Thursday, September 06, 2007

trusting your agent

A reader send me this note yesterday:

[M.M.'s letter]

Hi Moonrat,

I wonder if I could impose on you for just a moment regarding agent/editor
relationships. I just got an email from a publisher that has caused me some
concern, and if you don't mind, I'd like your opinion on it.

"Dear M. M.,

Although your query and submission are enticing and the manuscript has been throughly worked well thus far, I am curious that your said agent, XXXXXXX of the XXXXXX literary agency is listed on Preditors and Editors as not authentic (in the list of agents with a history of non-commercial sales). Also, I am curious why you are submitting and not your agent? An agent's responsibility is to submit for their clients. We are interested in the novel, however we are very wary of working with said agent."

Should I be concerned? I happen to know my agent has a very substantial track record of sales to various major houses, including S&S, Warner, and HarperCollins (among others). I have read books by authors she repped and they thanked her in the acknowledgments (that's how I found her in the first place). The only reason I submitted anything to anyone is because I don't have a contract and she (my agent) said if I wanted to send subs to some smaller presses to go right ahead. This press is small, new, and not well known.

Any wisdom to share here?

M. M.

[so here's my response to you, M.M.]

Dear M.M.,

My honest take--

The editor must really have liked your stuff, or s/he wouldn't have wasted all his/her time with replying at that length. Trust me--we usually just send out form rejections if a book seems even remotely troublesome (for example, even a good book represented by a dubious agency). Which means that for whatever reason, this small publisher is very interested to the point that they put those misgivings aside. Given the number of queries you can assume they receive each day, this says something very positive about your book.

It sounds like you really did your homework in terms of the agency--the finding an agent through acknowledgments, consulting other clients, etc. All very good. You really need to take your instinct about your agent and cling to it right now through what I'm going to say--if you really love and trust your agent, please just take this as an outsider's read on the situation. I have to say that having a client submit queries on their own is EXTREMELY counterproductive and very, very strange (I totally agree with your small-press editor here). I would never read a proposal from an author who says they have an agent--my thoughts would be just like this editor's
(why is the agent not submitting?!). Although this may not actually be the case, to us, it looks like the best-case scenario there is that the agent is unwilling to commit to your book but wants a sleazy piece of the pie if it all works out. Also, editors would almost always choose to deal with agents instead of authors, since agents really smooth the way in a) negotiating a contract, and b) being another party accountable for author's commitment. I make exceptions and work with a lot of authors without agents, but that is because of the unusual structure of my company. At all other companies I have worked for before this was not the case.

Also, you can't know about your agent's (or his/her agency's) relationship with other small presses or clients in the past--it's possible that ancient bridges were burned (and policies have since been changed) and that this is where the editor's bad information comes from. Sometimes very big agents have a habit of treating small presses very shabbily--it might be a great agent for an author to have, but not one who small presses feel inclined to work with if there isn't already a forged relationship.

Basically, my advice would be to trust your instinct about your agent--after stepping back and thinking really carefully about all of this. I'm not sure how your agent is used to doing business, but it seems like s/he isn't prioritizing you as much as s/he could. If your agent is really big and important, his/her name could help you get a great sale; on the other hand, neglectful treatment by your agent (including "shady" letters from you directly that claim you have an agent who is choosing not to submit for you) may just sour all the publishers who see your book and cause them to not take you seriously. Conventional wisdom (and my personal experience) says that if an editor sees your book and rejects it she is going to be extremely unwilling to consider it again later--meaning that a poor submission of a good book by an agent is endlessly more damaging than no submission at all, since it destroys any potential for that particular manuscript. Of course, it's very possible that you'll decide you do trust your agent and s/he is right for you, and that you'll be right. We (publishers) (and authors, too) just have to be super cautious because of all the unfortunate weirdos out there who are very comfortable taking advantage.

I hope this helped at least a little.


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