Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office
I’ve talked about agent limbo, logjams and brick walls. All part of the frustration of being a literary agent. I’m guessing those failures occur for all agents at one time or another. It doesn’t make us bad agents– just human. But I couldn’t talk about #AgentFail without talking about bad agents.
Yes, Virginia, there are bad literary agents.
So how does a writer know if an agent is bad? It’s a little harder these days than it used to be. We used to tell writers looking for an agent to read the AAR (Association of Author’s Representatives) Canon of Ethics. It basically says that an agent only makes money from the sale of your work–that agents only make money when you make money. But even the AAR unofficially admits that the market is changing. Many agents are having to offer their clients other services like helping them create and publish their own product outside of traditional publishers or helping them create e-books.
But the dangers still exist. Many writers are willing to make huge sacrifices to get published. What a temptation for scam artists. There have been books written about agent/editing scams. One eye-opening one is Ten Percent of Nothing. But those kinds of scams are less likely than the more subtle practices offered today.
Here are some suspect or downright unethical practices:
- An agent who wears more than one hat. If your agent has a financial interest in an editing firm, a marketing firm or a publishing firm and directs you to those services, he is treading on thin ice. For example, take an agent who gives paid seminars across the country on, say, marketing books overseas. He is totally within the bounds of ethics unless he insisted that every one of his clients pay to attend. If an agent takes on clients to feed his other business it is unethical. An agent might suggest an editor or two who could help you shape your book but the decision and financial arrangements have to be up to you. If the agent owned the editing company or were to receive a “gift” or a kick-back for that referral, it’s a problem.
- An agent who herds you into self-publishing. You have an agent in order to sell your work to traditional publishers. That agent only makes a commission when the publisher pays you an advance or royalties. If he is directing you to self-publishing firms, you need to ask, does he own an interest or is he getting a kick-back? Neither would be ethical. Of course, many times an agent will need to help a client create product for his own speaking ministry or web store. Or perhaps the agent helps the client create e-books of out-of-print books. The client actually becomes the publisher and pays the pre-agreed commission for this work to the agent.
- An agent who “poaches” clients. One of the most cringeworthy practices by marginal agents is the wooing of successful clients away from their agents. Good agents simply do not do it. If you’re already represented and another agent approaches you and begins to talk about your career and/or makes a pitch to represent you, run the other way! Industry-wide the practice is considered unethical. No matter how flattering it may be, the agent who engages in the tactic will most likely be comfortable with any number of other unethical practices.
You want an agent who’s primary mission is to grow your career. But you also need to gauge the actual effectiveness of an agent. You should know:
- Publishing houses to which the agent has recently made sales.
- How many sales the agent has made.
- Other writers the agent represents.
You might wonder where you can get this information. Much of it is available at Publisher’s Marketplace.
You would want to ask many of the above questions when an agent offers representation. And you should feel free to talk to some of the agent’s clients. If you are already working with an editor, you can ask him indirectly about the agent. Most editors will be uncomfortable giving you a direct yea or nay about whether they like an agent since they have to work with many different agents, but if you give him a list of three agents and ask whom he likes to work with, you may get a sense of who’s good and who’s omitted.
You’ve probably heard it said, “A bad agent is far worse than no agent.” It’s true. Who wants to be represented by a scam artist or someone who is over-promising and under-performing? And think of the damage it would do if your agent is one that editors avoid at all costs.
So there it is. Good agents sometimes inadvertently fail, but bad agents can cause havoc. Happily many excellent agents out there.