Caveat Scriptor: What Writers Should Truly Be Wary of When Looking for a Literary Agent

I read an very interesting article published in the Huffington Post the other day (written by the Writer’s Relief staff), that I would like to address.  You can read that entire article here, but basically the three major red flags that the Writer’s Relief staff addressed were ineptitude, advertising, and fees.

Ineptitude.  This is stating the obvious, but you want a literary agent that knows what he or she is doing.  As the article states, “Some agents are not necessarily dishonest, but are merely clueless.  These agents submit your work to editors without doing the proper research…”  I have to agree with the article here.  Doing research and getting to know editors, what projects they’ve acquired, and what they are looking to acquire is critical, as is knowing the marketplace.  Also, knowing the internal politics and how each imprint acquires books (because they are all different, some imprints are smaller and associate editors have a lot more power, others are bigger and the books have to be pre-approved by the marketing department) etc., is important.  It’s pretty obvious what ‘bad agents’ look and feel like when it comes to having no strategy, foresight, or deep knowledge of the industry.

Advertising.  I take a bit of issue with this point highlighted in the article.  The Writer’s Relief staff admonishes not to “trust an agent who approaches you without any previous contact,” and frowns on practices such as trolling writers forums or purchasing subscription lists from writer’s magazines.  Yes, if a literary agent is just a troll, with no real interest or connection to your work, you should worry.  Given the information that is out there in the digital space however, being pro-active and thinking of multiple ways of reaching writers is not a bad thing.  I attend conferences and meet writers in person and I have also reached out to writers over the internet, based on something I read off their blogs.  These e-mail communications are the start of a conversation that can develop organically into something more.  Last week I Skyped with a potential client so it was almost like having an in-person meeting, complete with our faces, over the internet.  So although I agree that trolling for the sake of trolling is not good, thinking broadly and brainstorming more than the old-school ways of connecting with writers, is a good thing.

Fees.  The Association of Author’s Representatives has a Code of Ethics, that I fully abide by, even though I am not yet a member.  I do not charge any of my clients for fees or readings.  You should be wary of any agencies that charge so-called ‘reading fees.’  Agents obtain the fee if and when they sell your manuscript, and they shouldn’t charge for expenses unless they are extraordinary and only then, with your prior consent.

I’d like to add a few of my own ‘caveats’ to the list provided by the article:

Gut Check.  What does your intuition say about the literary agent you’re interested in?  Have you had a chance to sit down and meet with the agent in person?  What were your feelings?  Did you feel comfortable?  A lot of us in the literary world are introverts, so any sort of ‘forced interaction’ can feel uncomfortable, but if, after a hour of talking, something feels off, pay attention to that feeling and proceed with caution.  Sometimes the chemistry isn’t right but don’t be discouraged, keep on sitting down with literary agents that you are interested in and see if it feels right in your gut.

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Receptivity & Responsiveness.  Is your literary agent available, responsive to you and a good listener?  I’m not saying that your agent has to e-mail you back right away (they have lots of reading and other clients to attend to), but it’s always a good sign if your agent treats with you with enough attention and is quick to respond.  I even know some agents that text and tweet with their clients regularly, I think that’s great and if that works for you, even better.  Find an agent who meshes with you in terms of communication.

Manner.  Luckily, most people in the publishing industry are  polite and patient.  I think having a pleasant demeanor doesn’t hurt.  Not everyone has a sunny disposition, but those agents that can remain calm, diplomatic, open to suggestions, and work well with others, I think, tend to go far.  Maybe I’m being a bit idealistic here, but I know this is also true for our doctors.  Would you rather spend time with a doctor that actually listens to your concerns seriously and has a pleasant demeanor or one that is more gruff, even if an excellent doctor?  Courtesy costs nothing.

What other red flags do you look for as a writer seeking an agent?  Are there any non-negotiables on your list?

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2 comments

  1. Seeking an agent is a must if the author wants major book publishers to look at his/her novel. In North America and England, they accept submissions only via agents. In other English speaking countries, like Australia, an author can approach some major book publishers directly. The author and the agent create a partnership to monetize the novel to the benefit of both. Ideally, the agent will read the novel, make suggestion what to add and what to delete. An editorial agent will also help to revise/edit the manuscript until it’s ready for to give to an editor of a book publishing company. An agent with contacts with many editors can sell the novel quicker, but an author who does research should be able to assist his/her agent with names of editors who are best to review the novel.
    It’s nice if the author and agent are also friends, but it isn’t that important.

  2. Giora, thanks for your thoughts. Indeed, if a writer wants to break into the Big Six/ major publishers in the U.S., an agent is necessary. I agree that it is nice if the agent and author are friendly, but that is not essential as long as there is a good working rapport. If an author can approach a small or independent press directly, all the better. Things are changing so quickly in publishing and writers now have more options than ever in terms of publication. It all depends on what the writer’s goals are.


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