Four Myths about Agents

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.

Your turn:

What are myths you’d like to dispel about agents?

Have you ever run into agents whose practices you’ve questioned?

32 Responses to Four Myths about Agents

  1. Renee Garrick August 9, 2018 at 6:07 am #

    Thanks for the post, Tamela. Offering freelance writing services over the past ten years, I’ve come across a wide variety of situations. The most troubling relates to your point 2a, but goes far beyond it. A potential client approached me about proofreading his book so I provided a sample chapter proof along with my estimate. In the meantime he was contacted by his (vanity) publisher with a “special deal” for proofreading. In the end, they charged him somewhat less than I would have . . . but for inferior work. Extremely inferior. It made me sad for the author. He deserved better.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 9, 2018 at 8:03 am #

      Ugh. Well, you can’t be responsible for the poor decisions of any author. At least you know you are offering top-notch work to those who contract with you!

  2. Terry Whalin August 9, 2018 at 6:36 am #

    Tamela,

    Thanks for this article and the truth telling about agents. There are many myths including that agents can help publicize a book–not their role from my experience but simply wishful thinking from an author.

    Terry
    Straight Talk From the Editor

  3. Damon J. Gray August 9, 2018 at 6:39 am #

    > Have you ever run into agents whose practices you’ve questioned?

    Not practices, but judgement and competence. I was perusing the agent’s web site and blog when I stumbled across a two-part post wherein the agent was essentially scolding authors for sending in submissions that were not well organized, were “full of mistakes,” and clearly submitted by “novice writers.”

    I kid you not, I found no less than seven spelling and grammatical errors in the opening paragraphs. And these were not minor issues where my opinion holds that it should read “X” and yours that it should read “Y.” These were glaringly bad, middle-school level errors.

    The arrogance that jumped at me from the screen was confirmed during a follow-up phone call with the agent that just completely turned me off. It was a firm confirmation, for me, that my “no-agent” status is preferable to a “bad-agent” status. It was a gut-wrenching moment for me to say, “I’m sorry, but I do not wish to be represented by you.”

  4. Linda Riggs Mayfield August 9, 2018 at 6:48 am #

    Tamela,
    Thanks for such an informative post! I ran into one potential agent/publisher’s rep at a conference whose house’s practices I questioned. I had done my homework about the individual before I decided to pitch to him, but not enough about the publisher he represented. He invited me to submit a proposal package for the 12-wk women’s Bible study I had written and taught, which I did; but then I did a careful study of the company web site and found a couple of misspellings/typos and grammatical errors. The response to my proposal was a request to put all the workbooks, all the handouts, the content of the carefully and artistically designed 25 PowerPoint slides for each lesson (I have formal and experiential background in art and graphic design), and the teacher’s manual (I have a doctorate in teaching and learning) into ONE book for them to consider. That seemed totally impractical (and unsellable) to me. And I thought if they didn’t pay attention to their own web site, they weren’t likely to pay attention to the details of my project, either, even if I chose to do the massive restructuring they requested. I wrote a polite letter declining the opportunity.

    • Linda Riggs Mayfield August 9, 2018 at 7:15 am #

      Tamela,
      My post was in response to the request for questionable practices–I realize the difference between a publisher’s rep and an agent. However, it seems to me that a publisher’s rep is a lot like an agent representing his company, instead of representing an author. Is that accurate?

      • Tamela Hancock Murray August 9, 2018 at 8:07 am #

        Yes, and your experience shows why it’s great to have an agent advocating for you with a publisher.

  5. Loretta Eidson August 9, 2018 at 6:58 am #

    My first thoughts about agents were that they were judges holding a gavel ready to slam the desk with rejection. Haha! I later discovered it was my own fear that gave me tunnel vision. Agents are people with heart, people who desire to see authors and aspiring authors succeed. Finding an agent you can trust and work well with is important.

  6. Diana Buzalski August 9, 2018 at 7:18 am #

    Goddesses are not infallible. Scripture tells us that they are demons.

  7. Tisha Martin August 9, 2018 at 8:04 am #

    It was so encouraging the read the comments before scrolling all the way down here to the reply box. Like the other authors on this thread, I’ve learned that agents are not super humans or some sort of dignitary we must put on a pedestal, although the hard-working agents should indeed receive a medal. An agent is as human as the next person. In fact, I enjoy talking with agents and editors; their sense of humor has got to be their comic relief. 🙂 Thanks for all you do for your authors and potential authors, Tamela!

  8. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 9, 2018 at 8:30 am #

    I have it on good authority that all agents are really Wonder Woman and dress accordingly at work.

    Which might look a bit odd for Steve, Dan, and Bob.

  9. Barbara Ellin Fox August 9, 2018 at 9:17 am #

    Tamela, thank you for sharing the myths. I’m laughing because looking from the vantage (or disadvantage) point of an author without an agent, proposals can be a scary proposition. Sure, not a goddess but one of the best and I love that you can see things from my side of the computer. Sometimes there is so much comment about how busy agents are (and I don’t doubt this truth) that a newbie worries about being overbearing or pushy with emails.

    I’m wondering how strongly I should be influenced by an agent’s website when it’s the company’s site and does not solely belong to the agent? One side says the site indicates how an agent does business, but the other says I’d rather have an agent ‘doing’ the business than worrying about the website. It’s a little disappointing to think an agency wouldn’t have a web person to keep things up to date.

    Also, I’d love to read about how much career guidance an author can hope for from their agent.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 9, 2018 at 10:09 am #

      Barbara, one of the reasons I work with Steve is because he and I agree on how to run a business and how to conduct business, so anything he posts and says on the agency site meshes with my ideas. Because I’m not sure what agent and agency you’re talking about, and I don’t want you to go public here, I’m not sure how to address your concern except to recommend that you talk to the agent. If you are in disagreement with the agent’s or agency’s basic philosophy, I recommend looking elsewhere. If you are a little embarrassed to be associated with the agent’s site or the agency’s, go elsewhere.

      I am in this for the long term and offer specialized career advice to each client throughout the client’s career.

      • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 9, 2018 at 10:47 am #

        Of, course, Tamela, another reason you work with Steve is undoubtedly because of how cool he looks in his Wonder Woman costume.

  10. Kass Fogle August 9, 2018 at 9:39 am #

    These are excellent reminders to not make any assumptions about this part of the writing journey. The details help me to weave together themes from other posts. Thank you for another thoughtful post!

  11. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D August 9, 2018 at 10:23 am #

    Tamela, the myth I’d like to dispel has to do with the length of time it takes to get a publisher, rather than an agent myth. The whole process reminds me of the gal who didn’t want to get pregnant with twins because she didn’t want to be pregnant for 18 months. Right now, I’m working on quads, with that mindset.

  12. Stacy Simmons August 9, 2018 at 10:36 am #

    Thank you for this timely post, as many of us head to conferences soon and meet with agents, this is a great resource to have.

  13. claire o'sullivan August 9, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

    Hi Tamela,

    I have been learning these things, albeit in slow motion.

    One myth that must be dispelled: unless you are a spectacular writer, expect the wait to be longer than what you want. You may never hear back.

    Another: Unless you are a spectacular writer, do not rely on the agency to edit, so present your best work.

    And yet, another. Do not expect the editing process to be quick, and do not expect that any contracts with agents/publishing houses to be a snap.

    Oh. Last. Remember the song, ‘Look What They did to my Song, Ma?’ You may have killed your darlings. Expect the agents, editors (if you get that far), to kill more. Develop that rhino hide early.

    I did say that was the last myth but I present this as more of a question than myth. Should a writer obtain the services of a reputable entertainment attorney, no matter who the agent or publishing house, and if so, prior to or after? An author told me, do. I’ve not heard anything from any other writer. And he said, do not pay for the attorney up front, they take 15-20% off the back of the book as well.

    Whatever you do, do not send off knee-jerk reactions to any (it works much better if you do not put the agent’s email address in there because it is possible… possible to hit send before you realize it…

    • Tamela Hancock Murray August 9, 2018 at 5:21 pm #

      Good questions.

      No need to get an entertainment attorney.

      It’s fine to share knee-jerk stuff with me WHEN I am already your agent. I want to know!

  14. David Rawlings August 9, 2018 at 3:59 pm #

    Hi Tamela. I’d heard that agents are more interested in the deal than you.

    When I signed with Steve Laube, he pitched to 9 publishers. With every rejection that came back, he was genuinely disappointed – for us, and the book. Not the lost opportunity.

    Then when HarperCollins/Thomas Nelson offered a debut contract, he was genuinely thrilled – for me, us and the book.

    It makes a huge difference to you knowing that the people on your side in the industry really do care.

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