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Agents going off the rails

10 April 2014

From Janet Reid, Literary Agent:

A while back I posted a question from a writer who seriously wondered if her agent was dead or abducted by aliens (no contact for months on end.)

In my reply I mentioned that kind of thing has been happening more often. That observation sparked some interest and some requests for elaboration.

. . . .

Back in the day, and I mean back before email, the internet and Twitter and, let’s face it, transparency, the career path for becoming an agent was starting as an editor at a big publishing house, and learning how the biz worked. There are those who traveled a different route of course, but they were the exceptions, not the norm.

That has changed almost completely.

Many younger agents are starting as agents. Or assistants who are allowed to sign clients. Or interns who are sure they learned everything they need to know and set up shop as agents when their internship is completed.

. . . .

And they’re often alone and unsupported. By alone, I mean they work as sole proprietors or in remote offices from the main agency. By unsupported I mean they do not have someone sitting five feet away who can help them get out of trouble or stop them from getting in to trouble. Of the five cracker jack young agents I know best, ALL started out sitting close to an agent with more experience, an agent who considered it his/her job to guide the younger agent.

And there’s another component to consider. Recently I tallied the lists of tasks I had for each client in 2003. Then I tallied the tasks I had for clients in 2013.

By my count there is three times the work now for each client/book that there was in 2003.

. . . .

So if you’re an agent who’s been doing this forever, and in the last ten years your job has tripled, and your income hasn’t, and all of a sudden there’s this new transparency and people are talking about you on the Internet like you can’t see it, well, sometimes just not dealing with the problems seems pretty much like the avenue of least resistance.

I don’t say this to excuse the behavior. It’s bad behavior. It’s very unprofessional. I’d like to say I’ve never been guilty of behaving this way, but it would not be true.

But what this is has a name: burnout.

. . . .

If you’re an author you’ll want to avoid signing with an agent who is headed down Burnout Ave. How to tell? You ask her clients. Not “is s/he burning out?” but “how’s the communication?” Agents who are burning out generally aren’t communicating well.

Find out how much support an agent has. If things go south, is there someone there to pick up the pieces? A sole prop who goes off the rails leaves her clients in a bigger mess than someone backed by an agency with people who know where the files are.

Link to the rest at Janet Reid, Literary Agent and thanks to Amy for the tip.

PG says a lot of businesses/professions (including lawyers) have a high incidence of burnout.

It’s always a bad idea to deal with a professional who is burned out.

Most state bar associations have resources plus the means of intervening if a lawyer is burning out. None of the associations has a perfect system to the best of PG’s knowledge, but, at least in California, if the bar receives complaints from clients that a lawyer is not returning calls or delivering quality work, the bar will intervene with varying degrees of assertiveness, depending upon the nature and severity of the problem.

PG understands the medical world has similar tools to help a burned-out doc.

However, literary agents are effectively unregulated, except via litigation. As Janet’s post indicates, anybody can offer his/her services as a literary agent. Just released from drug rehab? You can be an agent! Coming out of prison and your parole officer says you need a job? You can be an agent!

PG does not mean to slander skilled, honest and diligent agents. They certainly exist and provide useful services for their clients.

However, when one agent burns out, screws clients and the news hits the internet, all agents collect a little soot.

Where are literary agent licensing laws? Where is the formal, enforceable code of ethics?

Demonstrating some minimal competence and following strict rules for the segregation of author’s funds from agency funds as a condition of receiving a license would set a licensed agency apart and above others. The threat of losing an agent’s license would certainly provide some deterrence for bad behavior. Arbitration of agent/author disputes would be a valuable service a licensing entity could provide.

PG thinks some licenses (pedicurist or interior designer, for example) are silly, but agents receive money, sometimes a lot of money, that belongs to their clients. If publishers won’t talk to authors, the agent is the only avenue through which information flows between authors and publishers. Sometimes this information is very valuable and professional consequences for authors can be severe if the information doesn’t promptly and accurately arrive for them.

Some agents do quit providing services for their clients while still holding onto their right to have the author’s royalties flow through their bank accounts. Or maybe not flow, but rather sit in the agents’ bank accounts for a month or two or three. Or provide a short-term “loan” to cover the rent or cocaine payments.

Agents, PG's Thoughts (such as they are)

61 Comments to “Agents going off the rails”

  1. I appreciate what she’s saying because I understand burnout. The problem is if only the agent knows s/he’s burnout then everyone else is left to speculate the reason for the unprofessional behavior. Or, if the agent can’t even recognize that they’re burnout or in over their head then…? A lot of people just don’t have that level of self-reflection or knowledge (of the problem) or honesty to see that they’re sinking. And pride. Sometimes people just don’t want to admit they can’t handle what they’re doing.

    Asking an agent: how’s your communication? is going to garner what response exactly? Honesty? Transparency? I’m guessing not.

    All that aside: I’m baffled that just anyone can become an agent. Wow. Why wouldn’t you look for a mentor in a veteran agent? *throws hands in the air*

    I’m glad she wrote this post. It might ease the minds of querying authors and maybe even wake up a few agents. If you’re burnout — take a break. Just don’t be afraid to admit you’re, you know, human. And maybe let your clients know. They’ll appreciate the honesty…after they finish freaking out. (kidding)

  2. From the article:
    <<<
    But what this is has a name: burnout. Agenting is a job that's ripe for burnout for two reasons:

    1. Almost nothing is under our direct control
    2. Almost nothing is ever finished
    <<<

    I'm not an agent, so I can't comment on her workload. That said, if we change "Agenting" in the above text into "Writing", I believe it is at least equally valid. But perhaps with the added problem that 1. for a writer is often caused by publishers and agents who are abducted by aliens. Or burned out. Or busy Tweeting and Facebook-ing, or other social media-ing.

    Maybe it's just me but if you choose to represent somebody, writer or otherwise, then you can at least pick up the phone when your client calls or call him back right away. If you are too busy, then perhaps you need to take a course in priority management.
    Free tip: priority #1 = keeping your clients happy. They pay your bills…

  3. Another way to tell is when they run a website where they rant about the stupidity of their clients.

    • Oh snap!

      *giggles*

      Love your comment, Andrew.

    • HA!

    • Andrew, indeed–there’s a big fat CLUE that the agent is sliding down to the end of his/her rope.

    • To be fair, I think her abuse of authors is not really an ‘off the rails’ thing. It’s a form of conditioning so new writers will be more willing to accept incompetence. It also plays into the whole ‘shark’ persona she adopts when sitting safely behind a keyboard. Prospective clients might put up with her if they think she’s tough with publishers as well (which seems highly improbable).
      It’s all carefully calculated, and it seems to be working. There’s always a gaggle of desperate authors tripping over each other to tell her what a fantastically helpful post she’s just written.
      Perfect way to find clients with low expectations.

      • It’s a form of conditioning so new writers will be more willing to accept incompetence.

        Yeah.

  4. I honestly wonder how an agent would react to a potential signee asking the agent’s other clients about his/her performance.

    • They’d hear about it and label you a ‘problem client’. Trad pub career officially over before it began, and all because you listened to an agent’s advice.
      The sad thing is how many gushing replies she’s getting. If an author tried this with HER, she’d freak…

    • Actually, this is standard practice. When you are considering signing with an agent, you ALWAYS speak to a few of their clients (at least you should). Where this goes wrong is that usually you end up asking the agent for references, and he/she refers you to clients he/she knows are happy. Not the unhappy ones who left…

      • I see what you’re saying, but I was speaking about potential clients talking to other clients without the agent’s knowing/referral. I can imagine that wouldn’t go over all too well.

        I apologize for not being more clear. I blame the burnout. 😀

        • Actually, I did that too, when I was considering signing with an agent. I went to my RWA lists and asked around, found two people represented by this agent who weren’t the referrals the agent had given me, and spoke to both of them on the phone.

          They both had nothing but good things to say, and I think the reason agents are not threatened by authors doing this is that somebody currently represented by an agent is never going to badmouth that agent, at least not to a stranger. Either they are happy with the agent, so they will say good things, or they are unhappy but for some reason feel the need to preserve the relationship, so they will say good things. The only way you’re going to hear a more balanced view is if you talk to a former client rather than a current one.

          It is common, I think, for authors to publicly laud their agents while privately seething with frustration and dissatisfaction with the relationship.

        • “I see what you’re saying, but I was speaking about potential clients talking to other clients without the agent’s knowing/referral. I can imagine that wouldn’t go over all too well.”

          I always did this. I’ve never asked an agent for referrals, I’ve always found out who worked with them (even before the internet, this wasn’t that hard to find out–and now it’s dead easy) and made my own shortlist of people to contact. I always did this well before ever contacting the agent, since it was one of my steps in deciding -whether- to query an agent. (I also talked to editors who’d dealt with the agent, since you learn a lot that way–but for that, you have to know the editor.)

          And I assume the agents knew, since I’m pretty sure I TOLD them in my query letters that I talked to some of their clients. And in cases where the client was happy and the feedback positive, the client often told me to feel free to -name- them when telling the agent I’ve talked with clients.

          Since I know a lot of writers, I also often had the opportunity to talk to UNhappy clients and EX-clients when researching agents. And those conversations account for all the agents I decided NOT to query over the years. I encountered very, very few instances where a client left an agent for a silly reason; many instances where clients left for reasons that would have made me leave, too; and lots of instances where multiple clients left the same agent for very similar reasons (in the most memorable example, there was a high-profile agent who’d shown a lot of interest in me for a while–but in the space of 2-3 years, I talked to -nine- clients who’d left because of how badly this agent had damaged their careers and incomes, and they were all resurrecting their careers and earning again since leaving).

          But the thing to keep in mind is that despite an excruciatingly thorough agent-hunting/hiring process and a lot of contacts in the biz and “insider’ info, etc., etc…. I still had four extremely bad agent experiences in a row. So even very thorough vetting doesn’t protect you from the many flaws in this business model.

  5. I was once a burned out lawyer myself – so burned out I changed careers. I empathize with anyone in that situation. I always made sure my clients didn’t suffer, though. This kind of behavior is inexcusable, but without any state-empowered agency to enforce a code of ethics it will continue.

  6. There is a built-in problem in agenting: they owe fair representation to their clients, but in order to sell their clients’ books, they have to keep publishers happy. This automatically creates conflict. Even the good agents are forced to tiptoe through a minefield in order to be effective. No doubt they can get great contracts for their bestselling clients, but the scenario changes for a new author or a midlister.

  7. “I’m not making any excuses for this behavior. Now, here are a bunch of excuses for this behavior.”

    Fan-tastic. At least she managed to avoid directly blaming a writer, for once.

    Also, what the Hell is up with this reply?

    Honestly, this is why I am a secretary. I’m grateful for those who risk their lives (don’t think that’s not part of publishing!), but am also grateful not to have to …

    • Well, you see, Dan, a literary agent is actually a secret agent in their spare time. It’s why they go incommunicado, and fall off the face of the earth and you can’t contact them. It’s also why they send you terse emails, because while they’re risking their lives chasing bad guys, you’re bothering them with questions about where they are and where the money is and what’s going on and such. Nobody’s got time for that when bullets are whizzing! It’s also why they take months to send off proposals to publishers and need to cash your checks in advance without telling you for a while — people gotta do what they gotta do to survive as a double agent, don’t they?

      Oh wait, never mind. I’m just being a delusional, brown-nosing suck-up to a literary agent I’m hoping to catch … because somehow, she “risks her life” for me.

      ————–

      ….I feel like I need to go to the looney bin now.

    • Must be all those fires the agents are constantly putting out …

  8. By ducks in a row, I mean get your submission list, and know where your manuscript has gone. Make sure you know where your contract is. READ your contract.

    And even if you do have an agent, you should be knowing these things anyway.

  9. PG said;
    “Some agents do quit providing services for their clients while still holding onto their right to have the author’s royalties flow through their bank accounts.”

    That right there is the primary reason I’ve always been leery of agents. I understand that a few may be of help with certain issues like foreign rights, but more and more I hear of agents that;

    ignore their employers (the author),
    give up after a few weeks of submitting,
    expect writers to follow a code of behavior that is not reciprocated,
    expect the author to hire legal counsel for contracts,
    offer little to no guidance on editing
    and happily toss promising writers aside when they aren’t overnight best sellers.

    In exchange, they expect a serious chunk of change from writers who are already screwed by unethical royalty percentages.

    The horror stories are common enough that I consider the good and helpful agent, the one that really helped a career, the exception to the rule.
    I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that those are the agents that really burn out, the ones trying to go the extra mile and be a worthwhile representative.

    • “…ignore their employers (the author)” check
      “give up after a few weeks of submitting” check
      “expect writers to follow a code of behavior that is not reciprocated” check
      “offer little to no guidance on editing” or way too much

      Yep, four out of six for me. Probably the only reason it wasn’t six out of six was because I didn’t get that far.

      On a related note, I have to wonder…why would anyone even seek an agent nowadays?

  10. I will admit that it is a bit hard for me to “pity the poor agent” when they get a steady flow of cash off of sales done years ago. Its kind of like an insurance agent’s ongoing commissions off of renewed policies, but so much more money per client and with a contract that forbids the author from severing that cash flow.

    She also mentions in the post that she has to do 3x as many tasks per project when compared to ten years ago, but gives no breakdown of time needed per task. (ie. Sending out 9 e-mails instead of 3 typed letters does not necessarily mean you are spending more time)

    I appreciate that she talks openly about this very-real problem, especially when the author’s income from that project is so controlled by that agent.

    I just hope that more authors take heed to the danger of signing a lifelong contract with an unlicensed and unregulated stranger.

  11. all of a sudden there’s this new transparency and people are talking about you on the Internet like you can’t see it,

    Oh she means agents. I thought she meant agents talking about writers.

  12. I think she makes some fairly valid points, but all I know is my own personal experience with agents. Both of mine were at a large agency with (ostensibly) plenty of support. Both did, in my opinion, a less than satisfactory job, including one of them completely failing to respond to emails for six months.

    So I doubt that a lack of support was the situation for them. I don’t know what the deal was, but I came out of the experience singularly unimpressed.

  13. I found her post unbelievably whiny. “Poor, poor me! I have to work. People might complain about me on the internet if they don’t like me!”

    I understand Janet Reid pines for 2006 when the only thing you could find on the internet was AW agent worship. It was really fun for a while there for folks like Janet. Agents could be incompetent or marginally competent (see Nathan Bransford’s post discussed earlier about how a good agent is one who doesn’t screw up) and still get their feet kissed by hoards of beginning writers who thought they needed an agent.

    My traditional publishers (including one Big 5) don’t seem to care that I don’t have an agent.

    My opinion: If a publisher insists that you need an agent, that publisher wants to take advantage of you, and wants to make sure you can be led by the nose. If a publisher really doesn’t want to talk directly to writers (and why not? do we have cooties?) a lawyer who the writer pays by the hour should be an acceptable middle person.

  14. I read this somewhere:

    Agents, agents, I don’t need no stinkin’ agents.

  15. One of my favorite quotations, from Much Ado About Nothing:

    Let every eye negotiate for itself, and trust no agent.

    P.S. I read her post a few times trying to figure out what she can offer a writer and the only thing I found was that she works to build strong relationships with publishers, so her calls get returned. Okay. I do the same for myself. I work to build strong relationships with editors so that my calls get returned. The way to get responses from editors is to write something the editor wants to publish. If a writer is capable of writing business letters and behaving professionally, and hiring a lawyer for negotiations, I see no need for an agent.

  16. I think part of the problem is that the agent/author relationship tends to be a long-distance business relationship conducted over email. Therefore, when the agent stops answering emails, the author is left adrift and has no idea what’s going on. Is the agent burned out? Having family trouble? In jail? Dead? Are they working 12 hours a day and simply overwhelmed, or are they coming into the office at 11am, mass deleting all the emails they don’t want to deal with, and leaving at 3?

    When I worked in the tech industry, we knew when somebody was experiencing burnout. They would come in late and leave early, maybe not come in at all, act bored and sullen, etc. And as a manager, you could do something about it: have a talk with them, try to transfer them to something they might enjoy more, give them a bad performance review, start the termination process if they won’t come around.

    But for agents, there is little to no accountability. They can hide behind the claim that they’re working 15 hours a day and they’ll get to you as soon as they can. When in reality, for all the authors knows those 15 hours a day could be spent playing Farmville.

  17. Author/agent is a business relationship. Are agents really so incompetent that in a case of sickness, family problems, etc, they can’t set in a e-mail an automatic response that they are at the moment unavailable or send out generic email to their clients that they will be unavailable until so and so?
    I think that in the time when authors have different options, I hope that authors will start to out the agents who are acting unprofessional, rude and who always have excuses for not doing their job (like sending out submissions, returning the calls, etc.) on regular basis and with names.

  18. For some reason, I now have Crazy Train by Ozzy in my head. Is that wrong or weird?

  19. Writers hire agents. Agents are employees of the writers they represent.

    When a boss calls on the phone, the employee picks it up. If the employee doesn’t, the employee finds themself fired. That’s how a boss/employee relationship works.

    What Janet Reid’s article suggests is that she doesn’t consider agents the employee of the writer.

    • The problem with pretty much every agent is that they do NOT consider themselves employees, Lee. Talk to any agent and they’ll tell you that you are NOT the boss, because they’re your BUSINESS PARTNER (heh) and that you cannot demand/tell/order them to do anything.

      “You don’t pay me a salary,” one said when I dared to say that the agent worked for the writer, “you’re not the boss. I work for and earn 15% commission, making me your business partner.”

      I had to keep a straight face else I would have rolled my eyes so hard.

      • Agree. Every agent I worked with over the years absolutely considered himself or herself the boss. The agent decided whether my work was ready to go to editors. The agent decided when it would go to editors. The agent decided which editors, and when to call it quits. More than once, an agent dumped me after the first round of rejections.

        I pushed back once against an agent telling me to do more revisions, and the agent said, “I cannot send a book out that I don’t feel comfortable with. My reputation is on the line.”

        They are in business for themselves. Even the “business partner” thing is hogwash, at least in my experience of 8 agents, all considered reputable according to certain on line sites.

  20. PG wrote: “Where are literary agent licensing laws? Where is the formal, enforceable code of ethics?

    Demonstrating some minimal competence and following strict rules for the segregation of author’s funds from agency funds as a condition of receiving a license would set a licensed agency apart and above others. The threat of losing an agent’s license would certainly provide some deterrence for bad behavior. Arbitration of agent/author disputes would be a valuable service a licensing entity could provide.”

    THIS!

    After 26 years as a professional writer, having had four bad agent/agency experiences, and having known more-writers-than-I-can-possibly-count who’ve had problem after problem with agents…

    THIS. Until the sort of measures PG has described are implemented and working, agenting will be widely characterized by lack of professionalism, incompetence, and illegal behavior of behavior of very questionable legality.

    • PG and Laura are right. Licensing could fix this situation. Without it, bad agents will continue to tar the whole profession.

      • The problem is how you license someone to negotiate contracts without requiring a law degree.

        California does regulate Hollywood talent agents. I don’t know the specifics, though. Isn’t a lawyer also needed?

        • Real estate agents are licensed to assist clients with real estate transactions without law degrees.

          Granted, in most jurisdictions they aren’t supposed to provide actual legal advice, but the basic concept isn’t entirely unprecedented. And I would be ALL FOR applying the same logic that we apply (at least in IL) to literary agents as we do to real estate agents.

          Namely, a licensed real estate agent can, technically, provide what would otherwise be legal advice to a client, and won’t get in trouble for the unauthorized practice of law. HOWEVER… they are held to the same standard as a lawyer would be, and can be sued for legal malpractice if their advice is bad enough.

          Since the number of real estate agents who carry legal malpractice insurance can be counted on the fingers of no hands, in practice, they won’t do it. But they could. We could do the same with literary agents, no problem.

          • Now that Marc mentions real estate agents… I bought my first house in 2012. I know that some people have had bad experience with real estate agents, but I had two agents for that deal, and both were excellent: I started house-hunting in Ohio, then decided to buy a house in Kentucky, where my first agent wasn’t licensed, so I needed another. (There was a formal processing for “tipping” me to another agent, and rather than them making this MY problem, as literary agents typically do, they had their own formal process for splitting the commission after that.)

            And I was consistently surprised (and pleased) by how MUCH MORE PROFESSIONAL the real estate agent experience was than ANY of my experiences with literary agents were.

            And, yep, that includes going over legal documents. With my real estate agent, there was formal presentation (including her spiel about not being an attorney) and a detailed process for reviewing all the legal paperwork. IIRC, on the offer, I had to initial every paragraph after we discussed it, to indicate we had indeed discussed it.

            By contrast, literary agents always just FWD’d “finished” contracts to me, with a cover letter advising me to sign and return. At most, there might be a line in the cover letter saying, “Let me know if you have any questions.” This would always be my first viewing of a 20-page legal document committing me to years of work (and committing my books to even more years of licensing).

            I remember my third literary agent speaking to me before I’d ever even seen a particular publishing contract, and telling me the deal was “legally binding now.” EXCUSE ME? I had not =signed= ANYTHING. I had never even spoken with the publisher. Apart from knowing a few broad strokes of the deal (advance, due dates, who retained foreign subrights) as negotiated by the agent (who did not have any sort of legal authority on my behalf), I had no information whatsoever about the many clauses in the contract. And he was advising me that his discussions, to which I had not been privy, with the publisher made the contract I had yet to see already “legally binding”???

            That same agent never sent me 1099s while I was a client. When I complained, the agent told me they had decided it wasn’t really necessary and was just “too much trouble.” (This later gave me some leverage–though not enough, alas–when filing ethics complaints against the agent and trying to get his hands off my 85% after I had fired him.) Keep in mind that millions of dollars were passing through that agency each year… and they couldn’t be bothered to do the proper IRS paperwork to account for it to clients.

            Additionally, that agency had a relationship with a foreign rights agent I never met, interviewed, or hired. He was their associate, not mine. After he made a foreign subrights deal for my work… I was extremely puzzled to get the check without ever having seen or signed the contract. That’s when I found out that this agency… NEVER SENT foreign contracts to clients. It would be “too much trouble.” The foreign subrights agents signed our contracts for us (!!!!!!!), despite having absolutely no authority to do so, and (according to my agent) -I- was the only person who’d ever had a problem with that, everyone else was totally cool with it. (blink) (skeptical frown)

            Again, this was an agency that did hundreds of thousands of dollars of business in foreign subrights each year. And THIS was how they were handling it. As recently as 11 years ago, which was when I left.

            A common complaint among many writers (and it’s a problem I fought for years with my third ex-agent, and also had with my fourth ex-agent) is that as soon as you fire an agent, they cease sending you your royalty statements (unless there’s money attached). So once you leave an agency, it’s difficult even to get accurate bi-annual accounting figures for your own books, because it’s “too much trouble” for agencies to mail them to ex-clients… EVEN WHILE the agency is STILL entitled to 15% of any money that comes in on that deal. (And since you’re not getting your royalty statements… how do you even know whether or not money is still coming in?)

            And THIS sort of SH*T goes on ALL THE TIME with literary agents. Because they are not licensed or regulated in any way. Because, as PG notes, litigation is the ONLY form of “regulating” their activities–though they are handling other people’s money and advising people on complex legal documents that involve tens (or hudnreds) of thousands of dollars and years of licensing for work that takes years to do.

            It’s a TERRIBLE business model. ALL of the things I’ve just described (as well as many other similar idiocies) go on in literary agenting with no recourse whatsoever. These are all all-too-common examples of why literary agents need licensing and accountability to a licensing board.

  21. I don’t think it is enforceable, but the Association of Authors’ Representatives Canon of Ethics is at http://aaronline.org/canon

  22. Why do publishers send 100% royalties to agents?

    • Either Smith or Rusch, I forgot which one, and I couldn’t find it easily, explained the history of the agency clause (the clause the agent inserts into a publishing contract directing all money to be paid to the agent.)

      I think it got started in the old days, when publishers found it easier to write one check to the agent for all the royalties owed to that agent’s clients with books at that house.

      Agents of course loved it, and writers didn’t argue.

      I remember thinking the agency clause was odd the first time I saw one. I sold a book myself in 1999, had an agent “negotiate” the contract, which mostly involved the agent inserting the agency clause. You can call me stupid 🙂

  23. Terrific commentary, PG, and Laura’s agreement with you as well.

    Agents don’t seem to realize how much their credibility is hurt by the current lack of regulation and oversight in their profession.

    Janet is right – the transparency of the internet completely changed their profession. Prior to the internet, agents could keep authors isolated and in the dark. The internet completely undermined that.

    Writers talked and compared and connected. And agents are under scrutiny. Their profession is being held up and examined and frequently found severely lacking.

    People do not hire professionals they do not trust. Licensure is probably one of the few solutions that could help save a profession that is in danger of disappearing due to a lack of consumer confidence. I hope some people read your commentary, PG, and take it to heart.

    I agree that there are good people in the agenting profession, and I’m sure they are nervous. By getting a code of ethics and some accountability with some sting to it, and a profession could build confidence and trust within the clientele it serves.

  24. I just really don’t think there’s any excuse when you’re holding people’s careers and livelihoods in your hands. If you’re burning out, get help. If you’re burnt out, do the responsible thing and either try to find a different agent for your client or release your client from your agreement, then quit agenting. If you can’t handle the stresses of the job you have no business being an agent.

  25. I have to differ a bit with the supposition that authors never dished on agents prior to social media and the ‘Net.

    We did (and do) it all the time. On the phone or face-to-face. No paper trail. No bits or bytes. This is how I learned that a certain agent known to me was batcrap crazy and not to come within yards of him. This is how I learned that a different agent would only take your calls if you were one of the agency’s big earners. We authors did and do talk to each other. No amount of agent denial will change that.

    • Yep. We discussed agents, editors, the unfairness of publishing contracts, the impossibility of comprehending royalty statements, the batcrap craziness and sonofabitch quotient of everyone in publishing. We just had to wait for the Internet to make it all public and “forever.”

    • @ Deb and Bridget –

      I bet! Writers weren’t stupid and they weren’t children, even though they were basically treated as if they were. Like all exploited groups, I’m sure they found ways to connect in secret. But there was very little chance of getting any information to writers continuing to enter the field, so obedient ready-made competition was always present. Writers were disposable, and if they whispered in corners, it wasn’t a threat to the mainstream. There was always black-listing and contract dropping to hold over their heads. So, who cared if agents weren’t trusted or licensed? What could writers do about it anyway?

      This isn’t a critique of the writers at all. They had very little power in the situation and did the best they could. It was terribly hard on them, unfair, unjust and wrong – that’s not the writers’ fault. Bravo to them for finding solidarity under those conditions.

      But now? Writers form massive collectives on websites and shout to all corners of the world.

      It’s called freedom.

      And because of that freedom, now it’s the agents who are disposable.

  26. Yes, writers might have talked but the information wasn’t widely available. I didn’t truly benefit from the information until Smith and Rusch started blogging about this stuff. An agent could always go to a conference and have a whole new crop of I gnorant beginners to pick from

    So folks like Shatzkin and a few editors I have met seem to truly believe agents entirely work for the best interests of writers. Do they know better? Or do they really think it’s true? I assume they know the truth but keep up appearances because agents so benefit them.

    • “Do they know better? Or so they really think it’s true?”

      While I don’t think they’re completely naïve, I do think publishers have to some extent drunk their own koolaid. They know they’re in business to make money for shareholders, they know they cut corners on quality to get more product out the door, and still when they spout their zombie memes I absolutely think some part of them believes they’re true and that all involved really are what they say they are. It’s kinda delusional.

  27. Agents are going off the rails because traditional publishing is on the ropes (pardon the mixed metaphors). How many agents, even relatively well established pros, have to get part-time jobs in their spare time just to pay the rent and keep food on the table? It’s hard to return clients’ emails when you’re busy flipping burgers.

    With consolidation taking place among publishers, the closing of bookstores and the downward pressure on book prices (and therefore profit margins of anyone lucky enough to sell a meaningful number of books), it’s getting harder for everyone in the biz to make a living.

    Here are my thoughts in more detail on my blog: http://www.psgrieve.com/1/post/2014/03/why-it-sucks-to-be-a-literary-agent.html

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