Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: All Agents Care About Writers First

I never intended to do so many of the agent myths in a row, but since we’re having such a great conversation, and Laura Resnick brought this one up in the comments on the last one, it makes sense to just go on.

New writers and many professional writers believe that when they hire an agent, the agent has their best interest only in mind. With many modern agents, this is so far wrong, a writer’s interest doesn’t even get in the top three places of focus for some agents.

So said clearly, the myth is: Agents always have their client’s best interests in mind.

But before I start, I want to be clear. Every agent is different. Every agency is different. What I tend to call “old-style” agents do care about their writers. “Old-style” agents know they are an employee of a writer, they work hard doing what the writer wants, and puts the writer first in any relationship.

But the newer “slush-reading agents” as I call them, the ones that most writers deal with early on, are what this myth is about.

And let me be clear on basic employee nature. Of course any employee is doing the job for his or her own reasons. Money, love, challenge, companionship, whatever. All are reasons people take jobs. And becoming an agent is no different. Agents are people and their focus is themselves first, of course, as it is with any employee.

But most places of work for employees have rules of behavior, where during the hours that the employee works, the employer’s needs come to the front and are the focus of the actions of an employee. Just good business.

A clerk in a store helps customers, takes their money, keeps merchandise straight, all for the betterment of employer, so that the employee can make money and keep the job. A waitress in a restaurant follows restaurant rules, serves food in a certain fashion, and works while on the clock for the employer so that she can get paid and help her life move forward.

But, alas, there are no rules for agents. None. The new wave of agents have sort of made up rules for themselves lately, using not their employer’s interest, but instead twisting the job to fit their own interests. Wow, imagine a waitress doing that or a clerk in a store? Yet that’s how agents in writing are functioning now. No rules, no guidelines, nothing to keep them thinking that their employer should come first.

So simple human self-interest and lack of basic rules explain why so much of these myths exist for agents.

For more information and a lot of great discussion, all the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing posts about agents are linked here:

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You must have an agent to sell.

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agents Know Markets

Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Agent Agreements

Please, please, if you have any desire to really understand agents and help your writing career, read all the posts and all the comments. Thanks, Laura Resnick, and everyone who asked questions and made observations and helped in the discussion following those chapters in this crazy book.

In a comment after the last post, Laura Resnick said, “Many agents (perhaps most) see their credibility, their reputations in-house at publishers, and the productivity of their editorial contacts as being based on having a high hit-to-miss ratio with submissions–a high ratio of submissions that the editor likes and makes an offer on.”

I want to really aim an arrow at what Laura pointed out on agent perspectives in her fine comment.

“Slush-reading agents” (meaning the current batch) in sending manuscripts to editors have both a similar and a completely different goal in mind than a writer does.

Similar Goal: Both the writer and the agent want the editor to buy the novel for as much money as possible. Such a sale helps both not only make money, but helps both of their careers.

Different Goal: The writer wants the novel out and seen by as many editors as possible, to give the book the best shot to sell and maybe even get a small auction going. The agent, as Laura points out, wants to make sure to protect the agent’s reputation with an editor, thus wants to limit the number of rejections.

And this difference in goals is where most of the troubles are. Agents who mail things for clients worry more about their own careers and their own value to an editor then they worry about selling a book for a client. In fact, if a book isn’t perfect in this type of agent’s mind, they won’t mail it. Not for fear of hurting their client, but for fear of hurting THEIR (AGENT) reputation.

When an agent asks a writer to rewrite a manuscript, who are they really concerned about? Not the writer, that’s for sure. They are only looking out for their own self-interests. Nothing more.

When an agent asks a writer to rewrite a manuscript, they are actually hurting the writer. Forget for a moment the fact that an agent is not a writer and can’t really give good advice, but look at a rewrite from simple business terms.

1)The work of rewriting slows down any possible cash flow.

2) Rewriting takes writer time that could be used to create a new project.

3) Rewriting on demand of an agent hurts a writer’s personal belief system.

All fantastically negative things to a writer working alone in a room somewhere. So a simple rewrite request from a theoretical employee who is supposed to have the writer’s best interest in mind is fantastically damaging to any writer’s business

And agents do this only because they worry about their own reputation, worry about what editors will think of them. They have no care at all the damage they are doing to their client. “Slush-reading agents” worry more about their own reputation with publishers and editors than they worry about their reputations with the writers who hire them. To them, the attitude is, “If the writer doesn’t like it, they can find a new agent.” (And the writer should, of course.) But the agent’s self-interest are so far above that of thinking about the interest of their boss, the writer, that nothing but damage comes of it.

Why this has happened is a number of reasons. The most often stated is that agents work for more than one writer. So their thinking is that if they have a good reputation among a dozen editors at hitting with manuscripts, those editors will give them extra time and read manuscripts faster. And for the clients of this agent who can get a manuscript through the employee blockage, it sometimes helps. At least with speed of sales, a very minor thing in the overall picture.

But, and there is a huge BUT with the above, the fear and worry about what an editor thinks of the agent’s reputation is very, very bad for a lot of the agent’s clients. The faster acceptance vs. the huge damage to many clients doesn’t equal out.

Who really cares how fast an editor reads a manuscript? In fact, I personally know of a number of projects that editors said to me, “The agent is always in a hurry, setting deadlines for an answer, so I just bounced it since I hadn’t had time to get to it yet.”

Not my projects, thankfully, because I sell my own stuff, but friends. And when the editor said that to me, I just shuddered. A writer’s employee was causing the rejection because they were in a hurry. Yikes!

Anyone who has the slightest clue about what happens in editor’s offices when it comes to the process of buying a book know how long the process can take, and how many different battles an editor must fight. If the editor has some agent pushing at them, why should they drop everything and fight what that agent wants them to fight? They don’t. Mostly they just bounce the book.

So instead of pushing your agent to get an answer from some poor editor, why not push your agent to get the book project out on five more editor’s desks???? Give the editors time. And if you hire an agent to speed up the process of rejection, wow are you in the wrong business. Catch a clue. Your goal is to sell books. Give editors time to work. Put your manuscript on five to ten editor’s desks and then write the next project.

In fact, I have a term I use. It’s called “Irons in the Fire.” When a project gets sent out, or I get called on a possible future project by an editor, I think of it as just another Iron in the Fire and I forget it. I never think it will actually become real, and I never wait for anything. When they call with a real offer of money and terms, then it is real and not one moment before.

So my goal is to get as many Irons in the Fire as I can. I have had Irons in the Fire suddenly become a real paying project years down the road.

But agents, especially the modern “slush-reading” ones, have the idea that you should only focus in one place at a time, one book at a time, go slow, write only the same type of book book after book. After a first novel SALE, this might be good advice for a year or two, but for most of your career, it’s awful advice. So why do agents give it to you? Back to their focus on what editors think instead of their client writers.

That’s right. Your employee is telling you what to write so that they can please an editor. (Remember, editors work for publishers, the corporation you will depend on the agent to get a good contract from. See the problems forming?)

Editors have to treat a book in a sort of book-as-event manner, since it takes so much for them to buy a book. And they want that author giving that book their focus. But wow, if you write 500 words a day, one book a year publishing pace in many genres is way too slow for you by half. But your agent, because of their focus on what the editor wants instead of what you want, will tell you to slow down or just not write.

And if you slow down, write fewer books, you will make less money because you have less product. Worst advice an agent can give, has nothing to do with the well-being of a writer, and yet agent after agent after agent gives this stupid advice.

Slow down is the flat worst advice ever given to writers. Yet I will bet a large number of writers with agents reading this have gotten that advice.

It all comes from agents, at least the new breed of them, thinking more about their own career and what editors think then what their own clients think or need. The older breed of agents who like doing deals and negotiations and sales don’t care how many books you write. The more you write, the more they make, so they are happy.

Think this through, folks. Say you are a writer who can manage to average 1,000 words per day (about an hour worth of work), so you produce four novels per year. If you have hired an agent who only has about six main editors and a few other secondary editors they work with, and you are pouring four novels a year at that agent, it is in the best interest of the agent to tell you to slow down. Not your interest, because the more work you produce, the more money you make. But the more work you produce, the more your agent has to work, and thus basic human nature kicks in. (Cue the whining music here…This is TOO hard.)

(Again, read the earlier agent blogs about marketing and such.)

THE TRUTH. A modern agent (slush-reader/blogger) is looking for a one-book-per-year writer who hits it big.

In other words, like a lot of humans, modern slush-reader agents are lazy. They want money but don’t want to work. They want to find a writer to hit the home run for them, the next Stephanie Meyers. At the big thriller conference, a major bestseller got up to talk about agents. He said simply, “The worst thing that can happen to you is that your agent has a client that is a major bestseller. And it’s not you.”

I have seen this happen time-after-time, writers with a agent who has another client who suddenly hits it big, and suddenly that agent is not returning phone calls, having writers rewrite to slow them down, not mailing manuscripts, and on and on and on.

The agent you want is a person who works for you, who mails a book when and where you tell him to mail it, who listens and cares about your writing needs and your writing speeds and your need to cross genres. If the agent is focused on you, they will be fine. You’ll find a good working balance. But if they are more concerned about what a publisher’s employee (editor) will think of them, then run from them.

And run fast. The amount of extra help they think they can give you with editor-focused thinking will do nothing but harm you in so many ways.

One more way, never talked about but very real. An agent is hired to be your negotiator in contracts. But the focus for that agent is to keep a certain small group of editors happy. So you sell a book through an agent to one of those editors.

Agent doesn’t care about you at all. Agent only cares about coming across as a nice person to the editor, someone easy to work with, someone who “understands” and can give favors and find good writers when needed. Only issue is, the agent in the contract negotiation is “giving” your rights away. And your negotiating power.

And I have heard of a number of instances when agents worked across contracts with different writers, talking to the same editor. “You give me this in writer A’s contract and I’ll give you this in Writer B’s contract.”

Yup, it happens, and it should make every writer shout in anger, but alas, remember there are no rules for agents, no one looking over them, and thus publishers know this and can use this lack of rules for their advantage in all aspects of their business. And how would you, as a writer know that happened and you were writer B?

You wouldn’t. Not directly. Your agent would tell you, “Oh, we couldn’t get that detail fixed. And that’s assuming you, the writer, even know enough about contracts to ask. Most writers, thinking “I don’t need to know business” just trust these agents.

Agents who are thinking more about keeping editors happy and their own well being then your contract. Yup, that’s the person you want to trust.

So, for a moment, let’s talk about what every employer must decide about an employee.


Understand that every writer will be a different sort of boss, and every agent is different, still, let me try to lay out some basics at least to jump from.

1) Don’t ever expect an agent to save you. Agents won’t and can’t save you.

2) Don’t expect them to know everything. Agents are not as knowledgeable about your writing and projects as you are. And after a time, they won’t even know as much about the business as you do.

3) Don’t expect them to be good in all areas and all genres. All agents have weak areas and strong areas. You need to understand them and balance their strong and weak areas against your needs.

4) Don’t expect an agent to do everything for you. Hire an agent (or any employee) for ONLY what you need. Nothing more.

5) Don’t expect them to tell you what to do. (Or worse yet, plan your career. Before you hire them, be clear with yourself and them what you expect from them and what you want them to do. If you start letting an employee guide the ship, your ship is doomed to crash on the rocks.

6) Just because you hired an agent, don’t expect the work to end. Expect to double and triple check everything they are doing all the time. It is your business, after all.

7) Never expect them to care or work as hard for you as you will work for yourself. This is just standard for any employer, and really, really is true for agents. You have only your own career, they work for dozens of writers, if not more.

If you have ever run a business or office with employees, you know I have just described what any good employer thinks about with hiring an employee.

Again, no agent is the same. Many are very, very honest. But understand they have no rules, other than the rules you give them as their employer. They are human, and often would rather not do the work, especially if they think the project is only small or has no hope. As the boss, you have to be aware of these human traits and understand them and push where a push is needed.

But never once believe that an agent, any agent, no matter how good they seem, has your best interests at heart. They do not. That is an ugly myth. They are an employee that only cares about their own business. And they are an employee without rules unless you put the rules on them.

And some of the agents these days might as well be working for (and just drawing checks from) the publishers. But if you understand that, you can work around that and keep your best interests in mind in who you hire.

Just like the owner of a restaurant or a clothing store, you have to control those who work for you and keep them working the way YOU want them to work. And if an understanding can’t be reached between you and your employee, fire them.

It really is that simple.

Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is part of my inventory in my bakery now. (Confused on that, read the last Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie. If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery. If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this article along to others who might get some help from it. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, research, rejections, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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