Agents Behaving Badly


Agents are human. At least that’s the rumor. I know several and count some of them (including my own) as friends. The ones I know are professional, care about their clients and truly want what’s best for them.
I believe the majority of agents are like this.
But in every barrel there is an apple or two that has, shall we say, spots.
I have no way of knowing how widespread the following behaviors are. And certainly there is no gauge that measures motivations. But if agents are human (that dang rumor just won’t go away) then I suspect they are subject human frailties as well.
Which is not an excuse for bad behavior. Our great task in life is to do battle with our frailties and overcome them. That is especially true for those who hold themselves out as professionals and in whom clients entrust their hopes and dreams.
I have heard over the past few months from some writing friends with agent problems. They never anticipated these contingencies and wonder what to do. Everything was so positive when they signed! What happened? They feel like they’ve taken a two-by-four to the head.
I advise as I can, but now there comes a time for advice to agents. Here it is: If you are doing any of the following things, stop it. 

1. The Throw-It-Against-The-Wall Agent
Some years ago I was at a writers conference where a new agent was taking appointments. This was a guy who had been in the business for a long time as an acquisitions editor. He had worked for a reputable publisher and, by all accounts, was someone with abundant contacts inside the walls of the Forbidden City.  
During the conference I kept hearing from newbie writers that this agent was interested in seeing their full manuscript! And, in a several cases, signing with him right then and there!
Only later did I find out what this guy’s MO was. He was signing up just about everybody. In only a few months he had a roster of 70 writers.
Seventy! How could he give these writers the attention they thought they were going to get?
He couldn’t. What he did was throw all these proposals against a publishing wall, hoping some would stick and get him a percentage of the advance money and downstream sales.
Rather than nurture the truly deserving, helping them shape a manuscript or proposal into something that had a real chance in the marketplace, he was operating an impersonal volume grinder.
Guess what happened? Two years later he was out of the agenting business. Gone.
And his clients? Cast adrift. Good luck. Thanks for playing. Two years of their writing lives down the dumper.
One thing I’ve always said to writers is: a bad agent is worse than no agent. The writers who signed with this fellow found that out the hard way.
LESSON: Only sign with an agent who has a track record or comes highly recommended by a trusted source.
2. The Suddenly-Clams-Up-Agent
I’ve gotten two emails from writer friends recently who have said the same thing: All of a sudden their agent has stopped communicating with them.
Their profile is similar. They signed on as new authors, with all the attendant happiness of the writer who finally has representation. A first deal was made! Smiles and good wishes all around!
Then the marketplace brought down its unsentimental fist. The debut novel didn’t take off. The second novel was given scant attention by the publishing house. The third novel (if there was one) was kicked to the curb.
With a dismal track record hung around their necks, the authors’ prospects for a new contract with a publisher were severely dimmed.
But the writers kept their hopes alive. New ideas, new proposals sent to the agents.
Only the agents stopped returning emails. Or phone calls.
They clammed up.
This behavior is mostly economic. Agents are in this business to make a living and will naturally put their energies behind the cash-cow clients. An author whose prospects have dwindled won’t get the same attention.
There’s also a personal aspect. It’s easier to avoid a hard conversation with the unpleasant prospect of a breakup.
Finally the agent, by saying nothing, may be hoping the client will “pull the plug” and leave of her own volition. Problem solved.
Such behavior is unprofessional and uncivil. You, agent, have a lot of clients. But the writer has only one agent, and to be treated like a discarded McDonald’s wrapper makes them feel like a world is ending, a career is dying, and long-nurtured dreams are turning into nightmares.
So do the right thing even if it’s uncomfortable. Have that talk with the client. She has placed her very heart in your hands. She deserves your communication.
3. The Rights-Grab Agent
The brave new world of digital publishing has put agents in a bit of an uncomfortable position. Early on there was talk that helping a client go indie (for a percentage) was a conflict of interest. That chatter has died down as more and more agents get into the hybridization game.
A situation has arisen, however, with a couple of writers I know. Way back when some of their books went out-of-print, they got the rights back. At that time such rights were considered nearly worthless.
Oh, how times have changed. Digital self-publishing has made it possible to give those old books new and lasting life. And a welcome revenue stream for the writer struggling to get a new contract.
But not so fast, some of their agents say. We still get a piece of your pie. Even if you self-publish. So go ahead! Only you will have to be exclusive on Amazon so we can have our share of the royalties come directly to us.
Writer Clare Cook shared such an experience:
And then one day on the phone my agent informed me that in order to continue to be represented by this mighty agency, I would have to turn over 15% of the proceeds of my about-to-be self-published book to said agency. Not only that, but I would have to publish it exclusively through Amazon, because the agency had a system in place with Amazon where I could check a box and their 15% would go straight to them, no muss, no fuss.
There actually may be plenty of muss and quite a bit of fuss over this. Putting on my dusty lawyer hat for a moment (it’s been sitting in the corner over there by my vinyl records), I say that unless a client signed a contract that specifically gives the agent a share of their independently held rights in OOP books, this won’t fly. And even if there weresuch a contract provision there is a chance it would not stand up in court if muss came to fuss.
The agent made the deal with the trad publisher and deserved the 15%. But when that deal is over it’s a whole new ballgame. If a client is self-publishing backlist and does not ask for an agent’s services in this regard, there is no new deal and no percentage due. Agents should not act as if they are rights holders.  
As I said up top, I’m privileged to know several agents personally. I do believe that the majority of agents have good intentions and professional practices.
But for any out there who see themselves in these profiles, let me offer you some sound and inexpensive advice from a trained psychologist:

26 thoughts on “Agents Behaving Badly

  1. It’s a scary world out there in publishing land. It’s a shame there’s a need for such sage advice, but as you say, the rumor is true: agents are human.

    The last bit is very nasty.An agent bullying a client into paying a fee the agent didn’t earn. That relationship is ruined no matter which decision the author makes, only one way the author gets to keep their money by walking. Agents who haven’t developed a plan for ways to earn money in the future of this changing world often scramble for a foothold, but coercion is not the answer. It’s best to continue to be human & treat people the way that allows everyone to sleep nights & keep a clear conscience. No bullying required.

    Thanks, Jim.

  2. Jim, frightening (but, unfortunately, true-to-life) stories about what’s happening in this brave new world of publishing. Some may not know of your own background in law and your experience as a writer (including both traditional and self-publishing). In addition, you’ve acted as your own agent and are now represented by one of the best in the business. Because of all this, you’re uniquely qualified to pass on this information, and I hope writers of all persuasions will heed it. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Thanks for the great advice, Jim. And how timely.

    I’ll give you my experience for purposes of discussion. I would value any of your sage words of wisdom. I would be interested in your readers’ thoughts.

    I found an agent about a year ago at a conference. I had received an offer for my first book from a small publisher, prior to finding the agent. My agent asked me to not accept the offer. He wanted to try the big five. I merrily worked on improvements to the manuscript over the winter. By this spring I was concerned that I had not heard from him. I tried twice before I got an answer back. Then I had to remind him that I was actually already a client. He had “lost” my manuscript on his computer. He had not sent it out to any agents. At that point I informed my agent that I was going to recontact the small publisher. I did. I made some additional edits. And they offered me a contract two days ago. I intend to accept it.

    Now my dilemma: I don’t want to burn bridges. I never like to be the one to end a relationship. I suppose I owe my agent the 15%, even though he did nothing to get the contract, in fact delayed it. Do I look for another agent for the next book? Do I give him another chance. He certainly will remember me after this escapade. I hope. Any words of advice?

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    • Steve,
      Did you sign an representation contract with the agent? If so, you might have issues. If not, I say you are a free agent, so to speak.
      It seems this agent did nothing for you; in fact, you lost valuable time because of his negligence. I don’t see where you owe this agent one dime or any loyalty.

      As for not being the one to end a relationship: You must approach this as a business relationship. Thus you must be prepared to end it if it proves unfruitful to you. As Jim says, it is better to have no agent than a bad one.

    • Good agents know this is a profession. They make business decisions all the time. Writers should make them, too. You “owe” an agent when they make a deal. No deal was made. There is nothing owed.

      Re: the small publisher. You made all the contacts. You don’t need an agent to sign this contract. Hire an IP lawyer to look it over for a fee.

  4. Thank you for your insight. Really helpful while I’m in the early stages of sending out queries. It may be a case that I don’t want to sign with an agent who would be willing to represent me. (apologies to Mr. G. Marx)

  5. If I were looking for an agent, I think I would add adaptability to the list of qualifications. We’re still in the early stages of a major technological disruption. Traditional publishing can’t continue in it’s current form. Indie publishing will look totally different in ten years. Those are givens. What changes to expect? I dunno, the ol’ crystal ball rolled off the table and shattered. Scared the heck out of the dog.

    I think some of the bad behavior out there is panic from agents who don’t have a clear line on the future of the industry and are resorting to short-term tactics rather than putting in the hard work of identifying how they will serve their clients best, for years in the future.

    Creative adaptability is a rare skill and a valuable one.

  6. JSB–
    Your posts invariably demonstrate how persuasive restraint and clarity can be–thank you for this valuable summary of agent misdeeds. My experience with agents–two in succession–is characterized by #1 on your list–the throw-it-against-the-wall type. But unlike the agent you describe, both of those who took me on are still in business, and one is high-profile.
    In my view, here’s the worst thing about such agents: they either don’t know enough to help writers refine their manuscripts before sending/throwing them into the marketplace, or they don’t care enough to bother. They just keep taking on new clients, throwing at the wall and hoping something sticks. Either way, it’s the writer who gets stuck. And when this kind of thing happens to you–twice–you decide life’s too short (literally), and turn to indie publishing.

    • And that bothers me. Investing up to $1K in editing when an agent is going to have their own vision and then sitting on that investment for up to 5 years.

    • Terri Lynn–There you go–thank you. Agents are supposed to be able to distinguish between what’s not worth representing, what is worth, but after changes (and what those changes should be), and what’s ready to go. They have to know the difference, and that I am sorry to say has not been my experience.

  7. When I first started writing I sent a manuscript to a agent that I met at a conference. The reply I got was all of one line. And I quote “What do I do with this?” I was crushed, I didn’t know if it was a comment on my writing. Or if she didn’t know what she was doing. It has hurt my confidence and my faith in good agents.

  8. These stories are sobering and I am ever thankful my agent hasn’t done any of these things! He remains ever professional and I trust his feedback and am grateful he has stuck with me:) I have a friend from my writers group, however, whose first agent did a #1 and could potentially have doomed her project for every more. It’s such a difficult decision to make regarding choosing an agent and I agree, a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.

  9. I knew that agent too. The behavior was appalling. And when he quit, the abandoned refugees searched far and wide for new representation…it was not pretty.

    It is hard enough as an agent, much worse when one bad egg stinks up the joint.

    The Steve Laube Agency

  10. What annoys me are agents who garner invitations to conferences with no intention of acquiring anyone. Ditto for editors. The least they can do, especially after a personal pitch session, is to give the courtesy of a rejection instead of ignoring the authors who have submitted to them. This silent treatment is unprofessional but all too common these days.

  11. It’s really heartbreaking to hear stories like this. Aspiring writers (maybe too enthusiastically) have this mythos, that once they get an agent their life will be so much better. Sure, more work starts, but it’s better to have one than to not. That’s what the rat race with querying is all about, after all.

    This leads to writers accepting agents that maybe they shouldn’t, or being more forgiving of bad behavior. After all, if it’s your first agent, it’s hard to know what’s normal.

    A very good friend of mine, who is a very talented writer, got an agent almost two years ago. She queried and had multiple offers of representation, but went with this agent because she seemed to get her book the best.

    To make a long, horrible story short, this agent sucked. She strung her clients along, couldn’t make contacts inside the industry, and after a year or so of stringing my friend along, she stopped replying to her emails. It took another few months for my friend to discover from someone else this agent had quit. Quit. Last my friend heard, she was very hopefully shopping her manuscript.

    My friend is heartbroken. Years with this lady with nothing but heartbreak to show for it. She and the other clients were cut off, so now she’s back at the querying stage, with a book she’s not sure which editors have or have not seen, since her agent didn’t keep her informed of those details.

    I don’t have an agent yet, but I’m glad I can read stories like the one you posted today, and know what’s to be expected and what’s not. Thanks for the post!

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