Of Agents and Men

Back in 1999, when I first started my fiction-writing adventure, a wise person told me, “A bad agent is worse than no agent.” What he failed to mention is that most agents are bad agents. In fact, it’s a redundant phrase.

Agents are like insurance companies. They only want you if you don’t need them. They’re masters at plucking low-hanging fruit; after all, why should they have to do any actual work?

As you delve into the thousand-plus pages of “Writer’s Market,” you’ll see that most big publishers won’t talk directly to an “unagented” author. I get that. Agents serve as quality control screeners to protect acquisition editors from the 99% of manuscripts   that qualify as schlock. Certainly there are good agents who perform this function admirably. I just haven’t run into too many of them.

My first agent was located in Southern California. I was thrilled that anyone in the business believed my manuscript was worthy of publication. She pursued me like a lover, sending flattering e-mails and leaving cute voicemail messages day and night. It all changed the minute I signed the agreement. That’s when she told me I needed to rewrite my manuscript. Not a little renovation, mind you, but a complete overhaul. And, of course, she was going to roll up her sleeves and help me do it. Lesson number one: Many agents are frustrated writers. She and I couldn’t part ways fast enough.

I also learned that an agent needs to be in New York, the hub of the publishing universe. Not surprisingly, deals get done over drinks and meals. It’s a relationship business; access is key. My second agent was indeed a bona fide New Yorker, one of those fast-talking sharpies right out of central casting. He convinced me he already had a deal lined up – all I had to do was sign on the dotted line. Three weeks later, when the deal failed to materialize, he fired me (in a form letter, no less). Lesson number two: Many agents will bail at the first sign of difficulty. It’s a numbers game to them and they’re always looking for greener pastures. I’ve heard similar stories from dozens of writers (some involving the same guy).

My third agent promised the moon and delivered nothing but invoices for copies, faxes and long distance phone calls (marked up the wazoo). She even tried to put me on a retainer, at which point I headed for the hills. Remember, any legit agent works solely on commish (although they are entitled to reimbursement for approved expenses).

I’ve got other stories, but you get the idea. I’m interested in hearing yours. Feel free to vent. It feels so good.