This will eventually have its own spot on Filigree’s Rule, but I thought the problem merited its own longer post.
Literary agents are human: they have likes, dislikes, foibles, and triggers like anyone else. Sometimes an author is lucky and their quirks will mesh with the agent’s. This is one of the major reasons to *exhaustively* research agents before you approach them.
Commercial publishing is a rough business. As reasonably well-informed authors, we know literary agents offer our best shot at decent sales with a trade publisher. Agents…good agents…do a lot to earn their 15%.
Note: I’ve had two literary agents between 1992 and 2016. Both are lovely people and skilled professionals, and they would *never* dream of treating authors the ways I’m about to list.
Bad agents can ruin your career, your sanity, and your joy in writing. I’ve watched dozens of agentfails over the last eight years, as I researched publishers, agents, markets, trends, and my fellow authors. It’s not always easy to spot bad agents ahead of time.
What is a ‘bad agent’? For this post I’m only talking about commercially successful literary agents, with excellent documented sales and large client lists…who have, with certain authors, failed so epically and horrifically that no one should ever query them again.
But very much like the current focus on sexual harassment in work & politics, I can’t actually name these agents without opening myself to legal jeopardy. Their awful treatment of some authors is an open secret, if you take the time to research. Writer Beware and www.absolutewrite.com offer a depth of information going back many years. Simply watch for authors announcing they are seeking new representation, and track back through their & their ex-agent’s social media posts.
This post follows one particular author and agent, with enough of the serial numbers filed off for me and the author to remain safe. (The agent could be inflicted with boils and bedbugs, for all I care.) Do I know who it is? Sure, because I have basic research skills and a good memory.
Author: three well received SFF novels from a large publisher. Books compared favorably to a master of the subgenre.
Agent: really well known in SFF community, but has some previous problematic social media gaffes.
Author was typically over the moon upon initial signing of first mms & two proposals, but noticed quickly that agent didn’t pay attention to the next two books’ outlines. Agent obviously wanted a massive bestseller/award winner, and pushed that outcome over the author’s story preferences. Agent insisted in being the sole go-between for author and editor, not allowing independent contact between the other two parties. Agent tried to rewrite books without author’s input or permission. Called on that no-no, Agent then withheld useful criticism during edit processes, but began complaining about the writing in published versions. Agent was incommunicado for long stretches of time. Agent began gaslighting author about poor sales and promo. Agent appears to have torpedoed the final book proposal, leading to its refusal from the publisher.
Finally, after several years, the agent ‘fired’ the author recently, essentially telling the author they were a terrible writer, a useless person, with no usable ideas and poor skills. That no respectable publisher would work with the author after seeing their poor sales. This shattered the author for almost a month, before serious intervention and their own resilience prompted the realization: ‘That agent is a horrible person and seriously unprofessional’.
The author could look back and and see early warning signs, enough to agonize over ‘I should have left earlier’. But we’re authors, and it’s damn hard to give up on having an agent, especially one advertised as having industry clout.
I queried that agent a couple of times for different projects, got form rejections, learned some squicky things about the agent on social media, and never bothered with them again.
I honestly hope they leave the business. How they treated this author is not an isolated case, but part of a pattern with this agent and agency.