Friday, February 24, 2006

Victoria Strauss -- More Things New Writers Say That Drive Me Crazy

“Everyone has to start somewhere.”

This is the justification used by countless aspiring writers for signing with an agent who a) has no relevant professional credentials, b) has no track record of sales (sometimes after many years in business), c) has a website/contract/correspondence laced with mis-spellings and grammatical errors, or d) all of the above.

Just as every published writer was once an unpublished writer, this reasoning goes, just as every surgeon was once a medical student and every master carpenter was once a kid playing with a plastic hammer, every agent was once a non-agent. Everyone has to start somewhere.

Well, sure. But you don’t just wake up one day and decide you’re a surgeon. You don’t buy yourself a box of woodworking tools and call yourself a carpenter. You don’t graduate from college and immediately apply for a job as a senior editor. You need training. Knowledge. Relevant professional experience.

If you’re thinking this is pretty obvious, I agree. To do a skilled job, you need job skills. Duh.

The trouble is, huge numbers of new writers seem to feel that literary agents are exempt from this basic principle. All a new agent really needs, they think, is a website, some determination, and a can-do attitude. So what if the agent doesn’t know the ropes? She can learn them on the job. So what if her spelling’s a little erratic? Anyone can make a mistake. So what if it takes her a while to make a sale? Everyone has to start somewhere.

But it doesn’t work that way. Agenting isn’t like selling Avon products. You can’t just grow into the job with enthusiasm and a good work ethic. Agenting is a highly skilled profession that requires a range of specialized expertise (such as an understanding of rights and contract terms), negotiating savvy, a deep knowledge of the publishing industry, and personal contacts (since publishing is still very much a deals-over-lunch business). These are not skills that are easily acquired outside the publishing industry itself--which is why most successful agents have either worked in publishing in some capacity, or trained at a reputable agency. Nor are skills acquired in other professions--advertising, say, or sales--necessarily transferable. Publishing is a universe unto itself. The sort of selling and negotiating that goes on between agents and editors doesn’t much resemble the selling and negotiating that happens in the business world.

People who come to agenting from non-publishing-related fields rarely manage to make a go of it. I’m not just making a generalization here. Documentation gathered by Writer Beware over the past eight years bears me out. We have scores of files on inexperienced agents who gave up after a couple of years of fruitless trying. We have scores more on amateur agents who turned to fee-charging or editing schemes in order to keep their non-manuscript-selling agencies afloat. Many writers think that scam agents are their greatest danger, but amateur agents--who actually outnumber the scammers by a good percentage--are just as bad.

I’m not really sure why so many writers have a tough time believing this--why they think that anyone, experienced or not, can hang out a shingle as an agent and have as much chance of success as someone who has been an in-house editor for twenty years. Hey, if it were that easy, why would you need an agent at all? Possibly they don’t grasp the level of expert skill involved. Or maybe it’s because, apart from college creative writing programs, there’s no formal training for writers. Anyone can be a writer; why shouldn’t it be the same for agents?

In many cases, of course, it’s because the agent tells the writer what he most desperately wants to hear--that he’s talented, that his manuscript will sell. These are powerful promises, especially to someone who has experienced a lot of rejection. And if the agent is a failed novelist who turned to agenting because she thought she could do a better job than all the nasty agents who sent her form rejection letters, or a retired grade-school teacher who took up agenting because he thought it would be a pleasant home business and in three years of agenting has yet to make a sale, what’s going to be the more powerful motivator for the writer--the practical considerations of job experience, or the ego-boost of recognition, with all the dreams of success it invokes? Will the writer say This agent doesn’t have the skill to sell my manuscript? Or will he swallow the dream, and tell himself Everyone has to start somewhere?

So think twice before approaching new agents who don’t have an industry background. Avoid agents who’ve been in business for years and are still struggling to establish a track record. Run far and fast from agents who make spelling mistakes or grammatical errors or haven’t bothered to proof their websites. These agents started somewhere--but where they are isn't anyplace you want to be.

Edited to add: Not to pick on this person in particular--she's not unique--but this agent's website is such a perfect example of what I'm talking about that I had to post it.

12 comments:

Bernita said...

You see that invisible "thank you" from me after every post, don't you?
As Miss Snark says, the first question to an agent is "What have you sold?"

Sam said...

This is invaluable advice for beginning writers. I was scammed by an agent who faked everything - client list, partners, sales - and I was too new to the business to think about checking facts.
(He was listed in the Writer's Handbook when I found him - so beware - a listing in a well-known writers' guide is no guarantee either.)
*sigh*
Luckily the contract I signed was not binding and all I lost was time and some self-esteem.
(and thanks for your last vote of confidence in my new agent, Victoria - it means a lot to me!)

A. C. Crispin said...

Victoria's post made me think of Aol-denizen "Agent BP." This person has clients sign five year contracts, and has been in business long enough so that some of his clients are approaching the end of their contract terms.

I think "Agent BP" has one "sale" to her/his credit, but it's a niche medical book on an esoteric area of medicine that his "client" was approached to write by a small press specializing in obscure medical books.

Not what I'd call a track record.

This person also tends to edit a writer's submitted manuscript extensively, upon first reading, then, if the writer doesn't sign on as a client, has attempted to bill the writer for editing.

I think Writer Beware has pretty much scared this person into behaving, and, thus, justified obscurity. It's been a long time since we've received a question/complaint about this individual.

But you gotta say one thing for this "agent" -- no upfront fees.

(sigh)

-Ann C. Crispin

Anonymous said...

Wonderful advice. So, what would you say about an agent who is contacting dozens of electronically published authors? She's always very flattering about their novels, and asks if they have representation. She's personable and polite, but the only web information on her is that it's believed she onced worked for (named) reputable agency. The website for her agency only says "coming soon". And has said that for several months now. I know all this because I'm one of the people she contacted. Some of the people on the email lists I'm on seem inclined to trust her simply because she's nice. I don't. I'd like to hear your opinion.

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I'd like to add to the previous comment. I'm one of the people contacted by this agent who posted at a public writer's board about her pleasantness and general appearance of professionalism. I simply couldn't find anything negative to say after she answered my questions in a concise and forthcoming manner, and she has given me no reason --other than what you're saying in this blog--to doubt her (and yes, what you're saying here is definitely food for thought! yikes!). So what the heck does a writer do? This situation is such an odd one. Who can you trust anymore?????

A. C. Crispin said...

What you can do is ask this agent some very polite, but pointed, questions. Find out exactly what her background is. If she has no background in publishing/agenting, that's a black mark.

Also find out how many authors she has signed on, and how many sales she's made. If she's made no sales, then find out exactly how long she's been in business. If she's been business for six months and has no prospects of making a sale, not good. If she's been in business a year, with no sales, that's a major problem.

After all, why should this new agent's learning/sales curve be at the expense of YOUR book?

-Ann C. Crispin

A. C. Crispin said...

Wups, I see that Victoria has already answered the questions posed in far more detail than I offered in my brief response.

Read Victoria's post for the better of the two responses.

-Ann C. Crispin

Allison Brennan said...

EXCELLENT post. Writer Beware was a fabulous resource for me when I was agent hunting over two years ago . . . I'm glad you have a blog now!

Are you sure that link at the bottom isn't a joke? All those typos . . . (cringe.)

Jennette said...

Re: the example link - I'm also wary of an "agent" who can't spend $50/year for their own domain name and an ad-free web site. Not to mention the poor grammar. Ouch! Image does matter. However, there are plenty of reputable agents with no website, usually ones who aren't actively seeking new clients.

Anonymous said...

I've been querying agents for awhile now, and have had two agents literally leap to request a mss...they each have very professional websites, but one has not sales record in fiction and the other has no sales listed at all, and upon further inquiry, turns out to have a record of non-payment to authors.

It's enough to make one feel like "I wouldn't be a member of any club who would have me as a member."

Anonymous said...

Ooops! you must have scared them away, the web links to a defunct page. buh bye.

Amocee said...

Clicked on link you provided to access the agent's website but yahoo says it's not available? Was wondering if you can post some examples of literary agents websites to avoid...Thanks