Open Letter to Agents

Dear Agent,
First off, let me tell you how much I love you and your brethren. You make my job so much easier because you have vetted your author, invariably taken their manuscript through a couple edits in order to make it clean and spiffy. Oftentimes you make my life worth living when you bring me amazing authors whose stories humble and educate me. Compared to my authors’ lives, I’m a small bug.

The Query:  But there are times when you frustrate me beyond words. Just because you work at a prestigious literary agency doesn’t mean your query letter doesn’t need to be captivating. Your take-it-or-leave-it-I’m-too-cool-for-school attitude doesn’t impress me. It doesn’t matter what you letterhead says, I’m all about the book – not you, per se. Because I’m all about the book, I find it really unhelpful when you don’t include the basic niceties such as word count, genre, or whether the book is complete.

Be prepared:  You may not realize it, but that kind of response makes it appear that you don’t take your author or me seriously. I can almost forgive authors not being completely prepared, but I do hold you to a much higher standard. If you don’t come to my inbox prepared, what kind of impression do you think that leaves with me? Does it matter to you what I think? I know there are some who don’t care, but I always make sure to show you the utmost courtesy, so don’t you think I deserve the same?

Book proposal:  I know we’re all busy and trying hard to make a buck, but that book proposal I asked for needs to be a full proposal. That means we need a promo plan, suggested markets, title comparisons, how far along the manuscript is, estimated time of completion, word count (estimated in cases of an unfinished ms). We don’t need that information just to be a pain and force you (or your author) to do more work. We use that information during submission meetings, when we submit information to our distributors, sales, and promotion teams, and when we send out TIP sheets to reviewers.

When you send me three pages of overview, this is only a small piece of the puzzle, and it forces me to email you back and ask for the rest of the proposal. If I have to do this several times, I conclude that you either don’t care, or are too important to give me what I need in order to fully assess whether your author is the best thing since sliced bread, or not a fit for us.

Likewise, if I ask for a proposal, it’s hard to take you seriously when you say, “Oh, I didn’t write one,” and then never offer to get right on it. It leaves me wondering if you are trying to sell this manuscript or simply throw a dart out into the cosmos, hoping to hit a star. Equally gobsmack-worthy is the “Let me have the author write that up for you.” Why would you put your author in charge of doing something that’s clearly your job? Chances are high your author doesn’t know what goes into a proposal. The problem is compounded when you don’t even read it, but simply send it to me.The quality of the proposal makes me wonder if you care. And if you don’t, then why is the author your client?

Communication:  Since we don’t have the luxury of meeting each other in person, I depend on your emails to be detailed and informative. Your email is a window to you and your author, just as much as mine is the face of our company, so I really appreciate it when you put a lot of thought into your communication. You are the go-between, so your author and I expect nothing less.

Rejection:  If we offer a contract and there are points that both sides are too far apart, there’s no need to be insulting or arrogant. That’s why God invented negotiations. I’ve bought wonderful stories from big agents, so you don’t get to play the “I’m sooo better than you.” Do you think I’ll ever consider anything you might have down the line if you stick your nose in the air and pretend that I’m a bug to be squashed because we don’t offer six figure advances? Surely you realized that before you queried me.

I realize you make very big sales, but not all books are six-figure capable, and there might be a point when my company will look very good to you and your author. And if I see your name in my inbox, I’ll remember how you treated me, and politely decline to review your author’s book. Sure, I may be cutting off my quill to spite my exclamation point, but you’ve already shown me who and what you are. Once burned, shame on you. Twice burned, shame on me. I have a long memory, and I won’t forget you.

Ours is a business of relationships, and just because you’re hot stuff now doesn’t mean you’ll remain at the top of the heap. Your journey down may be long and lonely. What’s worse, is that your author will never know any of this.

Prepare your authors:  It would be SO helpful to your authors (and us)  if you discussed how the publishing industry works with your authors. I know time is at a premium and you’re busy with all your authors. But there are numerous times when I realize authors are ill-prepared to go from your loving arms to mine, and the production process can be challenging because they have no idea how to navigate.

I’ve been surprised numerous times by the questions I’ve been asked or the expectations authors have regarding how publishing works. Of course, I always try to explain the entire process, but these questions/expectations can make for some hard conversations because authors tend to believe their agents instead of their editors. If you haven’t done anything to prepare them, then I’m sometimes put in the unenviable position of looking like I don’t know what I’m doing – which is hardly the case. These instances leave me wishing they had been better prepared. Educating our authors is a shared job, and I love it when an author says, “No worries, Agent ABC explained how this works.”

Contracts:  I know this is a silly thing, but we deal  with you during contract negotiations, so I feel you should be the one to handle the back and forth of signed contracts. I shouldn’t receive the signed contract from the author – you should send me all three copies (yours, your author, and ours), where we will sign all three copies and send you back two.

If you email me wondering where the signed contracts are, it becomes a game of “Who’s got da contracts?” which irritates the beagle because I make her track it down. In order to avoid confusion like this, you should assume this role, and leave your author out of it.

Platform:  If you represent nonfiction, you know publishers look for author platform – so I really appreciate it when you don’t get upset when I ask about it. This is the way of publishing nonfiction, so you shouldn’t be surprised by it. This means you need to include your author’s platform AND discuss its importance with your author. Help them understand how this ties into knowing who their target readership is and why it’s so important to us.

Referee:  Agents are sometimes put in the position of being in the middle of their author and the editor because there is a breakdown of the relationship. We all know how emotional publishing can be, and personality clashes do happen. Editors try very hard to repair or prevent a breakdown, but sometimes it’s unavoidable, and this is where you step in to be the neutral ground. I understand it’s difficult because your first duty is to your author, but you also sold us the book.

I may have already reached the point where I’m ready to walk away. No one wants that, but problems sometimes arise, and your author will only believe you. If you don’t step in and back up what I’m telling our author, then the relationship erodes to the point where all communication stops.

This means that I don’t get promo updates or even know what our author – your client – is doing. If I get an email from my sales guys asking what’s going on, that sales have either jumped way up or nosedived, I look like I’m nuts because our author won’t communicate with us anymore. If I don’t know what’s going on, how can I effectively continue selling the book?

If you don’t step in, then I get to the point when I will no longer lift a finger to help the author or their book. This helps no one’s bottom line, but no one gets paid enough to be treated like bantha fodder. For all concerned, there are times when it’s best to have all communication go through you, so I love it when you step up to the plate to preserve a frayed relationship.

In closing, what concerns me the most are the times when I shake my head and feel badly for authors whose agents failed them on so many counts because they’ll never know how shoddily they were treated. My biggest hope is that every author has the stellar treatment that I’ve seen time and time again by you hard-working agents. But some of you are phoning it in…just barely…and it isn’t right.

We share a common goal to have successful books, so doesn’t it make sense that we work together to make that happen? We all got into this crazy business because we love books, and we love the brilliant authors who write amazing stories. Our lives are insane-crazy, but it all goes down so much better when we stick together for the common good. Thank you for being wonderful. I hope it continues.

Lynn Price

14 Responses to Open Letter to Agents

  1. Bill Webb says:

    Geez you’re so picky

  2. Picky? I don’t see that. I’m communicating.

  3. NinjaFingers says:

    High expectations make for high sales, IMO.

  4. Agreed, Ninjie. However, unrealistic expectations fueled with little understanding of how the business works make for a no-win situation.

  5. Very powerful, very clear. Thanks!

  6. Kim Kircher says:

    Thanks for this exhaustive insight into the agent-editor relationship.

  7. Mark says:

    Great! Not only are we as unpublished writers faced with interminable rejections by agents it now appears that if we do land an agent – that agent might be the worst thing to happen to us.

    Brilliant Blog, though.

  8. Mark, the good news is the numbers that fit into this category is very small. I’m taking the worst things I’ve seen over the years and put them into one cohesive open letter. The great agents whom I have had the honor to work with and run across far outnumber the warts.

    Anyone’s best ally is to simply ask around. There is someone who’s always willing to heed the call of, “What have you heard?”

  9. Interesting and informative! Even though I’m not an agent, I found helpful advice within.

  10. Brilliant, as always, Lynn.

    You address serious issues that authors must be aware before we enter into contracts with an agent. Thanks for sharing.

  11. Lev Raphael says:

    What’s ultra scary about seeing the agent business from a publisher’s POV is that authors don’t know how the queries are being put together. We have no input, and so can be blindsided by ineffective queries or queries rubbing publishers the wrong way. We also don’t have control when an uber agent thinks he/she is God and does something we don’t want. I had one take a novel to New York in the middle of a financial panic and my demurrals were ignored. Well, so was the novel. Nobody was buying, everyone was in a state of hysteria. I felt shafted and destroyed., Waiting mjight have made all the difference. But when your agent has a Napoleonic complex, you can end up having your own Waterloo.

    And Lynn, asking around, going by an agent’s track record could fail, too. There’s simply no guarantee you won’t end up with an agent who makes a huge tactical blunder.

  12. Lev, the thing the uber agent has going for him is that he brings home the bacon – he’s established. Where things can go wonky is the debut author who is signed by said uber agent and he’s too busy making the big deals to spend much time on the debut author. Debut authors are a bit like playing Russian roulette because no one knows if they are the next Rowling.

    As for input, I know many authors who do have input and have asked to see the query letter their agent plans on sending out. I feel the agent-author relationship has to be one of synchronicity because it’s an emotional time.

    I’ve heard many stories of authors blessing their agents for being their head cheerleader and never giving up hope on them. It’s no small wonder that authors tend to believe their agents over their editors if things hit a rough patch with their editors. After all, they were there at the very beginning. It doesn’t happen often, thank the Cosmic Muffin, but I understand the bond.

    It’s true that asking around may not seal all the plugs when looking for the leaky boat, but it’s still better than tossing a coin up in the air. Someone always knows something.

  13. Lev Raphael says:

    I have not had one agent do much more for me than I have been able to do myself, and the uber agent was HOT for me and courted me, lavished attention on me, treated me like a king–until I got screwed by her mistaken timing, and she dropped the book. This agent talked big. 100K floor, auction, film rights, you name it. She delivered zip.

    But you’re right, asking around, checking various boards can be helpful. it just didn’t keep me from getting shafted.

  14. Laura W. says:

    The polite wrath baking off this blogpost is terrifying…

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