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.