered to simply slip the author reading the letter into his new-born agency. Saved from being without an agent! What a gift! Except for one thing: The president of the company had no plans to leave agenting.

Why poaching is a problem: the agent’s motivations

I include these specific, real-life examples to help you see that those who engage in poaching aren’t doing so for the author’s benefit. Instead, the agent wants certain clients or needs more clients to jump-start his or her new business. Established authors tend to be tucked away in an agency; so an agent either needs to do the heavy lifting of helping writers begin their careers or, well, lure authors from other agents.

Yet an author might already be served well by the current agent and, by moving to a new agent, won’t necessarily benefit from the switch. Especially if the agent being switched to truly is new to the job. That person has a steep learning curve.And that education will come at the author’s expense.

Why poaching is a problem: the agent’s qualifications

Many individuals within publishing houses who work with agents think they understand what agents do. Uh, you have no idea how complex this job is until you’re faced with a hairy situation you’re being looked to to solve. Or you discover the up-to-your-nostrils minutiae involved in agenting and realize you’re going to have to develop lots of systems to keep track of it all.

That’s why someone new to the job shows wisdom in choosing to work for an established agency and being mentored. With that sort of agent, a new client benefits from having someone eager to build his list (needing to take on several new clients right away) and under the tutelage of someone who can serve as a guide through the tricky agenting waters. Not to mention the benefit of simply needing to learn an agency’s systems rather than having to create them.

Why poaching is a problem: the agent’s reputation

Another concern for the writer is that she has aligned herself with an agent who poaches, thereby aligning herself with someone whose reputation is tarnished. Editors and other agents know which agents poach. Trust me, they aren’t the most respected in the biz.

Do you want to be represented by someone with a sketchy 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?

Is poaching “just business”

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 and generally is undertaken to benefit the agent, not the author.

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


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Lit agents behaving badly. Click to tweet.

40 Responses

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  1. Poaching is theft, period, full stop.
    * Worked with some chaps from the Botswana Defense Forces who were seconded to help game wardens stop poaching in wildlife reserves. Their methods were swift and effective, and provided some benefit to the local ecosystem.

    • “Poaching is theft.”
      Unless you’re preparing eggs. Then it’s generally acceptable. πŸ˜‰

      • Angela, yes…but you’ve got to make sure that the chicken’s contract doesn’t contain secondary rights that could be violated; if the bird retained film/video rights, for example, and you posted your culinary creation to Facebook, the chicken’s lawyer may well call ‘Fowl!’

  2. CJ Myerly says:

    Oh, wow. I didn’t know this was a problem. I always learn so much about work as an agent through your blog. I love learning, and I think it will be valuable to me to understand more about what you do and what you face.

  3. Breathe gently on someone’s spark of disappointment and turn it into a wall of fire. Then welcome her into the “fresh air” of your guilty breeze. Eventually, everyone gets burned.
    *We’re all mature Christians, right? Can’t we sit down together to prayerfully discern what is in everyone’s best interest? I’ve learned from heated experience that good advice rarely comes from someone who won’t invite God to the discussion.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      So true, Shirlee! It’s too bad that business conducted by Christians doesn’t always abide by Biblical principles.
      *You may be mature. I’ve seen lots of evidence that you are. But when ambition or fear gets involved, the maturity level of the participants often drops.

  4. We can be lured in all areas of life … and it’s so important to ask God to help us be discerning and wise. Not all lures are bad–new and shiny can be good–but we can usually sense the ones that are slimy and slick. Either way, we want to ensure that we are following God’s plan for our lives … that we are making an educated decision and not being caught.

  5. As a youth, I would not even ask a girl out if I knew she was dating another boy. It was kind of an unwritten code of honor. You just don’t do it … unless you do, and then you’re a bottom feeder, as Janet has noted.
    My question is, “How does an unrepresented author know?” There is no Hall of Infamy among agents that I know of. If I ask one agent about another agent, he or she is unlikely to confess, “Oh, he’s a slimeball. Don’t go there.” So, in our own ignorance, we run the risk of signing with an ill-reputed agent and damaging our young, fragile reputation as “one of his authors.”

    • Carol Ashby says:

      Good point, Damon. If a person has been trying to get an agent for a long time, desperation can drive taking anyone over having no one.

      • Indeed!! I was reading an article some time back that said an unrepresented author with no track record should get the stars out of their eyes and sign with the first agent that is willing to take them … regardless. I’ll confess, I declined to do so a few months back because, following the phone interview, and after spending some time on the agent’s site/blog, everything about it felt wrong. Perhaps I was stupid, or perhaps God was intervening and saying, “No, not this one.” I really don’t know.

      • Damon, REALLY? You, stupid? Not likely!

      • Oh, brother Andrew … if’n only you knew. I have made some award-winning blunders in my time. πŸ˜‰

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Sounds like a smart choice to me. We should always listen to those nagging doubts sent by God.
        He put a former editor of a top CBA publisher in my path to tell me I should go indie if I wanted to use my books to support missions. Sometimes God tells you what you’re not really wanting to hear, and it’s the wise person who listens and acts on it. Sounds like you did.

      • Damon, we’ve all made blunders. I sure have. And no doubt, the Lord protected you in that decision.

    • Damon, you were wise to do your research. I’m not represented (yet–still working toward that), but it seems like researching an agent and their agency is key. I love agency blogs like this where we get a chance to read agents’ thoughts and learn who they are. And the great thing about blog is that many times, the agents answer our questions/comments. πŸ™‚
      *Relationship seems to be important in making a decision about signing (or not) with an agent. I’m pretty sure there are posts here (and possibly elsewhere) about questions we can ask agents when we discuss representation with them. I like that the conversation should be a two-way street before agent-potential client decide to work together.
      *Don’t know if this helps at all. πŸ™‚

      • Angela Arndt says:

        I’ve heard the same advice, Damon. But as exciting as it is the first time someone says they want to represent you, I agree with you and Jeanne. It’s better to build a relationship with agents and other writers, listen to your heart and God’s voice before signing.

        I’d think the same applies to writers already agented, too. Any currency a poacher uses can’t be as valuable as a great relationship with an invested agent.

      • Oh, yes, relationship is key. There has to be a “chemistry” right? I wish you every success in your ongoing search!

    • Janet Grant says:

      Damon, listening to your instincts is a good beginning. But also asking writer friends can help. Even better,if you happen to know editors (from attending writers conferences), you could do what a potential client of mine did. She sent an email to several editors with a multiple choice question: “Which of the three following agents do you think is the best agent for me?” She could have asked, “Which of these agents do you prefer to work with?” Either way, the editors all voted for the same agent. Lucky for me, that was moi.
      Wendy Lawton can also tell you about how, when she was focusing on her writing career, she had an agent offer representation, and while Wendy was considering saying yes, she told several writer and editor friends of her pending decision. She noted several of them didn’t seem as enthusiastic as she might have hoped. Finally an editor said to her, “That’s not a good choice. That agency has a terrible reputation among publishers.”

  6. Janet, I’ve heard a couple of examples of the in-your-face poaching, but some of your other examples are more subtle. I’m glad you shared the examples here. And I appreciate your well-rounded focus on the impact poaching clients has on the client and the agent.
    *I agree with others here today. Prayer is key. It seems like it is important for an already-agented writer to ask questions before agreeing to work with another agent. And, moving agents is something a client is considering, perhaps said client needs to address his/her issues with her current agent first. Just a thought.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, having a conversation with your current agent would be smart. If the relationship is going through a rough patch, talking it through could resolve the issues. If the client has been wooed by an agent who is making unrealistic promises, the author should hear another perspective. Generally, the agent who is left and the writer leaving in a poaching situation pretty much end up going through an ugly “divorce.” The client justifies his decision by deciding the first agent was a bad agent anyway, and the agent thinks about how there never was a chance to redeem the relationship.

    • Jeanne, “subtle” is an apt description. It just fits. So subtle, in fact, that it could be easy to miss what’s happening if you’re not aware. And yes, talking to the agent seems a wise move. Even when I made the decision to change churches after a decade, I had multiple talks with the senior pastor before doing so. And when the decision was made, I had a final meeting with him to relay that decision and make sure it was not a messy break.

      • Damon, it sounds like you were intentional about not burning bridges when you changed churches. That’s rarely an easy decision. I imagine your former senior pastor appreciated you taking the time to talk with him.

  7. I’m surprised that people in the Christian publishing field would do things like that!

    • I am not surprised, Janet. Saddened, but not surprised. The “gap” between the body of Christ and the world is not so wide as we like to believe. I recall a conversation I had with a delightful and adorable young woman about 15 years ago that left me disgusted. She was/is an accomplished musician and had invested a great deal of time and effort into recording and mixing a CD (this was pre-mp3 days). When the job was done and the CD was ready to go to press, the company began working the cover art, and she described for me how they were doing photo enhancement to over-sexualize her on the cover – breast enlargement, a sultry facial expression. revealing clothing. It was revolting!! Not at all what one would expect from a “Christian” company.

  8. Lynn Horton says:

    What an eye-opening blog, Janet. I did not realize that poaching was a problem with agents, although I knew it was with publishers. I met with a MAJOR (MAJOR, MAJOR) publisher at ACFW in Dallas in 2015. My first manuscript had reached the acquisitions board with this house and the editor remembered my work well. She said although they weren’t signed unpublished authors, they were interested in what I am doing and wanted me to get another publisher, build my market, and then come back to her. I was DUMBFOUNDED at her nerve, and the assumption that I would do such a thing. I mentioned the Texas phrase, “You dance with the one that brung you.” She was unfamiliar with it. I explained, as I was standing, that to have another publishing house invest in my work and my brand only to move to hers would be unethical in the extreme, and that I didn’t think that she and I had enough in common to build a working relationship. Then I made that long walk through the crowd of authors awaiting the next set of appointments. Their pitying eyes told me that they felt that my three-minute meeting hadn’t gone very well. I tried not to do the Rocky Balboa fist punch at my moral victory. I’ll never forget that meeting. And this publishing house is no longer on my “dream” list.

    • Janet Grant says:

      Lynn, I have had conversations with publishing house execs who just shrug their shoulders and say, “How else would we get established authors?” And they label their efforts as poaching and then laugh. Of course, those execs also know they have the financial power to do so. With agents, the poaching agent isn’t necessarily going to bring more money to the author.

      • Lynn Horton says:

        One thing my late father taught me was to be really careful with whom I did business, Janet. That vigorous vetting serves me well, as it did him. I am known by the company I keep, and unimpressed with anyone that believes that the financial power to poach is permission to do so. Ethics count.

    • Whoa! I am so impressed with you. Because we had breakfast not long after … and you made me laugh so hard. You had been through that … yet, I had no idea … and you pressed on, in such a happy way. I so admire you. And wow, just wow, at how you stand up for what you know is right or wrong. You’re so strong.

      • Lynn Horton says:

        Shelli, I don’t know what breakfast you’re talking about. Jennifer who? Mary who? No. I never had breakfast with you three. (Well, I think I remember Jennifer snorting.) But honestly, except for the fact that I was flabbergasted that this “Christian businesswoman” was being more unethical than my secular clients had ever been, there was no question that I was going to walk out of that meeting before it was scheduled to be over. I want to face my maker with as little guilt as possible, which means taking tough positions. (And I never book appointments with this publisher, either. I will never solicit their publishing of my work.)

    • Lara Hosselton says:

      Love your big as Texas response, Lynn. Yours was no walk of shame as you left that meeting.

  9. Mary Kay Moody says:

    Wow, Janet. No way poaching is just business. Thanks for the candid, thorough discussion. This comes as a surprise to me, and I’m glad to be warned. Sad to have to be on guard in this arena. But sheep are such vulnerable creatures!

  10. Poaching isn’t specific to the publishing industry either. I find it just as abhorrent in real estate. If you can’t get business any other way than stealing someone else’s clients, then you have larger issues. Loyalty can’t be bought.

  11. Jerusha Agen says:

    Wow! What an eye-opening look at the darkside of the agenting world. Thanks for this info, Janet. Great advice to be aware and be watchful, for myself and others.

  12. Susan Sage says:

    Makes me think of what Satan said to Eve in the garden, “Did God really say…” The stink of deception began then.
    It is good to know what to watch out for. Thank you, Janet.

  13. I have been searching past Books and Such blog posts because since I started following this blog, I have found it interesting, informative, and a place of growth and grace.

    This was of particular interest. Athough I have not had an agent attempt to poach me, I have because of other abilities and such I have had to learn to say no to people that: flatter me (flattery is always the face of a selfish or disingenuous request), pressure me (pressure is for pressure cookers not for people), or trying to buy me (I will not be bought, it didn’t work on me in my dating life – married to a man who didn’t have the means to buy me but had the heart to really love me 25 years next year). I can not and will not be involved in anything that lacks honesty and integrity.

    Thank you for alerting me, so I can also be watchful for this.