Bad Agents

I mentioned last time that even an Indie writer might find himself in need of a good agent. A great agent can be a tremendous help to a writer, but unfortunately not all agents are great. Here are some ways that I’ve seen them be bad:

  1. The pretender. Some people like to pretend to be agents. That way when they go to writing conventions authors will fawn over them, buy them dinner, and so on. Yet when it is time to get to work, they do absolutely nothing. I recall one agent years ago who went to conventions, passed out cards, and got a number of young writing clients. One of those clients contacted me years later and felt confused. The agent hadn’t been able to sell her manuscript. The following week, I happened to be at a large convention. By luck, I ended up in a taxi with three editors who were supposed to have seen the manuscript in question, so I asked them about it. It turned out that none of the editors had ever seen the manuscript. I notified the author, jumped through some hoops to take back the book, and the author sent it to one of the editors in question. The book sold within two weeks, and when it came out, it won a National Book Award. Moral of the story: you need an agent with a real work ethic.
  2. The con man. A few years ago, a young writer called me wanting to know if he should hire an agent. The agent asked for $15,000 to represent his novel, but the young writer, a student who had taken student loans for college, could only borrow $12,000. The agent kindly offered to represent him—for every penny he had. Warning—never pay an agent up front. They work on a commission basis on the back end, for about 15%.
  3. The rip-off. Some agents provide good service but then take more money than they should. I’ve seen agents do a number of things to steal an author’s money. A couple of agents have simply taken large sums of cash and then “disappeared.” Another agent would sell an author’s books to foreign countries and then “forget” to tell the authors that they’d made a sale. A third agent simply printed up fake royalty statements so that he could under-report the author’s income. These are felonies and can send the agent to prison, but our government rarely deals with white collar criminals properly. Among the rip-offs, are agents who make underhanded deals that benefit themselves more than their clients. This is the literary agent who will get a movie deal for an author and then negotiate a role as “executive producer” on the film. Another example is the agent who will self-publish the author’s e-book so that he can get a windfall in royalties. (Your agent should be your agent, not your publisher or producer.) Again, this kind of behavior is immoral and if your agent happens to be an attorney, he or she would get disbarred for it.
  4. The wannabe. The wannabe agent is someone who has no experience in your field and has no connections. So, for example, let’s say that the person prints up a business card calling himself a “young adult” agent. He then works hard, sending out manuscripts to numerous publishers. This person has no contacts that can help you—no sub-agents that he works with, no one who handles film rights. Heck, he may never have even met a real editor in the field, so he has no connections. When he sends out your manuscript, he gets nothing but the cold shoulder. There may be nothing wrong with this person, there is just nothing right with him, either. He can’t help you.
  5. The crippled agent. Many agents get in spats with editors and, as a result, may find themselves blacklisted from a publisher. I have one friend who desperately wanted to get published by a large publisher years ago and went to an agent. After he had worked with her for several years, he found out something. Once, at a party, his agent had punched the president of the publishing company in the nose and given him a bloody nose. Since the agent was a woman, and the publisher didn’t want to have to defend himself from her, he locked himself in the bathroom until the police arrived. When he came out, he told the agent, “You will never sell another manuscript to my company.” That’s pretty extreme, but I’ve discovered that there are a lot of agents who have bad reps with certain publishers. These agents are “crippled” agents because they may only be able to sell to a few publishers.
  6. The non-negotiator. Some agents can’t get you a big deal as an author. They seem to fold whenever the contract negotiations reach, say, $50,000. These agents aren’t terrible, but if you’re looking for a big deal, they can’t help you. The publishers know that these people will fold, too. So you can spot one of these by studying past deals. Have they made big sales in the past, or just lots of small sales?

Remember, the agenting field is an unregulated industry. Anyone can claim to be an agent, without any kind of legal training, and many of them do. In talking with agents, I’ve found that many of them don’t even understand the basics of what an agent should be doing.

So you have to protect yourself by spotting agents who aren’t up to standard. I’ll be putting out a training video in the next few weeks that will talk about the process of how to pick an agent, an editor, and a publisher, but it’s a long topic—one that takes a good hour or so to go into in proper depth.

In my next article, I’ll talk about what you really need from an agent.

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I was recently interviewed by Melissa Dalton from the Book Break! You can watch the interview on the Book Break Facebook page here.

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