Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Okay, I’m going to wade into dangerous waters today and talk about my own profession and the stuff that gives us a bad name. I’m well aware that I’m giving you a scorecard by which to judge me as well. That’s okay. My friends, my trusted advisors and my clients will be the first to hold me accountable.
Agenting is changing and many agents these days are wearing more than one hat but some things never change. Let me tell you some of the stuff that displays a shocking lack of integrity in a literary agent:
Agents charging “reading fees”— As I mentioned, many agents are wearing multiple hats in this new DIY climate. They may be offering some self-publishing options or doing some teaching or editing on the side and that’s okay, but some things never change. If someone sets up shop as an agent and asks you for money before evaluating your manuscript for possible representation, run the other way. Bad agent behavior. Each reputable agency must offer a way to submit queries and/or manuscripts sans any kind of fee. An agent still represents a client based on her belief in your eventual success. We may work a long time without remuneration but that’s part of the job.
Poaching— We have a rule in agenting. We do not approach an already-agented author with representation in mind. That’s not to say we don’t sometimes talk to agented authors–we’ve all been in this industry long enough to have writer friends both agented and unagented. But “poachers” lack integrity. They wait for other agents to spot potential in new writers and allow those agents to go through all the slim years of building a writer’s career before they sidle up next to a now-successful writer to ask “innocent” questions like, “Is your agent doing all she can do with your foreign rights?” Or, “Is your agent actively pursuing film options for your book?” Those are complicated issues your agent probably has well in hand but the Fagins of the agenting world dangle these and other supposed shortcomings like candy in front of the unsuspecting author.
This is a complex issue we agents talk about frequently because losing a client to one of the notorious poachers is painful. Each one of us would love to sign a successful writer who has already left his agent for a valid reason and is seeking new representation, but this is different. Very different. The agents who do this are not respected in the industry nor are the authors who fall for this ploy. Bad agent behavior.
An Inappropriate Public Persona— Your agent represents you. She should always be circumspect in the way she acts in public and the things she says on social media and at industry gatherings. A tipsy agent, a controversial agent, or a buffoon damages her reputation and, by association, yours.
Disclosing contract details— Most details of a contract are confidential. Agents must be careful not to disclose those details to other clients or to other publishers unless the publishers understand disclosure is part of the process, as in an auction situation. Spilling details is bad agent behavior.
Sharing proprietary information— An agent with integrity has good filters. He knows that he is privy to much proprietary information from each publisher. We have an unspoken agreement with our publishers that we will not take their information and pass it on to the next house we visit. Even if a publisher is doing an innovative marketing push that works like a charm and though we’d love to pass it on so another client of ours at another house could benefit, we absolutely must not. It would be bad agent behavior.
Sharing client information— Again, an agent with integrity has good filters. We need to keep our clients’ information confidential. We don’t share details without permission. Bad agent behavior. We don’t have HIPA guidelines like your doctor does, but we have the same responsibility.
So how does a writer tell if an agent is one with integrity? Ask around. Other writers will tell you what they know. Ask your editor to name two or three agents he or she feels confident to work with. Listen carefully when an agent speaks on a panel. You’ll pick up clues. Note the agents who seem to regularly sign already agented authors– they may be the ones who let other agents build a career before they swoop in and try to poach the tried and true.
When choosing an agent, integrity is a must. You want an agent who is respected by his colleagues and publishers alike. You want an agent the publishing houses are delighted to work with.
Your turn. Is all this too complicated? If you are unagented, how do you plan to go about choosing? What is important to you? Note: In the comments we will be careful not to call out any particular agents, right? We’re talking generally here, not specific.
Poaching? Disclosing? Charging fees? Sure signs of bad agent behavior. Click to Tweet