Poaching – got a permit for that?

There’s an interesting blog post over at Writer Beware where Victoria – apparently now Queen Victoria [I shall bow to you every morning, Vic] discusses agent/author poaching.

The point is whether agents competing over an author who is already represented is a good thing or just plain smarmy. As always, Vic presents both sides of this coin succinctly. If an author is already represented, then why would she jump ship? Well, perhaps BigShot Agent came along and whispered sweet nothings in her ear. “Darling, I can get you that Hachette contract AND a million dollar advance.” The author’s head could be turned.

Smarmy factor

On the face of it, one could say that trying to poach an already-repped author is smarmy. With all the authors roaming the literary tundra, why do they feel the need to poach? The only thing that comes to mind is that the author is one hell of a writer, or very famous.

Let’s take the case of Jane Author, who is repped by Agent Wow, who sold her to HooHa Publishers in a three-book deal for a cool mill. Suddenly Jane gone from unknown to being an industry sweet spot. And just like the non-profits who circle the latest lottery winner in hopes of relieving them of some of their winnings, a BigStuff agent circles around the new literary darling with the intent of relieving Jane of her agent. After all, where there’s one big sale, surely there are more to follow.

Face it, everyone wants to rep a winner, and if BigStuff Agent feels he can do better for Jane than her current agent, then why not give it a try?


Thing is, is poaching right? Eh, it happens. Not often, but it does happen. I’m a fan of competition. Not long ago I told an author that if she chose not to sign with the publisher who had offered her a contract, that I would love to sign her. All’s fair in love and publishing. There were no signed contracts, so she was still fair game as far as I was concerned. And Pricey won that day. Yes, I’ve been on the losing end as well. It. Happens.

My feeling is you either you gots what it takes, or you go home. But I can say that because I’m an editor, and we’re bound by these pesky contracts that are very hard to break. Agents don’t have that luxury. So if I were Jane’s current agent and feeling the pinch of competing agent, I’d be beyond pissed. After all, I spent months working this three book deal and getting her a million dollar advance, and this is the thanks I get? Tossed out to the gutter by a bigger named agent? Ungrateful wench!

But in the long run, what am I going to do? Jane can break her contract with me at any time. Sure, I’ll still get the percentages off her three book deal, but I lose her future books. If she truly believes BigStuff Agent is the answer to her dreams, then I have to consider what that says about her. I got her a great deal, and she jumps ship? Hmm.

Fraught with danger

And this is where I think Victoria brought up a very good point; if Jane Author can jump ship once, she can do it again. How reliable is she? Vic used the cheating spouse example, and I agree. If she’s cheated on one agent, what makes the poaching agent think he won’t be her next victim?

And let’s not forget that Jane is used to working with her former agent. They probably got on quite well. Suddenly what seemed like a good idea in the blush of excitement of being fought over now seems tarnished in the glare of the morning sun. Sure as there are margarita-mixing beagles, Jane is going to start making mental comparisons between her old and new agent. “Gee, Agent Wow never did things that way.”

The other side of the coin – can Agent BigStuff deliver?

So let’s say Jane leaves Agent Wow and goes with Agent BigStuff. Right out of the gate Jane has a much higher expectation of BigStuff’s ability to grab that golden ring. After all, she left a good agent who got her a very sweet deal. This puts added pressure on both Jane and BigStuff, which can either bring about a higher level of marketability for Jane or a quick erosion of their relationship.

How much time is Jane going to give BigStuff to make a whopping deal? Is Jane going to expect BigStuff to be at her beck and call because, hey, she’s royalty, dammit!

Of course, it could easily work out that this is a new match made in heaven and Jane’s star could reach epic heights. But it’s a gamble, just like everything else in publishing. Sometimes the grass really is greener on the other side. And sometimes it’s dirt clods.

Authors should tread carefully, which was Victoria’s point.

12 Responses to Poaching – got a permit for that?

  1. NinjaFingers says:

    I don’t think I would jump ship on an agent who got me a deal like that.

    Honestly, if I get an agent…all fingers and toes crossed on that…I would only bail on him/her if it *wasn’t working out*.

    If they weren’t getting me deals OR if, even though they were, the working relationship was sour, then sure, I’d bail.

    To me, the big name is not nearly so important as an agent who believes in my work, gets on with me, and would be willing to do lunch next time I’m in town ;).

  2. Ann says:

    I think I would be intimated BigStuff agent. I would be inclined to stay with Agent Wow. Someone who takes an interest in me and my work, not the bottom line. Hate the bottom liners!

  3. Bbo Truppe says:

    The targets of my comments on Victoria’s blog were generalized. Agents provide a valuable service but when pressed, as a majority of them are, may not be have the correct connections to get their authors to the next level. Another agency may have those connections and can service the author’s needs better than the current agency. I would hate to see nothing happen and the author stagnate because it is seen as “poaching”.


  4. I agree, Bob, not every agent is right for every author, and authors need to protect Number 1. That’s why I said that the move to another agent may work out quite well.

    However, I think it’s naive not to consider all the possibilities that accompany a case where an agent woos an author from her current agent, and that was the point of my blog post.

  5. Lynn, can I get the contact info for HooHa Publishers so I can give it to my agent? lol

    Hey, I’d love a 3-book deal for a cool mill. Sign me up!

    As always, I enjoyed your post. Thank you.

  6. Bbo Truppe says:

    I would chastize an author that did not give their agent a chance to counter. And I agree, if the author is well represented and the line-up is doing well, any agent who tries to whisper sweet millions in their ear is a tad shoddy, at best.


  7. Latestar says:

    it’s all way over my very unpublished head at the moment. But if agent Wow was getting 15% originally, how about a trade deal that reduces him to a third ongoing, so that bigshot only gets 10%. if the author moves again, bigshot keeps a third of 10% and so on. Given a few moves author won’t be worth poaching. Or is that whole idea too naive and unworkable.

  8. Jane Smith says:

    A few months ago I heard of a case of author-poaching, and talked to the agents on both sides of the upset. An author who was on the high side of the midlist, who was represented by a big-hitting agent, was poached by another big-hitting agent who promised to find him a bigger, better deal at a bigger, better publisher.

    The author liked the sound of this and signed with the new agent, even though his previous agent had got him good, solid deals for several books and showed no sign of losing interest in him.

    Both agents were angry about the way the other agent had behaved; both felt that the other was at fault. Both are now at daggers drawn over this and will, I suspect, always be.

    As for the author: the new agent has quite spectacularly failed to sell his latest two books, and he’s sinking quietly into The Great Unpublished. His former agent might not have promised him spectacular deals but would almost certainly have sold his books. There’s an obvious moral in there somewhere.

  9. Bless ye, Jane. You made my point in spectacular living color.

    Latestar: agenting doesn’t work that way. It’s an all or none proposition.

  10. NinjaFingers says:

    Latestar: I think that’s a bad idea.

    There are many legitimate reasons why an author might break up with her agent…personal conflicts, conflicts of vision, lack of success, etc.

    That sort of thing would make it VERY hard for an author to leave, because who is going to take them if they have to get less commission because they were represented before?

  11. tbrosz says:

    Maybe it’s just me, but after years of fighting to get an agent one finally was willing to give my difficult manuscript a chance. If my book ends up published because of his efforts, I can’t visualize anybody being able to offer me something that would make me ditch him.

  12. Great post, Lynn. The agent poaching stories I’ve heard have all involved up-and-coming writers–not Big Things yet, but expected to go places, with the poachers wanting to snag a future superstar. As Jane’s example shows, the bad feelings generated by such situations can be really poisonous.

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