Sunday, March 15, 2009

The agent bubble

It's very easy to lose perspective as an agent. Writers flock to us at conferences, listen intently to our every piece of advice, want to sit with us at lunch, send gifts in the mail. It's not quite rock star status but it's probably as close as most of us (certainly I!) will ever come.

It's even easier now with twitter and blogs bringing more writers eager to listen to every blessed word agents utter.

It's damn easy to start believing "I'm all that and a bag of chips; anyone who doesn't see my fabulosity is blind blind blind."

Agents can live in an isolation bubble about how writers think and feel about agenting practices. Complaints aren't met with open arms, and certainly in public forums like writers conferences they are actively discouraged or met with sarcasm.

And it's real easy to stay in that bubble because there aren't many places where agents get to see the other side. (AbsoluteWrite is one of the few. Most agents and editors I know skulk around over there to see what's being said.)

For writers there isn't much point telling truth to agents. It's a lot of risk for not much gain.

Thus, I'm (almost) always glad to get the occasional email responding to a stray comment (usually made somewhere other than my own blog) that shows me what writers think about agenting practices (particularly if they are someone else's transgressions not mine, of course!)

Here's a recent one, unedited:

Dear Janet,

You said on Nathan Bransford's blog that you'd like to see an #agentfail. Well, it won't ever happen because most Tweeting writers know enough to know it would be shooting ourselves in the foot to publicly complain about agents! I rarely even talk about querying and submissions on my blog, because I don't want to look desperate or make it sound like my novel is one that has been rejected so many times that no sane agent would want to touch it.

Querying agents is like asking someone to the prom. You want the one asked to feel special, not like "I'm only asking you because none of the popular girls would go out with me." To stretch the metaphor, I give a big #agentfail to agents who complain about the number of queries they get. Oh really? 500+ guys have asked you to the prom this month? And you just can't decide which of them to go with? Gee, must be tough being so reputable and popular. Sure, I appreciate that agents have a hard job, but so do I. Quit whining. (Er, them, not you, Janet :D)

An agent once sent me a photocopied 1/4 page form rejection on a full ms....on which she'd requested an exclusive....which she had for 5 months. #agentfail. (Honestly this one broke me of pursuing publication for several years. Yes, I suck, but it just broke me. Lesson learned the hard way about exclusives! Fortunately I am back to writing now, older and wiser and with a shiny new MS.)

Agent replied to an e-query (his profile on several pro websites said he accepted them) with this terse message: I am getting too many queries. I don't have time to read them, and I didn't read yours. Find another agent. #agentfail (Sorry, dude, a form rejection saying that you're no longer accepting queries would have been MUCH more professional.... although it did make me laugh rather than cry. Bless his cotton socks, he was overwhelmed.)

Agents who play "race you to 0 inbox" on Twitter. Sorry, I know it's meant in good spirits. To do it publicly in front of the people who have queried makes us feel like you won't be actually reading the queries sent, but rather sending out a flurry of form letters to win a game. I work hard at my personal, professional queries! #agentfail

I would never post this because I don't have a career deathwish, but you said you wanted to see #agentfail! Fortunately my gripes about agents are few and far between. Nearly all of the interactions with them have been positive, friendly, and helpful.

It's the paragraph about "Agents who race you to 0 in the inbox" that brought me up short. That was me. In my defense I need to say it wasn't 0 in the query inbox, but 0 in the regular email, but the point is still valid.

It's also clear that no matter what I intended, readers perceived something else entirely. I don't have control over what people perceive of course, but being aware of how things MIGHT be received is valuable info. (It's the same reason I needed your help to redraft my form rejection letter-valuable insight into how things are perceived by writers.)

Twitter is great, and a very useful tool, but it's clear to me now that I need to be more careful how I joke around.

And I would love to see #agentfail if only to keep us all on our toes. I'm pretty sure I'll be standing all future rounds of drinks with all my colleagues for this idea, but I still like it.


Fran Caldwell said...

Oh, I can hardly believe it, someone said it - all the stuff I've been bottling up.

Just once, I wish an agent could sound truly sympathetic about the submission (dare I say, even the rejection?) process. Writers do hang on to each agent's word (although I'm gradually weaning myself off this) and most of it smarts all the time.

Your commenter was brave, and I think you're brave for posting it, just as I am brave for affirming it.

We writers are not silly little people with over-inflated egoes. We sweat and cry over our work, and we address you with so much respect. It would just be nice now and then to have our labours respectfully acknowledged.

You sort of did that today, Janet.


Michelle said...

I think one very healthy thing to keep in mind with this is that not every writer feels this way. Maybe because I work in publishing as an editor but am also shopping my book to agents, I see both sides.

But, honestly, people need to calm down and realize that agents are allowed to joke as much as writers. I've frequented a writers site and seen how much they joke and complain about everything under the sun—especially about each other. Writers really need to judge less and forgive more. Agents are only human. As are writers.

Anonymous said...

Couldn't agree more. Won't happen. Wish it would. The writer/agent (general) relationship is something I would consider sadly dysfunctional. Wish there was a way to remedy that without writing your own eulogy.

Jenna said...

Personally, I didn't see the "race you to 0" thing as being disrespectful. I think many people are far too sensitive over these things. If you're going to live and die by every little comment an agent or editor makes, whether it's humorous or serious, then it's really not going to get you very far at all.

Seriously, I really don't see how anyone could get offended over something like that...

Wendy said...

I realize this wasn't an invitation to knock agents and my comment certainly isn't one, rather something that disconcerted me when I started following agents on Twitter (and blogs)...

In your business it's easy to be approached by many people who are not adept at writing or probably querying for that matter. So, I know you get lots and lots of great stories that are tempting to pass on in the form of comedic relief.

I have seen agents cross that line between tasteful, sometimes helpful humor and what looks like plain ole mean-spirited ridicule.

Not you. I have read some humorous things you have written that were constructive. Those are great and if I make a stupid goof on a list like that I can laugh about it myself. Belittling is different.

(Secret confession: I have a "when you're ready, don't go there" list of agents. :D )

Speech Delay Mamma said...

I really admire both you and that emailer for what you've both said. Most of my interactions with agents have been professional and civilised. But there have been a few things that have burnt me. Sometimes when I read things agents blog about, or tweet about, I feel like I'm burdening them with my query letter, and it makes me reluctant to send it out - even though I know I'm one of the ones who actually follows guidelines and has a pretty decent query letter.

However, tweeting about specific comments in my rejections is frowned upon by most agents, and like the emailer said, I don't want to stunt my chances at publication by talking about it. So I don't.

It's a catch 22 in some ways. Agents sometimes don't realise how hurtful they can be to aspiring authors, but no one is telling them that they are. So the cycle continues.

I'm very glad you brought it up. Kudos to you.

Mags said...

An agent who's had my full since May posting page after page of Tweets daily (after ignoring status queries) and initiating several time consuming interactive endeavors? #queryfail.

(Not Janet)

I'd write it off, but she's Tweeted that she is, in fact, backed up to May.

My interest in the agent has been all but extinguished. She may be the uber multi-tasker, but her response time and lack of communication don't suggest that, whether or not it's true. I've stopped looking at Twitter. TMI. Way, way TMI.

BJ said...

Actually, I find the 'race to 0 inbox' and overwhelming number of e-queries a very valid look at what agents are dealing with. How do I see this as a writer? Well, if my query isn't accepted, it's likely because the agent's too busy, not because my writing sucks. If a partial/full is requested, then my query must have really stood out. If I manage to get an offer from the agent, I'm doing well in a tough field.

It makes me want to be sure my query and my writing are the best they can be.

I think a lot of writers are complaining about how hard the business is. Yes, it's a hard business to break into. So are many other businesses - especially those based on talent, because talent is so subjective. And because pretty well everyone thinks they have talent, whether it's true or not.

Perceiving reality is an important factor in success. People who would rather see the unicorns and rainbows of their dreams are going to land very heavily once reality strikes.

The true business of writing is a lot more work than writing a story and sending it out.

Janet said...

I wasn't offended by the inbox comments either. But yes, now that I've started querying, I've got a short list of things that bother me. Blogs that display more arrogance than humanity. (No, not this one.) I'm not going to name names. But I'm seriously considering removing a few names from my query list. I might prefer to remain unpublished than work with people who think that sneering is a form of humour.

A prominent agent who - oh dear, I'd better stop. I'm actually going to send a query there.

The only way these complaints are going to really get aired is in a context where anonymity is assured. Sure we can make generic comments but sometimes complaints would be so specific that anyone who knows the agent would immediately be able to identify him/her.

I have no really serious gripes. Because I've been reading agent blogs and hanging around AW for a couple of years, I was forearmed, for which I am very grateful. I research agents before I query them and make sure they're legit. So I've been saved, thanks to the efforts of people like you, from the suckitude of exclusives, publishers who ask how many copies I'm willing to buy, and so on.

I am however going to inspire #queryfail comments from agents complaining "But I don't even rep that." I apologize in advance. But the number of agents who do rep my niche is so small, I will almost certainly be obliged to "query widely."

Julie Weathers said...

All right, Janet opened up the agentfail, so I will add my two cents.

Agents with the "no response is not interested policy." After joining twitter and listening to agents chat about reading queries, I certainly understand why this is necessary, but I probably won't query anyone with this policy. Even a two sentence form rejection lets me know it was received and I can move on instead of wondering.

Agents who don't keep their information current. If you are no longer interested in fantasy, take a minute to update your submission guidelines and save us both some time.

I will do my utmost to follow the submission guidelines, but I need to know the correct ones.

Now, for the "race you to 0" game. I was there that night and I think I commented someone is probably going to get their tail over the dashboard about that.

This took place on a Sunday night if I remember right. It was on the weekend anyway. Several agents were on and they were determined to get their numbers down to keep people from waiting. One had been sick and had several hundred queries waiting for them.

Janet said in twitter something about, who wants to make a bet on when I will finish these last 93 queries. I guessed around two hours simply because I knew how many would be automatic rejections due to wrong genre, query blasts, cc every agent in the country etc.

Janet sent me a dm and said it would take much longer than that. I wish she had posted it publicly so others would know she really was reading and considering each one carefully.

Just an fyi, I just read one page of a manuscript aloud and it took me two minutes even with my slow speech and colorful reading. It ought to take an agent a lot less than two minutes to read a query that is an automatic no.

I think it was in the midst of the "race" that Rachelle Gardner took 20 minutes to send a response to someone she was rejecting. The project wasn't for her, but it had a lot of merit. That might have been another time, but I know I have heard her say a few times she sent out some additional information with a rejection.

Here's how I took the "race you to 0" silliness. It was a group of agents encouraging each other not to give up on answering queries that night.

What is funny, is that every now and then one of them would do an "aha, I found one." It was like kids looking for the golden egg.

I'm not coming down on the person who listened in on this, but it really wasn't just send out automatic rejections to get to an empty box.

DeadlyAccurate said...

I agree with the person in the email that no professional is going to willingly expose themselves with an #agentfail. Whether agented or not, it behooves writers to remember that there are still more of us (writers) than there are of them (agents).

BJ said...

"I agree with the person in the email that no professional is going to willingly expose themselves with an #agentfail."

What I find endearing - in regards to #agentfail - is the number of agents who use that hashtag on themselves. Here's a few:

@Colleen_Lindsay Fourteen unread queries from October found in wrong folder. * facepalm * #agentfail #someoneneedsanewpairofglasses

@bostonbookgirl #agentfail : Wrong editor imprint information in my database. *egg on my face*

@mattwagner I somehow changed my client's name halfway through my pitch letter #agentfail

Agents make mistakes, and they know it. I'd much rather see an agent mention it apologetically than have writers point the mistakes out. It makes the agents more human.

Julie Weathers said...

BJ, I think the best one was Janet saying she rejected the same author twice by mistake. The author emailed back and said, "Hey!"

At least they both had a laugh out of it.

Jonathan E. Quist said...

Janet, I sincerely hope that any writer who curdles when they see you tweeting about a race to zero emails has also noticed that it's timestamped at 3 AM after a string of comments, many positive, about the queries you read in the previous 16 hours of your working day.

If that person has pulled one remark out of context and taken personal offense from someone with whom they have no established relationship, then perhaps some re-evaluation is required, to determine whether they are too fragile to seek out and accept accept active criticism from someone who matters...

Yes, I'm sleep deprived this week. How'd you know?

C.J. Redwine said...

I have no problem with the race you to zero thing. Especially since I'm convinced (by reading blogs or, in most cases, personal interaction--including a few rejections--from each of the agents involved) that those agents are professional and respectful and would never churn out form letters without giving some thought to each query.

The tough part about soliciting comments for an #agentfail is that most of the failings are aimed at agents who wouldn't be interested in reading an #agentfail anyway. :)

My experience with you, personally, is that you are a class act (snarky shark teeth and all) who deserves the enormous respect given to you by both writers and agents alike.

Jen said...

I don't do Twitter (I know, I know), so I missed this whole "Race to zero" thing. From how it has been described, though, I don't think it was anything I would have gotten upset about. If I had hundreds of emails in my inbox to get through in order to do business, I'd take whatever encouragement I could get.

With that out of the way, let me also say that I don't see the point of having an #agentfail (though I found the ones the agents themselves posted pretty funny). I can't control how other people behave. As long as they aren't doing anything unethical or illegal, I'll be keeping my fat mouth shut.

I lose nothing by being polite, even to those who may not have behaved that way towards me. Why badmouth someone, even if they *did* ruffle my feathers? What do I gain by doing that? Nothing except perhaps a reputation for being "difficult". Heaven forfend! I don't want to be thought of that way.

I want to be perceived as hardworking and pleasant, not narcissistic or nasty. I strive to *be* that, and one ill-thought out remark would go a long way to ruining that for me. So if I felt the need to say something negative about an agent or editor, I'd be thinking long and hard about whether or not my complaint is:

1) Justified

2) Relevant to others (the "illegal or unethical" bit I mentioned earlier)

If it doesn't meet both of those criteria, it doesn't get said.

Anonymous said...

The writer who sent you that email is really brave! I think the problem is that the relationship between agents and most writers is completely skewed against writers. Agents just have more power, and as a result writers will never be able to express themselves without fearing possible repercussions.

You are really nice, and unusually open to criticisms but I get the feeling agents like you are pretty rare. I've been obsessively trying to find out more about the industry and it seems writers generally have the short end of the stick.

It's pretty dishearteneing, especially because more often than not writers put down unpublished writers who make rookie mistakes as much as editors and agents do. I feel happy everytime I encounter nice agents and writers who take the time to teach others. Thanks :)

Catherine Haines said...

I didn't take offence at the "race you to" - after all, it's meant to encourage you to finish and people get a response sooner rather than later. The agent version of a word war.

And if there's #queryfail and the tounge-in-cheek #agentfail, why not #writerfail?

Started writing query about cat-&-mouse game with invisible cat... then remembered I've written a YA urban fantasy, not a LOLcat #writerfail

I'm sure we've all had #writerfail moments. :P

nightsmusic said...

Dare I say it? I really enjoyed #agentfail. It was a fun way to get good insight into what an agent goes through every day because most still managed to make fun of their mistakes too.

And WOW! Two hundred queries in the inbox at any one time combined with partials and mss that have to be read? I'm surprised when an agent gets up on Monday, they ever see their bed before Friday!

If anything, it gave me a new respect for what *they* go through on a daily basis. I didn't take the 'race to 0' as anything more than a silly title for a night of encouragement. And it certainly drove home the need for *me* to have a great first line or two in my query and that everything is done right so the agent isn't sorry they took the time to read it.

I'd love to see one again!

Margaret Yang said...

re: in the bubble. You know that Lynn Viehl blog you linked to (publishing 911). If you want to get a glimpse of a writer's daily life, just read Lynn's blog. It is very eye-opening. She is one of the few writers brave enough to tell it like it is. She tells the good stuff, but is honest about the bad stuff, too, even when it is other writers behaving badly. She often says the stuff that I'm too chicken to say.

Thomas L. Segerson said...

Thanks Janet for addressing this aspect of the agent/writer relationship.

I find it amusing that writers on this blog complain about how their queries are handled by agents.

They should deal with Hollywood for a 'swimming with the sharks' experience.

Where a produced screenwriter told me that his agent once said, "If your work doesn't get stolen, it's not worth producing."

So this query snivelling is a hoot!

How would you feel if your book got ripped off and someone else got the credit?

I've found that marketing my work is much harder than doing the writing. That's why I want an excellent agent/editor/publishing team.

Agents are probably going to see massive increases in queries, with so many people out of work.

How you handle it is your job. Thanks for being up front about it.

lotusgirl said...

Nice to see you can laugh along with the writers and understand our point of view.

Anonymous said...

I remember the #agentfail. I found it helpful.

Yeah, maybe I'm sick, but hey, I want to know what not to do.

I'd also like to see what a good one looks like as well, though.....

So, maybe an #agentpass could happen as well? **smile**

Press on!!

a writer said...

Janet: As a faithful AWer, I'll tell you that even on Absolute Write, we're very, very careful about what we say in public about agents. The dirt is exchanged via private email.

Thank you for being so honest. When I was in law school, one of my professors used to say about judges, 'when your beep-beep is kissed that often, you start thinking it's holy.

Unknown said...

I commend Ms Reid for having the patience to read and respond so graciously to the writer's email. Maybe I'm having a bad day, or maybe it's because I'm reading so damn many complaints from writer's about agents and editors, that my patience has worn thin.

I don't know how many times an agent has to sing the same words until their ass is dangling off a hire wire, ready to take a dive.

Publishing is a business, not a social soiree, not a tea party by the seashore, not a sorority where only the sharpest tacks in the drawers get selected, and certainly not a prom to which a writer gets invited to, or does the inviting.

The query biz is really pretty simple once you get the damn letter down. You start sending it out. If you get a rejection, in whatever form, shrug it off and send elsewhere. A no is a no. Doesn't matter if the agent stamped NO SPELLS NO on your letter. Let it go, and move on with your writing life.

In the initial stages of publishing, ie the query stage, the writer is not, and I repeat, not in the driver's seat. Therefore, a newbie writer has no right to call an agent out when they don't respond quickly enough, or respond the way they oughta, (according to the writer), or follow other subsets of rules a writer insists oughta be followed.

Frankly, I think any complaints about agents at this stage of the biz, smacks of ingratitude to all the agents who have basically gone out of their way to make sure a writer gets started on the right foot in publishing, what with their blogs and generous response to commenters.

So, for me, if an agent wants to twitter about whatever, change their policies, chat with their colleagues about whatever, or do whatever helps them to relax with the full load they carry, more power to them.

My advice, such as it is in the mood I'm in, is for writer's to stfu and see the agent's POV for once. And, to show more gratitude for the good that agents do try to do, whether or not it works, ie queryfail.

Liana Brooks said...

"It's also clear that no matter what I intended, readers perceived something else entirely. I don't have control over what people perceive of course, but being aware of how things MIGHT be received is valuable info."

Welcome to a writer's life. What we say is always filtered through another mind full of strange moods and twisted views. It takes practice to make sure what you say stays intact through the battle for the will of a reader.

As for agent fail... maybe next year when I have a few more rejections piled up.

Richard Mabry said...

Such a valuable post I had to link to it on my blog today. Thanks for bringing this up, and for your openness in the way you handled it.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...


Thanks for sharing. I have been following the feedback from authors on #queryfail and blanching a little. As a blogger I frequently worry about the mistakes I might be making or who I might be offending with my own posts. It's a fine line and those of us who put ourselves truly out there are bound to cross it once in a while. I too would love to see an #agentfail. I guess that for me, I love to hear what everyone has to say.

--jessica faust

Monica Valentinelli said...

It's interesting to read this post from my perspective, because very shortly I'll be going down the path of trying to find a reputable agent who will take me seriously and treat me with respect. I actually left "Absolute Write" in the early days of its inception, because the anonymity of the internet fostered a lot of egos. There was, in my opinion, way too much competition between other writers that ended up harming the industry as a whole, rather than helping it. Fortunately, I'm seeing a lot less of that today.

While today's social media enhances a kind of sense that certain personalities are "internet celebrities," it's becoming harder and harder to be anything but transparent. Unfortunately, so many hungry authors regard agents almost like a fan might a superstar instead of understanding that publishing is -- first and foremost -- a business.

Hopefully my queries will fall on the right agent's desk. Till then, I'll continue to lurk in the background.

Katie Alender said...

Thanks for a very thoughtful post and comment string!

Maria said...

I'll add an agentfail (although it's more an agent preference). There are those of us that spend a lot of time researching agents--specific agents. It is a real bummer to go to the website of the agent and find that in order to query, you simply send an query to an address that does not go specifically to the agent of your choice. Just a big basket. Sure, we can address it to said preferred agent. Throwing all the queries into a basket may be expedient (because they are probably all filtered)'s just one more sign of a "hands off I'm too busy for you" approach.

It's not a game stopper, but I do admit I prefer agencies that list the agents, their preferences, what each agent has sold, and an individual email address to each agent--along with any preferences they have concerning queries. One reason for this is that the preferred agent (especially if he/she is the head of the agency) may not be accepting queries at all. I'm simply not big on sending a query into a big pile. I have sent in queries addressed to X and received a reply from Y requesting material. I then have to do some research--what does Y want to read? Experience? Sales? Preferences? Is this someone that I want to work with?

I realize that agents are in the power seat, but it is a classy person that treats the waiter, the chef--and the ceo as people. Some writers are better at it than others--and some agents are better at it than others!

Anonymous said...

In the initial stages of publishing, ie the query stage, the writer is not, and I repeat, not in the driver's seat. Therefore, a newbie writer has no right to call an agent out when they don't respond quickly enough, or respond the way they oughta, (according to the writer), or follow other subsets of rules a writer insists oughta be followed.

*sigh. I'm totally shooting myself in the foot, but it must be said and I'm picking this battle.*

See this just bothers me, because the people who I find complaining are not newbies. These authors have been through the ringer, has jumped through every hoop an agent and editor has thrown at them to get published. Whining and frustration may look the same on the outside, but I can tell you it's miles apart. Agents/editors do set up the game, but most writers just want the agents/editors to play by the same rules created.

This mindset just speaks of superiority, which is not the case. Writers need editors/agents and agents/editors need writers. Too often you find that isn't the case. I'm not looking for a BFF, I'm looking for a business partner. It's kind of hard to do when the editor/agent doesn't see it that way i.e. You need me so kowtow.

Anyway, there will never be an #agentfail for this same reason. The bubble is made of steel with a lot of agents. But, Reid, you are one of the rare few.

Man Candy Fans said...

Queryfail was like a reality show where authors watched agents "tell all." I did not come away disallusioned from reading the tweets, but I am recently agented. I might have reacted differently if I were unagented. On second thought, probably not. I did my homework before writing those queries.

I thought about whether this was something I would do in my day career. I send out requests for proposals (RFPs) to vendors, and actually have to write rejections to those I don't select. Would I ever post about the really horrible proposals I receive in a public forum? Even in a joking, anonymous way?

Absolutely not. The F500 company I work for would slap me down big-time. We are required to take Standards of Business Conduct every year. I know without a doubt that if I posted snarky comments in an equivalent forum to Queryfail, my company would consider this unprofessional conduct.

But, I am dealing with business professionals, rather than any Joe or Jane off the street. Does that make a difference, Janet?

Story and Logic Media Group said...

I am coming in late. Someone sent me here. Very interesting. Thanks.

Stephanie Faris said...

Read enough agent blogs and you do start to get a little paranoid. Don't use a prologue. Don't write about cowboys who stutter. Don't use the word 'the' as the first word of your query. Okay, that last one is an exaggeration. But I believe, no matter what, that for you guys finding a client is like finding love. You can list out for days what you're looking for but you just know it when you see it. And if that "love" happens to be a book about a cowboy that stutters and have a prologue, you won't care...because you're looking for something you can't quite define...

Although I will say, working in tech support, if anyone gave me free reign to complain about my job and all the stupid things people do, I'd have a field day with it. I just sometimes have to step back and say, "Without these annoying people, I wouldn't have a job."

Flower said...

Even though I am new to this industry from what I see it is difficult on both sides of the fence.