On Agents: A Cautionary Tale

Agents aren’t a necessity in today’s publishing world. That’s a truism, but only if you are going indie or looking to publish through those traditional publishers who don’t require an agent to get through the door. Most of the Big 5 and their various imprints do require an agent. So there are still thousands of authors and wannabe authors vying for agents to represent them. So many go into it without understand what an agent can or should do for them or what they, as authors, are giving up for that relationship. Here are a few things to look for.

Let’s start with a must do if you are dealing with agents or publishers. You should follow Victoria Strauss on Twitter. I know, I know. I hate Twitter with a passion. It can be an even worse waste of time than Facebook. However, there are a few folks I do follow there and Strauss is one of them. 

The next thing you should do is keep abreast of industry news. One way of doing that is by following The Passive Voice. You can and will find all aspects of publishing, from writing to booksellers, covered there.

As for agents, research them. Check their credentials. Go to the different author discussion boards and ask for input on an agent. Get a contract. Here are a few examples of agents behaving badly (and this isn’t to say all agents are out to take advantage of you. There are good agents out there. But you need to keep on top of what they are doing and make sure they really are acting in your best interest).

It isn’t unusual for an agent to receive 15% (or whatever the agreement between agent and writer) for the life of copyright. However, it is something that should be detailed in a contract. If not, you wind up in the sort of situation described here. Author Kate Morton fired her agent and is now being sued by the agent for breach of contract, despite there being no written contract between the two. Yes, an oral contract is enforceable. But it is difficult to do so because it really comes down to the court determining who to believe. It is a classic she said-she said situation. In order to avoid being placed in this sort of a situation, and facing huge legal fees as a result, get a contract. If the agent doesn’t want that sort of agreement between you, think long and hard about why before deciding to sign with them.

There are other horror stories. In this one, an employee of a well-known and well-respected agency embezzled over $3 million from the agency. That means from their clients. This is money these clients may never see and, if they do, it won’t be in the amount they should have been paid. How did it happen? Because the agency apparently didn’t have safeguards in place to check what the employee was doing. In fact, when authors contacted the agency about why they weren’t receiving their royalties, they spoke with him, not their agents. Now the agency faces bankruptcy and possible legal action from its clients.

But there’s more. This one comes from The Passive Voice. You can find more at Publishers Weekly. I’ll let you read the details. It all comes down to “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. Add in a dose of “if you keep getting excuses, there’s something wrong”.

How did this agent, and others like her, get away with it? Because authors, especially those going the traditional publishing route, are scared. They are afraid to rock the boat. As the PW article says, “Many of the other authors interviewed for this story echoed Romo’s fears of risking being blacklisted in the industry if they expressed displeasure with Smith.” It is the same sort of fear so many traditionally published authors have when asked why they don’t demand their publishers account for their royalties or face an audit.

Again, these are the exceptions but they should serve as a warning to every author out there looking for or working with an agent. Do not go on faith. Do your homework and remember that, ultimately, you alone are responsible for looking out for your own best interest.

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