If you haven’t already read it, please go check out Nathan Bransford’s post on “legit vs. non-legit agents” and Sarah LaPolla’s (a former colleague of Nathan’s and a literary agent at Curtis Brown) post entitled “Shady Business.” While the posts raise valid points, I can’t help but feel a bit bristled by it since I’m allegedly in that pool of ‘new and young agents,’ particularly one who has hung her own shingle. Now, granted, I may not have been an editor or in publishing in the traditional sense but I did gain significant experience revising and drafting book contracts at The New Press and I did learn something about agenting while I was at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth. I guess my problem with these articles is that suggesting only one path to agenting is a legitimate one (i.e. that means you have to have X number of years in publishing and have done X number of years of apprenticeship at X famous or well-established agency).
Let me tell you my perspective. The ultimate aim of an agent is to sell manuscripts on behalf of their writers and manage their careers. There is a lot that goes into it and as writers you should vet your agents as much as they vet you as a writer. However, the problem I have is that a hungry talented agent who may not have the ‘traditional credentials’ that the publishing world finds so-called “legit” may not actually be given a fair shot by writers, editors or publishers. The publishing world is changing, and I believe, for the better. There are more voices out there thanks to smaller independent publishers. Not everyone is going to get a six-figure deal from the Big Six (soon to be Big Five). I guess what I’m trying to say is that there is room for new and young agents and determining whether they are ‘legit’ or not is a judgment that seems somewhat arbitrary. If you trust your agent and you believe they are looking out for your best interest and working hard on behalf of you (remember agents don’t take anything in terms of pay until they sell your manuscript), then what do you have to lose? If you look carefully at the terms of your agent-agency contract you should have a good sense of the termination clause and when/if you can get out of your contract with your agent if you’re not happy with the work they do.
There are barriers to entry for every industry. However, publishing is a notoriously difficult one to break into and largely dependent on contacts within the publishing industry. I have been heartened when speaking with editors, almost all of whom have been largely supportive of Penumbra. I have had more of a mixed reaction from other agents, some of whom have been friendly and some who have downright ignored me or told me to my face that I can’t do it. So you tell me, what does this really say?
You can’t replace experience, this is true, and again I do think that both Nathan and Sarah have legitimate claims. Vet your agent, ask what their experience is, but also realize that if the fit is right and you believe in each other, there’s nothing you can’t do.