• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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I See The Hate In Your Eyes, Damn Them Boys Is Too Fly

Sold my last book of 2011 today. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa. I know many of you hate agents out there and I get it. I hated most agents when I was an editor. Taking them to lunch so they could shit on your face, if you feel me. I once took an agent out to lunch who looked at the menu and said, “If I have one more cobb salad, I’m going to kill myself.”  Another pulled a bill away as I was figuring out the tip and said, “Gimme that, I know 15% of anything.”

But you didn’t ask me about agent lunches. You didn’t ask about anything. I’m not proud of it, but I am an agent. I’m proud of the job I do for my clients, but being a professional sleaze bag is a drag. You know the one about the guy who comes home to discover that his wife and children have been raped and murdered, and his house has been burned down. The cop explains that his agent had come to his house. The guy gets all excited, really, he says, my agent came to my house.

Just for fun tonight, just because I think a little pre-holiday raging is called for, I wonder if you would share your worst agent story and no need to mention names (especially if it’s me).

137 Responses

  1. I haven’t had any bad experiences with agents. This may change once my book is ready for submission, but so far my interactions with agents have been positive and encouraging.

    The closest I come to a “worst agent story” is in an essay on What Form Rejection Means to Me.

    I should stress that the agent in the story really didn’t do anything wrong. It was the fault of my inflated expectations–and my husband.

  2. I don’t know if it’s the worst, but I’ve been wanting to tell it. After following up, this agent said he sent his response months before and that he’d try to find it and send it again. Well, he wrote me a beautiful email praising my novel, only problem was, the date he put on there was impossible, the book had a different title on that date. Plus, it wasn’t yet being considered by this top pub, mentioned in his letter. I was appreciative of the letter, and wrote back thanking him, but letting him know that I knew something didn’t jive. He wished me luck with the big pub and said he’d be happy to negotiate the contract if it sold. Charming guy…he’s pretty visible around here.

  3. sent query’
    agent asks for chapters
    agent then asks for manuscript
    agent calls excited, “love it”
    sends contract
    I sign
    send back
    agent assistant emails contract received
    one month goes by
    another 2 months go by
    I email with a “will you be sending out?”
    no response
    3 months go by
    one more month
    I check to make sure agent is still alive and/or in business
    agent shows up on PM with deals
    one month goes by
    I email what’s up
    another month
    I get antsy…I’m working on another book, try to be calm
    another months goes by
    I check Publisher’s Marketplace, re. deals. There’s my agent, a book deal, a book whose storyline is so close to mine I get excited, then I realize it’s not mine…of course
    I email agent asking if agent is still my agent
    no response
    Time passes. I send email dissolving contract as written and state reason why. It is not an angry email, but enough so I don’t get sued. No there was nothing I could do…..I was exhausted.

  4. What the Hell is a Cobb salad? Wait… what were we talking about? Oh. Worst agent experience?

    I don’t have one except perhaps a response to a query: I wasn’t compelling enough to continue reading.

    So far, the agents I’ve befriended have been charming, helpful, encouraging and hilarious.

  5. Agent with whom we’d just done a big deal decides I have moxie and deigns to have lunch with me. I suggest something near me; his assistant counters with something near him (and expensive).

    I arrive on time; he arrives twenty minutes late…and tells me that he’s asked an author (not the one we acquired) to join us after lunch so he can pitch me. Author has flown in from overseas that morning, and arrives at lunch too early–agent tries to make long-suffering waiter tell the guy to wait in the lobby until we’re done.

    Meal finished, he brings the guy to the table and then excuses himself to take a phone call, while I speak haltingly with this poor author who tries to pitch a book in a genre I don’t acquire.

    • So what you’re saying is this industry is full of obnoxious turds too? Coming in as an amoeba, I think I’m going to miss carrying my shove-back-because-I’ve-earned-it card.

  6. Talking to Anrew Wylie at various parties back in the day. One kept looking around the room for Max von Sydow to do the exoricism.

  7. That’s Andrew, with ‘d’. Leave out the last “D” for…. SATAN.

  8. I wish.

    Just the ones who hold onto my manuscript for half a year because “it’s being passed around the office”, then come back and say they *almost* took it, that they loved it themselves, but just didn’t think it would sell.


  9. First time I signed with a screenwriting agent, all the contacts I’d spent two years cultivating, he took to start his own writing career. The head of the agency took over… and ended up in rehab for cocaine addiction. While she was hospitalized, a guy she’d hired to organize came in and tossed all of the client scripts. The the agency closed not long after. sigh…. At least the first guy’s writing career never took off.

  10. Where to start?

    Agents who take to Twitter to air a grievance against ONE editor but make it sound as though everyone does whatever it is they’re ticked about. Usually looks something like :”Editors: Don’t do this. It annoys me.” I don’t even care if ALL editors do whatever it is. Kvetching on a public forum, even if you’re not naming names but especially if it’s a blanket whine aimed at all editors who might decide to “annoy” you in future, is unprofessional and whiny and does NOT make me want to work with you.

    Agents who set arbitrary deadlines as to when they expect to hear back from me (or….what exactly? You’ll pull the project? You’ll send the Timing Police to rough me up?). These deadlines are ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS ludicrous. I read a project on my schedule, not yours. FYI–those tend to be auto-rejects for me.

    Agents who don’t include A SINGLE SENTENCE OF SYNOPSIS in their pitch. Just go on and on about how the author won this award I’ve never heard of or that they’re really good at taking direction. I get to the end of their query and I have no idea what the stupid book is about.

    While we’re on pitches, how about lazy agents who don’t even pitch. “Thought you might like this.” I get that from agents I’ve never had a conversation with (and they usually haven’t done an iota of research on my house to see that I don’t do books like that). I’m always tempted to forward the pitch to the author and say, “Is this really who you want representing you? Someone who couldn’t be bothered to actually try to get me interested in your book?”

    Agents who see on Publishers Marketplace that I’ve just acquired a book with LGBT subject matter and then bombard me with identical projects, thinking, “Hey, he’s buying LGBT stuff!!” I’m at a tiny press with a diverse list. When you see I just bought an LGBT book, you should send me something completely different.

    God, that feels good. Having said all that, I’ve worked with some amazing agents. Agents who really have done their homework and have a lock on what I look for. Agents who write queries so stunning that not only do I request the full manuscript immediately but I stop whatever I’m doing and start reading it the second it’s in my inbox. (OK, that’s only happened twice but it’s happened.) Agents who are patient with the quirks of a small house. Agents who are genuinely interested in helping their client’s careers but only get involved when it’s absolutely necessary (as opposed to, say, micromanaging every step of the process by shooting countless e-mails to editors, publicists, copywriters, and even sales people and trying to dictate what SHOULD be happening).

    There are fabulous agents that I adore working with. And there are agents that better hope I’m not the one holding the life preserver when they’re drowning.

  11. I guess any agent who calls you up at 9:00 pm on the same day you sent him your query letter must seem a little suspect. He took me out to lunch, and fawned over my “writing.” He already had small print companies picked out, and made me promise to contact him before I signed with anyone. I think he liked my book proposal ok…I just think he thought it might be a package deal…

  12. In the 1990s, there was a fire in the midtown skyscraper where I worked as an editor. We were told by loudspeaker to evacuate immediately. My phone rang and, like an idiot, I picked up. It was an agent I knew well (who today is a very, very big shot), calling to pitch a new project. “I’m sorry, I can’t talk now, the building is on fire and we are being evacuated,” I told her. She said “This will only take a minute.”

    • I don’t have an agent and have had mostly very good experiences but a few have really made me wonder. One read the first 3 chaps and sent me a lovely e-mail saying that it was wonderful BUT… I made the changes and asked if she mght like to see the chaps again. She was enthusiastic and I sent them back. Never heard another word.
      @Claude- your story made me laugh so hard that there’s a little spatter of coffee stains on the front of my shirt now.

    • Now that’s funny.

    • reminds me of BB, Fraser’s agent

  13. I wish I had a funny worst agent story, but I don’t. My agent is Wendy Schmalz–the best!

    • I would leave my agent for one named Schmalz.

      My first agent told me that my career was going nowhere because ‘you let your books wither on the vine.’ (Which is true. In fact, I got a box of my latest in the mail last week, and it made me sick. Sixteen hardbacks are now stacked in my closet, the door is shut and the cat-box is blocking access. Getting my copies is possibly the worst moment in the entire process. That’s when my dreams of ‘maybe this time will be different’ crash against the reality that I’ve just written another shitty book to toss into the crapalanche.)

      My second agent disappeared. No answer at her office, no answer at her home. Just gone.

      An agent called me at home on Friday night, a little tipsy, so enthusiastic about my novel that he simply had to call halfway through and leave a message telling me I was a genius. He rejected it the next Wednesday.

      Because Betsy requested names, here are some agents I still hate for rejecting me ten years ago:

      Jeff Kleinman apologized for resorting to a form letter.
      Ethan Ellenberg sent a shmata.
      Who the hell is Susannah Taylor? I just grabbed a handful of rejections from my Hate Box and found a letter from her. She loved my pages and said no.
      Ellen Levine was sadly precluded from a more specific rejection due to the enormous volume of queries received.
      Maria Carvainis regretted the ‘seemingly impersonal’ nature of her form rejection, and called them ‘letters of query’ instead of query letters.
      Don Congdon sent a letter so bland that despite the fact it’s right here beside me, I can’t remember what it says. I kinda appreciate that.
      Who is Loretta Barrett, and why did I query her?
      Gail Hochman gushed about my pages but called them ‘too grisly for my taste.’ (That was for my Nicholas Sparks-type project.)
      Jennifer Jackson called my credits ‘notable,’ which is a baldfaced lie, but a kind one. I only hate her a little.
      Sanford Greenburger sent what appears to be a bar mitzvah invitation.
      Richard Pine scrawled no.
      Jennifer Lyons said that she liked the chapters but suspected that she’d dislike me personally.
      David Dunton apologized profusely for his complete lack of interest in my genre.
      Gail Hochman followed up on her initial rejection with a form rejection, just to drive the point home.
      Anne Hawkins is apparently only one person, and imagined that another agent might have an entirely different reaction.
      Matt Bialer sent a depressingly encouraging rejection.

      That’s just the first handful. Pretty sure I’ve got a rejection from Dunow deeper in the box.

      • My all-time favorite rejection was from Dunham Literary, Inc. It was a much photocopied form letter on half a page of paper. I wonder who received the other half.

      • Hey August, if I sign a confidentiality agreement about your identity will you send me one of those books? One stacked farthest from the kitty poo.

      • That made my day. Thanks, August! Red Rover, Red Rover, send Anne Hawkins right over…

      • Ten of the above must have copied me on your rejection.

        But since they led to me to the right one, it was worth it.

      • Erm…Actually, Betty said “no need to mention names.” And, honestly, your agent horror story is getting rejected? I just don’t understand that. “Oh, wah, they didn’t love my work.” THEN THEY WEREN’T A GOOD FIT FOR YOU. You want and deserve an agent who is over the moon about your work and to hold a grudge because someone said no (and it’s just stupid to whine over HOW they did it–photocopy, impersonal form letter…for fuck’s sake, YOU try to respond personally to 10,000 submissions a year!) is asinine.

        No, I’m not an agent but I work in publishing and if your worst agent horror story is getting–gasp!–a form letter rejection, you will never, ever make it.

      • Even though you will never, ever make it, I still want to buy your book. Give us a hint. What’s on the cover? Tell Betty.

      • Um, Betsy said “No need to mention names.”

      • Betsy lets us do what we want

      • She did say “no need to mention names.” But isn’t that kind of like saying, “no need to get me a birthday present?”

      • I like them in the closet, Deb. They give weight to my failure.

      • who’s this betty chick? ===::

      • Good question. ===::

      • You’re awesome, Amyg! So are you August.

  14. I once wrote a letter to an agent who answered it on her blog and then her commenters had a hissy fit, accused me of making up my story and then started following my blog. It’s not a bad story. it’s just the only one I’ve got. I wonder what ever happened to her?


    • I had an agent publish my query letter in a magazine column, without telling me first, then proceed to rip it to pieces.

  15. Seriously, someone complaining about the cobb salad is one of the worst experiences you’ve had? And the 15% of anything is funny–because she’s an agent.

    How about the new jr. agent you’ve been assigned tells you you should stop being funny and charming, even though that’s what sold your previous six novels? And acts genuinely surprised that you’ve received such positive reviews in PW.

    How about your jr. agent’s 22-year-old assistant reads your blog and suggests you spice it up by pretending you have a crush on Robert Pattison or writing from the POV of a fly on the wall?

    How about your new jr. agent suggests you enter a writing contest with unpublished writers and the prize is interest from literary agents?

    How about maybe it’s time for me to get another agent?

    • “And the 15% of anything is funny–because she’s an agent.”

      OK, I admit I missed the joke there completely. Pretty clever, actually, if indeed it was meant as that joke. I’ve been chuckling about it as I continue to read the comments.

  16. I’ve been submitting mss for three years and don’t have any horror stories. Depressing and discouraging stories? Yes, but nothing horrendous.

    One thing that helps me is Query Tracker. You can join (for free) and read rejection stats for agents as well as other people’s comments about them. So that partial I never got a response to and beat myself up saying it was so bad it didn’t dignify a response? This particular agent only responds to 20% of the partials she requests. It keeps things in perspective.

  17. I love how those querying are praising agents.

    I’ve had to fire two top agents in the last two yrs who had $ next to their names in P&E. My two books are dead . I’ll just say I wasn’t some clueless noob, yet I still got reamed five ways to Sunday by them.

    Let them eat Cobb.

  18. The writer is the whore, the agent is your pimp and the publisher is the john. A rejection from an agent is nothing more than them telling you, Look I make my living off of writers and I don’t think anybody is going to pay squat to fuck you.

    After I dumped one agent for lying to me yet again, went on a rampage to find another. I emailed the twenty top ones and received almost instantaneous replies. EVERYONE wanted to screw, I mean, represent me.

    One suggested she hop a plane and we have lunch together and then, you know. Do it. Sign.

    Another told me that while she so wanted to rep me, I should never plan on speaking to her again. I love that wam bam thank you ma’am thing.

    It’s always a stab in the dark. Always.

    P.S. Finished reading JUST KIDS. I bow to Betsy and Patti. What a book. What a woman.

  19. Getting an agent is easy. Just ask this bear. Otherwise he’s just going straight to Random House himself. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9fc-crEFDw&feature=player_embedded

  20. […] All too true about the Cobb Salad. As for hating on book agents, many of us–book editors–don’t. There’s the dirty little truth: many of my best friends and acquaintances are agents. I’m not that much of a masochist to waste my time on people I distrust. Sold my last book of 2011 today. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa. I know many of you hate agents out there and I get it. I hated most agents when I was an editor. Taking them to lunch so they could shit on your face, if you feel me. I once took an agent out to lunch who looked at the menu and said, “If I have one more cobb salad, I’m going to kill myself.”  Another pulled a bill away as I was figuring out the tip and said, “Gimme that, I know 15% … Read More […]

  21. I have a fond memory of an older, experienced agent sitting down across from me when I was a humble assistant editor, looking at my face, noting my age, and saying: “OK, what am I doing here?”

  22. You know, I like most agents, admire their professionalism and entrepreneurial spirit. We editors get a paycheck every couple of weeks, they have to make it happen each and every day on their own. That includes you, Betsy. Have a nice day.

    Gerald Howard, Doubleday

  23. This little ditty isn’t awful agent behavior. It’s really not. But it did throw me for a loop.

    A year or so ago I had a partial request. Which became a full. A month went by. And then my husband said “an agent called today. Here’s her number.”

    With a pounding heart I called her back. She said “I’ve been sitting on this for a month because I just couldn’t make up my mind. But I’m going to have to pass.” And then she gave me some very well thought out advice about why she thought it wouldn’t sell, even though she felt personally passionate about the subject matter.

    A few weeks pass. And then a writer friend calls me. “Oh my God. Did you read [agent name]’s blog today? Oh my God. It’s about you.”

    I look. The blog entry is “When Passion isn’t Enough” or similar. And it’s her, relating how she passed. She didn’t name me or identify my book in any way, of course. It was all above board. The funniest part is that the comments were looonnnng, with most of the would be writers tearing out their hair with things like “If I could write a book that makes you, O great one, feel ‘passionate,’ yet still you might reject me, there is no hope, no God in the universe.”

    Yep. That’s how it made me feel too. And I’ll have you know that I resisted the very strong temptation to comment at all.

  24. I’ve been trying sooo hard to have a bad agent story, preferably a bad Hollywood literary agent story, for a while now… except I still can’t find one that will even bother to read me, in spite of the fact I’m partnered with the Oscar-winning producer of ‘_.’

    But as soon as I do, I’m sure it won’t go well…

  25. I’m an agent, but I’m not going to comment on agents, editors, authors, or anything. I’m just writing in to defend the honor of the cobb salad. I think the cobb salad is simple, classic, and ideal. I’ve stopped eating at Punch because the last time I was there, the cobb salad sucked and you have to be trying very hard to mess up a cobb salad.
    Also, the last time I was at Punch half the tables were publishing people and if I’m going to gossip about people, I want them out of earshot.
    That’s all! Happy 2011, everyone!

  26. ” As for hating on book agents, many of us–book editors–don’t. There’s the dirty little truth: many of my best friends and acquaintances are agents.”

    An aside, but I’m just not convinced you can genuinely be best friends with someone who’s earning part of their living off you directly.

    Having friends in the business is different than doing business with friends.

  27. As a former editor turned agent, I find Betsy’s shame about jumping over the fence bewildering. The books and authors she represents are important and impressive. Several of them seem destined to to be classics. I am sure that she, like most agents, has thrown her heart and time into each one of them. She should be proud of herself. There doesn’t seem to be anything that she’s done that justifies the words “professional sleeze bag.”

  28. 1. No one *deserves* an agent. It’s a business relationship, not a god-given right.

    2. There are idiots and jerks in every business. Publishing has its share, sure, but so does every other profession.

    3. Be professional. You can do nothing about someone else’s behavior; all you have control over is your own.

    4. I wouldn’t want an agent who was so disrespectful of her work and colleagues. After a public tirade like this, I imagine a few doors might have just closed.

  29. Me, I dig my agent. I’m just saying.

  30. You guys want an agent story? You got an agent story.


  31. My first agent was wonderful, very responsive and a true champion for the book even though it didn’t end up selling. She’s no longer agenting but she has really come through from me with referrals now that I have a new book and that has certainly helped move the query process along.

    I can’t say I’ve seen much truly offensive behavior from agents. I did get one rejection (from a query letter not from someone who’d read the manuscript) that was kind of curious. He said he confessed that these sort of books usually went straight over his head but they usually went on to sell for lots of money and get rave reviews and so he would step aside and cheer from the sidelines. It seemed a tad disingenuous coming from someone who didn’t want to see pages but in retrospect, he was probably just trying to be nice.

    The real irony is that he worked for the same agency I ended up being repped by. Just goes to show you how individual it really is.

  32. I call this my Agent/Monica Lewinsky/James Frey story


    -Rising hot-shot agent blows it all on drugs and booze
    -Agent goes through recovery
    -Agent gets job with mega Agency
    -Agent writes book about blowing it all on drugs, booze and rentboys
    -Agent sells book to fancy publisher for big $
    -Agent’s book gets a huge media blitz
    -Agent’s book is somewhat suspect in that James Frey sorta way
    -Agent’s book doesn’t sell well
    -Agent gets follow-up, sequel deal with same publisher (what are they thinking?)

    I’ll leave the “Monica Lewinsky” portion for your to figure out.

  33. I just don’t understand the motivation behind this post. Yes, there are some agents who are scummy, but please cite an occupation where there aren’t unprofessional, incompetent or unethical people in it. And if you truly believe this about the role you play as an agent, why on earth are you doing it? If I were one of your clients, I would be very disturbed by this post.

    I have an agent I like, trust and respect… he’s acted with the highest integrity in every situation I’ve been involved in, and I have every reason to believe that’s true of his dealings with editors as well.

    When I was querying, the worst thing that ever happened was an agent not responding to a full. Not exactly the end of the world. Sorry, no bad agent stories here.

    I agree completely with Gerald Howard’s comment and thank him for posting it.

  34. @Agent 86: -Agent blew coke (and blew) Obama?

  35. I just bought your book and I suppose that’s good news for all of us. I bought a real book because I like holding them in my hands.

    I like Cobb Salad. How can you go wrong with avocado, bleu cheese and bacon and hard-boiled egg sliced just so . . . leave off the tomatoes and I’m good to go.

    I wish I had a lunch date in New York with an agent and an editor who loved what I’d written and thought they could sell it. I hope to enter this era before I reach the end of my top forties (See Glee episode with Gweneth Paltrow. Her quote made me fall in love with her again.)

    We writers are a quirky group. Let’s be clear rejections are a part of process. Rejections are telling you something you may not want or be ready to hear, but read it, seek it , listen to it and you shall find an answer, whether that be rewrite, write it over again or go find something else to do with your life because you don’t have the stamina to withstand it.

    Because let’s face it; if the masses are being to directed to read A Tale of Two Cities as if it’s something new–the times are even more challenging than we imagined. don’t get me wrong; it’s a classic, but I’ve read it. Enough already. Why not help out a living writer instead? There so many of us.

    I’ve taken away a few things in my two years of pursuit of this dream. I’ve learned to say no to just about everything that other people would like to get me involved in. I’ve taken Stephen King’s assessment/viewpoint to heart–“Reading at meals is considered rude in polite society but if you expect to succeed as a writer, rudeness should be second-to-least of your concerns. The least of all should be polite society and what it expects. If you intend to write truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered, anyway.”

    I’ve put the craft first and know eventually the rest will follow. It’s not easy finding the right one; it’s a little bit like speed dating and a marriage proposal at the end of all of it. Sometimes, it works out and often times it doesn’t. First rule is to marry someone you like who gets you; that goes for the pursuit of publishing work as well.

  36. I was sitting in agent’s office in Beverly Hills at a rather prominent Hollywood agency, and the agent, who promised me the sun, the stars, and the moon, and a couple of comets, got a manager on the phone about a screenplay I’d written. The manager, who spoke with a kind of surfer drawl, like he’d been drinking a Xanax and banana shake, was driving in what sounded like a convertible when he answered the phone. They exchanged a quick hello: “Han, man — anything for you, dude. I love you.”

    At which time the agent says, “I got this brilliant writer here with me. ”

    “If he’s right by you, man,” or whatever the manager said from his convertible.

    “His name is ______, and he’s fucking brilliant.”

    The agent not only mis-pronounced my last name, he got it wrong. I tried to correct him, but it was too late, the manager in the convertible had hung up.

    Shortly there after, the agent never returned my calls.

  37. I’ve been reading some of the comments here and I just had to chime in. My agent is Natasha Kern, and she is WONDERFUL! She is a mentor and an advocate for my work. But beyond that she really cares. When my mother was diagnosed with kidney cancer, Natasha sent me a juicer and provided all sorts of helpful information about things I could do to help my mother get through this awful time in our lives.

    You see, agents are all heartless and cold as some of these posts suggest. But if you take the time to pick the right person to represent you, you might just find someone who not only cares about selling your next bestselling manuscript, but a person who also cares about the things that concern you.

    Merry Christmas everyone… and don’t forget to send your agent a Christmas card or gift if you can afford it.

  38. Betsy, I just bought your book for my best friend, and I’m so glad I did. If I’d bought a book by an agent whining on twitter on in the comments about this post, I would have to think very hard about returning it, because they’ve lost a lot of advice-giving cred today.

    Similarly, @Michelle, some of the agents who have tweeted about being “enraged” by this post were people I had considered on querying when the time comes. I still might, but their bullshit whining makes me seriously question whether I could respect them on a personal level or trust them to make decent professional decisions because of their obvious inability to recognize sarcasm and humor. I’m not alone on this. For them, a few doors just closed.

    Probably not too many, though, because self-righteous outrage tends to sell pretty well. Maybe those agents managed to score some points with the humorless self-righteous crowd.

    • Good point though I’m not too certain I’d necessarily not query an agent because they don’t get Betsy blog. You gotta know Betsy. They don’t and that’s where it is. You either get her or you don’t.

  39. I gave up on agents and started submitting directly to small publishers. I spent about 8 months submitting to agents to no avail, then received five offers from publishers within 6 weeks.

    I don’t hate agents, but I have to admit I’ve oftened wondered what possible purpose they could be serving within the literary organism.

    I’ve also wondered how they manage to pay for those Cobb salads.

  40. I just love receiving the generic, quarter-sheet, faded copies of rejection slips that are smaller than most restaurant receipts. Actually, I feel very sorry for agents. First, let me say that I am NEITHER an agent or an editor. I’m the lowest life form in the publishing industry (according to agents and editors): I’m an author.
    The publishing industry is in its worst state in decades, the entire system is creaking under the weight of an increasingly bloated, corporate system that is likely to exceed critical mass in the near future. For this reason, both editors and agents are struggling under dismal conditions. And for authors…God save us.
    Sometimes I wish I were a wretched, starving, hopeful actor in Hollywood trying to get my big first break…it would be FAR easier in Hollywood than getting a book deal in today’s publishing industry! That being said, thank the Furies for small, indie publishers or I wouldn’t be published.

  41. I have two bad agent stories. When my first book was doing well in the stores and getting accolades, I contacted my agent and said I thought now was a good time to follow up with my editor about a second sale. She totally blew me off and when I phoned her, she continually interrupted me to tell me about her vacation. I gave up trying to get her to listen and emailed my editor myself. This agent had, by the way, allowed me to sign a boilerplate contract — no negotiation of ANY terms, and misrepresented its terms to me when I asked questions. This came back to haunt me years later, alas. At any rate, my book contract option required me to submit a completed MS, but as I found out when I contacted my editor, she was fine with me sending a synopsis and sample chapters, which I sent and she then made a offer. Shortly after that, I parted ways with that agent since I had by then questioned (privately) her effectiveness when I sold the 2nd book on my own. I came to bitterly regret the unnegotiated contract terms, not to mention I am still upset that she essentially lied to me about certain damaging terms.

    I obtained a new agent who sold a project for me then left to pursue another career. The agent who inherited me was . . . the black hole of all agents. I had an editor from a house ask me to write for her and an option proposal due to another editor. This new agent assured me she sent out my proposals, and the short version is that she never did. Over some months, I heard many excuses about why things had gone awry or amiss. So . . . after conversation with her did not result in any actual agenting on my behalf I parted ways with her. I lost over a year from my writing career as a result. See below. It wasn’t me.

    Six weeks after I signed with my current agent, one of the projects Agent #2 never submitted anywhere sold at auction and about 3 mos after that I had another contract to write for the editor who had asked to work with me.

    The right agent matters. A lot.

  42. I think the worst agent might end up being the first one…that I have right now. 😦

  43. I’ve made about 30 book sales, and I’ve made the majority of those sales myself, either because I couldn’t get an agent, was between agents, was working with agents who refused to send out my stuff (so I marketed my own work even -while- I was agented), and finally (in terms of my four most recent book sales) have quit the agent-author business model altogether.

    Like most people, I couldn’t find an agent willing to represent me back when I was an aspiring writer, so I wound up selling my first 9 books (all romance novels) on my own. At that point, once I had proven I was a steady earner and so there would apparently be no heavy lifting involved, NOW agents were interested when I started looking for one. However, the agent I settled on, after a lengthy research and interview process, dumped me after the first MS I gave him was rejected five times. (So much for the committed, long-term, career building relationship he has assured me I was getting into when I hired him. This was and is, btw, a high-profile agent frequently cited and quoted in Publishers Weekly and other trade journals.)

    And in my own experience with three more literary agents, five submissions was indeed the absolute maximum that any agent I ever worked with was willing to stick with a project. In most cases, actually, three was the maximum number of submissions they’d make before giving up; and on two memorable occasions, ONE was the number of rejections it took to convince an agent that a book was “unsaleable.”

    One of the areas of friction between me and my various agents was that I wasn’t willing to give up as easily as they did, and I didn’t accept their declarations as gospel when they said a book was unsaleable. And, yes, in most of those instances (not all; but most) I did indeed later sell the books that agents either declined to handle or gave up on so quickly.

    It was also my experience that agents got angry, petulant, accusatory, resentful, and even abusive when a book didn’t sell after 1-5 rejections. Indeed, throughout all of my dealings with literary agents (those whom I queried over the years, as well as the ones I worked with) the popular stereotype that an agent is businesslike and a writer is a temperamental flake proved to be untrue over and over and OVER. Two of my four agents were as volatile and tantrum-prone as toddlers (and when I say tantrums, this includes name-calling, screaming, and personal insults–typically inspired because I asked for a copy of a rejection letter, or asked where a submission would be sent next, or asked where a submission had been sent, etc.), and another threw several temperamental fits (not as dramatic as those tantrums I’ve just described) for similar reasons (i.e. I asked a question).

    After I fired one of my agents (someone still widely cited as a “top” agent and someone whom other writers say they “salivate” at the thought of getting to represent them, etc.) an editor told me I had made a good decision by leaving; the editor, now free of a conflict of interest, related to me how the agent had delberately and maliciously sabotaged an offer which I had gotten on the table after the agent had refused to send out the book on my behalf.

    I (foolishly, I now realize) hired my final agent after I’d already gotten a good offer on the table for a project which my previous agent had declared unsaleable. (I got the offer on my own, soon after leaving that previous agent.) My new agent “earned” the full commission on that deal, which was more than $10,000, by doing little more than making a couple of phone calls… and this, alas, turned out to be the most engaged this agent ever got in my career. The agent never got familiar with the material or my work, never paid any attention to the publishing relationship after that, let my next project sit around gathering dust for five months (and then got ANGRY at me when I politely nudged), declined to handle that next book anymore after ONE rejection, subsequently said I would have to pay her a commission even on books she didn’t handle, and then when the multi-book deal I’d gotten on the table myself before hiring her (the deal on which she’d collected a healthy commission for doing VERY little) was canceled due to weak sales on the first book… this agent treated me like a leper with halitosis. I could barely even FIND her after that, never mind get her head into the game. So I left; and the agent’s reaction was, “Good riddance.”

    I (foolishly, I now realize) tried to hire a fifth agent… but no one was interested. A couple of the ones I queried even favored me with the opinion that the material I was showing them was unsaleable. I decided (again) that I had a career to rescue and couldn’t waste more time on agents, so I sent out a sumission myself. I sold it to a major house within a few weeks, for a high-five-figures advance.

    Moreover, I know a steadily-growing number of experienced career novelists selling books to major markets WITHOUT AN AGENT these days because their previous agents weren’t willing to send out their stuff; and/or retired their stuff as “unsaleable” after 2-3 rejections; and/or turned over the client’s business almost entirely to a clueless assistant; and/or engaged in disreputable practices; and/or because these experienced career writers couldn’t even get a RESPONSE or ACKNOWLEDGEMENT from the agent’s they subsequently queried (while agents are meanwhile complaining all over the place about how much trouble they’re having making a living now). So these writers went out and sold their own books, as I do now… and, considering how much more money we keep when we’re not paying 15%, and how much better a literary lawyer is at negotiating contractual language than an agent… We’re all agreeing that it’s very hard to imagine the circumstances that would convince us to return to the agent-author business model, in which we pay such large fees to people who do so little (and, indeed, who increasingly turned out to be a BARRIER to our earning a living).

    Overall, since quitting the agent-author business model 3+ years ago, and in direct contrast to all the “conventional wisdom” about the business: My response times have improved; my advance levels and earnings have improved; my subrights income/business has improved.

    I am also experiencing MUCH LESS stress, MUCH LESS wasted time, MUCH less scattered or misplaced focus, and am currently in the happiest, most productive, and most profitable phase of my 20-year career to date.

    • It took a lot of guts, Laura, to write that with your real name. Thanks, enlightening. I’ve stopped using my real name here; too risky for me with my book being so close right now. And I’ll sleep better this way. I’m writing this from my Dad’s computer in Florida, and what should be sitting on the shelf but JUST KIDS, which I gave him. Betsy’s the best, can’t imagine anyone complaining about her in this way.

      • Green Ray, I have a monthly opinion column where I’ve written about this subject any number of times, I’ve talked about it in keynote speeches in front of hundreds of people, I’ve written about it in guest blogs and online discussions. My views (and my experiences) in this area have been public for several years. And (speaking as a longtime opinion columnist) I don’t believe in opining in public -without- using one’s real name; freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from responsibility for what I choose to say in public.

  44. I am loving this whole discussion, except for the people who claim to be mystified or shocked. Maybe it only makes sense if you have worked with many different agents for many years. I had one who – with a straight face – tried to sell me English rights to Western genre paperbacks that were written in German. Translation not provided. I’ve worked with an agent who is as dumb as a box of hair, an agent who would only make phone calls from a taxi because she was so busy and important, and an agent who gives all her actual work to the 12 year olds in her office. These days I am a freelance editor and writer. When I was editing a book for a Christian writer, an agent suggested adding more Muslim blogs to the proposal to widen the audience. Another send out a submission with no cover letter other than “as we discussed.” Some days you have to remind yourself it’s them, not you.

  45. My ex agent told every one on twitter that she had retiered. However she hadn’t bothered to tell me, I found out about it on twitter. When I called to talk to her about what it meant for my manuscript she asked me, how had I found out. She was speechless when I told her. We parted ways soon after. * SIgh*

  46. Oh! I just remembered a weird agent story. I got a rejection letter and a phone call offering representation from the same agent on the same day. When I told her about the rejection, she called her assistant a moron for sending it. I thought she was a moron for calling her assistant a moron and said thanks but no thanks. I wonder what she calls her authors.

  47. Oh, Betsy, did you have any idea what you were unleashing here? Deal and Loathing. You say you are proud of the job you do for your clients. ‘Nuf said. The rest is Betsy being Betsy. And that is why we read you.

  48. My ex-agent went on a drunken paranoid rage and told me I was a piece of shit and couldn’t write worth a damn and I’d never get anywhere because my writing sucked.

    That was nice.

    • Sounds all too familiar. One of my former agents declared I was a self-destructive person (because I had just fired this agent) who’d go nowhere (that was, oh, about 20 book sales ago, and at a time when my advances were 1/5 of what they are now). Another of my agents told me I was lazy, crazy, mediocre, grade B, and had never accomplished anything in my career (and then seemed surprised when I decided to leave–so apparently there are writers who STAY with agents who talk to them that way?).

      • I toned that down. BEFORE the drunken paranoid rampage came the really odd drunken accusatory letter in which I was compared to Hitler. True story.

        THEN, the phone rang. And things got interesting.

        My absolute favorite part of the conversation was where agent wished on me a new “woman agent” because “they are all married to rich men and can afford to give a crap about their authors and don’t have to work as hard as male agents” and waxed on that for about five minutes. Those are the times your really wish you’d taped the phone call.

        That was a classic.

  49. Neither of my agents ever did anything to help with my books after the initial sales – they refused to speak to editors about issues I was having with covers, marketing plans, etc. You’d think after investing time in placing a book an agent would want to help make it a success, which would lead to more sales and income for her, not to mention a boost for my career, which would also lead to more sales and income for her. … On another note, I think Betsy must be extraordinary. She once rejected me because she was already representing the author of a book on a similar topic, but she took the time to refer me to other agents she thought might be interested. Class and kindness: that’s what’s missing from most agents.

  50. We are all masochists….time to change the agent-author relationship. With we have written here (excpet for Betsy) it’s time writers take charge….we buy into some agents’ crap. While waiting for response from agents, I’ve started my own Press…it’s so easy to do now days and yes, how you gonna promote yourself….well, dig in…it’s better than waiting years and years and having to resort to ativan.

  51. The central problem of the agent-author pardigm is that here is a business model in which a writer entrusts her paperwork, her MONEY, her contractual negotiations, her professional representation in the industry, and her business as a writer to… a person who has no standardized training for this position, no specific education for this position, no formal qualifications whatsoever, no licensing, and no effective form of oversight or accountability.

    That’s a formula for widespread and consistent problems with the business model right there–and a key reason there are always so MANY agent horror stories, and horror stories about almost every agent in the industry. The problem is not that all writer are whiny and childish, or that all agents are bad people; the problem is that the business model is so flawed that it’s at LEAST as likely (and I would say MORE so, actually) to malfuction than it is to work well.

    In the agent-author business model, the role of the literary agent is to be: knowledgeable about the marketplace and intuitive about the tastes of editors; savvy about the commerciality and fiscal value of MSs; the successful cultivator of a network of professional contacts; a dedicated and resourceful salesperson; an expert in the legal language of publishing contracts; a skilled negotiator; a good editor; a capable administrator; a shrewd career strategist and advisor; and the client’s steadfast true believer when the chips are down.

    The credibility of the agent-author business model (as well as its undeniable seduction) relies on the fact that almost every agent who’s competent enough to stay in the business for any length of time does manage to fulfill much of this daunting description for some (or at least one) of his clients. But no agent, no matter how extraordinary an individual, can fulfill that description for all thirty, fifty, or seventy writers on his client list. Yet every writer on that list expects the agent to fulfill a significant portion of this description for her; and there aren’t any items in this description which no client expects an agent to fulfill.

    A business model which relies on a large number of individuals (literary agents) to fulfill that complex and comprehensive a role for a much larger number of individuals (their clients), and to do so with no standardized training or specific qualifications, and no licensing or effective system of oversight… is a deeply flawed paradigm.

    And if you happen to be (as I am, ever since going public several years ago about my struggles with this business model and my decision to shed it from my writing career) a recipient of private negative-agent-experience anecdotes from writers far and wide, you soon realize that most agents are failing to fill that daunting role for a much larger percentage of clients than is generally known or acknowledged.

  52. No “worsts” actually…..years ago, I got a very nice hand-written rejection from the legendary Molly Friedrich (I still have it). Then, just last year, got a very nice email rejection from Nathan Bransford (it got lost in the delete cycle). Anyway, I self-publish now. Why? Because I simply don’t have months to waste waiting for an agent to reply. Whether I’m working on another project or not, makes no never mind. Ask my husband. Impatience is my middle name…

  53. About five years back, I working with an agent who said, “If you were here, and I had my gun right now, I’d shoot you,” because he heard I was talking with another agent. I should mention that I only started talking with the other agent after the gun-toter ignore phone calls and emails about a month after I turned in a proposal he pressured me to finish TOMORROW.

    • He should have had his license revoked for talking to a client that way.

      Oh, WAIT… It’s coming back to me now. Literary agents don’t HAVE licenses. They handle writers’ MONEY and legal transactions without any sort of license, standardized training, formal qualifications, specific education, accountability, or effective form of oversight. So an agent can ignore your calls and emails for a month, then threaten to shoot you, and go right on receiving YOUR money after such behavior, as well as collecting 15% of it.

      • As it turned out, I bailed on him (naturally), and he never sold the project, so fortunately, that wasn’t an issue. And yes, he’s still agenting.

  54. First – Betsy awesome post as always, hope you’re not done for the holidays, you’re like a shot of rum in the coffee first thing in the morning – great way to start the day.

    Laura – I agree with what you said about the role of the agent – you described it extremely well- but a license doesn’t mean competence. It’s like any profession – doctor lawyer contractor – there’s horror stories everywhere. If as a potential client you don’t educate yourself first you can get royally screwed. You’ve clearly done well on your own – not that you want to do your own brain surgery next. I’ve been fortunate to have an agent who does all the things you describe – but I know she’ll put more effort behind her big name authors than me, who have yet to prove myself. And I’m cool with that – I consider her a good business friend but it’s still a business and she is a professional, licensed or not

  55. Oh, boy. Now I’m scared. I do not have any agent stories. I do not have an agent…yet. Should I be scared? I am a naive lamb…

  56. I have to add a boring No Bad Agent Stories entry, just for fairness to anyone keeping score. I truly don’t have one.

    My first agent, prior to Betsy, was pretty hot at the time, but way too commercially-oriented and not really interested in the quality of the work. I started regretting my choice early on, and parted company after a year.

    I can’t accuse him of doing a single thing wrong–just being a bad fit for me. And that was my fault. I was too eager to land any big agent, married up to the first one I dated.

    Most of my friends have been happy with their agents too, though several of us took two tries–nearly always the same story of marrying too soon.

  57. But you have Betsy!!!!! What’s to complain about?

  58. You lose the internet for four days and you miss everything. ::sighs and returns to her cave::

  59. The unknown agent who loves one of my books and wants to make it into a cartoon for TV and needs five copies mailed to him in the US immediately to take to a meeting. And is never heard from again and never returns emails.
    Yeah… won’t fall for that one again. Who, in their right mind would concoct a story like that to steal children’s books? Was he a desperate teacher trying to stock a school library? Did he think I got them for free or something? At least I hope the children who eventually got them enjoyed them.
    It’s not an agent story. It’s a scam artist story. Sorry. Altho, there is a slim chance he was legit and just damn rude.

  60. More agent weirdness, part one. Updates to follow throughout the week. Enjoy. And try not to pee your pants laughing. Or throw your computer out the window, one or the other.


  61. Congratulations to you and Erin! The PM blurb made it a must-buy for me.

  62. So sorry to hear all the agent horror stories. It is so not fun to get rejected or feel used! But I’m laying odds if we were at a party with several agents we’d hear some writer horror stories to make us blush Santa hat red. I’ve had several agents over my career (sometimes it takes a while to find the perfect fit). All were hard-working and great to do business with. And my current agent Paige Wheeler at Folio rocks. So newbies, don’t be afraid. But do your homework and learn who represents what. And write something an agent can sell. Yes, I know. How basic is that? But how often do we write something that just doesn’t fit the market and then blame those nasty agents for their lack of taste?

  63. Funny guys, especially Sally.

    Hey Sally, you do stand up? (Comedy I mean . . .)

    With MS finished . . . feels like I’m about to go head to head with Ripley’s aliens.

  64. Your elected officials to let them know you will not tolerate this!

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