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.