I was amused when I recently received a note from an author who had decided I’m a human rather than an infallible goddess. Not sure if I should be glad or disappointed! Since many authors don’t interact with agents, let me dispel a few myths about us:
1) Myth: Authors don’t need an agent for traditional publishing. Some traditional publishers will accept unsolicited proposals, but those publishers are few. Editors receive more proposals than they can review. Therefore, agents:
a. Screen manuscripts for editors. While every editor and every agent don’t agree on which books should and can be published, editors take agent submissions seriously. We’ve already weeded out scam artists, crazies, spammers, and writers who refuse to research the market. And yes, the agent’s unsolicited slush pile contains quite a few of these, um, gems. Our prescreening means editors can spend their time reading submissions that have a serious chance with their houses.
b. Talk to editors to stay up to date. Because of our access, agents can talk to a wide variety of editors to help us keep up with current needs. One Pub Board meeting can change the publisher’s strategy and those without close access to the editor will unintentionally waste everyone’s time.
2) Myth: Any agent is better than no agent. The information above discusses reputable agents doing their best to serve writers well. Unfortunately, a small percentage of agents:
a. Charge reading fees. Don’t pay an agent to review submissions. You may say, “But I paid an agent for a critique at a conference.” Here’s the difference:
1. At a conference, the agent is offering time and talent and guarantees you’ll walk away with ideas and suggestions for improvement – unless your work is perfect, and then he’ll say so. Considering the time and care the agent spends on a paid conference critique, no agent can make a living this way.
2. An agent reading submissions requested at a conference or unsolicited submissions to consider for representation makes no guarantee of any feedback whatsoever. You may not even get a response. (At our agency, we do try to respond.) An agency charging reading fees for all submissions indicates that a substantial portion of their income may be derived from fees instead of earned for what an agent is supposed to do, and that is, represent the interests of authors to traditional publishers.
b. Don’t submit. I can’t guarantee your work will be accepted when I send it but I guarantee no one will contract for it if they never see it. If your agent is too busy or overwhelmed to submit for you, find another agent.
c. Overcharge. Industry standard for books is 15% commission. The agent isn’t paid until the author is paid.
d. Ask authors to pay expenses. Years ago, agents could legitimately charge for long distance phone calls, postage, and photocopying. But today, agents should be aware that authors are supposed to be receiving checks from publishers, not writing checks to agents. For example, authors should not be charged a monthly retainer fee, a marketing fee, or for an agent’s travel.
3) Getting an agent automatically means my book will sell. We all wish this were true, but sometimes an agent has to market several of an author’s projects before finding success. While you wait to hear from Project #1, work on Project #2.
4) My work will sell just like THAT with an agent. Like you, (and even the editors) we wish we could speed up the process, but most of the time we cannot. There may be some specialized exceptions, such as an agent has the right book for the right publisher at an opportune time and it’s rushed to press. An example might be a political book addressing an election happening then. Otherwise, most books are perennial enough that the editor doesn’t have to stop everything to publish them that moment. A thrilling story is always a thrilling story, an inspiring devotional collection is always an inspiring devotional collection, and an instructive self-help book is always an instructive self-help book.
What are myths you’d like to dispel about agents?
Have you ever run into agents whose practices you’ve questioned?