What My Literary Agent Got Me

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Why would an agent ghost a client?

Now there’s a baffling question.

Aren’t we always told (in no uncertain terms) that a literary agent and a writer are business partners? And if so, shouldn’t open communication be a part of this relationship?

Still, in recent weeks, there’s been some hubbub over the fraught relationship between literary agents and the authors they represent.

In fact, ghosting was just one accusation leveled against superstar literary agent, Brooks Sherman. In a now deleted post on Querytracker, a former client alleges that Sherman stopped responding to their e-mails once their novel wasn’t picked-up by a publisher. When the writer attempted to sever their “working” relationship, Sherman never responded.

The allegations against Sherman, however, didn’t stop there. There was another, more chilling one posted on QueryTracker. Here, the anonymous denouncer mentions how Brooks Sherman lied about submitting manuscripts, lied about submitting for foreign rights, failed to give editorial feedback, and even neglected to read client manuscripts.

I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Brooks Sherman is concerned. But the truth is, most of it will remain secret, or spoken about in whisper networks.

The reason I’ve been following this closely is because I queried Mr. Sherman at the beginning of February. In fact, the second allegation I mentioned was already in the comments. Thinking back, why hadn’t I stopped to consider it? Why did it not give me pause before I went ahead and queried the guy?

Probably because agents are the gatekeepers to traditional publishing. In fact, they are the first of many you’ll encounter on that journey. This gives an agent power. It even creates a power imbalance between the agent and his or her client. Any such partnership will be an unequal one, especially at the beginning. Which explains why all the allegations have been anonymous. Power can silence people.

It’s no surprise then that many publishing industry insiders have just swept this scandal under the rug. We’ve been warned many a time that there are agents and there are schmagents. I call this the bad apple defense of the publishing industry. Just take out the few bad ones before the whole barrel goes bad, and everything will be fine.

But I think Brooks Sherman is too high profile to be considered a mere schmagent. From what I can tell, he’s an agent to some and a schmagent to others. This isn’t too surprising for someone like me who comes from academia. We all know that some Ph.D. advisors are mentors and some are schmentors. And most are like Brooks Sherman: mentors to some; schmentors to others.

But why would an agent even behave in this way? What do they get out of it?

I have no idea. My guess is that they think they’ve found you, and therefore have some claim over you- on the off chance you create something truly marketable. It’s kind of like a conquistador sticking a flag in a continent. They don’t know exactly what’s there, but by God, they own it.

But that’s just a guess.

What I’ve really been pondering is what the agent- writer relationship is really like. Is it what people say? Is it a partnership?

An Agent Represent a Writer

While on Twitter, I came across a tweet thread posted by romance writer, Courtney Milan. It really spoke to me because I’m just the silly sort of writer she’s describing. I believe “A bad agent is better than no agent.”

Courtney Milan on agents and the writers they represent

My logic: having an agent means at least you’re in the game.

Milan then goes ahead and demolishes that line of thinking. I believe she is a lawyer, which explains why she’s so amazing at constructing arguments.

But towards the end, her tweet thread becomes even more interesting. She writes:

“One of the most painful things that agents do is treat the publisher as if they are the client, and themselves as talent scouts. This person might get you a deal, but it will bite you.

The agent who thinks that their relationship with a publisher is more important than their relationship with an author is not functioning as an agent.

Your agent represents YOU. Period.”

How sure that “Period” is!

But is this true? Does an agent represent you, the writer, and not the publishing house? As I said, Milan is a lawyer, and lawyers represent their clients. In fact, they have no relationship with the entity opposing you in a case. It’s possible Milan thinks that the relationship between an agent and a writer is similar. It makes sense. The more money an agent can bring in to his client, the more money they themselves make. Win-win.

But is this how agenting really works? I mean, we may want it to work that way. The actual truth, however, may be something different.

In fact, I’ve always considered an agent an adjunct to the publishing house. Once upon a time, publishers read their own slush piles. Nowadays, this is outsourced, and an agent mines this mountain of manuscripts and extracts whatever gold they can.

What I think is that literary agents are more like estate agents. Sure, estate agents drive clients around and help them find their dream homes, but in reality, they work for the property seller. Of course, this analogy doesn’t work either. If we overlay this analogy atop of the writer-agent-publisher scenario, the writer is both the client looking for the new house and the house/ property itself.

And boy, wouldn’t that be twisted.

What Publishers Paid Me

We may, however, not want to believe agent’s relationships to publishing is stronger than it is with their clients. And who know? Possibly, it’s not. I’ve never traditionally published a thing. I also suspect I never will.

But my free associating mind made me think of that Twitter hashtag: what publishers paid me.

This hashtag brought to light the large discrepancies between advances given out to white and non-white writers.

What really struck me is that no one blamed their agent.

Why wasn’t the rallying cry, “#Whatmyagentgotme”? Surely, it’s the agent who negotiates the advance (and everything else).

But that’s probably because everyone knows that the publisher has the real power. And the agent is his man.

Let me know what you think about all this in the comments below.

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