As I’ve talked about before, I wasted a year of my career with a schmagent—a well-meaning individual who starts a literary agency despite having no prior experience in the field and no clue what literary agents do beyond the most basic things. I got off pretty easy in the long run, and the book she signed eventually found a home (no thanks to her) and will come out next year. But it was humiliating when the news about her nuking the agency blew up on Twitter and I had to see people saying “Well, what did those authors expect?”
So I’d like to help some of you not make that same mistake.
Because there’s no formal process to become a literary agent—no licensing exam, no college certification— anyone can call themselves an agent. I could start The Nicole Willson Literary Agency tomorrow if I felt like it. And some well-meaning people think all they need to do is announce their new agencies, sign authors, send manuscripts off to the Big 5, and wait for those big offers and juicy advances to start rolling in. If they’re feeling really fancy, maybe they’ll rope in a few similarly unqualified pals to be associate agents. These people are not scammers; they’re clueless. But they’ll still waste your time.
During every pitch contest, I see a few more of these DIY agents emerge. And they get clients. Lots of clients, even. And I understand. Querying is a long, long, LONG slog for a lot of people. When someone offers you rep after you’ve heard Thanks but this isn’t for me so many times, it’s so tempting to sign and cross your fingers even if the offering agent is brand new to the business.
So just be aware: If you sign with one of these inexperienced people, you’re playing the Agented Author Roleplaying Game. Your agent is performing a cheap knockoff version of what competent, experienced literary agents do for their clients. Signing with them may make you feel like you’ve leveled up, but it’s highly unlikely to do much good for your career.
Sure, you can say you’re an agented author. People who don’t know the difference between a good agent and a bad one will be duly impressed, maybe even jealous. People who do know the difference will shake their heads in dismay when they see your signing announcement on social media.
Your agent might do their best to find your book a home, but the likelihood of that home being at a top publisher approaches zero. Your agent won’t have the crucial industry knowledge they’d learn if they’d worked with a reputable agency first. They won’t have the benefit of experienced mentors. They won’t have contacts with acquiring editors at publishing houses. They won’t know how to negotiate a strong contract. They may not bother to edit your manuscript before sending it out. Hell, they may not even know what kind of editing your work needs.
And they may submit your book to the kind of publisher who’d make a good agent hold up a cross and scream. I’m stunned whenever I research an agent’s record and see they’ve made sales to publishers who have a miles-long thread full of dire warnings at the Bewares and Background Check forum over at Absolute Write. These people clearly think any book deal is better than no book deal, and that’s a mistake no competent agent would ever make.
Maybe your agent will find your book a home with a decent small publisher. I love small publishers! But you don’t need an agent to work with them. And generally, you won’t get much of an advance (if any) with a small publisher. Why would you want to give someone a cut of what’s likely to be a fairly small sum for a deal you could have swung yourself? It’s fine for an agent to make an occasional sale to a small publisher, but if they’ve been in business for a couple years and those are the only deals they’ve ever made, that’s a red flag.
But hey, who am I to rain on your parade? If nothing I described above sounds like a deal-breaker for you, go ahead and play.
On the other hand, if you want an agent who can sell your book to a bigger, reputable publisher who doesn’t have open submissions? Then this game won’t serve you well. Presumably, you want an agent to get your book into publishing houses you couldn’t get into yourself. A schmagent is very unlikely to help you do that, however nice and well-meaning they may be.
None of this is to say that well-established literary agencies with rockstar-level agents are free of problems either. Of course they aren’t! But at least with them, your book has a reasonable chance of getting somewhere you couldn’t get it on your own.