Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Agents and "Agents"

Do publishing houses that require submissions to come through agents read all agented submissions, even from agents who are new in the business and who may not be known to the editor? Or do editors see a package that claims to be from an "agent," check it against some actual or mental list, and discard it if they do not recognize the name? I imagine, of course, that some agents command more attention than others, but do all agents, even unknown ones, at least get their client's foot in the door?
Yes and no.

I do sometimes check agents against the list called Preditors and Editors, if the agent is sending me unapologetic dreck of genres my house doesn't even publish. (Major red flag.) That is bullshit agenting, whether the agent is legit or scamming.

Likewise when we get something through the front desk beginning, "Dear Editor." Agents are supposed to be doing their damn homework and knowing who to send a manuscript to at a particular house. "Dear [Publishing House]" means that the agent knows zipola about the industry, and even less about being a good agent.

And simply claiming to be an agent is not enough. We've seen enough jackass authors pretend to be their own agents that we're well wise to that trick. Also if you're pretending your lawyer is your agent. (No, he's not.)

But in general we try to reply courteously to agented submissions, even if we haven't heard of the agent. The unknown ones are certainly low-priority, though.

13 comments:

Jo said...

Good of you to comment on this. There's such a panicked rush by writers to find an agent, any agent, rather than taking their time and trying to find one who is professional, savvy and a good fit.

Anonymous said...

We've seen enough jackass authors pretend to be their own agents that we're well wise to that trick.

Jeesh, I always wondered if this actually happened.

LA Bug

Amber Lynn Argyle said...

With some research, it's fairly easy to find out if an agent is legit, but much harder to find out if they're unknown or highly respected.
You can always ask the agent, but is there any other ways to find out?

Anonymous said...

As far as I know, there is no license that gets issued to make a person into an "agent," so if your lawyer (or real estate broker or dentist) decides he would like to be a literary agent, and he sends your work out to houses that require agents, and if he does it in a professional and courteous manner, addressing the proper editors with appropriate material, and if your work happens to be of pretty high quality, it sounds like you're saying the submission might actually get read, although it would not be a high priority, rather than simply returned as unagented work?

I mean, if not having heard of an agent isn't a disqualifier, then how can editors always be "well wise to that trick" when the submission is otherwise proper and professional?

Heather said...

Anon... being a member of AAR, the Association of Authors' Representatives, is a great qualifier between an agent and a lawyer or real-estate broker who knows nothing about the business. Additionally, industry experience is important.

The truth is, as with any form of contract or law, publishing has its own rules and regulations. It takes time and learning to figure out how to best protect and represent their clients.

If you are going to represent yourself, it limits the number of houses that you can submit to. But I think it would be foolish to allow a lawyer without publishing experience, or your real estate agent, represent you for a book deal. There's more to agenting than making things look professional and looking up publishing house addresses in the Writer's Market.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of pre-empting EA, my answer to Anon's question would be that, you're right, you might get your submission looked at this way. BUT, I'd be wary of assuming that your lawyer or dentist or broker would actually be able to put together a "proper and professional submission". Not because it's brain surgery (it isn't), but because it does require at least a bit of industry knowledge and sound literary & commercial judgment. Good agents have honed these things by working in the industry.
Your dentist might be able to provide a covering letter with an official-looking letterhead at the top... But how will she know who to address the letter to, and what each particular editor tends to like, and what tone the letter should take? And is she really a good judge of your book's merit -- do you trust your dentist to know when your work is really ready to be submitted? I can see that this might be a last-resort trick to get to the top of the slush pile. But when I get a submission from somebody's lawyer (assuming it's obvious that that's who they are - eg, a covering letter on a law firm's stationery. I'm assuming you're not suggesting that your lawyer might fib and claim to be from "Acme Literary Agency", or wherever), I approach it as slush. Mostly because I don't have any reason to have any more faith in a random lawyer's literary taste or commercial savvy than I would in the author him or herself. I've seen some pretty shoddy submissions from lawyers.
Bookends is blogging about a similar topic at the moment - submissions by husbands/neighbours/friends/doctors etc of the author.

Vodka Mom said...

Well, THAT'S comforting.

I'm sure there are as many jackass authors as there are jackass lawyers.

behlerblog said...

There is so much freedom from being anonymous. Thank you for saying what I've been thinking for years.

Chris Eldin said...

Sorry, but this made me laugh--authors pretending to be agents. Wow. I guess there's a whole bag of tricks out there I haven't even thought about....
*changing letterhead to read AnonyAgency*
That should get me in the door somewhere.
:-)

Chumplet - Sandra Cormier said...

Checking for AAR status doesn't necessarily prove the agent is legit. There are lots of really good agents who are not members of AAR.

Anonymous said...

I guess it depends on what you mean by an agent being "legitimate." Though the knowledge about how to put together and target a professional-looking submission may be difficult to come by, let's say that your dentist is a real sharp guy, and maybe interned at a publishing house to put himself through dental school, and he manages to pull off the trick of assembling a professional-looking submission and addressing it to the right editor at the right house who handles just this kind of manuscript. He crosses out the "DDS" on his Word letterhead template and puts in "Literary Agent."

Now, he is not lying in the least. He is, indeed, the "agent" of the author who asked him to make the submission on his behalf. He is not "illegitimate" since he is acting legally, professionally, courteously, and is, for present purposes, exactly what he represents himself to be, an agent acting on behalf of an author.

Would he be any more legitimate if he first quit his dental practice and rented an office and had someone paint his new title on the glass door to the hall?

Perhaps the author would be well advised to look for a more experienced agent, but that's true whenever an author is among the first clients of any new agent, and maybe the author doesn't want to be a small fish in a big pond, or maybe the author is in a hurry and just wants his manuscript seen by one or two particular editors who don't read slush. Or maybe the author is just making a bad choice, but that's an entirely different question from whether or not it is wrong or illegitimate to seek to have one's submission read by use of an agent who doesn't fit the image we tend to have of "real" literary agents.

I think we all have come across some pretty small, rinky-dink start-up agencies that have maybe placed six or eight mediocre books over the past two years or so, but are not well known or high-powered. Still, I don't think anyone questions that they have the "right" to submit to agent-only houses. At what point did they earn that right? When they sold one book? Two? But how did they get to sell that first book or that second book if they weren't "legit" agents when they set about trying to do so?

Anonymous said...

Answering anon February 10, 2009 6:33 PM:

Well, getting your submission read is pretty much the most important part of the process, since you don't get to proceed to try to negotiate anything at all unless the editor first agrees to read your work. It's true that it would be nice to have a good, experienced agent when the offer comes, but countless authors handle that process on their own when their books are accepted at publishing houses that don't require agents. That's an entirely different question.

I'm not sure why a dentist couldn't find out the proper editor to address a manuscript to. Can't dentists read PW and be members of SCBWI and read newsletters and blogs where editors are being interviewed and saying what they are looking for? Can't dentists go to conferences?

Let's say an editor from HarperCollins says to Jane Blogster, "What I'd really like to see is a child's picture book about aliens who come to earth and turn everyone into a redhead. But only if the story is told in Byronic stanzas." And let's say my dentist, an avid fan of Jane Blogster, while wiping the dead nerve tissue off a small spear he has just extracted from my bottom molar, says to me, "Say, don't you have a book in Byronic stanzas about an alien who turns everyone into a redhead?" and I grunt, "As a matter of fact...." Why can't my multi-talented dentist, who has already inflicted such pain on me, proceed to inflict the further pain of being my agent?

Anonymous said...

Sort of as a side note, but I'm wondering, what's the difference in size between the stack of unread submissions in an agent-only house and an authors-can-submit house of comparable size and reputation? (E.g., how many more submissions does a Houghton Mifflin get than a HarperCollins?) I'm guessing that the odds against you even in an agent-only house are still bordering on the astronomical.