“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Just as every published writer was once an unpublished writer, this reasoning goes, just as every surgeon was once a medical student and every master carpenter was once a kid playing with a plastic hammer, every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.