Writer Etiquette: Why Do You Need an Agent, and Why Should You Be Nice?

I was going to talk about Agency (No, not like a literary agency – like a character’s personal agency) today, but in light of recent events, I’ve changed my mind. Today I’d like to talk about Etiquette when you are looking for an agent.

A writer wrote a blog recently that got the attention of most of publishing Twitter, and for good reason. I’m not going to talk about the offensive post, but wanted to address some of the issues the writer took with agents. The writer lamented that agents don’t like to read books, and that they were so often fresh-faced women just out of college. The writer didn’t understand why writers are asked not to call agents, and why they aren’t allowed to bring written work to a conference. This, of course, got me thinking about the number of people who have expressed these confusions to me over the years. What’s the point of an agent? They’re just snobby gatekeepers. They don’t even like to read, as evidenced by the fact that they rejected my book.

This made me wonder if the reason so many people think they can bend the rules (starting your query with, “I know your submission guidelines said one thing, but I’m doing another”, for example), is because they think agents don’t really work that hard anyway.

Perhaps the best place to start is, just what is a literary agent, and how does a person become one?

A literary agent is someone who has been in the industry long enough to make connections with editors and learn to negotiate contracts on the writer’s behalf. Connecting with and creating professional relationships with editors is very important as an agent – it helps an agent know what books might be a good fit for an editor, and this often makes a submission from an agent more exciting to read than a blind submission. Publishing law is quite different from most other forms, and becoming specialized in it is something an agent does. This is for you, the writer, so you don’t have nasty clauses and promises that come back to bite you. Too often I see writers sign just anything because a publisher is offering them a book deal. But sometimes not being published at all is better than being published for the terms in so many contracts. Kelly had a great post on this a few weeks ago. An agent took the time to make these connections, to learn these skills, so that writers don’t have to.

Becoming an agent can be difficult, too. Usually, after their degree, a person must have several internships under their belt before an agency will hire them as an assistant – this is because an agent’s office is busy, and if they know something about the industry and the way it works going in, the less struggle and heartache they’ll experience during training and after. It’s a hands-on, many-faceted job. I could not imagine starting at a literary agency as an assistant without some experience in publishing in my pocket. So agents are very rarely fresh-faced graduates from undergraduate school – they have worked their way up for several years, learning all the facets, before taking on the job.

There are a lot fewer agents than there are writers, and even fewer editors, so agents have to be very, very picky. Agents know the market, they know the industry, they know what editors are looking for. So they do have to keep all of this in mind when wading through the slush. And here’s the other thing: wading through the slush is NOT an agent’s full-time job. It’s a tiny, tiny portion of it because clients require time and energy. So it might take a few weeks, maybe more, to get to your query, and that’s just the nature of having more work than one person can reasonably do in a day.

More work than can be done in a day, you ask? How can that be? But here’s the deal: agents are fielding emails, calls from clients and publishers, negotiating contracts, reading client manuscripts, reading submissions, going to book events, etc., on a daily basis. Many agents are only paid a commission for these services, meaning they only get paid for the work they put in once you, the writer, gets paid, and even then it’s only a very small portion. So, agents are often putting in more than a 40-hour work week without seeing a single dime for it. Those writers who think an agent’s job is sipping margaritas at lunchtime and pretending to read are very, very mistaken. Treating an agent like you think his/her job is worthless is, understandably, insulting, and will likely result in a rejection if you’re querying. Agents look for personality as well as writing – if they sense that you might be difficult to work with, then they have to weigh whether taking you on is a good idea for their workload, their psyche, their peace of mind, regardless of your writing ability.

So you see, calling an agent’s office and asking to query over the phone disrupts the day, but also asks to be put in front of the hundreds of other people who are already waiting in the query line. A writer who calls is asking to be put in front of all other writers who followed the rules, which are in place for very good reasons. A writer who brings a manuscript to a conference is asking that agent to lug those materials around all day, and to jump the line of all the other queries an agent has waiting on her/him. It basically says, “I don’t respect your process, your time, or your poor back!”

There are a lot of writers who don’t read this blog who will make the mistake of thinking an agent is someone who just said, “I’m an agent!” and voila! The words appeared on their Twitter bio. But that’s not how it works. Agents work for you, and they work hard. Agents do what they do because they love books, and want to nurture careers. Rejection stings. We’ve all been through it (including agents, all the time) – know that there is an agent out there who wants to work with you. Give it time, be respectful, and mind your Etiquette.

As always, thanks for reading!


6 Responses to Writer Etiquette: Why Do You Need an Agent, and Why Should You Be Nice?

  1. Sean Welsh Jul 29 2016 at 11:14 pm #

    I was mildly amused by the post of the “writer whose blacklisted name may not be spoken” but agents have to realize that when they pass – which they do 99 times out of a hundred or 999 times out of a thousand – they crush hearts and egos. Occasionally, there will be blowback. Very occasionally this will be nasty… Rarer still, when the rejected actually has some skill with the pen, it will be entertaining…

    Live by the red pen. Die by the red pen.

    Agents averse to heated blowback should reconsider their employment choices. It’s a hot kitchen you work in! It would amuse me greatly if as a result of this outburst, the nameless writer got an agent and a book deal expose on the racket of selling of hope to unpublished writers – sorry pitch conferences…

    • Dee Jul 30 2016 at 2:13 am #

      Agents averse to heated blowback should reconsider their job? Surely writers averse to rejection should do similar… 😉

      • Sean Welsh Jul 31 2016 at 12:53 am #

        Indeed. Criticism is a two-way street.

        • Hannah Jul 31 2016 at 9:26 am #

          Criticism is certainly one thing, and agents receive that from rejected writers all the time. You don’t see every agent talking about it, even though it happens. However, I have yet to meet a male agent who has received the same kind of personal attacks that are often leveled against female agents. Heated blowbacks are one thing – writers who are upset, who don’t think you see the value of their work, writers who say you’re ignorant, whatever. But it personally makes me very sad that female agents often expect a very different kind of reaction from rejected writers than male agents. Any time a female agent rejects a writer, she is not surprised to see those rejected writers cursing her out, threatening to come to her place of work, saying offensive things about her body, etc. It already sucks to get responses like that. But then to have them said about you in a public forum? Agents are still human beings, and these types of attacks are leveled at the agents (female) as people, not as agents. I’m shocked that anyone *else* is shocked by the backlash that writer received. That’s why I’m talking about writer etiquette – don’t be the kind of writer no one wants to work with because you’re difficult. I shudder to think how that writer would have behaved had he won that agent over and actually signed with her. A writer’s etiquette often is a good sign to an agent that a writer will be good/bad to work with. If a writer does something this offensive, I think any agent who rejects him dodged a bullet, not just as an agent but as a human being, and other agents are within their rights to dodge that same bullet, and warn their friends it’s coming.

          • Matt Aug 6 2016 at 11:42 am #

            Here’s the problem though. Agents make fun of writers all the time. In public. One of the most popular twitter feeds in this area is BLA. Evil Editor. Even Janet Reid — who does her best to help and educate — isn’t adverse to the occasional shot across the bow at bad queries. Lots of agent twitter feeds are filled with snide comments about queries they’ve read. And if you assume that a writer who queries might also follow that agent, then every time that happens, you’re making fun of someone who might be reading.

            (not you. I meant a royal you)

            So insulting or mocking the other side of this goes on both ways. The difference in the blog that’s made everyone so mad was that someone paid for a conference, and felt the agent — who had agreed to come and had agreed to listen to pitches — was disinterested in his pitch. He put effort into it, and it was discarded and tossed away. This is a fairly common response to pitch sessions — it’s just, for the most part, the participants remain quiet because they don’t want to offend agents, who are thought of as cruelly delicate creatures who must not be offended lest there be repercussions. And, it turns out, that was an accurate assessment. He went overboard in his attack (and, to be fair, seems to be an asshole), but the backlash has been just as overboard. Publicly humiliating him all over twitter and blog posts — all he did was write something on his blog. And if you choose not to work with him based on what he wrote, that’s fine. But if you’re going to get on him for publicly attacking this agent who he felt did not provide the service he paid for, you ought to acknowledge that others have been even more publicly attacking him. And if you read the feeds and the blogs, a whole lot meaner than he was.

  2. lisa ciarfella Aug 5 2016 at 1:48 pm #

    Great post here. I’m an intern right now for an Agent and am learning a lot of this on the job. It’s true! It’s a lot of work, especially for us interns since we don’t get paid at all!
    But, it’s the only way to learn the business!

    And I’ve already seen some of those “blowback” responses from those rejected!

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