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Agents behaving badly

There’s a double standard in the writing industry. Agents complain about writers all the time–if you check an agent’s Twitter feed or blog, there’s bound to be some not-so-nice comments about the writers who query him or her.

But if a writer wants to complain about an agent who behaved inappropriately? Cue the backlash. With the fears about being branded difficult to work with, or the risk of getting on some fabled blacklist, most writers stay quiet when an agent has done them wrong, sharing their experience only with close writer friends.

Yes, writers are querying agents–not the other way around. But that doesn’t give agents the right to treat writers with less respect than the neighbourhood barista. So, under the cloak of anonymity, here are some scary true stories of agents behaving badly. The next time an agent slights you, reread this post with a glass of wine and know You Are Not Alone.

The rejection from hell

“I once had an agent send back my query with a big red NO written on it. Priceless.”

“I had an agent tell me my full read like I wrote with a thesaurus and was ‘trying to sound better than I actually was at writing.’ And to ‘consider another profession if this was going to be my full time goal.’”

“The agent actually used my own SASE to send me an ad for his ‘How to Get Published’ book. I kid you not.”

The almost agent

Rejecting authors, many of whom are really nice people, must be tough. Still, that’s no excuse to lead a writer on. It’s much better to just say no. Imagine thinking you’ve landed an agent, only to have this happen…

“My ex-agent listed editors he knew would love my book when we first met, couldn’t wait to get me out on sub, suggested this and that to improve the manuscript. I sent it back revised, didn’t hear (from him) for months, emailed him to be told maybe my third or fourth book might be ready to sub out to editors but not this one! Then, when I brought up our first meeting, denied it ever happened.”

“I got a full request and an email six months later that said she loved the book and wanted to offer rep but her client list was too full and to check back in a few months. Okay, odd. But I was so excited and naive. I emailed back a few months later to check like she asked and the email returned as undeliverable. I searched but the agent and agency was gone. To this day, I have no idea (what happened) since the agency page had sales and clients. It looked real. Glad I never had to work with that agent!”

One writer had actually signed a contract of representation with this agent when she received the following rejection from him:

“I have come to the conclusion that I can’t represent your work. My enthusiasm for the project is not where it should be. I am not the right agent for you. I am very sorry to write you with this news. My greatest hope is that you can resubmit to agents that might be more dedicated to the task of finding you a good publisher.”

Do you ever get the feeling they didn’t read your manuscript?

“Had an agent tell me once that they didn’t understand why my character was a lesbian dating a guy, so she couldn’t comprehend the love story, and that the voice sounded middle grade like Harry Potter since it was written in British English. The character in question was a gay male who had a make-out session with his boyfriend, and boners (plural) were mentioned.”

“‘It reads like you’re trying really hard to capture the idea of what a black, sporty teenager from the South sounds like, instead of trying to sound like Adam, the character, telling the story. It doesn’t sound natural, and it makes for an awkward and distracting read.’ The best part? My MC wasn’t black. He was Persian. And literally in the first paragraph of the MS, he said something about his mother being from Tehran.”

The stand-up routine

“My agent routinely stood me up for the most bizarre reasons. Whenever we had a phone call scheduled, it would rain in New York, which–according to her–made the power go out and rendered all phone lines useless. Whenever we actually did talk, her husband would suddenly call on the other line and she’d have to let me go.”

“Back when I was querying my first book, an agent wanted to talk. I got super excited, and we scheduled a time. Then a hurricane hit NYC and she (understandably) asked for a reschedule. I said ‘Sure!’ We rescheduled once, then twice. Then, after I’d rearranged my classes/project deliveries to be able to make the call, I’m home, waiting, and instead of a phone ringing, I get an e-mail saying, ‘Not ready to offer rep yet, but look for my notes soon.’ It really hurt. I wasn’t expecting rep (rather, I was expecting an R&R), but to go around all those hoops to have her cancel LAST MINUTE? Jesus, you could’ve just talked to me and asked for an R&R. Also, I never got the notes.”

Bad behaviour to the extreme

“The agent tweeted a line from my manuscript, but completely twisted the context to make a funny joke on social media.”

“He held on to author checks when he miscalculated his own finances and needed money to get by.”

Do you have a story of an agent behaving badly that you’d like to share? If you’d like to share it anonymously, feel free to contact me via email or Facebook and I’ll add it as an anonymous comment if you can’t. What’s the worst story about the publishing industry you’ve ever heard?

PS…You can listen to the first episode of The Write Cast on Soundcloud. We’re talking writing retreats and conferences: friend or foe?

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41 Comments

  1. Alex J. Cavanaugh

    Those are bad. I’m sure there is a list of publishers doing similar things.
    Considering it’s a partnership – yes the agent has to agree to work with you but you are technically hiring them – both parties should be professional.

    Reply
    • JH

      I agree, Alex.

      Reply
  2. Dianne Salerni

    An agent told me that a never-ending option clause in my self-negotiated contract for my first, un-agented book would prevent any agent from signing me on, ever. Cue hysteria.

    Two months later, the agent who offered me representation got that clause stripped from my contract with one phone call.

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow! I’m really glad you didn’t listen and kept trying until you found good representation, Dianne.

      Thanks for sharing your story.

      Reply
  3. Lisa S.

    Looks like there’s a healthy dose of unprofessional agents out there.
    To me, as an outsider, it seems like finding the right agent is like finding a significant other. You have to go through a lot of undesirables in order to finally make a good connection. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s EXACTLY like that, Lisa. Good call!

      Reply
  4. N. R. Williams

    Greetings
    I have a nightmare experience. I met the prospective agent at a conference pitch. I’d done it before so I had my line memorized. She said, “How long have you been a member of this group?” I answered. “And…you’re still not published!?!” she said. The room, full of other agents and authors became extremely quiet. Everyone heard her. I felt humiliated.

    After that, I decided to self publish on Amazon since e-books were a new thing. I’ve got a lot of great reviews. I will never seek and agent or publisher again. They’ll have to come to me.
    Nancy

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s terrible, Nancy! And tacky. I can only imagine how humiliating that must have been.

      Good for you for taking things into your own hands. Publishing well is the best revenge. 🙂

      Reply
  5. Madeline Mora-Summonte

    Many years ago, back in the day of SASEs, I received a form rejection for a manuscript. At the top it said, “Dear ______:” and on the line where my name should’ve been was the word Lady. So, I was “Dear Lady:” Someone couldn’t even be bothered to write my name. And this was before I was married so my name was much shorter! 🙂

    But, hey, I can laugh about it now. 🙂

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow. Can you imagine the reaction if a writer did that to an agent, Madeline? They’d be the laughing stock of Twitter.

      That said, I miss the days when agents would bother to send a form rejection instead of ignoring us.

      Reply
  6. C. Lee McKenzie

    I had a list of questions for the agent before I signed. I know she read most of my book–enough to take me on with a publisher in mind. She told me. So we started off with honesty.

    The worst rejection I ever received came on an uneven and small piece of scrap paper. It looked as if it had been fed through a typewriter (Courier 12) but not so the words went across the page–more of a diagonal. I shook my head remembering the care I’d taken to submit my query.

    Reply
    • JH

      Did you keep it, Lee? Sounds like a good memento of your publishing journey.

      At least it wasn’t a Post-it note…

      Reply
  7. Heather M. Gardner

    Ugh.

    I know an author that just got dropped by her agent because they ‘didn’t feel like being an agent anymore’. She dropped 20 other authors too.

    It’s crazy out there.

    Heather

    Reply
    • JH

      Oh no! That’s terrible.

      My publisher just closed its doors. Perhaps we could start a support group?

      Reply
  8. L.G. Keltner

    Yikes! I hope I never have to deal with any of that, but if I do, at least I’ll know it’s not just me.

    Reply
    • JH

      Welcome, L.G.! I hope so too, but if this post cheered up just one person, it’s more than worth it.

      The publishing industry is rough. Sometimes you’ve gotta laugh.

      Reply
  9. Lexa Cain

    I belong to Verla Kay’s Blueboards and there’s a part of the forum where authors can post anonymously with problems they’re having with agents or publishers. Oh! The stories I’ve read! Also I personally know plenty of authors who’ve “parted ways” with their agents (the pc way to say “fired their agent”), plus plenty of publishers who’ve behaved badly. Getting an agent isn’t the brass ring writers think it is. Often getting pubbed by a house (big or small) isn’t either.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sad but true, Lexa. I’m one of those who’s had to fire an agent. Since I’ve been on the query-go-round again, I’ve been shocked at the bad behaviour, but also pleasantly surprised by the amazing agents who have spent hours giving me helpful feedback. There are some good ones out there.

      The worst is the ones who request a full from you at conferences and then never bother to respond.

      Reply
  10. Michelle Wallace

    Sounds like a jungle out there.
    It seems like agents can get away with a lot…but not authors. Not fair.

    Reply
    • JH

      It’s not fair at all, Michelle. If any author was half as snarky as some agents are, he or she would be blacklisted automatically.

      Reply
  11. L. Diane Wolfe

    I’ve seen agents Tweeting lines from manuscripts or bashing them. It just seems like a really bad idea. Without writers sending them manuscripts, they don’t have a job.

    Reply
    • Elias McClellan

      Thank you!

      Reply
    • JH

      I agree. It gets especially nasty on Twitter. Hashtags like #tenqueries can be used to give valuable feedback, but all too often they devolve into making fun of authors.

      And those stupid joke accounts make me cringe.

      Reply
  12. Elias McClellan

    Super Agent reads offers me representation. But he doesn’t do contracts, he does verbal agreements. Says we need to work on revisions. Then says he’s gotta rep actress XYZ on her diet book. Then he’s gotta take a meeting in LA to rep another client on the movie deal of her book. At this point, I know the movie deal–AND THE MOVIE–was already done because the movie had a release date.

    Then, I stop getting responses to email. Then he doesn’t return my phone calls. I sent a certified letter “severing” our association. Last I heard, he’d closed his agency and was back working for someone else. Like most of these stories I consider this a bullet dodged.

    Except for that “holding checks” bit. That one makes gives me a case of the stabbies.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s terrible, Elias! Some agents end up going with celebrity books only, because they’re an easy sell.

      I’m really sorry you went through that. I hope things are a lot better now. I’d consider that a HUGE bullet dodged.

      Reply
  13. Patricia Lynne

    There was one agent I followed years ago on Twitter. What made me unfollow him was he tweeted about the manuscripts he was reading and some of his comments on the ones he was passing on were VERY rude and demeaning.

    Reply
    • JH

      I’ve seen that happen so often on Twitter. What started out as a great idea (#tenqueries) can be used for evil, unfortunately.

      Reply
  14. Roland Yeomans

    I got back an agent query with no rejection slip — just a muddy footprint on my letter. Subtle, right? 🙂 Like Nancy, I will never seek agent representation though for foreign rights, movie rights, translation rights they are good. But how often do those come up with newbies? Interesting post, Roland

    Reply
    • JH

      Wow, Roland, that’s a new low. “I’m just going to use his query letter as a napkin and mail it back. That’ll show him.”

      I’m really, really hoping that was a mistake on the agent’s part.

      Reply
  15. Chrys Fey

    This is cringe worthy. If writers have to be respectful to agents then agents should be respectful back. They are not superior. I can’t believe they actually tweet lines from manuscripts. Being rejected is harsh enough. Now we have to be embarrassed publicly too?

    Reply
    • JH

      Apparently so, Chrys. Those agents immediately make it onto my “Do Not Query” list. Not to mention I’d prefer an agent who doesn’t spend a ton of time on social media.

      Reply
  16. Birgit

    I am not surprised by his but it is still sad. It just shows how many charlatans are out there no matter in which area we need to go to. I guess the best is to read up on the person or place and get references. How sad..

    Reply
    • JH

      For sure, Birgit. At least you can find out a lot about an agent by just watching how he or she acts online. Some people I was really excited about have proven to be crude, offensive, and completely inappropriate, while others I wouldn’t have queried seem like amazing people.

      The Internet is our friend in this case.

      Reply
  17. Janet Reid

    If you believe your agent is holding money for longer than the allowable time period (about ten days for domestic funds), you can instruct the publisher to pay you directly. It’s called “splitting.” The publisher pays you and pays your agent the contractual commission.
    Your editor can help you do this.

    Also, there’s no such thing as a black list. Really.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Janet! It’s great to have an agent weigh in, especially an agent who spends a ton of time helping writers.

      That’s good to know about splitting. As for the blacklist, I wish that were true, but I’m not sure. It’s a small community, and people talk. I think that if a prominent agent had a hate-on for a writer, it would get around pretty fast.

      Reply
  18. Sessha Batto

    I had an agent request a full read, then suggest rewrites. When I sent the rewritten MS the return email subject line was RE: your spam. Needless to say that was my last attempt to contact her. Six months later she emailed me to ask where the MS was…quite cattily I replied with the same subject line she had sent me and let her know I had already found a publisher 😉

    Reply
    • JH

      That is just bizarre. I hope it was a mistake, but I’m glad you got revenge in the end.

      I wonder how many writers have fantasized about writing a rejection letter to an agent? I’m guessing just about all of us….

      Reply
  19. Damyanti

    I’m glad I read this: going into the process, I’ll know what to be wary of, and never ever to set my expectations to high. I have heard some very good stories about agents too, so there’s that.

    Reply
    • JH

      For sure – there are some great ones out there. It’s just easier to land one when you already have a “name.”

      I’m glad this post helped you. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  20. Tamara Narayan

    This was an eye-opening post. Getting an agent seems like a dream come true, but obviously that isn’t always the case. Thanks for sharing these stories.

    Reply
    • JH

      Thank you for reading, Tamara. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

      Reply

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