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Monday, February 23, 2004

What to look for in an agent 

Maud links to a fascinating post by Teresa Nielsen Hayden on the type of agents that exists and why "having a bad agent is worse than having no agent at all". The four categories that agents can fall into, according to Nielsen Hayden, are a) real, b) gormless, c) not very helpful and d) scammers. Most agents, she says, are in the latter three categories. So what exactly is a "real" agent?

Real agents learn how to be agents by working for other real agents. It’s like a medieval apprenticeship, except the authorities don’t bring back the ones that run away. After a while the young assistant becomes a sort of junior agent (I’m a little vague on this part) and starts taking on authors. Eventually they decide to set up on their own, taking some fraction of their former employer’s client list with them. This is not always accomplished without friction, but as far as we can tell, that’s part of the natural life cycle of the agent.

The advice Neilsen Hayden offers is, to my mind, very straightforward: don't pay, run if they don't provide a client list, no book doctors or freelance editors, and so on. Very practical and important, but at the same time--do people really not know this?

The whole point of agents is that they work for you. It may not seem that way, what with the rigamarole involved in landing one, but if they take you on, it's because they want to sell your work. They sell it, they make money. That's why the good ones are so "picky" about who they land, because trying to hawk something that isn't publishable a) worsens their rep in publishing b) worsen's the author's rep in the industry. It does no one any good to do that.

If they work for you, then they are supposed to have your best interests. Paying them is not in your best interests. Getting involved in vanity publishing (hello, PublishAmerica) is not in your best interests. Book doctors and editors who are not part of the actual agency are not in your best interests.

Then there's the issue of client lists. I suppose I understand the argument that some authors don't want aspiring writers knocking on their door asking for advice, but frankly, that's a bullshit argument. I'd even go so far as to say that Gerard Jones' Everyone Who's Anyone site doesn't go far enough because it just lists agents' and editors' email addresses and not their clients. Because an agent's success is directly tied into the success of his or her clients; so if, on balance, an agent has a list of authors who sell to reputable houses and do all right, that's a good agent to target (at least, if the authors on said list are a good match for what you're querying) while an agent who seems to rep only vanity presses or authors of dubious claim is not a good one to query.

What Nielsen Hayden doesn't bring up, which I find the most interesting, is what happens when a "real" agent becomes a "not very helpful" one. Agents, like anyone, are limited in resource and capacity. They can't all do things equally because they don't have the same contact base or connections or financial power. Esther Newberg, Binky Urban, Jonny Geller and Ed Victor (to name a few top agents in the US and UK respectively) are in a different league than Agent X through experience, connections, and so on. But big agents, or agencies with long client lists, can't serve each author equally. Some get lost in the shuffle. Small agencies can work better because they concentrate more of their time and energy on said client, but they may not have the same clout. So what to do?

I think the biggest problem is that many aspiring writers think their job is done when they land an agent or an editor. Not at all. The right tool for the right job, as I've said before, and if your agent isn't doing that job properly, or to the best of his or her ability, then--tough as it may be to do so--a breakup might be the best way to go. Because if an agent is suddenly hard to reach, not returning phone calls or emails, and generally distant, then something's amiss, for any variety of reasons. If you're a writer, your career is your primary goal, and the support system is key. Why have people around who (knowingly or not) sabotage it? Sure, if you're hooked up with a Fabulously Successful Agent with Big Name Authors, the cachet is nice, but if they don't pay attention to you and have the enthusiasm for your work that you deserve, then that's not the right agent for you. Simple as that.


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