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When Agents Attack

7 November 2012

From agent Jane Dystel Jim McCarthy:

 About a year ago, I noticed a shift in the general tone of writers’ conferences. For the ten years I’ve been attending them, there was a tendency for agents at these events to lord it over the room, being very strict about what they were looking for, how they like to be approached, how not to approach them, and how to talk to them. The power balance was one-sided, needlessly (and sometimes insultingly) so.

Then agents started getting nervous. And defensive. Instead of, “This is how to get us,” the line became, “This is why you need us.” And things started to get a lot more interesting.

A week and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Novelists, Inc. 23rd Annual Conference. And on one of the panels I sat on, all the growing tension and dissatisfaction came to a head.

In her article about the roundtable for the NINC newsletter, author Lori Devoti noted, “If you have heard any chatter about the NINCThink roundtables, it was probably about this roundtable. Things here were lively and at times heated, to put it politely.” Let me say that Lori put it VERY politely. I’ll quote myself here. When the anger had subsided, here’s what I tweeted: “I tend to be super low key, but a panel I was on today nearly turned me rabid. My anger, twas righteous.”

So: what the hell happened?

Here’s my take. The role of agents in the marketplace is changing dramatically.

. . . .

Let’s break this down a little: one of my co-panelists went after someone on the panel for “denigrating” agents and said he wouldn’t stand for it. So I grabbed the mic and offered, as an agent, to denigrate agents for them. I believe very strongly that good agents are incredible partners and can bring authors more success (I’ll get back to this). But more importantly at that exact moment, I was just suuuuuuper pissed. It was disgusting to watch another industry professional demean an author simply because they seemed to be chiseling away at his pedestal.

. . . .

What we’re seeing is a balancing of power. Authors have more control of their careers and can be more demanding. Does that make my job easier? No. Does it make it more exciting? Yes. Because it’s one thing to bandy the word “partner” around and make yourself sound friendly, which seems to be happening a lot. It’s another thing to actually act like a partner.

Link to the rest at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management and thanks to Anthea for the tip.

Agents

30 Comments to “When Agents Attack”

  1. I actively follow 8 different literary agents online since May 2009 when I decided to pick up writing again after a 20 year haitus. I read their blogs, their tweets, ask them questions and have gathered an enormous amount of invaluable knowledge about the publishing industry. Most importantly is that they are ALL COMPLETELY DIFFERENT PEOPLE with different (sometimes opposing) perspectives of the industry and their clients. All of them share a general frustration with writers who are lazy and don’t take the time to read posted agency submission guidelines and send them garbage that takes valuable time to wade through. I totally agree with that. Lots of writers ask questions during open forums, that they could find the answers to themselves with a 3 second Google search. I mentioned I actively follow 8 agents, in 5/2009, that list started at 15 names I compiled from online research about where to start searching for children’s publishing agents. The other 7 were dropped after I felt that there was no way I could work with them based on their public comments/behavior. They just weren’t a match for me for a variety of reasons (mostly negative) and I felt they didn’t have advice that I would want to follow.

    Writers have to do their homework. Like any profession/industry there are good ‘apples’ and bad ‘apples’. It’s up to you to do your homework to make sure you get a good partner and a good match for you and your work.

    • No, no, you wrote that incorrectly. You meant “Lots of humans ask questions, during open forums, that they could answer themselves with a three second Google search.”

      Seriously. This is the number one thing that happens at any convention, press conference, book signing, you name it. Anywhere people gather to ask questions of someone, there’s plenty of people who want to ask the obvious questions.

  2. This is good, I have a lot of respect for people who understand that success should be based on competence rather than de facto monopoly, a monopoly handed to them based on fear and ignorance. I’m glad that she gets that the authors are people, and shouldn’t be treated like garbage. I’m glad that she understands that she now has to make a case for her value, rather than insisting that the peons are deluded for not seeing her specialness. It’s nice to deal with people who A) Live in this dimension, B) Act like they know it.

    I’m under the impression a lot of agents are not IP contract lawyers, which makes them inherently not-valuable in my eyes. However, if going to law school is not an option, I would prefer to see them transform themselves by offering fee-based services. Copy editing, proofing, book layout, cover art/design etc. You can’t have 15% of my income forever and ever amen, but I will pay for a good cover artist.

  3. I’ve done a couple rounds with Jane Dystel. She’s a very good agent.

    I’ve never had anyone blow up at me like she did (well one guy in TV but we’re talking books). She was furious at how poorly one section of my book proposal was written. She red penciled the heck out of it with a vehemence I’ve never seen before. Unfortunately it was a quote from an article in the New York Times, and I hadn’t written a word of it.
    So ended what had been a quite nice relationship.

  4. A few of my clients are clients that D&G has introduced us to. The agency handles the project management and, in some cases, pays for the work. They’re complete pros who work hard for their authors. D&G gets it, 100 percent.

  5. Well, Barbara’s story aside… :)

    I respect Jane for her stance. I have never been faced with the emotional challenge facing agents right now. To go from being utterly idealized and held on a pedestal to being devalued and asked to be accountable would a hard fall.

    I don’t respect the choice, or even think it’s okay, to get defensive and aggressive, but I understand the temptation. I applaud any agent who fights that and instead gets honest.

    That Jane is forthrightly admitting the system is deeply flawed, that writers are treated disrespectfully, that mediocre is not good enough for any agent, that agents are optional and need to provide value, good for her!

    I think all agents have to be salespeople, and it may be there is an aspect of sales to this honesty. She’s smart enough to figure out that writers are not going to take the baloney anymore, and that this is a way she can stand out from the pack. But it also reads with integrity; and it is also taking a leadership stance. It is possible for something to be both sales and true.

    I hope other agents follow her leadership. The field of agenting needs reform, and this is the direction to take. Treat writers as adults, and acknowledge the truth.

    • Sarah’s right. This was written by Jim, so my accolades are directed to him.

    • A hard fall, yes. But they are the ones who set themselves up and took on the lord-it-over-writers attitude (I’m generalizing, horribly, yes). This started just a few years before indie publishing. Seemingly amongst the younger agents, and after publishers stopped taking unsolicited submissions.

  6. This actually appears to be written by agent Jim McCarthy of the agency.

  7. I can definitely see how a good agent could be an asset to an author, even a successful self-published one. Of course the important qualifier there is “good.” It will be interesting to see how the good agents survive and adapt to the new world.

  8. I can’t help but think that I would have been more impressed if an agent had made these same statements three years ago.

    Authors have been treated poorly by the publishing industry/agents for years. Why have none of them acknowledged that until now??

    It’s very simple – authors no longer *need* traditional publishers. (I’m not saying traditional publishing is not good nor helpful, just that many authors are selling books and making money just fine without them.)

  9. Jim’s my agent, and he’s a great guy. Always professional and super friendly. He’s also Mark Coker’s former agent, and was the first person to suggest that Coker self publish Boob Tube after they couldn’t sell it. And that, of course, led to smashwords.

    http://blog.smashwords.com/2010/01/mediabistro-asks-whos-got-best-vision.html

    • Livia, that explains why you support both corners! I’ve wondered sometimes. Sounds like you have a good one working for you. :)

      • Yes, I’m very much a moderate, Mira, and even in my short writing career, I’ve had both positive and nightmarish interactions with agents, so I can definitely see where both sides are coming from. :-) Coincidentally, I just blogged last night about why I ended up with a publisher after originally deciding to go indie, and that describes my views on things pretty well, I think.

        http://blog.liviablackburne.com/2012/11/why-i-signed-with-traditional-publisher.html

        • I read your post! I can understand your decision, although, as a non-moderate, I am sad to lose you to the other side.

          But maybe we can lure you back someday! :)

          I’ll be interested in your experience with Disney-Hyperion, I hope you share it.

          And congratulations on so much interest! Your book must be terrific!

          • Well, I personally don’t see it as going to the other side, Mira :-) I’m writing something write now that I plan to self publish.

            • Right. There are no sides here, I forget.

              So, you’re going to self-publish, Livia! Yay!

              That means you’re going to be on the right side now! Um, I mean you are coming over to side that is clearly the best. Errr, by going Indie, I mean you are making a thoughtful decision that will put you on the side of goodness, freedom, enlightment and justice.

              Well, you know what I mean. There are no sides, and all that.

              Anyway, thanks for coming over to the light side of the force.

              And I’ll check your blog for when your book is published, I’d like to read it! :)

  10. For years, I had one of the top agents in the business in my corner. He routinely got me triple what publishers offered. But when I decided to switch from non-fiction to fiction, he dropped me like a case of smallpox. Nothing personal, but he said the fiction market was so rotten he couldn’t help me. He has since become one of those agents who also publishes his authors’ e-books, a shady proposition as far as I’m concerned. Nothing against his integrity, but I believe there is an inherent conflict of interest in being both agent and publisher. My point is that he was a top notch agent, a very famous name, and he couldn’t make agenting for fiction pay any longer. And this was ten years ago. From where I sit, it looks like the entire profession of “agent” is outmoded and dying fast.

  11. A few years ago I had positive interactions with Jim McCarthy and would recommend him to someone looking for an agent. For anyone interested in submitting to D&G, it’s of interest to note that their representation is on a per project basis.

  12. I’ve only really been following the writing and publishing world for the last year, but even within that time I’ve noticed that more and more agents are blogging about why writers need them.

    To use a writing analogy, these agents need to Show Not Tell. Don’t tell wannabe authors why they need agents: show them.

    Interesting comment at the end of the post:

    “This guest [Jim McCarthy] seemed to see and understand the issues through the eyes of the authors more so than most of the other guests.”

    Excuse me, but I thought the agents claim to work FOR the authors? How on earth can you work on behalf of someone if you don’t understand the issues from their point of view?

    It seems as though the ‘other guests’ could form a list of Agents To Stay Away From.

  13. I was in the next room over from that room at the NINC conference, and I heard the yelling through the wall. And after it was over, I listened to several very offended authors relating the experience of watching this group in action.

    This wasn’t the only panel that had the agents on it. I was present for one other. And what I pieced together, from my trip to White Plains for the conference and my own success as an indie author without an agent is is this: there is fear in the air. Fear from the big 6 publishers and from agents who work with them.

    Indies can make far more publishing themselves in ebook format, and eventually everyone’s going to know that. The only thing agents like that whack-a-doodle (aka Jabba, not Jane or Jim) can do at this point is try to scare authors into thinking that they won’t make it without him. He said something about how he can take an author down not just the Amazon but all its tributaries (as if without him, you’d be stuck on just the Amazon?? I don’t know, it was kind of nutty). He also bragged about his immense overhead in salaries and offices. The fear was palpable in that room. Without authors signing on for his “Amazon and Tributaries” program, he’s going to have to downsize in a major way. He didn’t look like the type who likes to downsize.

    The slush pile isn’t on the agents desk anymore. It’s on the Amazon best seller list. The big 6 are catching on, cherry-picking those who already have an audience and a platform that they created for themselves. It’s a slam dunk strategy with almost zero risk. They can stop taking agent submissions and just pluck these best sellers off the counter one-by-one. With fewer losses on advances that don’t earn out, they can afford to pay decent advances. A smaller stable but a more lucrative one. A less risky one. This is a no-brainer in my world.

    So where does that leave the agents? Well, speaking personally, I need an agent to help me with foreign rights sales, and if I’m ever so lucky, movie or TV rights sales. I was approached by a foreign publisher for one of my series and negotiated and sold the rights myself. But there are plenty of other publishers who might want the same series or one of my others, but I don’t have the time or inclination to find them. I’d gladly hand over 15% to an agent who would do that for me.

    Do I want an agent to shop paperback rights to the US and UK markets? Sure. Do I want them to shop my ebook rights in English-speaking markets? Hell no. I can do that myself and do it well. And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Bella Andre is a trailblazer here, along with Hugh Howey who nabbed his deal before her. And if they can do it, so can a lot of other authors, so long as they don’t buy into the fear that Jabba is selling. The only exception to my feelings here would be if Amazon publishing came for me. They can put my ebooks in front of my biggest market, pulling me out of the shadows and putting me front and center. That would be worth it to me, if the numbers made sense. That’s not the case for publishers who don’t have that kind of influence at Amazon.

    Two of the agents (ladies) on the one panel I attended said they would do “à la carte” representation of authors who want just foreign rights representation; but they both, after listening to Jabba spout off, amended their statements to say they’d only do it in certain circumstances, with certain authors. So I guess the agents will be cherry-picking too.

    Regardless, it’s an interesting subject, an industry that changes month to month. I have a feeling the sharp agents will find their niches and make the most of it. The others will stick their heads in the sand and pretend that their lives don’t need to change and eventually they’ll become extinct.

    • ” He also bragged about his immense overhead in salaries and offices.”

      And, of course, that means one realistically HAS to ask him: Is that why you require 15% of a client’s income? If you reduced your overhead, could you also reduce the size of your commission to something less expensive for the client–such as 10% or 5%. How much of your overhead is essential expenses and how much of it is waste or bad judgment?

      Frankly, it’s just good business to ask such questions of someone demanding a high commission (at least 15% of the client’s earnings) for his services while bragging about how expensive his overhead is. Since the -client- is paying for that overhead with that high commission, the agent either needs to demnostrate the overhead is all essential–or else demonstrate that the overhead is irrelevant because doing business with him will ensure you earn at least 15% more than you would earn on your own without him… Which was never my experience with agents in traditional publishing (in fact, my income has gone UP since I shed agents from my business model, as a result of making more sales, getting better advances, and keeping all the earnings), and which is even LESS the typical experience now that self-publishing is so widespread.

      • First time I bought a house — in 1992 — the real estate agent’s commission was 15%. When I sold that house & bought a new one in 2009 — through a different agent, who I honestly liked more — the real estate commission was 10%.

        I figure literary agent’s commissions will come down too.

    • Zingo, Elle.

  14. Perhaps it’s time for authors to publish guidelines on exactly how agents should approach them.

  15. I had an agent for four years. This was back before indie publishing took off. We got along but it didn’t work out for either of us, unfortunately. That said, I’d never have another agent again. I’d just hire a literary IP attorney if I needed traditional publishing at all.

    When I’d dealt with some life difficulties and got back in the writing saddle, I started querying agents again. Boy, had things changed between 2004 and 2010. Where once I got a response to agent queries 90% of the time, I was lucky to get a response at all. I had agents that I had met in person, who asked me for a manuscript or a pitch, and whom I had been introduced to by clients of theirs, not even respond to me. Not a “no, thanks” or a form letter or anything. Too busy and too almighty to bother with being professional anymore. I stopped querying after my top ten choices and moved on. I’m a lot happier now. And making money without them.

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