Writing Nowadays–Good Agent, Bad Agent

A Twitter friend of mine brought this one up:

How do you know you have the right agent?  How do you know your agent is doing a good job?

This is actually a sticky question.  I’ve only had one agent so far, myself, but I’ve watched other writer friends of mine go through agent difficulties, so without mentioning names or specific circumstances, let’s play Good Agent, Bad Agent.

Fosters and maintains good lines of communication.  This means she:
+responds to phone messages and email within a day or two at most
+contacts you when a potential new market opens up to see if you’re working on anything that might fit it
+contacts you to tell you a contract, check, or other bit of publishing paperwork has arrived at the office

Remains hard to get hold of.  This means she:
+is often unavailable by phone and fails to return messages or email
+may make you feel you’re intruding when you try to make contact
+rarely or never initiates contact herself

Travels a fair amount on business.  This means she:
+attends professional writers conferences and similar events where she can make professional contacts, hold meetings with clients, and stay current on the market
+attends genre conventions for the same reason
+attends conferences for book buyers and sellers in order to market rights for her clients’ work

Travels too much.  This means she:
+is rarely in the office and can’t be reached (see communication issues above)
+travels primarily to attend conferences as a paid speaker on unofficial book tour (A friend of mine once had an agent whose primary source of income seemed to be speaking at writers conferences, not representing writers, and he was almost always out of town.)

Submits your work to real markets and keeps you apprised of what’s going on.  This means she:
+submits to markets that will pay a decent advance
+nudges editors who haven’t responded to a submission within a reasonable amount of time
+sends you copies of rejection letters

Sits on your work and/or keeps you in the dark about it.  This means she:
+submits to low- or non-paying markets, perhaps ones that require the author to pay for publication and in which she has a financial stake
+fails to follow up on submissions
+gives vague or no details on why your work was rejected

Keeps good contact with editors and publishers.  This means she:
+knows who is working where, what they edit, and what they buy
+is on friendly terms with most of them and (probably) eats at least the occasional business lunch or drinks a business drink with them

Has little or no idea of who is working where.  This means she:
+submits your work to an editor, unaware that the editor has moved on or is not buying
+fails to maintain relationships with editors and publishers

Talks to you realistically about your work.  This means she:
+lets you know if she feels something isn’t marketable, either because the idea won’t work or because the writing is poor
+holds the occasional strategy discussion with you about the direction your career is taking and the best way to advance your career decisions

Rarely gives opinions on your work, or only gives you one side.  This means she:
+always praises your work and says it’ll sell, but the rejections keep coming in (so either she’s a bad judge of writing or a bad judge of the market)
+is unwilling to discuss career strategy or seems to have no idea what direction your writing career should take

And, perhaps most importantly:

Is someone you like, someone you get along with, is someone you can sit across from at a restaurant and feel comfortable with.  You don’t need to be best friends with your agent, but you should feel at ease with your agent, like she’s on your side or is a member of your team.  Someone who fills all the requirements of a Good Agent above might still be a Bad Agent if something about her just she makes you uncomfortable.  And, by the way, a Good Agent recognizes this and will not try to persuade you to stay on as a client if you say, “This just doesn’t work for me, I’m afraid.  Thank you so much.”

Bad Agents are sometimes scam artists and sometimes simply incompetent.  Either way, you should end your contract and start looking for a Good Agent.

So your writing career isn’t taking off like you’d hoped.  Should you blame your agent?  Or the host of other things that can go wrong: market influences, lack of publicity, low print runs, lack of support from the publisher, bookstores that don’t reorder.  (Excuse me, I think I need a lie-down.)

Your agent may a factor, and it’s easy to blame her.  One way to find out more is to ask other clients how they feel about your agent.  (If they aren’t posted on your agent’s web page or she won’t tell you who they are, you definitely have a Bad Agent.)  Compare notes and see what they think.

You can also swap agent stories with other authors of your acquaintance.  (You’re hanging out with them either virtually or in person, right?  Part of making contacts, after all.)  Do the ones with reasonably successful careers have agents who act like yours?  If your agent discourages this activity, you definitely have a Bad Agent.

Other opinions?  How do you tell if your agent is doing a good job?

–Steven Harper Piziks

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Writing Nowadays–Good Agent, Bad Agent — 2 Comments

  1. In your last pair — sometimes a Bad Agent is just someone you collide with, and who is, in fact, a Good Agent for other writers.

  2. I had a great agent for 12.5 years. Then she got a 2 book deal for herself and didn’t tell me. She also got a better deal than she ever negotiated for me. The third time she asked me to compile a list of editors for her to send a new project to I knew we were in trouble.

    I should have bailed when I asked her if she still wanted to be an agent (I was still in the dark about her book deal) and she said, “No, but I want to be _your_ agent.” But at the time I still had multiple outstanding contracts and nothing new to market.

    When I finally saw the light and got a confession out of her, she help me compile a list of agents to query and even offered to talk to new agents with questions about me and my work.

    So she ended up being not a totally bad agent, just not the right one for me anymore. Writers need to stay on top of the agent’s activities even when they’ve been together a long time and had a good relationship.