Landing a literary agent is the first professional goal that most aspiring writers give themselves. An agent is industrial proof that you have talent—actual, marketable talent—and aren’t just some jerk with pipe dreams plodding on with a pet project. As such, there’s even a sizeable industry designed to offer help on landing an agent. Unfortunately, just as with “model portfolios,” a great deal of this industry is designed simply to exploit the naive than to offer good advice. As a consequence, it shrouds literary agents in an air of inapproachability. This is something many agents heavily buy into (though with reason).
Literary agents are thought of as rarefied gatekeepers. They stand between writers and a book deal, after all. Editors take their calls. They matter. When I was first trying to get into writing, I attended a seminar designed for aspiring authors. “We received a letter at the agency,” recounted one agent, “from someone who offered us $10,000 if we could get him a book deal. Needless to say, we did not take him on as a client.” I will never forget the bile dripping from the fangs of this loathsome, loathsome woman who was mortally offended that someone had offered her a cash incentive for doing her job. She worked in sales but thought she worked in sainthood. Unfortunately she’s not unique in being a less-than-wonderful person in her field.
The time it takes a typical writer to go from being giddy that they have an agent to being mortally frustrated with said agent is approximately eighteen months. Having no basis for comparison, most writers don’t realize that their agent really isn’t that good at their job in any sense. It becomes a source of embarrassment to even question one’s agent after having sought one out for so long. I’ve been in media circles where complaining about agents is taken as a humblebrag, as the others in the circle haven’t been able to land an agent of their own.
I’m here to say that those concerns are valid. There’s good and bad in every field, and a bad agent can kill your career as soon as it’s begun. If you find yourself asking, “Is it just me?” about anything on this list, let me assure that it’s not you. It’s them.
1. They don’t respond to emails.
Every literary agent likes to create the idea that they are constantly busy doing their work. Well, that pretty much describes every profession. Time management is integral to any job. Bad agents are bad at multitasking. Worse, some are also bad at being empathetic and realizing that many authors need handholding. This wouldn’t be a problem but for the fact that empathy—knowing what others are thinking and feeling—is pretty much the basis of any sales gig.
2. They don’t provide guidance.
My friend had an agent who wasn’t satisfied with the writing sample that she’d turned in. “I can’t quite put my finger on it,” the agent said, “but something’s not working for me.” Fair enough. Writing is nuanced and it’s often very difficult to articulate a problem, especially if that problem is a collection of several interrelated problems. My friend started suggesting several ways to change the sample, hoping that one of them would click. “I’d have to see it,” the agent told her. In other words, the most useless advice possible. Not only would my friend have to do an enormous amount of work, she’d only find out later if it had all been a waste of time. The actual waste of time, she learned, was sticking with this terrible agent.
3. They drag their feet.
Oftentimes an agent will hold off sending out a book proposal because, as they put it, “The market isn’t good right now.” Any writer should press them to find out what they mean by this. Sometimes there is some validity to it, such as if one of their colleagues failed with a similarly themed book. But sometimes the agent simply has too much on his or her plate and is willing to put you in the backseat indefinitely. Find out how long they intend to wait and hold them to it. One of my colleagues had an agent who put him off for a year and only sent out the proposal when he threatened to walk. Lo and behold, he got a deal.
4. They have no concept of metrics.
The most common question every writer has is, “How much of an advance do you think this will get?” This is an unfair question, because it’s like asking, “How much does eating at a restaurant cost?” It could be a $10 entrée, or it could be $250 per person. Bad agents will shrug. Good agents, however, will quote comparable titles and give realistic ranges that one can expect. If they don’t have such numbers handy, how will they know if they’re being lowballed when they get an offer?
5. They lie—badly.
I worked with one agent on a project. He told me that he had started editing the proposal but put me off, telling me he’d finish the following day. When I received the proposal back, all his changes were there under Microsoft Word’s Track Changes feature—and so were the editing time stamps. He had lied to me. If I caught him this easily in a fib, I was terrified an editor might do the same.
6. They act like they’re doing you a favor.
Though it completely goes against the popular conception, the most successful agents never act holier-than-thou. They’re used to dealing with powerful people with extremely thin skins, and as a result they tend to treat colleagues with respect. Bad agents are curt, eye-rolling, and have an air of irritation about them. If they’re supposed to be selling your project, that project should be a source of excitement to them and not an annoyance. Don’t let their frustrations become your problem. It’s not a sign of accomplishment but of incompetence.
There’s one caveat here. Every bad agent will have a reason (read: excuse) why they do the things on this list. They might even say, honestly and with a straight face, that they have no alternative but to do them. My point is simply that agents who don’t do these things exist out there. There’s no reason for writers to put up with any of these things when better options are available at no cost. That also goes for agents putting up with bad authors—but that’s a separate article.