Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Agents going off the rails

A while back I posted a question from a writer who seriously wondered if her agent was dead or abducted by aliens (no contact for months on end.)

In my reply I mentioned that kind of thing has been happening more often. That observation sparked some interest and some requests for elaboration.


Back in the day, and I mean back before email, the internet and Twitter and, let's face it, transparency, the career path for becoming an agent was starting as an editor at a big publishing house, and learning how the biz worked. There are those who traveled a different route of course, but they were the exceptions, not the norm.

That has changed almost completely.

Many younger agents are starting as agents. Or assistants who are allowed to sign clients. Or interns who are sure they learned everything they need to know and set up shop as agents when their internship is completed.

And when the shit hits the fan, as it does every single day of the working year, and twice on Sundays, and always when you're on vacation, these young agents are often overwhelmed.

And they're often alone and unsupported. By alone, I mean they work as sole proprietors or in remote offices from the main agency. By unsupported I mean they do not have someone sitting five feet away who can help them get out of trouble or stop them from getting in to trouble. Of the five cracker jack young agents I know best, ALL started out sitting close to an agent with more experience, an agent who considered it his/her job to guide the younger agent.

And there's another component to consider. Recently I tallied the lists of tasks I had for each client in 2003. Then I tallied the tasks I had for clients in 2013.

By my count there is three times the work now for each client/book that there was in 2003.

What that means in hard terms is even experienced agents are having to learn to do new things and to stay on top of things they didn't have to before. Of course, there's no additional money for this.

So if you're an agent who's been doing this forever, and in the last ten years your job has tripled, and your income hasn't, and all of a sudden there's this new transparency and people are talking about you on the Internet like you can't see it, well, sometimes just not dealing with the problems seems pretty much like the avenue of least resistance.

I don't say this to excuse the behavior. It's bad behavior. It's very unprofessional. I'd like to say I've never been guilty of behaving this way, but it would not be true.

But what this is has a name: burnout. Agenting is a job that's ripe for burnout for two reasons:

1. Almost nothing is under our direct control
2. Almost nothing is ever finished

When I say almost nothing is under our direct control, I can hear you non-agented, querying writers gasp with disbelief. To you it seems like agents control EVERYTHING. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

I can't control who queries me or doesn't. I can only control who I OFFER representation to. I can't even control who accepts.

And I have almost no control with how a book is published. I can advocate for the author. I can explain how things work to the author. I can build good working relationships at publishing houses so my calls and questions get answered but if I hate a cover and the publisher loves it, well, the publisher gets to decide.

Not having control of your job that has an increasing work load and an increasing number of people looking over your shoulder and commenting on how you're doing (this blog included among those people too) is a recipe for burnout.

When I say nothing is ever finished, let me just illustrate that with an example from this weekend: I read a manuscript (which was very good) and sent the author (my client) a series of notes. He'll make changes, then send the ms to his editor. Done? Not even close. When this goes to edits/copyedits/production/publication there will be lots of things to do and problems to address. The work is never ever done and that can be daunting because it's really hard to take time off, or even step back sometimes knowing that the work is just going to stack up.

Not taking time off is another one of the classic ways to burn out, and given that agents are already working nights and weekends as the norm, it's a wonder more of us don't flip out completely.

I've learned to recognize when I'm heading the wrong way on Burnout Avenue. And I know what to do now to head it off. But those are skills and tricks I learned the hard way. I burned out on a previous career so completely and so suddenly I couldn't even pick up the phone.

If you're an author you'll want to avoid signing with an agent who is headed down Burnout Ave. How to tell? You ask her clients. Not "is s/he burning out?" but "how's the communication?" Agents who are burning out generally aren't communicating well.

Find out how much support an agent has. If things go south, is there someone there to pick up the pieces? A sole prop who goes off the rails leaves her clients in a bigger mess than someone backed by an agency with people who know where the files are.

What do you do if your agent burns out? First, know that it's not you. S/he's not unhappy with you or your work. You didn't make her/him crazy. Second, get your ducks in a row cause you're going to have some interesting times coming. By ducks in a row, I mean get your submission list, and know where your manuscript has gone. Make sure you know where your contract is. READ your contract.

If all goes well your agent will avert burnout (most of us do) and things will be ok. If s/he does NOT, then it's back to the blog post that incited this one.

And if you find yourself annoyed that your agent is talking on Twitter or writing blog posts about books she read that aren't yours, well, remind yourself that breaks from work are a necessity not a luxury and the last, the VERY LAST thing you want is an agent who works all the time, right up until she's so burned out she can't even talk to you.

If you're an agent and you recognize that some of what I talked about here applies to you, remember burnout is not a character flaw or a lapse of moral fiber. It's the way your brain is telling you to make some changes in your life. Listen to yourself.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Years ago I owned a small manufacturing company. By working 24/365 I took it from up and coming to we’re there. I got sick as a result of burnout, defined as: exhaustion, stress and I never trained anyone to do what I did. The company went under with all my dreams of success. It was devastating.
You know that basket everybody talks about, the one filled with all the eggs you’re not supposed to put in it, well when those chicks start hatching you gotta be one hell of a chicken farmer and delegate the shit shoveling. Being pecked to death is for the birds.
Bah da bee bah da boom. (How corny was that?)

Craig F said...

If you ever get closer than you seem right now, I hope you will consider us a support group. We owe you so much more than we can ever repay.

whiporee said...

I've said this too many times that it's becoming redundant, but you rule.

Anonymous said...

This is a fabulous and clear post for all--agented, not yet agented, and agents. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I love the analysis you did on the volume of work in the past decade. I think I was born in the wrong time. I love thing more simple, when choices were more limited - like three stations on TV - yes I said that - and the writing "of old," (not "of old," like long hand old, but pounding words out on a Royal old) meant when a ms was done, it went off in snail mail and you went on with your life because you knew it would be months before you heard back. And you usually heard back, a personal reply, a letter even.

For all of our advancement, all fo the choices (ten different types of OJ, anyone??) technology, and the widgets galore, all we are doing is driving ourselves crazy - or burning out.

There was an article in the newspaper the other day that talked about how we are no longer bored - something they worried about in the 1950's - if you can believe it. Now we're working ourselves to death, and our brains get very little downtime. There is no boredom, b/c we're entertained 24/7 by being constantly connected to our emails, social media, news, phone calls, you name it. They call it a smart phone - but, is it?

Well that went off in a different direction, but it's a similar sort of thing. Much too much - of everything. More work. More ways to work. Still the same amount of time.

Terry Shames said...

I gave a talk to a book club last week in which I told them that when I first started trying to get published, agents were gatekeepers--they read a promising manuscript and passed it on to an editor at a publishing house and the editor worked to whip the manuscript into shape.

Now, I told them, the editor expects a polished manuscript--and that work largely falls to the agent. Furthermore, many agents then guide their authors in promoting their books. It's a big step up in time commitment for agents. (And for authors too, but that's another topic).

No wonder there is burnout!

David Edgerley Gates said...

Must be missing you some Brooks, sounds like. Hows' he doing, with the shoe on the other foot?

Janet Reid said...

David, he's doing well, and his clients are getting deals left and "write." I'm pretty proud of him, but of course, never plan to actually tell him that.

LynnRodz said...

Janet, forget the shark, you are one super lady! With all the work you have to do as an agent, you still find the time to write something everyday! This post alone is an example of the time and effort you put into this blog to help writers realize their dreams. I am not only in admiration of what you do to help us, I am in awe! I have only two words for you, but I mean it when I say - thank you!

Benjamin LeRoy said...

Janet, dear friend, THANK YOU for writing this. Between your words and those of the people in the comment section, I take a certain amount of comfort.

Burnout is such a real and powerful thing and I think it's very hard for people on the outside looking in to understand the particulars of any given situation.

I know in the past when I heard professional athletes talk about retiring because they no longer had "passion for the game" it didn't make sense. But the older I get...

Jill Hannah Anderson said...

As a writer just starting to submit to agents, I can say from my short experience in the past month that three out of the four requests I've received from agents for my full manuscript have been sent to me over the weekend. Clearly agents are not "taking a break" - even on the weekends!

Alice Gabathuler said...

Great post. Thanks.

My first agent was a real nice, witty, intelligent guy - but got kidnapped by aliens over and over again. When he vanished right in the middle of negotiating a new contract and fighting an awful cover, I'd had it. BUT: I owe him my first contract (and more to follow) with a publisher. I still like him but would never do business with him again.

I then went without an agent for some two years (still possible over here in Europe). When I decided to look for one, I knew what I wanted and needed and most of all who to contact. She was number one on my list and has been a great agent for more than two years now. And - like Janet writes - she does about 10 jobs (from editing over negotiating contracts and fighting for better covers to developing marketing ideas). She fights with and for me. And all her other clients. No idea, how she does it. I have always appreciated this - now after this post even more.

Patty Blount said...

My first agent was the sort who I thought had been sequestered on a jury somewhere for months at a time.

Then I learned she was ill.

When we're just starting out, sometimes the newness of it all narrows our vision and we forget we're not the only author an agent, or an editor works with.

Thanks for the perspective, Janet.

pegasus358 said...

Wonderful post, Janet.

-Beth M

Bill Plante said...


Barbara McDowell said...

Fantastic post, Janet, and I appreciate you reminding all of us—from querying writers to clients to other agents—of the human nature of the business. So much has changed in the industry and with how we communicate in life (e.g., the social media train) that it is easy to start losing perspective from multiple sides. Nothing in a successful writing life happens in a silo. Success is made from working to forge relationships and those relationships are made with people versus automated creatures (well for now at least). May we all be compassionate and mindful of one another. Take care.

Susan Lower said...

I feel blessed to have a wonderful agent. I'm sure he feels overwhelmed at times, but he's always in constant communication with his clients. Thanks for this great post on the inside view of agents.

Anonymous said...

If there's one thing I learned from my extensive querying experience, it's that agents are basically like those guys who have to keep two dozen plates spinning on sticks at the same time.

Each of the things they do (reading hundreds of queries, submissions to editors, handling existing clients, etc.) sounds to me like a full-time job.

Say, does this mean if we self-publish we're doing everyone a favor?

nightsmusic said...

Thank you for this post. Gives a much better look at the behind the scenes of agenting.

I can honestly say I understand about burnout, the kind you experienced. I did the same thing and consequently, one day I just walked away from my job. I just couldn't do it anymore. And having read you forever, scoured your archives when I'm trying to get an answer to something and going down a rabbit trail reading something I wasn't looking for but am fascinated with, I want to tell you how very glad I am that you recognize the burnout now. (I know, an abundant sentence but this is stream on conscience here...) It would be a huge loss to us all if you burned out with this the way you did the first time.

DLM said...

Honestly, this is why I am a secretary. I'm grateful for those who risk their lives (don't think that's not part of publishing!), but am also grateful not to have to ...

KayC said...

I can't count the times my Dad told me "you work to live - you don't live to work!" It's as true now as it was then.

Bonnie Shaljean said...

Janet, thanks so much for this post. The help and support we get from this blog goes way, way beyond writing.

"Burnout is not a character flaw or a lapse of moral fiber. It's the way your brain is telling you to make some changes in your life. Listen to yourself."

~Nina said...

1. Almost nothing is under our direct control
2. Almost nothing is ever finished

Sounds like parenthood...