A Side Note About Agents

I have said for some time now that using agents is like setting up a roadblock between yourself and the people who actually buy your book in traditional publishing. And if you are silly enough to still have ALL your money and paperwork going directly to an agent, (instead of splitting payments) shame on you. Catch a clue. Bernie Madoff clones are alive and well and living as agents, and more often in the accounting departments of large agencies and overseas agents.

Now, in a court case that came out today where New York Times Bestseller Bill Bryson is suing his agent, there was one paragraph I thought summed up exactly what I have been saying for years now and might help kill the stupid myth among indie writers that they need an agent to sell their books overseas.

“But the suit claims Bryson continued to discover additional lapses, including roughly $27,000 in paid Korean and Thai royalties, as well as finding that various foreign publishers and sub-agents “had been trying to get in touch with Morris for at least two years to purchase rights to various works and were unable to obtain any reply”, with sub-agents in China and Thailand having “essentially given up on reaching Morris.””

The quote is out of the PublishersMarketplace.com report. The full report is worth the read and trust me, it gets much worse than that in the article, including the fact that even though the agent did all this bad stuff, they still want their 15% of everything going forward.

But just the one paragraph I quoted (that claims the agent was not putting through money from overseas sales and not bothering with the “small stuff” of overseas publishers contacting the agent) should be enough to scare anyone with a brain.

Kris and I both have said that eventually these lawsuits against agents would start hitting the public record. Here we go. This won’t be the last.

Again, I repeat. Don’t get into a mess with an agent. They are a roadblock to selling your work in more ways than you can imagine. And if you “trust them” you need to really have a bucket of cold water dumped over your head. To wake you up and bring you into this century. Looks like Bill Bryson just had that bucket of water poured over his head for an agent he “trusted.”

Send your work directly to editors, no matter which country they are in. It really is that simple.

Keep control of your own career. Period.

Agents are no longer needed in this new world of publishing for most writers. Sorry agents, but it is a fact. And some of you know it.

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63 Responses to A Side Note About Agents

  1. I’ve posted that Courthouse News link about this case to a private e-list. The very first person to comment, a longtime pro writer with many books published over 20-30 years, immediately noted (exactly as I did on this blog the other day) having also had every single one of those problems with agents over the years (and, like me, this writer has ceased using literary agents–and has a very busy writing/publishing schedule these days).

    Bryson (bless him!) is suing over SHOCKINGLY =COMMON= and WIDEPSPREAD agent practices (or, rather, mispractices–malpractices?…. stuff). No, not every agent behaves this way. The problem is that MANY of them do–and there is no resource whatsoever for this! Every writer has to deal with the problem individually, because there is no oversight, no licensing, no supervisory board, no qualifications, nothing whatsoever you can DO to an agent who’s screwing you over APART FROM SUING them, and there are no established standards of any kind AT ALL protecting writers from these practices–and from practices much worse than these. Complaints to the toothless AAR are (as experience has taught me and many of my colleagues) utterly useless. It’s just a social club, and the inmates are in charge of the club.

    Bryson’s case is important because the judge’s written opinion in his/her ruling (and the appelant judge’s opinion, if there’s an appeal) could finally start establishing some clear parameters, rights, and violations according to legal precedent.

    • dwsmith says:

      This would be wonderful if this actually goes all the way to a ruling. If I were other agents, I would be SCARED TO DEATH of that happening in more ways than one.

      As Laura said, and I think I have said over and over, the stuff Bryson is suing over is SHOCKINGLY COMMON. All of it has happened in many cases to me and Kris over the years. The fact that he is suing shows how really, really stupid his agent was to not settle instantly. Many agents under threat of suit over theft and such settle with a non-disclose agreement that neither party can talk about it. I personally know of more than a dozen of those settlements.

      I find this wonderful that an agent let this get so far down the road and Bryson is taking this problem to court. It is about damn time.

      I have no illusion that this will break the myth of “Need an agent to get published” because beginning writers believe that no matter how many people say this will happen, IT WON’T HAPPEN TO THEM. Yup, I really got to start selling that bridge.

      • “This would be wonderful if this actually goes all the way to a ruling. If I were other agents, I would be SCARED TO DEATH of that happening in more ways than one.”

        In all honesty, after years of exposure to agents, whether my own former agents or agents whom fed-up clients and ex-clients tell me about, I think the agents most likely to be affected in the long run by an intelligent ruling on Bryson’s case–i.e. agents (and there are plenty of them) with practices similar to the ones described in the lawsuit–are also the ones least likely to recognize the ramifications of this case and least likely to believe it could possibly affect THEM or mean THEY need to manage their clients’ business with more ethical and professional business standards if they don’t want legal trouble.

      • C. R. Reaves says:

        You said: I have no illusion that this will break the myth of “Need an agent to get published” because beginning writers believe that no matter how many people say this will happen, IT WON’T HAPPEN TO THEM.

        I think you’re being too kind, sir. You’re assuming that the average newbie writer even hears about it. They’re too busy searching for information on, “How many times should you edit before sending your MS to an agent or publisher?” and “How to get the attention of an agent?” and maybe even “Best conventions to meet an agent or editor.”

        A lot of newbie writers I’ve spoken to have no idea of what they’re getting into. None. And seem to express mild bemusement at the idea that they ought to research all avenues. I think I can say that many of them sort of balked at the idea of even doing that when I provided links to get them started in asking themselves questions.

        And a year ago, I was in a similar boat. I had passively gathered information on publishing over the years, so I knew breaking into novels was going to be difficult and I was too intimidated to try. But I came across information about short stories and finally around November last year decided to take writing seriously. So I spent a few months gathering sources of information on short story markets. I knew enough to check closely to make sure my stories weren’t going to “walk off” or be edited to be the editor’s story and so forth. I knew the average going rate for payments for short stories. I knew that I didn’t need an agent for short story submissions, so I wasn’t looking for one.

        But I didn’t know that self-publishing was a viable outlet until January. And by finding that information, it lead me to dump my pursuit of short stories and start really educating myself on publishing. The sources I’d had up until then barely hinted at the pitfalls one could get into if you were uneducated. And I’m generally of the cautious sort, so I was paying attention. Those with more stars in their eyes might not even notice. And some of those starry-eyed newbies can get cranky when you try to helpfully knock a few out so they can see.

    • Josh says:

      Even if there were a licensing board for agents, it really wouldn’t change much. Lawyers, CPAs and other licensed professions/jobs don’t get scrutiny until their malfeasance has risen to level where they are being sued.

      A licensing board can suspend a license, and they may be able to fine the guy, but often they don’t have any power to order the guy to give restitution. And even if they could order restitution, the guy is probably broke–he took the authors’ money for a reason.

      • C.E. Petit says:

        I think Josh means “too often the regulatory authorities don’t give scrutiny until malfeasance has risen to a level where they are being sued.” Granted. The professional regulation system sucks; it’s bureaucratic and overconcerned with some kinds of conduct (e.g., lawyers can’t use the word “specialist” in describing what kind of law they practice unless they’re patent or admiralty lawyers) that go to image and not substance.

        Nonetheless, it’s better than the alternative of unregulated people having those same powers. At least lawyers, etc. get a criminal background check before being licensed!

        • Marc Cabot says:

          There’s that, and there’s the fact what while we could do much better policing our own in many fields we do at least enforce the rules about claiming to be a licensed professional with some strictness. That’s at least as important, frankly. If there was some kind of professional certification for agents you could check to see if they even had it in the first place, be it never so low a hurdle. And anybody who lied about it, you’d know to run run run from.

  2. Eliza Tilton says:

    Blunt and to the point. I like it.

  3. ” various foreign publishers and sub-agents “had been trying to get in touch with Morris for at least two years to purchase rights to various works and were unable to obtain any reply”

    And, btw, this specific problem–an agent blocking sales through sheer inertia–is AMAZINGLY common. I wouldn’t have to write for a living if I had a dollar for every editor who told me a story like this, or every writer who told me about hearing from an editor (sometimes their OWN editor, with an OPTION proposal on the table!) saying, “I’ve been trying and trying and trying to reach you through you agent, and I can’t.” Or, “I’ve made an offer and can’t get a response from your agent.” Or: “I’ve never received that MS from your agent that you and I discussed and which I really want to see, though I’ve asked your agent for it several times.”

    Or: “I met with your agent to tell him how much I love your work and want to acquire you… He didn’t tell you?” [That one happened to me.]

    Or: “I made an offer on this book, and your agent told me it was crap and actively tried to talk me out of buying it, going so far as ‘refusing’ to sell it to me.” [This one ALSO happened to me. I later learned from other editors that this agent had a HABIT of doing this to clients–and then going to the client, as was the case with me, and claiming “I fought for you” but claiming the editor didn’t really want the book or wasn’t that serious, etc.]

    Or: You discover upon asking after a MS you thought had been in submission for months that, um, the agent never sent it out–and never bnothered to TELL you he never sent it out. [This happened to me with yet another of my agents. It happens to a lot of people. I have friends who, after their agent has left an agency, received back submission packages they sent their agent, which the agent told them had been “rejected everywhere,” wherein the author’s original package to the agent is still SEALED (was never even opened, read, or submitted, let alone “rejected everywhere”) and has been sitting under a chair for two years. This also happens when an agent gets a new assistant who decides to tidy up, or when an agency redecorates or moves office. And so on.)

    No, of course not all agents behave this way. But PREVENTING writers from earning income (as quoted above in Bryson’s case, where foreign publishers were TRYING to make offers and the agent ignored them until they gave up) is an AMAZINGLY common and widespread problem among agents. No, I don’t know why any individual agent does this. I assert that the reason the problem is so widespread, though, is that there is absolutely NOTHING preventing them from engaging in this sort of costly, idiotic, unprofitable, counter-productive, unbusinesslike, dishonest behavior, and essentially no resource whatsoever for them doing this.

    Wouldn’t it be great is the judge’s ruling on Bryson’s case starts changing that?

  4. ProfessorTom says:

    Why no link to the report that you cited?

  5. I am constantly in awe as to how much crap authors put up with from their agents. I have several friends who just seem to have constant issues, either their agents aren’t being honest, or aren’t representing them in the best way, are being snarky toward them and treating them like kindergartners, not “allowing” the writer to even ask questions about their methods, freaking out when the writer does something without their approval…and yet, I don’t go a week without someone (one of them!) asking me, “When are you going to start querying agents?”

    Dean, what you’ve said here, and also in your last post about 2013, makes such sense to me. I hope I can continue to have the guts to stand on my own and do what I think is right for my career. It’s a rough world out there, and I am thankful that this blog is here to sort of provide a beacon every now and then. It’s like my sanity check ;).

    • RD Meyer says:

      That’s because most writers are so desperate to get published that they’ll fall all over themselves to be the next schmuck. Most won’t get it until they’ve been beaten senseless. For this reason, there are always more who are willing to be taken advantage of than those who won’t tolerate it.

      Agents seem now to work for publishers, not writers. Actually, they work for themselves, but cozying up to a publisher is an easier way to stay connected and make money than to truly represent their supposed clients.

      • “That’s because most writers are so desperate to get published that they’ll fall all over themselves to be the next schmuck. ”

        That’s absolutely true, RD–but there’s also a lot more to it than that. The exact problems and behaviors in Bryson’s lawsuit and the exact problems and behaviors (all too familiar!) in Melanie’s comment above occur at ALL levels of the profession, not JUST among agents in their relations with aspiring writers.

        Award-winning and bestselling authors (and Bryson’s a good example of this, obviously) also have these problems with agent. Midlist career writers REGULARLY have these problems with agents.

        And writers at every level of the profession PUT UP with this stuff. I look back now and am amazed, baffled, bemused, and appalled at the REPEATED CRAP I put up with for years.

        What’s bemusing and bizarre is not so much that hungry aspiring writers who don’t know the business and have no accomplishments in the field will put up with anything from a literary agent, given the idiotic myths that turns agents into popes and rock stars in their eyes. What makes no sense is why people like me (I was a full-time writer with 8 book sales by the time I hired my –first- agent)… or, indeed, people like BRYSON, an international bestseller!, put up with this crap as long as we did.

        Certainly one thing that –I- fell for, and which many, many, many other writers fell for was my agents telling me over and over, “It’s not me, it’s YOU—YOU are the problem here.” And I (forehead slap!) BELIEVED them. I also believed their position that all other clients were content and I was the ONLY problem at the agency.

        I benefitted from knowing a lot of writers, which is how I learned that my problems with my own agents were (a) problems that various other clients and ex-clients had with them and (b) lots of other writers had problems with lots of other agents, too… and (c) there was a long list of very similar problems and identical bad behaviors which were VERY WIDESPREAD in the agenting profession.

        And in the past 2-3 years, I think the internet is making a positive difference in this matter for a lot of writers, as is the rise of small presses and self-publishing. Because, FINALLY, the misbehaviors of agents are more and more prone to EXPOSURE (which rarely used to happen), thanks to social media. Meanwhile, an agent’s role in a writer’s career has also come under serious scrutiny for the first time in decades (as opposed to the erroneous blanket assumption, widely accepted for years by everyone—including ME—that you “have to” have an agent to develop a good writing career) thanks to the dramatically changing market.

        • dwsmith says:


          Thanks for all the fantastic comments. Wonderful stuff.

          And folks, as Laura admitted, I too was no exception to some of this head-smacking behavior on my part. I sat in the publisher chair, I saw how agents dealt with writers and publishers, but yet when I went back to full-time writing I just went right on. I knew business, I knew the stupidity of giving an agent all my money and all my paperwork, yet I went right on doing it. And the stories I had about agents from the publisher’s chair are far, far worse than what you are hearing now, trust me. Yet I, for some reason, when I turned on my “writer brain” just assumed it wasn’t going to be MY AGENT, but all those others that acted that way.

          Nope. As Laura pointed out in one post, there are some good agents. But the entire system is so flawed, so ugly at the moment as to be flat sad.

          And not needed. But convincing a “writer brain” to wake up and actually look around is something I have yet to figure out how to do. And when I look back at what I put up with, and what Kris put up with over the years when we could have walked, I shake my head at the non-thinking assumption that we needed an agent.

          As I have said over and over, we are making far more money, more deals, more overseas sales, more Hollywood options now that we don’t have agents than we ever did with agents. How much money did we miss in deals because we felt we HAD to give someone 15% of all our income, all our income first, and all our paperwork.

          Sigh, learning and knowledge comes hard at times. Really hard and really expensive.

    • Frank says:

      The beat-down starts when you contact the agent. They ask you to justify why they should deign to take you as a client.
      “Are you good looking? Are you willing to change everything in your manuscript?”
      Heaven forbid a writer should ask an agent for her qualifications.
      Who do you represent?
      “I can’t disclose that.”
      How many deals have you done in the last year?
      “Why, I never!”
      Once you’ve accepted your place in the end of the slop line, waiting on the Dread Agent Robert’s mercy, the cheating and stealing are easy.

      • These are good points, Frank.

        In fact, I know a hc NYT bestseller whose agent decided NOT to keep working with this writer. (Long, complicated, private story about which I have my own opinions, but the short, impartial version is that the agent felt they were no longer a good fit professionally, though they remained on very cordial terms.) And the writer always describes is as, “My agent fired me.”

        Now, er, who pays WHOM, again? In fact, given the income of multiple hardcover bestsellers (and related subrights), the agent’s 15% of the author’s income amounted to a very large sum during their years together. Moreover, the author, who went on to another agency after that, continued writing more bestsellers, so whatever assistance or influence that previous agent had in building the writer’s career, clearly the WRITER’S WORK is the key component of her success, not her representation. (As is clearly the case with Bryson, too, who’s a big success despite the disastrous agenting practices described in his lawsuit.)

        Yet even THIS writer describes the agent as having “fired me.”

        So is it any WONDER that when you go to hire an agent, just as you note in your comments, they behave as if THEY are doing the hiring?

        • RD Meyer says:

          “So is it any WONDER that when you go to hire an agent, just as you note in your comments, they behave as if THEY are doing the hiring?”

          This is the basic problem with agents – they are selecting a client instead of remembering who exactly pays who. Too many agents view it as they are giving you the privilege of their company, and you’re lucky to have them. And they view comments like this as “Those ignorant rubes…pshaw!”

          Unfortunately, it will take a massive exodus to impact that attitude, and as I stated before, too many others are willing to let themselves get steamrolled. That’s why agents can have the attitude they do.

          • dwsmith says:

            RD, interestingly enough, it’s not going to take a massive exodus of writers from agents. Just a minor one, and that’s happening. Remember, the honest agents must earn their overhead and all expenses on 15% of what an author makes. And they can handle about 30-60 writers at most. Most of those writers are one book writers making a tiny amount per year. Agents tend to make most of their income off of 2-5 writers income.

            And now with traditional publishing cutting advances over the last few years, making it harder to buy books, and editors finding books from other sources like meeting writers at conferences and having writers send them stories directly, the agents are hurting bad. This is also why the theft aspect is on the rise. We are seeing almost every day agencies combining, and smaller agents are just vanishing, sometimes closing down quietly, sometimes not. And agents in a panic are becoming publishers themselves, really breaking more agency laws than I care to think about in their panic to keep the doors open.

            We are in the transition and it’s not because of a mass exodus, it’s because slowly, writers are taking back the control they gave away over a few decades of time. Indie publishing is helping, really stupid practices and contracts by traditional publishing is helping as well. And now idiots like this agent who made the news is also helping spread the word. Thankfully, things are slowly changing. Slow is the word, but there is movement.

            Sometimes when there is water all around, you don’t realize you are actually in a wave.

          • I agree with Dean–I’ve seen an interesting shift in the past year or two. When I quit working with agents about 6 years ago, almost everyone who knew about this–since I spoke and wrote about it openly–always either dismissed me as a loony crank, or as an anomaly that couldn’t possibly be emulated, and so on.

            Now, what with agents spending the past 5 years (a) refusing to send out clients’ work, so a client had no choice but to fire them if she wanted to keep selling books and earning, (b) dropping clients, (c) declining to take on clients, or taking them on then dropping them or refusing to send out their work, (d) seeing their commissions do down as advance go down while they are simultaneous LOSING clients and NOT sending out current clients’ submissions (so, no income), (e) having to work much harder to get a sale, and therefore not getting those sales (since many agents won’t put in the necessary work to place a book with the right editor), and (f) seeing a lot of writing income bypass them due to the self-publishing revolution (so agency clients are making good money from their backlists WITHOUT involving the agent, who earns nothing while writers pay their mortgages with those ventures), etc., etc…

            Many writers who used to say “you HAVE TO have an agent” are changing their tune, doing work that does not involve their agent, deciding NOT to hire yet another agent after the most-recent one =also= failed her (one pro-writer org did a survey in the 1990s and found that the average member had already run through 3-6 agents), and saying things like “agents need to clarify what they bring to the table in this new market,” etc.

            Similarly, we’ve been seeing agent blogs all year in which agents =are= attempting to clarify what they bring to the table, i.e. struggling to justify the long-established way they do business and to rationalize their long-established share (15%) of a writer’s earnings in a rapidly changing market where more and more people are noticing that those old answers no longer work well. We’re also seeing more and more people point out in public that those answers don’t work anymore and, indeed, don’t satisfy or even address a LOT of new questions and scenarios that now apply.

            And in one notable instance, an intelligent agent at a conference hosted by all-pro writers recently was in session with another agent (a very prominent one) who… apparently let it all hang out and got enraged by the suggestion that being an agent did not, after all, make one a rock star or His Holiness the Dalai Lama and spent the time ineptly belittling accomplished career writers who had questions about the role of agents in this changing world. The younger agent blogged about the incident here:


  6. Kort says:

    And this is why I get the hives every time my aunt offers to introduce me to her agent. When I heard what kind of “deal” he got her for her first fiction project, I started sending her links to your blog. She then started writing about the evils of self-publishing. I really, really hope she reads about this.

    • dwsmith says:

      Kort, convincing a “true believer in the agent myth” is impossible, even with facts. Best you can do is just let them go and try not to say, “I told you so,” when the agent kills their career or rips them off. Although, if they are a true believer, they will never even notice their career has stopped. I’ve watched that more times than I care to think about.

      • “Kort, convincing a “true believer in the agent myth” is impossible, even with facts.”

        Indeed. Numerous studies have concluded that when you present someone with facts, a surprisingly large percentage of people, rather than adjusting their views on the basis of new information, just get angry and defensive, dig in, and cling to their original belief even more fervently than before.

        • JF Brown says:

          Laura, Dean, et al,

          LOL! Just learned a new word this week while perusing the Oxford Companion to the English Language:

          MUMPSIMUS — a traditional notion that is obstinately held although it is unreasonable.

        • Talk show host Bruce William used to quote this verse:

          “A man convinced against his will
          Is of the same opinion still.”

          People don’t like being proven wrong.

          • dwsmith says:

            Agree, Martin.

            But a lot of this is just the fact that publishing looks scary and people are afraid to “make mistakes” so instead of just slowly learning the business and taking some chances, they default to “someone to take care of me” not understanding that “taking care of me” has a completely different meaning than one they are thinking of.

          • dwsmith says:

            I’m going to say something here from the publishing side of the planet. Remember, I used to work on that side of the desk and actually I am starting to do so again with Fiction River.

            From the publisher’s side of the coin, this guideline of “no unagented submissions” is perfect. It keeps away all the people they don’t want to have to deal with, all the one-book authors, all the writers unwilling to learn, all the ones that find writing only a hobby. It keeps all of them away, which means that guideline works. Completely.

            Publishers know and have always known that writers who are driven, who are learning, who really want to be published, will find a way around or through or over the block without an issue.

            So the guideline is a good business plan from the publisher’s part. It save them money by outsourcing their slush to agents and they know one way or another they will see most of the good stuff from the good writers, either directly to editors by writers just taking a chance, or through an agent, or in indie publishing.

            As I said. I have never had anything against agents or publishers. I have a horrid problem with writers being stupid. And that’s all I ever talk about here.

  7. Zelah Meyer says:

    I am a little in awe of the craziness of not settling this one immediately. Bryson is a big name author – at least in the UK. His books are auto-buy titles for a lot of people I know.

  8. Kat says:

    I would love to see my books published in other languages. Is it really as simple as querying a German / Thai / French editor? Do I need the book already translated for them?

    • dwsmith says:

      Kat, heaven’s no. They do the translations. You work with them in English, send them an English manuscript. And often they come to you because they see your already published English language book and want to translate it. You don’t do any of that. They pay you money and do it all. Nifty, huh?

  9. Mac says:

    Or: “I made an offer on this book, and your agent told me it was crap and actively tried to talk me out of buying it, going so far as ‘refusing’ to sell it to me.” [This one ALSO happened to me. I later learned from other editors that this agent had a HABIT of doing this to clients–and then going to the client, as was the case with me, and claiming “I fought for you” but claiming the editor didn’t really want the book or wasn’t that serious, etc.]

    But… but what POSSIBLE benefit could an agent derive from this? What sort of brain process would make a person act so much against their own self interest? Why would an agent work against their client so blatantly? Please tell me you got an explanation, this is something that needs to be explored in *somebody’s* book.

    • dwsmith says:

      Mac, I’ve seen even worse. And looking for logic is impossible because good business practices and logic just flat don’t work in traditional publishing.

    • Another client with a similar, competing novel is a (semi-)rational explanation. Whether it has a rational explanation or not is open to question. What rational explanation is there for telling a client that you’re shopping a novel that you haven’t even opened? Laziness maybe. Too much going on. Who knows, but these things still happen.

    • As Dean notes, there is no LOGIC involved.

      In terms of Bryson’s complaint–a VERY common and widespread problem–of the agent simply ignoring offers and queries (ex. from foreign publishers that wanted to acquire foreign subrights to publish Bryson’s work in their countries)… That’s usually just sheer laziness or incompetence. The world is full of people who don’t do what they say they’ll do and don’t do what they’re obliged or supposed to do… and a high percentage of agents fall under that heading.

      But agents are individuals, and just as some individual agents can be very ethical, hardworking, and committed (I saw a brief story after Hurricane Sandy about a literary agent who walked from Brooklyn to Manhattan as soon as he could after the storm, when nothing was running or working yet, so that he could issue checks to clients in a timely fashion), there are others whose actions are often guided primarily by malice, ego, control-freakism, an addiction to Schadenfreude, authoritarianism, or whatever.

      In my case, one of my former agents was (I subsequently learned from experience and from the experiences of others) a vindictive control freak who wanted to teach me (and, it turned out over time, other clients, too) “a lesson.” The deliberatedly sabotaged deals and never-relayed interest from editors that I later learned about were, in every instance I heard of first-hand (there were 4 such instances with this agent, not all of them involving me, which editors have told me about over the years), offers (or interest) that writers and/or editors generated, rather than being the AGENT’S strategy, and/or they were (in my case certainly) based on projects the agent had declared unsaleable or “not worth my time” or not within the agent’s own interest areas.

      The agent, presumably due to being a vindictive control freak (since this was indeed illogically counter-productive and damaging behavior), wasn’t interested in 15% of those deals (or in the clients’ career happiness, artistic well-being, or increased income from additional deals) NEARLY =as much= as the agent was interested in “proving” the client wrong (and “proving” the agent “right”) by sabotaging a deal which wasn’t under the agent’s control, or originated through the agent’s efforts, or within the framework of what the agent had encouraged/advised the client to work on. Concluding those deals was (it would seem) not nearly as satisfying to the agent as the prospect of saying to the client, “I told you so. Maybe you’ll listen to me from now on, now that you’ve been SO wrong about the viability of this project/deal/relationship, and I was so right.”

    • Marc Cabot says:

      It’s cheaper than Viagra.

    • Daniela says:

      Some kind of cultural bias might also play into this. Some people don’t want to deal with people who’s grasp of the language they communicate in isn’t 100%. In this case it would be English. Maybe they don’t want to deal with someone who isn’t fluent in English.

      I’ve seen this happen (not in publishing but in other business-areas) and not only involving English but also other languages. Some people can be really weird about talking/dealing with a non-native speaker. On one case I even had someone hang up on me because we didn’t have a native speaker of his language working in the company (but several people who spoke the language and at least one who was fluent in the language).

    • Oh, and another reason I’ve heard–multiple times, in my own experience and the experience of writers who’ve had this problem–is agents neglecting to convey offers or interest from an editor, or sabotaging a deal… Because the agent doesn’t like the editor and doesn’t want to deal with that person.

      It is truly gob-smacking how often I’ve heard of this happening–specific instances of agents blockading or sabotaging deals and editor-author relationships because the AGENT didn’t like the editor. I’ve even heard first-hand, multiple times, of this occurring in instances where they agent comes on board in an editor-author relationship that’s already established–one wherein ALL the agent has to do, to start collecting 15% of the income from an existing editor-author relationship that’s functioning well and likely to keep producing more income… is NOT SCREW UP. But because the agent and editor aren’t best pals, and the agent doesn’t feel immediate “sympatico” with the editor… the agent sabotages it so the agent can take the author away and place her with an editor who IS the agent’s pal.

      (blink) (cough) (gag)

      Where this gets discovered and all comes out in the wash is the all-too-common scenarios where, having done this, the agent then discovers his one or two pals in the biz reject the author’s next project. The agent then loses interest in the author, won’t send out her work, gets bitchy and twitchy with the author, slow to respond to emails, VERY slow to read new proposals, extremely recalitrant about sending out the author’s work anymore, etc. After several years of concealing this mess and telling people how “wonderful” her agent is, blah blah blah… the author finally looks at her ruined career and empty bank account… And, sooner or later, winds up leaving the agent. At some point, the author reconnects with the editor who’d been buying and publishing her books steadily before she hired the agent… and THAT’S when she finds out that the agent did any or all of the following without her knowledge: (a) Did not convey the editor’s option offer to the writer and lied about there being no offer; (b) lied to the editor, claiming the writer was unhappy and wanted to leave the house, so don’t even bother making an option author; (c) lied to the writer, claiming the editor didn’t want to keep acquiring her books, so let’s not press about the option, etc.; (d) was so difficult to deal with, no rude and uncommunicative, that when the option propsal the author had written never showed up, the editor decided not to pursue the matter, and the agent simply took the author elsewhere (with a legaly unfulfilled option remaining open at that house). And so on.

      All because… the agent didn’t personally hit it off with or become best pals with the author’s editor. Or the agent had 1-2-3 buddies he prefers working with and tries to steer all writers to them (and tends to abandon any client whom those editors don’t want). Etc.

      No, this is not how ALL agents behave. But it is how far too many of them do behave in (wait for it!) business.

      • dwsmith says:

        Laura, sadly, I also have seen and heard of this far more times than I want to remember. A writer working with an editor, hires an agent who hates the editor, and the agent proceeds to kill any future deals. It stuns me every time I hear of it.

        A very close friend of mine had a great working relationship with an editor, but the agent and editor did not get along, so the agent flat lied about sending manuscripts to the editor. So after a couple of years the editor thought the writer was mad. Writer finally heard this, had to have a lunch with the editor, and flat apologize for the agent’s behavior.

        Again, gang, I can see little or no reason why anyone in 2012 needs an agent to do business in traditional publishing. In 1985, sure, but in 2012, nope.

  10. Ann says:

    One of the articles said he went with a new agent. What do you make of the fact that he’s still trusting agents? Another article said he sort of got stuck with this particular agent who he is suing, Morris. His actual agent was Jed Mattes, then when Jed Mattes passed away in 2003, this Morris took over his account. Bryson at that point went with a new agent for his current stuff, letting Morris handle the books with the Jed Mattes agency. He probably had no choice at that point.

    So it’s also a cautionary tale about what happens if a good agent who you trust dies and your books fall into the hands of someone you don’t know.

    • “So it’s also a cautionary tale about what happens if a good agent who you trust dies and your books fall into the hands of someone you don’t know.”

      It sure is. And only one of many such sobering accounts. One of the many ways in which the whole agenting system is the Wild Wild West is how many ltierary agents don’t have any sane system in place (and, indeed, in many cases, absolutely nothing arranged at all) for what happens to their clients’ business when they die. It can wind up legally under the auspices of heirs who know absolutely nothing about publishing or agenting, but who are legally entitled to continue handling all the clients’ money, fiscal paperwork, and legal documents–and sorting that out becomes extremely time consuming for the WRITERS, then.

    • Daniela says:

      You know in this situation i.e. in case of death I would expect to re-negotiate the contract or have an out of the contract.

      • dwsmith says:

        Daniela, and you would be thinking correctly and logically for business. But remember, logic and good business do not apply to publishing and especially to writers when it comes to agents. If it did, none of this situation would be happening.

      • Fiona Druce says:

        Actually, it just may have been the “Assignment” portion of the agreement. I was researching information and recommendations from lawyers experienced in the writing industry, and found one that mentioned a number of agencies have a clause in the Agent-Author contract stating an agent may transfer assignment of the writer to someone else in the agency (or similar) if the agent is no longer capable of handling the author for whatever reason (some specified reasons or any reason, depending on the contract).

        Obviously, this stipulation is beyond ridiculous, but sometimes it’s there.

  11. Nelson says:

    More good points, Dean. Listen to him, folks. I too was taken by the “have to have an agent to get anything done in writing” meme. Not true.

  12. Great post. I totally agree. I completely dumped the idea of an agent a while ago. I really wish that we as writers or the foreign publishers could create a system to streamline connections/submissions. Over a year ago I spent the summer working through foreign publishers but found it difficult to find a lot of contact information, even though I’m fluent in German and speak French and Spanish, as well as am literate in related languages. The work was tedious and the results not so great. Also, it could be I hadn’t sold as many copies as I now have…maybe offering up those stats would help.

  13. Rob Lons says:

    I totally agree. In this day and age, writers – and anyone for that matter – should have a solid grasp on every facet of their business. And, as a writer, whether you want to admit it or not, you are a business. You are marketing a product, so you should understand how the marketplace works. Besides, tackling your own marketing can be fun and rewarding. Plus, more money goes in your pocket. Blogging, social media, online networking… these are all methods to pursue in your search to get your book noticed. Great post!

  14. C.E. Petit says:

    Two comments:

    (1) This nonsense is possible only because commercial publishers keep up the “no agented submissions” nonsense. If/when publishers no longer outsource gatekeeping, the scope of this problem will diminish.

    (2) Just as with almost every other aspect of copyright law, this particular problem — and more than just this particular incident — comes from a transfer of interests. If I understand things correctly, Mr Bryson’s problems did not begin until after his original agent died and the agency became treated as property. Our Gracious Host can probably name half a dozen agencies that have become similarly unsatisfactory after such a transaction. I’ll let him go first; I can name half a dozen different ones, two of which are very prominent indeed.

    This is what happens when licenses and management of licenses get treated as ownership interests; the history of land (mis)use with oil and mineral rights is just one example. Meanwhile, the actual owners end up with little or nothing.

    • dwsmith says:

      C.E., I agree. There have been three or four in just the last few years. Another very, very clear reason to not have your property (copyright/books) mixed up in an agency.

  15. John David Payne says:

    Probably a stupid question, but has anyone ever tried representing themselves as their own agent? Like, writing under one name and then using another name for the agent? Probably a dumb idea, but I thought if there really are editors who won’t look at an unagented submission, why not just do this? Being an agent apparently has absolutely no qualifications, and is completely unregulated, after all.

    • dwsmith says:

      Why not just send the manuscript directly to the editor, John. As I have said over and over and over, that “no unagented rule” is just a road block for those too uniformed to go around it. I used to laugh when writers in the old days would come up to me and ask, “But if the rule is that I can’t send a manuscript unless it is “solicited” then how do I get it “solicited.” I would just say then as I say now. MAIL IT TO THEM.

      One hundred plus books, folks. That’s how many I have sold to about a dozen major imprints. NOT A ONE WAS SOLD BY AN AGENT. Not one.

      And, oh, yeah, I was a beginning writer when I started out as well. Still didn’t need an agent.

      • Glynn James says:

        Mail it to who ? How?
        I can find names on publisher’s marketplace,
        But a postal address or email address?
        The gates still look closed to me.

        • dwsmith says:

          Glynn, editors e-mails and mailing addresses are all on PublishersMarketplace.com. You have to subscribe and then search it through past deals and such. It takes a little time to learn their search, but once you get the hang of it, you can tell which editors at what imprints are buying what kind of book.

    • “robably a stupid question, but has anyone ever tried representing themselves as their own agent? Like, writing under one name and then using another name for the agent? Probably a dumb idea, but I thought if there really are editors who won’t look at an unagented submission, why not just do this?”

      I think I remember one person I met somewhere a few years ago telling me they had tried it, but I’ve never heard of anyone succeeding (selling books) that way. For a number of reasons.

      A key one is, when editors don’t know the agent submitting the project, it goes into slush. This turns out to be true not just for “new” and “baby” agents (as one of my editors referred to the agents who got sent to slush), but also for established agents who, as it happens, aren’t known to the editor–or who aren’t known to the low-level functionary who sorts incoming submissions). It’s also the common fate of submissions represented by established agents who just aren’t known to the editor or the program because they have not established relationships there, so their names probably aren’t recognized or familiar there. (Agents can avoid this fate by phoning to introduce themselves personally to the editor and discuss the submission they’re about to send, but it’s AMAZING how MANY of them refuse to do so. And so their submissions go into slush when submitting to editors or programs where they have not ALREADY established a relationship.)

      So someone submitting under an invented agent/agency name would just go into slush anyhow… so why bother? Especially since, if they happen to read your MS and like it… it could turn out to be a dealbreaker for them. You won’t be able to hide for long that you and the “agent” are the same person. (No, they probably won’t think your ploy was innovative and problem-solving. They’ll probably think it was odd and a little dishonest and made them look dumb when they spoke with your fake persona about you; and this will have a bad effect on their previous interest in working with you.)

      Also, unnecessary. There are still plenty of editors that won’t look at unagented submissions, but there aren’t any GOOD ones who won’t. The sort of person who genuinely won’t look at an unagented submission is the sort of lazy, useless, no-talent, pencil-pusher who can’t do anything for your work or career anyhow, so who cares if they won’t read your MS? This is so whether or not “no unagented submissions” is a stated policy of the company.

  16. Edwin Mason says:

    If Bryson’s agent is convicted, as he is led off in handcuffs new writers will prostrate themselves before him begging to be taken as a client. In prison writers will query him, offering 15%, 20%, 85%, a carton of cigarettes, anything, to be taken as a client!

    I am currently engaged in an online argument with people spouting every single myth. “Agents are trained, agents are licensed, agents are ordained by the Big Five and a Half! If you stick to the big agencies you can’t go wrong. IP lawyers cost $400,000 an hour.” Half of them would take Sydney T. Cat in a second.

    Sorry for the rant. One of those days.

  17. Larry says:

    I’m coming at this from the film world. My agents have not directly helped me earn a dime. Every penny I made, was through my own contacts. Sadly, I forgot this lesson and was jumping for joy when I landed a big NY lit agent, who had her “rules” for who she would and would not submit to.

    • Larry, similar to what you’re saying: I’ve never worked in film, but a writer I know who’s made quite a bit of money from films has never used an agent out there, just works through contacts and then uses a lawyer to negotiate the contracts. This writer says that whether or not you have an agent in Hollywood, you MUST have a Hollywood lawyer for the contracts–and the writer considers an agent an unnecessary expense out there.

      • dwsmith says:

        Larry and Laura, I agree completely with Laura. Agents are now a waste of time in Hollywood. You need a lawyer down there who knows Hollywood, but not an agent. Hollywood is just a little ahead of book publishing in this shift from agents to lawyers.

  18. C.S. Severe says:

    Wow, this is all bit confusing and disappointing all together. One side says you need agents while other says forget ‘em. I guess in the end you just have to trust your gut and be smart about the business end of your writing.

    • dwsmith says:

      C.S., it is always your career. Just be smart if you decide to use an agent. Split ALL payments and never sign an agency agreement and never let them rewrite you or slow you down in any way. You do that, you might actually figure out something an agent is good for these days. I have no idea what that might be, to be honest, but if you do find something they can help you with, great. But be smart on business and caution on money.

      Never let anyone have all your money and all the paperwork with that money. Just a simple business rule, not an agent rule.

  19. I read this thread, each and every blog, with hypnotic attraction. I long (2-3 years) ago understood that the relationship between lit agent and writer in the United States was bad news, akin to that of the landlord-serf in pre-revolutionary Russia; the slave’s loyalty to the master strong even to the death.

    In the military deception trade, our task was to discern those ‘patterns of conceptual loyalty,’ and screw the beleivers. We were con (wo)men, honored and well-paid.

    The frustrated disbelief (how can they be so stupid!) I detect here is misplaced. First beliefs are way powerfl. Ask any woman who leaves the alcoholic husband (or, of course, vice versa) after twenty years; Ask Jacquelyn Mitchard who (claims) Bernie Madoff left her penniless (heh heh, we Madison neighbors suspect otherwise gossiping over our espressos).

    I reread the DWSmith paragraph admitting his own cupidity even after a life time of bitter experience.

    If you are not introspective, you always have the opportunity to be retrospective. Great thread.

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