Thursday, 29 October 2009

How To Find A Good Literary Agent

A couple of weeks ago, a thread began at Absolute Write about a new and as-yet unproved agent. Said agent rocked up; questions were asked; a magnificent bun-fight ensued. After a few frustrating days the uproar moved to a part of Aboslute Write's forum which is not Google-cached (I doubt that the agent concerned realised how lucky he was with that); and it culminated in this particularly unprofessional tweet from him here.

This witty and concise livejournal post from Beth Bernobich provides a treasure-trove of linky background about the agent concerned: it's pretty safe to say that he has a history of being argumentative and confrontational online which doesn't bode well for how he might behave when negotiating a particularly difficult contract, or when dealing with editors who reject the books he represents; and I'm not convinced that a few years working in the book division of a product-licensing company is extensive enough experience, or is even appropriate, for anyone intending to embark on a career as a literary agent.

If you read through all the links supplied, you'll find plenty of reasons not to submit to the agent concerned: his lack of experience, his argumentative nature, and the extraordinarily bad advice he gave about children's books all count against him. But without all those things on a plate in front of them, how can writers avoid the agents who might not serve them best?

To paraphrase James McDonald, the job of a literary agent is not an entry-level position. If you're looking for a literary agent you'd be wise to avoid submitting to the new and unproved, no matter how well-behaved they are online. Wait a year and see how well they do: the bottom line is that a good literary agent will make sales to good publishers, at no up-front cost to the authors they represent.


Anonymous said...

Yes, but if NOBODY submits to a new agent it's a pretty sure bet they won't do very well.


Katherine May said...

We writers are so conditioned to be grateful if an agent makes us an offer that we don't always exercise due diligence. Your relationship with an agent is such an important thing, and if you've got any suspicions at all that they're not up to scratch (or just not right for you), it's far better to wait until you get a better offer.
It's not that no-one should submit to any new agent - it's just that writers must exercise their judgement and take a look at the CVs of newer agents. As with a lot of jobs, they need to have built up contacts, experience and an excellent network to be at all useful. Otherwise you may as well do it yourself.

Sally Zigmond said...

It depends on what you need by a 'new' agent.

I would never sign up with an agent who didn't know both the publishing business and also what differentiates a sellable manuscript from a load of manure.

I would be more than happy to sign up with a 'new' agent setting up an independent business as long as said agent had worked his or her apprenticeship in a one of the large literary agencies and or worked his or her way up the ladder in one or more of the larger trade publishers.

A writer can become a published author even if he or she knows nobody in the publishing business but with an agent, who you know is as important as what you know.

I read the trade press. That's where you get to hear who's setting up and who's moving on and who they represent. Agents' lists are okay but not reliable. Do your homework first.

Mary Hoffman said...

I really enjoyed reading this post and its links in a ghoulish train wreck sort of way!

I am so sorry for any Australian or other nationality writer being taken on by this guy. The sheer lack of professionalism on all fronts is what is so disturbing.

Apparently it's really easy to be an agent, editor or freelance writer - ha!

Many successful agents in the UK are ex-publishers (I'm speaking of the children's side since that's where my experience lies) but I can't imagine any of them behaving like that.

Nicola Morgan said...

Exactly, Sally. New is fine but not if new to the business side of writing. I have recently been privy to some shocking stories of ignorance amongst people calling themselves agents. Good agents can increase a writer's earning hugely; bad agents can shoot a career dead before it's born.

thevoice said...

Once you have been attached to a pitiful agent how do you recover? I have had the awful experience of missing a great opportunity with Ballantine books because of a poor agent. So, what next?

steeleweed said...

This post sounds more like "How to find a bad literary agent" :-D

Leslie said...

I was following this guy for a bit because he seemed so nice and cheery -- then I realized he was just passing along info from other publishing blogs and whatnot. *sigh* There sure is a lot of smoke and mirrors among the camp followers of publishing. I

Travener said...

I couldn't believe how long that "bun fight" went on... I think it's important to note again that not all new agents are equal. Those with years of experience in the book-publishing business are obviously different, and more worthy of taking a chance on, than someone with no real publishing background who suddenly hangs out of shingle with "literary agent" written on it.

It's interesting to read the full AW threae on Uwe Stender (TriadaUS). When he was first starting out there was all this skepticism about him -- he was a neophyte, he didn't know what he was doing, etc., etc. He's established himself so well in just a few years that now Preditors & Editors says something like they're "highly impressed" with him. Kudos to those who had the courage to take a chance with him. I know I wouldn't have.

Daniel Blythe said...

It's now my turn to have a misbehaving computer, Jane. Could you possibly please summarise what the bad advice was that he gave about children's books? I know it will be buried deep within that thread somewhere but I don't have the heart to trawl through it all on a creaky craptop!

catdownunder said... in Downunder just makes it more difficult. Is that Writers' Yearbook worth putting paws on and opening up? Does one go on line and search? Does one miaou pitifully at other authors? How does one find an agent?

Eirin said...

I wonder if Mat realizes quite how far word travels when you throw a fit like his on AW? It's a different league than his usual stomping grounds, I think; both in terms of numbers of readers and in who're paying attention.


Yes, but if NOBODY submits to a new agent it's a pretty sure bet they won't do very well.

Being an agent isn't a basic human right; and no writer is in any way morally obliged to support inexperience or incompetence with their hard work.

Anonymous said...

For the past eighteen months - maybe longer for all I know - this young man has spread himself across writer's sites like a rash. His relationship with the truth is at best tenuous. It's simply not possible to have had years of experience in just about every part of the industry and still only be thirty years old.

His brand of self promotion is easy to see through for us more experienced writers, but what about the newcomers?

Throughout the AW debacle he maintains he always uses his won name on the internet. Not true. He is currently holding court on Authonmy under a different identity.

Amanda James

Jane Smith said...

TheVoice: if your writing is good enough to attract attention from Ballantine then all is not lost. That particular book might be lost, if you published it elsewhere: but you could write another one, and seek good representation for that. I know it's not always easy, but it's possible.

Dan, some of his less-useful (!) comments at AW have now been deleted: but I've seen him advising writers to commission illustrations for their own books before seeking publication, on the assumption that publishers would like to have the full package presented to him (this is NOT the way to go ahead, just in case anyone isn't clear: publishers want to commission their own artwork and won't welcome having it done for them); he advised writers to try to sell subsidiary rights and licensing deals for their novels in an attempt to attract a big publishing deal; and his spelling was a bit dodgy too, which is disturbing as he promises to copy edit his clients' work.

Amanda: I'm not surprised to hear that he's using a pseudonym now: he seemed to get into the middle of far too many battles when I was reading his Authonomy posts. What's his new name there? It would be interesting to know.

Anonymous said...

Oh good grief. I had no idea the agent had taken his tanty to the TIO forum. I must go over and finish reading it. He's rather like a train accident; you want to not look, but you can't help it.

Thanks to you, Jane, for this post. It's a clear reminder that writers need to research all the standard places for agents and publishers and know their background. After all, it's their book that stands to die or excel.

Marian Perera said...

I didn't read many of that agent's more questionable posts, but the ones I saw made me wary. Perhaps because he was so aggressive. I'd like my agent to be an iron hand in a velvet glove, not in a barbed-wire gauntlet.

And then there was the recommendation that fiction writers put a page up on the internet every three days. Dude. That's, not the publication industry.

Victoria Strauss said...

Wow. I hadn't seen that tweet. Amazing.

Boy, it really pays to remember that ANYTHING you put online can come back to haunt you.

Leslie said...

"Magnificent bun fight." I keep giggling over this and thinking about the members of the Drones Club heavy a hefty wad of buns at an unprepared policeman.

none said...

Beth rocks. And she just sold her YA book to Viking. Woot!