Tuesday, April 18, 2017

10 Things We Hate About Agents (And 10 Things They Hate About Us)

Authors and agents have what I would call an ambiguous relationship. It's not precisely love/hate, but it does involve a clash of expectations.

This clash is the inevitable result of a business mentality coming in close contact with artistic sensibilities. (That is, writers who are devoted to the craft or, more specifically, devoted to their own writing).

(I've previously written about that conflict at some length. See my astonishingly perceptive post: Literary Agents: The Writer's Ultimate Ambiguous Relationship.)

Launching into the publishing world can be a painfully enlightening experience for a writer. Not surprisingly, it can be equally as vexing for agents who may not realize that their clients are not only unprepared, but are quite confused as to what is expected of them. But in some cases, it is not merely confusion that causes problems. With increasing numbers of writers submitting their work, exacerbated by fierce competition for publishing slots, frustrations can arise, leading to complaints on both sides.

Here are some of them.

Ten things writers hate about agents

1) Agents who charge a fee, or who are really book doctors, but don't let you know until you have submitted your work. This is the most egregious of sins in the agent community. Fortunately, it is becoming relatively rare - but it still exists. If an agent charges a fee, especially after they have requested pages (and given you glowing compliments), do not pay them a cent, and run for the hills. NO LEGITIMATE AGENT CHARGES A READING FEE.

2) "No reply means no." The majority of agents no longer send rejections. They simply do not respond at all. In this age of automatic email replies there is no excuse for that kind of behavior. We all understand that agents are busy people, but we also expect them to be professionals. It is highly unprofessional to leave writers hanging.

3) Agents who ask for partials or fulls, and then either don't reply or send a canned response. This is something I personally really dislike. If an agent asks to see a manuscript, the writer will assume, rightly, that the agent has taken an interest. At this point, a lack of reply is somewhat like inviting a girl (or boy) to the prom and not showing up. It's not only rude, it's unconscionable.

4) Agents who say they want "great writing" but don't request sample pages along with your query. C'mon agents! Put your money where your mouth is! If you want great writing, then take a look at the first chapter! Every agent worth his or her salt knows that writers are piss poor at writing queries, so skip the query and spend  a few minutes on the first ten pages.

5) Agents who expect writers to compose copy. There is a huge difference between writing a novel and writing copy. A book is self-expression. Copy is what your boss hires you to churn out in order to sell his (or her) products. Agents cannot reasonably expect writers, especially fiction writers, to suddenly know the rules of advertising. That is a skill unto itself, and one in which writers are not trained.

6) Agents who promise the moon. Most agents won't take on your project unless they are "in love" with it. (To translate, "in love" means "I can sell this to a publisher and make money.") It is perfectly reasonable to expect enthusiasm from agents. What isn't reasonable is when agents tell you that your book is going to be a bestseller, that it will be a "breakout" novel, or that they are sure you will get a movie deal.

7) Agents who promise nothing. At the bare minimum an agent should be able to tell you what he or she can do for you. Agents should let you know what their contacts in the publishing industry are, what kind of track record they have, whether they have sold books like yours. They should have a game plan for selling your book. It goes without saying that they should be well acquainted with the terms of a contract, and should be willing to explain those terms to you.

8) Long, convoluted contracts that are filled with legalese. Back in the day, when there were no contracts between agents and authors, a simple handshake (verbal or physical) was enough. Now, there are lawyers. Contracts that are written by lawyers will always favor the agent for the simple reason that lawyers represent the people who pay them. Contracts written by lawyers can contain anything, including a promise on the part of the author to produce additional books (that happens), a promise to maintain a certain physical appearance (that also happens), and no termination clause. A fair contract should be no longer than a page or two, should state which book the agent is representing, and include a termination clause applying to both parties. It should specify how much the agent will take in commission, and how funds will be disbursed to the writer, as well as which services the agent will provide in clear language. (I highly recommend that writers join the Authors Guild. The Guild provides legal reviews of contracts to its members.)

9) Agents who, once they have decided to represent your work, do not maintain contact. It is the agent's job to market your book to publishers. Any decent agent will keep you apprised of how that quest is going. They will tell you which publishers they have approached and give you feedback. If they don't touch base with you on a regular basis, they are not doing their job.

10) Agents who drop their clients after a few attempts at selling a manuscript to a publisher. When the going gets tough, some agents are all too willing to simply drop their "difficult" client in favor of a manuscript that is easier to market, or which they perceive is easier to market. Shame on them.

Ten things agents hate about authors

1) Writers who do not research who they are querying. Nothing will turn an agent off faster than a query addressed to "Dear Agent." (Seriously, don't do that.) Make sure you are addressing your query to an individual agent, and that you have spelled the agent's name correctly. Also, make absolutely sure that you have gone to the agency's site and have read the bio of the agent you are querying.

2) Writers who do not follow instructions. This is such an easy thing to do; there is no excuse for not submitting your query exactly the way the agent has specified.

3) Bad spelling and grammar. Agents are not forgiving about error-ridden query letters. If you can't spell, or don't know the difference between "lay" and "lie" (my pet peeve), they will become irritated. It is not a good idea to irritate someone you are wooing.

4) Writers who do not know how to write a query letter. Writing a basic query is not rocket science. You need a short opening with your book's title, genre, and word count, a paragraph that summarizes your book, and a brief paragraph about your qualifications as a writer. Make it short and to the point. Don't waste the agent's time.

5) Authors who pester agents. Nothing ticks agents off more than clients who make repeated phone calls, text constantly, or email incessantly. An agent's job is to sell your book, not hold your hand.

6) Authors who do not disclose that they have submitted to publishers, or who have already self-published their work. Very few agents are willing to take on manuscripts that have been "shopped around." How can they be expected to pitch your work to editors who have already rejected your manuscript? And while some agents are willing accept work that has been self-published, read their submission requirements carefully to make sure that's allowed.

7) Writers who submit to more than one agent at the same agency. Do writers really expect agents who work together to compete with one another? Only submit to one agent at an agency. And if you get a rejection, make sure that agency allows subsequent submissions to other agents. (Some agencies share; a submission to one agent is a submission to them all.)

8) Writers who submit queries for fiction that is not completed. Novels have to be finished and fully edited before a query can be sent. It's disappointing for an agent to request a partial or a full, only to be told that the book is not finished. It is equally distressing for them to receive a rough draft. (Make sure your manuscript is as error-free as possible before you send it!)

9) Lack of professionalism. Writers who don't seem to be aware that the agent-client relationship is a business arrangement can be very annoying. What does being professional mean? First, a manuscript that follows standard manuscript guidelines (double spaced, Times New Roman or another standard font, etc.) is professional. Submitting your work promptly is also professional. Keeping appointments is professional. Remembering that the agent has a job, and is not available at all hours, is professional.

10) Writers who get angry when they receive a rejection, or get upset at an agent's suggestions for improvement. Not many agents offer a critique of work they've received. They simply don't have the time. But those who are willing to go the extra mile by offering feedback are performing a service. The proper response should be "Thank you," not a snarky reply, or a pissed-off blog post. The same holds true for rejections. If writers are upset by a rejection, they should keep it to themselves.


To writers: For God's sake, learn to write a proper query letter! Query Shark is your best resource. There are also successful queries on Writer's Digest. And read my Best Method for Handling Rejections (and getting published). It will keep you sane.

To agents: For God's sake, learn to write a proper rejection letter! Please, oh please send us rejections. Don't leave us in limbo. We are human, and your silence makes us suffer. Also, if we are expected to know your name, do us the courtesy of not addressing rejections to "Dear Author."


  1. Very helpful and enlightening. Thanks.

  2. Thank you. Professionalism goes a long way. The non-response to emails after sending a requested full/partial is the most maddening. Just send a form rejection! Any writer worth their salt is used to getting those.

  3. Excellent post! Insightful things to note, which both parties will probably ignore. Your last line was the topper though... loved it!


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