Lessons I Have Learned About Literary Agents

Vaughn C. Hardacker

Vaughn C. Hardacker here: Most of us have been subjected to the frustration of searching for a literary agent. My experience with agents has not been a pleasant one. I, too, have experienced the struggle to obtain representation and have learned some valuable lessons (unfortunately, most of them were hard).  To illustrate how the publishing industry, with specific attention to the role of the agent, works, we must first look at how the process was versus how it is now,

Back in the day (before my entrance into the writing world in 1990), publishing houses had a hierarchy through which an author had to navigate. When a publishing house received a manuscript, it first went to the first reader. This person read the submission and either rejected or accepted it. If the work was accepted, it was sent to the next person in the hierarchy (for the purpose of this blog post, I’ll call this individual either a second reader or an assistant {or associate} editor).

Again, the work was subjected to the accept/reject decision, and if accepted, the manuscript was passed up the line, etc. A successful manuscript would eventually make it to an editor who would compete with other editors for a spot on the publishing calendar.

What was the agent’s role in this? They were initially the writer’s postal clerk, albeit one with contacts among the first readers. They sent the manuscript to the publishing house. Their true work was when the manuscript was accepted for publication, and a contract was proposed. Obviously, the larger the advance, the larger the agent’s commission.

Let’s jump ahead to the 1990s. This was a period in which every industry was looking to downsize. The leading experts in business management were preaching that successful companies removed layers of management and placed the decision-making process closer to the customer. This meant publishing removed several layers in the manuscript review/acceptance process. These functions were passed along to the agent.

Now, a few words about what I believe is the agent’s job. The agent’s first and most important task is to represent the writer. They work for the writer. Unfortunately, my experience is that many agents believe that it’s the other way around. Secondly, the agent should review the contract offer before sending it to the writer. In my case, every point of debate in my contract was discovered by me, not my agent. The worst sin an agent can commit is always taking the publisher’s side rather than the writer’s. I learned this from experience. There weren’t many instances where I was at odds with my publisher. However, whenever I had an issue, my agent made excuses for them.

How does the agent get compensated? They take a commission (I paid 15%). Remember their first task? The agent works for the writer. If that is the case, why does the publishing house send all advances and royalties to the agent, who then takes their piece of the pie and sends the rest to their boss (remember that person called the writer)?

How does an agent select who to represent? An agent is a commission salesperson–same as a used car salesperson. They look at any query or manuscript with one question on their mind: How easy will this be for me to sell?  If they believe it will be easy, you will get an acceptance letter (or email). On the other hand, if they believe that (no matter how good the book is) selling the manuscript will require work… you will get a canned response (maybe) stating that the book sounds interesting, but they don’t feel they’re the right person to represent it. They usually soften the blow by adding that they would be willing to look at future submissions.

The most valuable lesson I learned in the writer/agent process is this: an agent’s number one priority must be representing the writer. The agent I had (I will not reveal the name to protect the guilty) was a master multi-tasker. She was adding clients at an explosive rate, teaching writing boot camps, attending writer conferences, and (this was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back) writing her own novels. Another of her clients told me that the agent went as far as to write a book with a similar plot to one of the clients. I believe that an agent writing novels in the same genre as his/her client is a definite conflict of interest. Who’s work gets discussed first in a meeting between agent and publisher? Despite all that, the true reason I severed our professional relationship was a phone conversation when she told me: “Don’t call me next month. I have a couple of writer conferences scheduled, a BootCamp scheduled, and will take vacation the month after.” After that conversation, I asked myself: “Who the hell is working for who?” I called the publisher and asked my editor if the termination of my agreement with the agent would affect my relationship with them. His reply: “No. In fact, we don’t require any one submitting to us to have an agent.”

The head of the agency told me in an email: “_____ was surprised and hurt when she got your notice.” Really? Why did she not call or contact me to discuss the situation when I sent her a letter terminating our relationship? To me, that doesn’t exhibit surprise and hurt. I felt hurt. The agent and I had been close friends for over ten years. (That’s another lesson: NEVER do business with a friend or relative. My experience is that you will be relegated to a low priority, whether they do it intentionally or not. They believe you will accept a lower level of service because of your past history. The old “he’ll understand because we’re friends (or relatives)” syndrome.

Fast forward to last week. I contacted the agency and spoke with the owner. I said I had not received a royalty report in almost three years. She asked for the date of my last report (royalty reports… like royalty payments… are not sent to the author, but the agent), and I provided the information. She contacted me two days later, informing me that she had received the reports from the publisher, which were attached. You may understand my concern when I was advised by the agency that I was owed $678.75 in back royalties! I wanted to tell the agency that I wanted the agent’s 15% commission back as interest due. However, I haven’t. It’s worth being rid of the agent to forego it.

Even after all this, I am still not an anti-agent writer. Many major publishing houses will not look at a manuscript that did not come from an agent, and I still query each of my novels. Several writers I know have agents who are actively involved in their careers. One goes so far as to arrange book signing tours for her client. When I asked my agent for help in the marketing part of the business, I was told, “Social Media…” An agent can be a valuable asset to a writer, or they can be a predator.

I also have another caution. Don’t get excited if an agent at a conference asks you to send them a sample. It’s lip service. I have yet to meet a writer who has gotten representation from one of those face-to-face deals (There may be some who have, but I’ve never met one.). I know of a conference when one of the agents was a friend of one of the conference committee members, and she had no experience as an agent. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, she has never queried or communicated with a publisher. The writers scheduled to speak with her were charged the same fee for the sitdown as those who met with bonafide agents. I have learned to do a lot of research before I query an agent. In the case I just stated, a simple internet search would have shown that the woman was not an agent, never had been, and never will be.

 

About Vaughn C. Hardacker

Vaughn C. Hardacker has published six novels and numerous short stories. He is a member of the New England Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance, and the International Thriller writers. Three times he has been a finalist in the Maine Literary Awards Crime Fiction category, SNIPER, in 2015, THE FISHERMAN in 2016, and WENDIGO for the 2018 award. The second installment of his Ed Traynor series, MY BROTHER'S KEEPER was released in July 2019 and is available through all major booksellers. A signed copy can be ordered directly from Vaughn (vhardacker@gmail.com). THE EXCHANGE his most recently published crime/thriller was released on September 4, 2020. His next thriller, RIPPED OFF, is scheduled to be released by Encircle Publications in January 2023. He is a veteran of the U. S. Marines and served in Vietnam. He holds degrees from Northern Maine Technical College, the University of Maine and Southern New Hampshire University. He lives in Stockholm, Maine.
This entry was posted in Literary Agents, Vaughn's Posts and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Lessons I Have Learned About Literary Agents

  1. Deborah says:

    Holy shit! That’s like an insurance agent who’s also a burglar. What do you recommend for a debut novelist? Agent or no?

    • Deborah:

      Obtain a copy of any of Writer Digests reference books, such as The Writers Digest Guide to Literary Agents. There is also a web site that I have referenced for years. Search on Predators and Editors.(https://pred-ed.com/). Not all agents are like the one I had and a good agent can make a world of difference. Again, Writers Digest will also list publishers and provide info about whether they require an agent or not. A couple of things to watch for. 1. An agent should work on commission only. If they charge reading fees or editing fees they are most like predators. You can check the Association of Author Representatives (https://aalitagents.org/) to see if the agent is a member or not. The AAR lists guidelines and standards that authors and agents should adhere to. Finding an agent is not easy. However, don’t get discouraged there are many authors and publishers who are ethical. I intended this blog post to be a learning tool, not a criticism of the industry. I hope this was helpful.

  2. David Plimpton says:

    Vaughn,

    You make good points.

    In my opinion, literary agents representing (1) multiple authors in the same genre or (2) a ton of authors in general (spread too thin?) are situations rife with the potential for conflict of interest.

    As noted in the Maine case, Desfosses v. Notis, 333 A.2d 83 (1975):

    “An agent is a fiduciary with respect to matters within the scope of his agency. Restatement (Second) of Agency § 13 (1957). No principle of law is better settled than that which requires the agent in all his dealings concerning the matter of his agency to act with utmost faith and loyalty and disclose all facts within his knowledge which bear materially upon his principal’s interest. Jensen v. Snow, 131 Me. 415, 418, 163 A. 784, 786 (1933)”

    Title 18-C, Maine Revised Statutes, §5-914. Agent’s duties, provides, among other things:

    1. Minimum mandatory duties. Notwithstanding provisions in the [written] power of attorney, an agent that has accepted appointment shall:

    A. Act in accordance with the principal’s reasonable expectations to the extent actually known by the agent and otherwise act as a fiduciary under the standards of care applicable to trustees as described under Title 18-B, sections 802 to 807 and Title 18-B, chapter 9; [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]
    B. Act in good faith; and [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]
    C. Act only within the scope of authority granted in the power of attorney. [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]
    [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]
    2. Default duties. Except as otherwise provided in the power of attorney, an agent that has accepted appointment shall:
    A. Act loyally for the principal’s benefit; [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]
    B. Act so as not to create a conflict of interest that impairs the agent’s ability to act impartially; [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]
    C. Act with the care, competence and diligence ordinarily exercised by agents in similar circumstances; [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]
    D. Keep a record of all receipts, disbursements and transactions made on behalf of the principal; [PL 2017, c. 402, Pt. A, §2 (NEW); PL 2019, c. 417, Pt. B, §14 (AFF).]

    Of course, these observations are off the top of my head and shouldn’t be thought of as a legal opinion upon which anyone should rely.

    I suspect many agents disclose potential conflicts and ask the author to waive the potential conflict. Whs

    It also does not address what may be the law of other States.

Leave a Reply