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The Not So Bad, Not So Great Agent

Given the nature of my blog, I see a lot of e-mails, comments, and forum threads about literary agents.  Over the past year, I've become aware of a "type" of agent that concerns me.  That is:  The not so bad, not so great agent.

This agent is legit but is not very good at what they do or has a slightly shady work ethic.  They're the poor communicator, the unorganized, the overwhelmed, the manipulator, the rude, the in-it-for-a-quick-sale, or making-few-if-any sales agent, the one editors aren't eager to (or won't) work with, etc.  For one reason or ten they're just not that great.  They're not representing their clients like they should be, and their current and former clients aren't willing to speak up about them (by name) because a) the agent isn't doing anything that bad, b) they're still trying to work things out, c) they don't know what a good agent should do for them, d) they're being professional and sheltering their reputation, e) a few or all of the above.

You don't want this agent.  This agent will frustrate you and make an already tough, emotionally draining business tougher.

The problem is, these agents are hard to recognize because few will speak up about them publicly.  They're reputation (from our limited view on the web) often appears as good as some very, very good agents.

So what can you do?  Well, start by being aware that they're out there (not all agents are created equal!) and then muster all your self-discipline and patience to be selective.

I know the search for representation is hard enough as it is, but take my advice and aim high and don't settle (I see the horror stories all the time).  I'm not saying you should only query hot shot agents or the agents of best selling, award-winning authors (that's no guarantee anyway).  No, I advise querying widely with the best of them.  But I AM saying it's in your best interest to know what you're looking for in an agent and then to put whoever offers through the wringer to see if they meet your standards and click with you.

In my opinion, the best agent will be the agent that is actively making sales and is knowledgeable in your genre (avoid genre-trend jumpers), has established clients they'd be willing to let you speak to (one or two), has a golden, public reputation, is a really good communicator, is passionate, and has a plan for you and your manuscript(s) from the get-go.

You never know how it's going to work out when you accept an offer of representation (from any agent), but I believe this is the best way to make an informed decision and give the partnership every chance at success. 

What do you think makes a great agent?  Do you recognize that some agents are better than others?  Have you had any experience with this type of agent?  Please add to the discussion!

31 comments:

  1. I agree with this completely. A great agent for me is someone who loves my work, is great at their job (which for me includes being ethical), and is a great fit personality-wise with me.

    One thing I'd add is that there may be great agents out there who aren't necessarily great for you. I'm keeping this in mind as I get closer to querying -- I have a huge list of agents to query, but the best fit for me may not be someone that I now have at the top of my list. Thanks for a great post, Casey! :)

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  2. Casey, great post. (I posted your previous discussion on what questions to ask when you get THE CALL on Inkwell.ning.com) What I'm looking for in an agent is someone who believes in my work and me as much as I do. Someone who is interested in helping me grow my career and develop as a writer. I'm looking for a partner, someone who will be honest and helpful. I always tell my editors and writers that my job is to help them do the best work of their lives. I'm looking for the same.

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  3. Excellent post, Casey. You hit the nail on the head about what makes a great agent: good communication, passion (not just about your work, but about writing in general). I would add: a good sense of humor--you really need to have one as you dodge the slings and arrows of the writing business.

    Now, just how to sift the great from the "not so bad, not so great" since so few people are willing to go on record...?

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  4. When considering an agent, I try to contact authors that agent has represented by email. Authors who won't publically tell the truth about their agent might tell you by email away from the prying eyes of the internets. Not always, though.

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  5. I definitely research agents - especially for feedback from clients on things like communication and response time. I think any writer who is online and blogging is going to be aware of these horror stories. If I don't recognize an agency name or an agent and I can't find any feedback, then I hesitate in querying. From everyone says, a bad agent is worse than no agent.

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  6. Great post Casey. I think your advice to check with some clients is helpful. It's important to check how responsive the agent is. Some agents may be great but don't return phone calls, take forever to read your stuff, etc. That could be frustrating even if they are good. I'm an attorney and this is a huge complaint in our field too.

    I think Kristi is right too. Be sure the agent, who may be right for others, is right for you is important.

    I haven't tried to get an agent yet, so don't have any bad experiences yet thankfully. I'm going to try to avoid the trap of being desperate for an agent and will research them carefully.

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  7. omg casey this is such a stellar post (as usual). it's so important not to settle for an agent *just because he/she is an agent*. we can never get so desperate that it clouds our judgment and leads us down a rabbit hole of no return.

    thanks for posting this. i'm going to spread the word.

    <33333

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  8. There is another type. The big huge very successful agent who does not communicate and loses interest quickly. And then never tells you.

    It took almost 2 years to see the pattern and decide enough was enough. After I left agent, I then heard other stories about people who had similar experiences with this agent. If I only had known beforehand.

    My new agent rocks and is everything they tell you to look for. So glad I got out of the "not working for me" relationship.

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  9. More good information to store in case I ever get "the Call". Of course, you're making it easy to screen the herd for the good ones. Thank you.

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  10. Kristi, I agree. A lot of it is really case by case and sometimes it's the writer that sours the relationship (too high maintenance, too high of expectations, crazy, etc) but they blame it on the agent anyway, of course. We can't beleive everything we hear, but it's best to be cautious. That's why it's so important to ask the questions and to try to get a feel for the agent and how they really work. If your personalities will mesh, etc.

    Buffy, sounds like you're looking for the right agent for you. That's perfect!

    Michael, there's really no way to sift those agents out. Preditors and Editors does a nice job with their "recommended" and "not recommended" agents, but there are far too many unknowns in between. Plus, one writer might have a really bad experience with an agent while another absolutely loves them. Try to find agents that have clients publicly praising them and/or have a good, long history of active sales. Then ask lots of questions before accepting an offer!

    Middle grade ninja, I probably wouldn't bother contacting clients until you have an offer to consider. It'll save you time and the clients are likely to be more candid with you if you have one. But it's a great practice. I've also seen it suggested that a writer with an offer ask the agent for a couple clients to call (with the clients agreement), as they're even more likely to be honest where there is absolutely no paper trail.

    Laura, I'm glad you think people are aware of this. I worry they're not! The tricky thing is... there are a lot of really great agents that have been in the business a long time that have no web presence. They don't need it. It can make them look fishy when they're not. So it really comes down to knowing what you want (do you want an agent that's active online, networking, promoting? Has been in the business forever with a ton of contacts? Does the web presence matter, etc.) and then ask the right questions.

    Definitely, Natalie. Communication is HUGE, just like in any relationship. That's one question that should definitely be directed to the agent and a client or two. I's easy for the agent to say they're a great communicator when they might not be. And again, if you discuss what you expect communication-wise with an agent beforehand, you're more likely to understand each others' wants/needs.

    Thanks Tahereh! A lot of writers attack this representation thing far too desperately. I'm trying to reach their brains!

    Absolutely, Anon. I've heard and have had limited experience with agents like you've mentioned. Not to bash the ones that really are very, very good, but there are some "hot shot" agents out there that are very self-important, manipulate, and lose interest if they can't make a big, quick deal. The clients that make them money are treated like a dream and the others are pushed off until a deal happens or they leave. I'm glad you've found a fabulous new agent!

    Kay, I wish smarter didn't have to make things harder. But it will hopefully pay off for everyone listening!

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  11. VERY important post here. I've had three agents--all less than stellar (ultimately, I sold three novels on my own.)

    Two took on a novel without a contract. I don't know if this is still being done, but it didn't work well for me. The first dropped me when five or six big name editors didn't take it--after a year.

    The second left the business, but nobody at the agency bothered to tell me. Since I didn't have a contract, I was out in the cold after trying to get somebody to communcate with me for nearly a year. This was at a very big name agency.

    A third was hardworking and a wonderful communicator, but she didn't have the contacts to be effective. She had bought a small established agency where she'd only interned a few months, and hadn't done her time working up through the ranks, making relationships with editors.

    In a comment on my blog, Janet Reid said one of the most important things to check about an agent is whether she's interned and assisted at a respected agency. If not, chances are she doesn't have any more chance of selling your book than you do.

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  12. Well said, Casey. In short, I think a great agent is one who will be a champion of my work and do everything in their power to sell it.

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  13. I definitely agree, Casey. I think it's also important to have an agent who's willing to answer questions, give feedback on ideas you bounce off him, and who actually spends time considering your book. It's been a few weeks since things got official with my new manuscript and we've stayed very much in contact every week. I've sent a few questions/ideas, and he quickly replies to let me know he's thinking about it, until a few days later I got thoughtful comments. Truly, communication is key.

    Also, as a writing tutor with a university, I've learned just how important it is that you and the person you're working with can mesh well together. You have to find the right agent for you--not just somebody who's nice, or knowledgeable, but somebody who's work habits, comment style and personality clicks.

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  14. If you read writer sites for a while (Absolute Write, Verla Kay, etc.) you see this happen...someone gets an agent and is very excited, and then a little ways down the line, they part company, sometimes even after a sale has been made. It really makes you pause and wonder. Not all agents are right for all writers, but communication and responsibility do seem to be factors. Also, there are great agents who know nothing about kidlit, and so their attempts to dive into it with no contacts and no good feel for what makes a successful kidlit book often don't succeed. (I'm sure that's true with any genre hopping, as you call it, not just kidlit.)

    The thing I have the biggest question about as someone looking for an agent, though, is communication. So many agents now are taking longer than ever in their response times. It's hard to sift out which ones will communicate in a timely manner when you become an actual client, and which ones will continue to forget all about you, even if you've signed with them.

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  15. I <3 my agent with a fiery passion, but I've got a writer friend who, for lack of a better word, "settled" with an agent just so she could quickly sign with the agent. Now she's in submission hell, with no communication, and little hope. My heart goes out for her....I'm hoping she can write another book and use it to secure a different agent.

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  16. This is an EXACT description of MY agent. (As of two months ago, he is no longer my agent, as I was finally forced to say/do something about his habits). When push came to shove, rather than really trying to sell my manu, or at least communicate professionally about my concerns, he sent a termination contract the same night that the conversation took place.

    I (and the semi-celeb partner I wrote the book about/for) are better off without him, and I will climb the querying hill again because I am a positive person and don't give up, but my advice to all others out there mirrors this post - DO NOT SETTLE! I say that not only because I feel as if a year of my time was (somewhat) wasted, but because I am learning (as I re-query to find a new agent), that it will be even harder to garner representation for a manu that they seem to think has already been shopped around/read by editors (when it really has not)! I would have been better off if he had never touched it.

    Note 1 - The good news is that I learned a LOT about the industry, how the process works, and what I want/need in an agent, so I can only go up from here (and plan to!)

    Note 2 - I did my research, asked all of the questions I was supposed to before signing, and knew he had a limited number of sales, but had no strikes against him (online) - including on sites like Absolute Write and P&E. That being said, the other thing I had not thought of was the idea that his clients did not want to speak up (and I did try to contact the few I knew of, to no avail) - that should have been the sign, but I was just so excited...you know? My book deals with a taboo subject, and I had quite a few amazing agents tell me that they liked the writing and take on the subject, but felt as if the subject was a hard sell. So when someone was finally going to take a risk on my work, it was just too enticing to refuse. Thus began my journey with "The Not So Bad, Not So Great Agent".

    Wish me luck on my way back up the hill!

    ** And yes, I have moved on to write my next work, but it's not yet time to put that first manu to bed and "call it a day" - it was never really shopped!

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  17. Thanks for this post, Casey. I think remaining selective ranks high on my "best writing advice" list.

    I am still developing my view on what a great agent is, but I figure I have a year to dwell on that as I actually create something worth submitting to yet to be determined great agent.

    Word ver is EXTRA!

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  18. Oh, I forgot to say thanks for following my blog!

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  19. A post that hits home for me since I'm searching for an agent and have queries out there. Note to self: work on list of questions and fear not to be patient and picky. :)

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  20. The not-so-great not-so-involved agent has definitely been a thought of mine. How to tell??? Read your blog, Casey. So much information to feed on here and find direction. Thanks.

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  21. Oh, and I dido Jon. Could he be any funnier?

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  22. Such an important post!!

    What makes a great agent? An agent to me is like a husband or wife - you'll know what relationship works for you. And like any relationship - trust is number one. You HAVE to trust your agent. :) If you trust your agent, it makes the business soooo much easier.

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  23. Hi Casey, I saw that you became a follower of my blog so I stopped by to return the favor.

    Great post and great advice, thanks for sharing!

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  24. Great post! And it's tough, because supply and demand is what it is. Meaning, there are way more writers than agents. So, if you get an offer, the automatic response is YES. But you're absolutely right - you need to make as sure as possible it is going to be a good fit. Personally, I've always had the vision of meeting an agent in person beforehand. I have this dream of flying up to New York (I've never been) and having coffee or something. Of course, in this fantasy, we get along swimmingly, and it's a beautiful Spring day. Le sigh. That would be glorious.

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  25. Great post! There's new agents popping up all the time and it's hard to know if they're going to be the next super agent (and some do go onto that status) or a waste of time.

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  26. Great point! And a fabulous agent still might not be the right one for you, even if they've been wonderful for fifty other people. *sigh* That's what makes this whole process even trickier.

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  27. Anne, thank you for being so honest about your experience. I need to do another post about new agents, I think. They're sort of a different ball game, and with them, Janet's advice is key.

    Thanks for commenting, K.M. You'll find that agent soon!

    rdsull89, sounds like things are working out great with your agent so far. It's absolutely important that you and the agent mesh personality-wise. It really is like dating, not everyone will be a good match, even if both parties are really great people.

    Hannah, it can be really hard but try not to get caught up in response times. The agents that have long response times are usually busy with their clients, making deals, going to conferences, and doing the things that matter most in their profession. Oftentimes they aren't actively looking to build their list and aren't as concerned with missing the next big debut author. That's not to say quick responders are representing their clients any less, they just put more importance on their slush pile and reputation with aspiring authors. Writers tend to think an agent with slow response times will be a bad communicator, but most agents treat their slush and their clients completely different from each other. As soon as you're a client, you're elevated above that slush, just as it should be. Don't worry too much about it. Just avoid exclusives.

    Beth, I have friends there too. So sad. I'm glad your agent rocks your socks (she seems awesome)!

    Anon, thank you for sharing! I think the biggest take-a-way from your story is that even if you do your research it still might not work out. You just never know. Also, if you find yourself questioning anything next time, it might be best to keep looking for an agent that you feel 100% confident in.

    Jon, it's great that you're already thinking about what makes a great agent. By the time you're ready to query, I have every faith you'll know what you're getting into and what you want from the search.

    Best wishes, Traci!

    Sheri, it's so hard to tell. Just be selective and make the decision to sign with someone very seriously.

    Thanks for chiming in, Keri. Trust is definitely huge. If you start doubting your agent, it's a downward spiral from there.

    Thanks for commenting, Matthew!

    Carrie, there are far more aspiring authors than there are great agents, absolutely. That's another reason it's so important to dedicate ourselves to our craft. The better the writing and story, the better pick of agents (usually). Keep that in mind, everyone! If you query a book and start getting into questionable agents, it's probably time to set it aside and focus on another book. Besides, once you're agented, you might be able to revise and sell that first book anyway.

    Absolutely, Stina. I think I'll have to do a post on new agents. Some of them will become really, really great agents and some of them... not so much. There's an extra risk going with a new agent but oftentimes it works out wonderfully.

    Definitely, Sherrie. But, if that happens, we'll kick ourselves less if we've done everything in our power on our end to make a good match.

    Thank you for all the great comments, everyone! This has been a great discussion.

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  28. Communication is the biggest thing to me (well, short of having them know what they're doing!). I hate being ignored. One thing I've become aware of lately is that many of the big so-called "dream agents" take a lot of time to get back to their clients. I don't necessarily think they're being negligent, it's just that they have lots of clients and they're extremely busy. But it is an important factor to consider when choosing someone to represent you.

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  29. This whole agent question is confusing! I've definitely heard horror stories to what-a-waste-of-my-time stories along with wonderful life-changing stories re:agents. I'm in the search right now. I do look for those specifically interested in my genre. And read as many interviews as possible. Thanks for your great blog!

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  30. Casey, In response to Hannah's post, you said - "Just avoid exclusives." Could you clarify? Thanks much!

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  31. Hi Rasana,

    I personally feel writers should avoid agreeing to exclusives on requested material unless there is a VERY reasonable time frame attached. If you have an exclusive out with someone and other agents request material, the agent that has your exclusive is basically shooting you in the foot, especially if they take a really long time to get back to you. The reason some agents like exclusives is because they want an exclusive chance to offer on the material (without competition) if it meets their expectations. It's way more beneficial to you as a writer, however, to have the door open for multiple offers. That way (if you're blessed with multiple offers) you can interview all of them and make an informed decision. Not to mention granting exclusives generally extends the waiting game. Plus! I have found that most agents will still take a look if you tell them you can't grant an exclusive.

    Does that make sense? Hope so!

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