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.
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 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.
What lit agents to avoid. Click to tweet.
Lit agents behaving badly. Click to tweet.