Friday, March 22, 2019

Idiot agents

Yesterday afternoon I sent off a query for a picture book feeling pretty good about the whole thing. The agent was specifically looking for children's books and after reviewing the agency website, I liked what I read. Within 12 hours I received the following response.

"Thanks for your query with REDACTED. Unfortunately, publishers want authors with large online presences, been published on high traffic sites, have blogs with a large amount of followers, and have speaking engagements to sell books. Because of these things, I'm going to have to pass on this project. I would suggest increasing social media numbers, and self-publishing your work. If you can sell a lot of copies ( a few thousand) then you'll be ready for an agent. I wish you all the best in your future writing endeavors."

I was gobsmacked. As someone who has attended multiple writing conferences, taken several writing classes, participated in countless webinars, holds memberships in several writing organizations (including SCBWI), and had a (bad) agent once, I almost can't believe this was the response for a PICTURE BOOK. Then I thought, you know who would probably have something interesting to say about this? Janet Reid. Your thoughts? Please.

This is BANANAS!

Clearly it's a form letter and a terrible one - filled with mis-information - at that.

Picture books are review, not platform, driven sales.
It's almost impossible to get reviews for self-published books. Thus, expecting to self publish and sell a few thousand picture books is akin to telling me if I want to get to Boston I should jump over the moon. Not only can I NOT do it, UP does not mean north.

And let's not even get into the fact that many picture book writers are NOT illustrators (or shouldn't be!)

So, given this agent has demonstrated herself to be an idiot (and you can quote me),
how do you avoid querying someone like that?

First, look for sales.
Actual sales.

NOT clients listed on the website. Actual sales on Publishers Marketplace, OR the authors' titles available for sale (Amazon is a good reference for that.)

Second, look at the agent's bio.
This is key. Anyone can call themself an agent, and lots of agencies will let them affiliate (this is strange to me, but it's true.) If the agent has NO publishing experience other than being an author, that's a red flag.

Every young agent who started their career five feet from my desk started as an assistant. They learned how the industry worked but, more important, they had someone monitoring their work for awhile.

In other words, someone who would have looked at that form rejection and said 'nope, start over.'

Membership in AAR is a useful benchmark.
Not all good and reputable agents belong to AAR but someone who's never made a sale CANNOT.

But mostly, continue learning about the industry so that when some Idiot Agent spouts this crap, you know to laugh merrily and thank all deities large and small, that you dear woodland creature DODGED A BULLET.


E.M. Goldsmith said...

I am flabbergasted by this response from "idiot" agent. And I never get flabbergasted. Really? Oh, OP, I am so glad you knew of our lady shark queen. You did exactly right.

I can't even find the right words for this rant. I don't know if I should laugh or cry. Glad you brought this to the Reef's attention. Wow.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Is this an appropriate time to perhaps say "agent, schmagent"? Granted, we have little information upon which to base that opinion, but WOW what information it is. "Self publish and come back later" isn't really consistent with what we've seen to be ethical and responsible behavior from the type of agent that one wants to work with.

Leslie said...


Maybe I'm totally off base here but to me, an agent who tells someone to self-publish and sell a lot *before* seeking representation sounds like an incredibly lazy agent.

It reminds me of the time many years ago when I was switching career fields and went to an employment agency (mostly looking to get some basic experience for the switch), where the woman I met told me that she couldn't help me switch to the second field. According to her, she could only find me jobs in the field I was desperate to leave (it was destroying my health and sanity) since that is where I had experience.

Marie McKay said...

As someone who writes picture books (under the name Elaine McKay) this was really interesting. Unfortunately, I have already made some mistakes, but doing my best to avoid more!

Sam Mills said...

That's wild. It has never occurred to me to look up the social media platforms of the authors of my kids' picture books. And my kids obviously aren't online themselves!

Craig F said...

There are days that I would prefer a wrong answer, like this, to the non response agents I seem to pick the most. Fifty percent of my queries are just hanging in the ether.

At least you might be able to laugh at this one some day.

Hope all of the rest of you are warm, safe, dry and well fed this weekend. If you can find some fun, make use of it.

Lennon Faris said...

"Anyone can call them self an agent, and lots of agencies will let them affiliate (this is strange to me, but it's true.)"

Say what?

Like, some rando can decide to be an 'agent', and certain agencies will tell them, "you can say you're with us, no problem."

I hope I'm misunderstanding.

Happy Friday, folks!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

As a worrier and cage wheel spinner, it's nice that as a writer, I, like OP, may be referred to as a "..woodland creature," who "DODGED A BULLET."
I guess we're all Bambis out here in the wildness of querydom. (I just made that word up.) The reef beats lost in the forest every time.

Karen McCoy said...

I'm also curious whether this agent is new to the business. If so, maybe they haven't done their due diligence to figure out how picture books might be marketed.

Hopefully they don't have to learn the hard way...

Claire Bobrow said...

Bullet dodged for sure. Yikes.

OP: you may already do these things regarding agent research, but in addition to looking at agency websites and checking sales on Publishers Marketplace, I search for every interview and blog post I can find, follow them on Twitter, check MSWL, and see if they list favorite books on Pinterest or elsewhere. It's still tough to know if you might be a good fit, but it's nice to get the fullest picture possible.

Good luck with your search - wishing you success!

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Lennon Faris I think it may be a little bit like "anybody can call themselves a dog trainer". You don't need any particular qualifications, degrees, etc., legally, to sell your services as such. I'm pretty okay at training my own dogs (so far, with my sample size of 2 [well, 1, and whatever fraction we'll consider a 10 month old to be]), but I probably won't hang out a shingle advertising my services.

I think agenting might be the same. There isn't "agent school", and membership in the professional organization is optional unlike, say, being certified by your state's medical board.

My metaphors comparisons are ranging further afield aren't they, since medical school is a Thing, as is becoming a professional dog trainer through things like the Association of Pet Dog Trainers, the Karen Pryor Academy, and SUNY Cobleskill's newly minted Bachelor's degree in dog training, which I'd really like to do but can't professionally or financially justify.

John Davis Frain said...

Dodging bullets is an art all writers should learn. Arrows, too.

And then collect them and display them on your bookshelf beside Bill Beverly's debut, Dodgers.

In case you need an ice breaker when someone wanders in for a visit.

DeadSpiderEye said...

I think possibly I might be able to shed some light on this. There are probably more but I'm aware of about half a dozen people working in the way this agent has described, only they're not looking for representation by an agent. That might be because they're already knee deep in money but I suspect not, I think it' more to do with the cultural gap that exists the book shop market and the material these individuals are producing. Illustrated books seem to me to be almost exclusively marketed at the sub teen market, whereas the people I'm thinking of are more interested in Young Adult/Adult material. It looks to me as though this agent is head hunting, they probably put some bait out, hoping for a big fish or maybe one just starting to make a reputation.

Irene Troy said...

I wish I could be flabbergasted by this letter. Sadly, I've seen worse and's what I've learned the hard way: when you are a new/emerging writer hoping for publication, be very, very aware there are sharks in the water waiting for you to venture into the water. I do NOT mean sharks such as Janet, but truly nasty, hungry sharks that won't blink at eating you whole. So-called agents and publishers anxious for the newbie who might bite first and ask questions later. Do your due diligence using reputable sources and, as suggested, check those sales figures. I also like the website Query Tracker for learning of other writer's experiences with agents and publishers.

AJ Blythe said...

I remember reading on Janet's twitter feed this week a post she retweeted which said, in part "I will IMMEDIATELY chalk that up as a win." (in response to someone being snide about their rejection). I think that applies to you, OP. That's a win for you because you will never again query that agent, and shouldn't look at that rejection as a loss.

Good luck!