Sunday 7 June 2009


As you may know, hell hath no fury like me when I see inexcusable ignorance. When people don't know something, that's fine: I am happy to elucidate. Even when people think they know everything but in fact only know a small proportion of everything, I can cope: acerbic elucidation is called for, and acerbic elucidation is my forte. But when someone thinks he/she knows enough about the writing world actually to call himself an AGENT, when that person knows less than mouse-droppings about it, then I get angry. My mouth begins to resemble a guppy's as I struggle to produce any lucid words.

See, I thought an agent was someone who knew about publishing. Like, even anything. Because the ones I know are incredibly knowledgeable about it. (As you'd, er, expect??) Mine, for example, knows exactly to whom anything should be sent and exactly what rights should and shouldn't be offered for exactly what dosh. I ask her a question and she tells me the truth. She knows the ins and outs and the ups and downs and can guide me through minefields and extract the best deal from the situation. It's what she's there for and why I'm delighted to hand over her percentage.

Yay for such agents! They are worth their weight in commission. Even if they are very large. Which mine isn't. (Despite the meal I gave her after the launch party, which included meringues and cream and cheese and voluminous sparkly wine. But I accidentally forgot to offer the chocolates round and so, sadly, must eat them all myself.)

But news has come to me of horrible things that worse-than-useless pseudo-agents can do. Thing is, anyone can be an agent. There's no exam or anything. In recent months, I've heard the occasional story of surprising lack of knowledge on the part of some people who call themselves agents. And I've chosen to ignore it.

Until now. Exercise your imagination for a moment. Suppose there was a vanity published author who was ignorant of every aspect of publishing; suppose that "author" then called himself an agent. To be clear, let's imagine that this is someone who doesn't realise that an author is supposed to be allowed to earn money from writing, who hasn't heard of rights and doesn't know the first thing about even the tiniest part of the publishing process, and who will swallow the line that books shouldn't be edited because "editing diminishes the creative and cathartic flow necessary to the transportation of the real writer" (my arse) - and he thinks he can agent someone else? And now imagine that this was not imaginary ...

Since such crappiness could happen, I need you to know how to choose a proper agent. Believe nothing if you don't believe this: a bad agent is worse than useless and certainly much worse than no agent. A bad agent will destroy your career before it has started and will leave you more stressed than you can imagine an unpublished writer can be. And, as you've probably already discovered, being unpublished is stressful enough.

So, before getting into bed with an agent (do I need to specify that I am not being literal?), ask some questions:

  • what other authors does the agent represent?Investigate how well the books have done.
  • what previous experience of publishing led to him becoming an agent?
  • is this the agent's full-time / only job? If not, why not and how much time and energy will the agent have for you?
  • how does the agent sell foreign rights? For example, they might use sub-agents or scouts - but there should be some clear answer to the question. Ask what countries any other clients have been sold into. (Similar question for TV/film rights.)
  • what professional bodies is the agent a member of? Investigate them.
  • can you see the contract that you would sign with the agent? Get it checked by someone who understands - perhaps another agented author, or the Society of Authors if you are a member, or any other body that you belong to.
  • what would be the agent's plan for your career?
  • is the agent asking for any money up front? NO! The agent should earn commission - ie a % of your writing income from any work which falls within the scope of the above contract. So, the agent doesn't earn from you before you earn yourself. An agent will not charge a reading fee.

And here are three questions to test the alleged agent's knowledge:
  • can the agent explain in clear terms the difference between vanity publishing, self-publishing and mainstream publishing?
  • can the agent answer the question: what trends do you see in publishers' attitudes towards this particular genre at the moment?
  • how can an agent help an author exploit IPR?
That should sort the cream from the rancid yogurt!

If you happen to have a friend or acquaintance who is offering to be your agent in an amateur way, be very cautious. If I were you, I'd think barge-pole, frankly. This could be the end of a beautiful friendship and is unlikely to be the start of a glittering career. Being an agent is not a job for amateurs. Obviously, every agent must start somewhere and acquire a first client - but this can only work if that agent already has substantial experience of dealing with publishing rights in another professional capacity. For example, many agents were publishers / editors for years before they became agents - a very good way into the business.

So, please be very astute and cautious, walking onto an agent's list with eyes wide open. Do not be so desperate or flattered that you leap into a relationship immediately - a bad agent is worse than no agent and much more stressful.

I think I've been pretty calm about all this, in the circs. My first draft included phrases like cockroach vomit but I decided to leave that out, so as not to spoil your breakfast. Ever caring, that's me.


catdownunder said...

Prowling in from the Pitch Party - so much to beware humans do make it hard for a cat!

battypip said...

Hi Nicola, nice to meet you. I don't think you're crabbit at all really :-) I've been reading your blog with interest and starring posts in Google Reader so I can come back to them... all useful stuff, when/if I finally finish my novel!


Barb said...

"Cockroach vomit" is not a minging enough term for this type of behaviour. There seems to be predators everywhere.

Megan said...

Hi Nicola, thanks for the stop over on Literary Life!

I'm from The Pitch Party too - fantastic blog!

Love this post, very informative.

I'll be back!

ChrisH said...

Hi Nicola, yet another visitor from the Pitch Party here... gosh, it's getting crowded. Thank you, I've really enjoyed visiting and will be very careful about getting into bed with the wrong agent. I'll be back!

Jane Smith said...

Nicola, I was once approached by one of these "agents": she insisted that one of my blog posts was wrong, then "proved" her point by showing me a contract which she'd received for one of her unfortunate clients: she had completely misinterpreted the clause concerned, I was right, she was wrong... the nasty part is that as a result her client had, on her advice about that clause, rejected the offer of publication which came from a perfectly respectable big publishing house.

Meanwhile, you want to know something REALLY scuzzy? There are agents which direct their clients to vanity presses then earn their 15% by making their clients pay them 15% of the fee they pay to the vanity press. I know. I couldn't believe that one either but yep, it happens. Parasites.

Brian Clegg said...

Another pitch party visitor!

I fell in with my agent by accident, and at the time was too impressed that an agent should be interested in me to check his credentials. As it happens he has done a great job for me... but I admit, I was naive.

emmadarwin said...

Good post, Nicola, as ever. Worth mentioning that you don't have to be a member of the Society of Authors already, to get them to check out a contract offered by an agent (or a publisher): it's the fact that you've been offered a contract which makes you eligible to join the Society, and they'll check the contract and process the application in tandem.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hello all and thanks for comments. Emma - good point, though you do have to be applying to become a member. Worth the joining fee even for that one contract-check though.

Jane - unfortunately, I've come across this too. The depths to which rogues will sink, and the ease with which poor authors fall for it, are shocking and sad.

Jan Jones said...

The thing about cockroach vomit is that it's really small. Something like festering-bog-giant vomit now...

(PS here from the pitch party too)

behlerblog said...

Excellent advice, as always, dear Nicola. I lurve agents and have discussed these same exact points many times so authors understand that being poorly repped is worse than no rep at all.

Why? Because I work very hard to find out who the skanks are and avoid them like the plague. This means that an author may have a lovely book, but I'll never read it because I won't work with a questionable agent. Ever.

Now, pass those choccies, please.

Elen Caldecott said...

I want a badge that says:
"acerbic elucidation is my forte"

Nicola Morgan said...

Jan - agree re cockroach vomit being small but I seem to remember I was thinking of using it in the context of the alleged agent's knowledge, which would be very very small!

Elen - good idea. Let's try to get some made.

Choccies - anyone just watched the Apprentice final? I could have won that task, easily.

Captain Black said...

I've no time for scam artists and other cheats, but I am curious to know how you become an agent. There must be lots of agents out there who are genuine but just starting out on their careers. How would you distinguish these relatively inexperienced people from the cheats? Is there some kind of apprenticeship scheme, for example? Does this kind of business have any certification, like the medical or legal professions?

I'm asking through curiosity, as I've no desire to be an agent myself. It's hard enough struggling to be an author :o/

Nicola Morgan said...

No, there's no apprentice scheme and I can't see one working. It's down to previous knowledge through having worked in the publishing business. That's why I suggested those questions - because the ability to answer them indicates the right level of knowledge. An agent also might start by working in a large agency, which would allow him/her to develop more knowledge before going it alone. But there's no short cut and actually the worst problem is not dishonesty but ignorance. There ARE useful organisations though, such as the Association of Authors Agents, which would convey some credibility. But frankly it's caveat author - which was the point of my post! How anyone can think they can just become an agent, without an existing deep knowledge, beats me but there we are.

Welshcake said...

A good post, Nicola.

What about vanity pubbed authors who set themselves up as publishers to publish their next book and offer to publish other authors alongside their own work?

I've seen a couple of those spring up lately. I'm sure intentions are honourable, but I have mixed feelings about them.

What's your view?

Nicola Morgan said...

Welshcake - interesting question. If vanity pubbed, arghhh, no! (Because vanity pubbing is not about commercial publishing, ie taking a quality book to a general readership). If self-pubbing - depends how well it's done. If someone really really really knows his/her stuff, and has chosen self-pubbing for all the right reasons, no reason why they couldn't do as well for someone else. But the relationship would have to be very clear. And would the person devote the requisite time to YOUR work if actually more concerned with his own? (Understandably). I think it would be fraught with even more difficulty than self-pubbing alone. But essentially, all I care about is that the agent KNOWS enough and that the author knows exactly what the agent should be doing. Does that make sense?

Spinster of this parish said...

Hi Nicola. I've come to this post rather late, for which I hope you'll forgive me. I don't know if this is something you've covered elsewhere, but how long is it reasonable for a agent to hang on to a manuscript? Mine has been with someone just over a year (established firm with real live authors whose books I've read). I sent a polite letter querying this a few weeks ago but so far I've heard nothing. At which point is it reasonable for me to start touting the book to other agents?

Many thanks.

Nicola Morgan said...

spinster of the parish - no need to apologise!

There isn't an exact answer to the question of how long is reasonable, but a year is quite unreasonable! If you've heard nothing depsite a reminder, you can quite reasonably simply send it elsewhere now. I am afriad the first place is not interested. If by any chance they do get back to you and show an interest, you just say the truth: that you thought they weren't interested so you've approached others but are still happy to talk to the first one. Just be honest and open and that's all anyone can expect. I think you've been too patient!

Spinster of this parish said...

Thanks Nicola, that's really helpful. I'd pretty much written it off but didn't want to offend by going elsewhere if this was the normal waiting period. Very frustrating since he asked for the entire ms and said the reader's report on that was favourable. Then radio silence. Heigh ho. Onwards and upwards. Or something.

Thanks again. Really appreciate the time you take writing your blog to help baffled souls like me. :-)

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