Sunday, August 3, 2014
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 were such 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: