Chip MacGregor

January 28, 2009

Talking Agent Trash


Wow. My last post seems to have upset some people.

I had eleven authors write and ask a form of this: "You mean when the agent said to me, 'We like this, but we want you to talk with our editorial department in order to get your manuscript in shape,' he was scamming me?"

My response: If the agent was selling you editorial services that he gets a commission from, then yes. At best the agent was violating the Association of Author Representatives' code of ethics. At worst he was trying to make money off you when he knew he wouldn't be able to sell your manuscript. There's also been a slew of literaryagents who charge authors for media training, marketing efforts, and all sorts of other stuff. It's wrong — but these agents don't belong to AAR, they don't have any training from an experienced agent, so they don't even realize what they're doing is improper.

Look, in recent years we've seen an explosion of people calling themselves "literary agents," though many don't have any sort of formal or informal training, nor were they mentored by a successful agent. They don't really understand the role of a literary agent. But the growth of certain genres (and Christian fiction in particular) over the past five or six years motivated them to hang out a shingle and announce they were now "agents." In other words, they saw it as easy money. And a lot of authors, who were looking for an agent to help them, signed on. Some even got their books published. But I'll tell you something: these folks don't know what they're doing. When I see a manuscript that is a good idea but not quite ready for prime time, I might send them to an editor — but I won't be making money off the deal. If they need marketing help, I'll either provide it or introduce them to a good publicist – but it won't be someone who secretly works for me, so that I get a kickback. If they need media training, I'll help them get it – but I won't sell it to them myself. Being a literary agent isn't a fee-for-service business, and it's time everybody woke up to that fact.

I also had a couple literary agents who wrote to say, in essence, "You're being unfair."

Nope. I'm not. You just don't know what you're doing. You think agenting is a business where you make money from your clients. But a real agent understands that he or she is paid by the publisher. I keep seeing literary agents who offer "personal management" for a fee, and I'm thinking, "Isn't that what an agent does? Isn't that my job?" I did graduate work in career planning and placement, and I try to bring that experience to bear with the clients I represent. But if I was charging them a fee for that, there's a huge potential for problems. The temptation is to make extra money by selling them more and more services. Any time I refer the authors I represent to some other business I own, it's a huge conflict of interest.

Two readers, Don and Suzie, wrote to ask, "What about speakers bureaus?"

Some of us offer a speakers bureau as part of the literary agency. We do it simply as a service to help authors grow their platform and make some extra money. But there's no fee to work with our speakers bureau. For authors who also speak, the person running the speakers bureau gets a commission, just like a literary agent.

And I've had several publishers talk with me about this, asking, "What do we do if we like an author, but don't want to work with the agent?"

I always say the same thing: Don't say something to the author you wouldn't say to the agent. Publishers aren't dumb — they know a lousy agent when they work with one. But it's not the publisher's job to take the author aside and whisper, "Um…I don't know how to tell you this, but your agent is a moron." Besides, they don't want to be sued for slander. But it would seem reasonable to say, "We think this was done poorly" or "I don't think you understand this process."

I know of two recent cases where a publisher went to an agent with an idea for an author, then the agent sold it to someone else. That should get the agent run out the door. I know of another case where an agent sold the same project to two different publishers, then tried to cover it up by changing one of the titles. If I were a publisher, I don't know that I'd work with that agent again. (And yes, I'd probably tell the author why.)

But I realize this is a slippery slope. Hey, we all make mistakes, and I've made more than my share of them. I've forgotten things. I try not to over-promise or fudge numbers, but I know of times I gave out sales numbers that proved to be inaccurate. I've said stupid things. A while back I co-agented a deal with a friend of mine, but when I turned in the information to Publishers Weekly, I failed to include the other agent's name. I was wrong. It happens. So I make my apologies, and try not to make the same mistake again. Still, there's a difference between making a mistake and intentionally trying to defraud people. Every good agent can do the former; none should be caught doing the latter.

And finally, a couple folks wrote to ask, "Is there an association of Christian literary agents?"

No, there isn't. Rick Christian and Sealy Yates (two of the originals when it comes to working with CBA authors) talked about starting a group like this years ago, but it never panned out. Recently a couple of authors talked about starting a membership group for CBA agents, but I saw too many problems with the concept (who vets members? who handles disputes? would they really have the balls to kick out a member and risk a lawsuit? and will agents respond to a group formed by authors?). It still may happen, but my guess is if a group is formed, it will be because a bunch of the legit agents decide to form it.

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