Agents – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Recently Nathan Bransford posted a piece entitled “8 ways to know if you have a good agent” (if you want to read it, here’s the link). Given Jodie’s post last week on unethical freelance editors, I thought it might be timely to re-examine what makes a good (and bad) agent.

Nathan provides a list of things to consider when choosing an agent (or, if you have concerns about your current agent, a list to consider when evaluating whether these are justified). Basically he says that your agent should:

  • Have a proven track record of sales and/or works for a reputable agency
  • Be a good communicator (meaning he/she should reply in a reasonable time to emails and doesn’t dodge or hide)
  • Either live in New York or visit on a regular basis
  • Be able to explain every question you have about your contract or your royalty statements
  • Be completely ethical in how they approach their job (and they should advise you to behave ethically)
  • Pay you on time and send you contracts in a timely fashion
  • Charge you a commission of 15% on domestic contracts, 20% on foreign contracts and deduct very transparently for reasonable expenses like postage and copying
  • Be someone you feel comfortable with (i.e. you should be able to trust and feel good about your agent – going with your gut is key).

Most of the items on the list are pretty self-explanatory (though I’ve included clarifications where needed) but they also underscore the need for writers to research an agent before agreeing to receive representation. Given the number of issues regarding unethical freelance editors highlighted by Jodie in her post last Monday, I wonder how many writers are now falling prey to more unethical agent behaviour. 

To the last item on Nathan’s list (feeling comfortable with your agent), I would add that this doesn’t necessarily mean feeling warm and fuzzy all the time. I feel like trusting and being comfortable with your agent means that you not only know that they will champion you and your work but that they will also be your  best (and sometimes harshest) critic. I don’t want an agent who is happy to send out just any old material – I want someone who keeps me on the top of my game and who provides editorial input on how to make a manuscript the very best it can be, before it goes out to publishers.

Just as Jodie pointed out when looking for a freelance editor, there are similar pitfalls when searching for an agent. I can’t stress enough that you have to do your homework. As with anything, there are many predators out there more than willing to take your money for very little in return (and who can easily hang out their shingle on the internet based on fraudulent claims/testimonials).

So what do you think of Nathan’s list? Is there anything you would take issue with, or add? How have you approached the issue of researching agents? Have you discovered any further pitfalls that we may not have discussed?

12 thoughts on “Agents – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

  1. I took mild exception to Nathan’s requirement for an agent to be based in New York or visit there often, and he agreed that was aimed at writers who want a New York publisher. In the genre of Christian fiction, a regular trip to Nashville seems to be a good thing for an agent.
    As for the other factors on the list, I can’t argue with them. Thanks for this discussion.

  2. Richard – I think I remember that comment on Nathan’s blog and I think he admitted it really depends on the market/where publishers for that market are.

  3. I think it’s useful to find an agent who once worked as an editor at a good-size publisher, or someone who at least knows most of the NY editors on a first-name basis. That’s a very specific qualification, I know! But so much of this part of the business is kicked off in the context of personal relationships. It helps to have an agent who is known by editors in the area you’d like to write.

    • Good point Kathryn. I think these personal connections also help an agent match your work to the right editor (which is the major part of the battle!)

  4. It’s a given that you never pay an agent a reading fee. I’d add that it would be nice if your prospective agent attends conferences where he can meet editors and participate on panels. It’s not necessary to travel to NY if he can meet editors elsewhere. You also want someone who is responsive and answers your emails promptly.

    • Nancy – I realised this morning that I hadn’t put the ‘no reading fee’ explicitly in – hopefully by now everyone understands that’s a given:) I think it’s also nice to have an agent who is active in professional groups and on social media. Definitely agree on responsiveness. I think if you agent avoids responding or seems to go AWOL that’s a red flag!

  5. Would it be unreasonable to ask an agent how many clients they have? How many clients can one agent take on before they are overloaded and can no longer do a good job for all of them?

    • Amanda, that’s not an unreasonable question. Most agency websites list their clients but that often isn’t specific about a particular agent within that agency and how many clients they individually represent. I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to ask the question. I’m sure some writers have gone with a big name agent only to realise they are too busy to devote the necessary time to all their new authors.

  6. Clare–
    There is only one kind of good agent : the kind that’s smart enough to spot saleable work, knows which editor to send it to, and the clout to get manuscripts read in a timely manner. But there is a wide range of other agents. Something not often spoken of are agents who regularly take on new clients, and send out work in the manner of blasting the publishing world with buckshot. The un-agented writer gets something taken on by one of these, and is ecstatic. He or she never questions the intelligence of said agent. After all, that agent has seen what all the others failed to–the writer’s remarkable gifts, etc. I’m sure you see the problem.
    As for “do your homework,” that’s good advice, but not really very realistic. At least not for those who have no agent, and are suddenly given the nod.

  7. Barry – it certainly is tricky to tell the ‘good’ agent from the buckshot one. I recently had a friend whose agent sent out her work before (to be frank) it was in the best shape. That agent sent it to everyone at once and now my friend is left hanging as everyone said no – and there are no second chances. It was like buckshot indeed! I think it’s better to have an agent who works with you to get the ms really ready to go, and then who then sends it to key editors first, gauges their reaction and comments and has a more strategic approach. Really tricky to know when you’re first taken on, whether the agent will be ‘good’ but I do think asking perhaps to speak to other clients might help in this regard. I think the best piece of advice is don’t say yes to representation only because that one agent gave you the nod!

  8. Good basic advice in the post you link to, Clare. I agree with all of it (but as Richard says, it is not always necessary that the agent be NYC-based).

    I would add that a big name agent is not always the best. They get fat and lazy living off one or two mega-clients. I know authors who are with such agents and their careers have suffered. You are often better off with an agent from a smaller and more agile agency. Also look for an agent who is savvy about the changing eBook options and is willing to think outside the traditional box. And don’t go with the first guy who asks you to the prom…

  9. I also would disagree with the assertion that an agent should ideally be in NYC or go there often. There are lots of great agents working in other states, and many good publishing houses that aren’t Big Five. It all depends upon what type of books one writes. Some books are better-suited to smaller presses outside the metropolis.

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