Writing and the Whisper Network

Image by Sam Williams from Pixabay

Last weekend, all hell broke loose over a scandal involving New Leaf Literary Agency. New Leaf abruptly axed an agent and that agent’s entire client list on Friday night at around 10:30 pm. Happy weekend!

If that “Friday News Dump” approach was meant to minimize the impact of this news, it really didn’t work. Twitter was, as they say, atwitter. New Leaf is A Very Big Deal, representing some authorial superstars—Cassandra Clare, Leigh Bardugo, and Veronica Roth, for starters. 

It turns out this isn’t the first time New Leaf has done this. It’s just the first time someone got mad enough to risk bringing it to Twitter. How come nobody ever talked about it before? 

When you enter the querying trenches as a newbie, you learn two things very quickly: 

1. You absolutely must do your due diligence when researching agents because a bad agent is worse than no agent at all, and;

2. Don’t you DARE say anything publicly about bad experiences you’ve had with an agent, because agents, editors, and publishers talk and you just might get yourself blacklisted for being difficult. 

If those two things sound a wee bit contradictory, that’s because they are. And it’s frustrating as hell. You’ll only learn certain things if you’re keyed into the various whisper networks around the Internet. And that’s hardly fair to those of us who are not well connected. Mostly, it protects the bad actors and predators (in every sense of that word) who lurk around publishing. 

All the talk about New Leaf reminds me of something from years ago that irks me to this day. Before I start, please know: I had a great experience with Pitch Wars. I think I’ve been abundantly clear Tidepool would not be the book it is if it weren’t for PW. I don’t mean to shame anyone or make them feel bad.

But this incident was frustrating. 

(Can you tell that even now, I’m a bit nervous about posting this?)

As the agent showcase approached and we prepared to query with our Pitch Wars books, my PW class had the same issue any writer does: How do you figure out what various agents are like to work with? 

Our private Facebook group came up with the idea of an agent spreadsheet. Some of us had already been agented and some of us had worked at agencies or with publishers, and this could be a handy central resource to share experiences, positive and negative. 

So that the spreadsheet wouldn’t devolve into a gossipy snarkfest, we agreed that if you had a negative experience to share, you’d put “PM (private message) me for details” as your entry for a given agent. That way, the negative info wouldn’t appear on the spreadsheet that was only for the use of our private group. (Notice how I keep stressing “private”? That’s about to be really funny.) 

If you’ve been on the Internet for more than five minutes, you can probably guess what happened next: Some snitch (we never did find out who) sent the spreadsheet to the agents being discussed—and to Pitch Wars staff.  Yes, I’m well aware there’s no such thing as a truly private forum anywhere online. But I still thought this was an unnecessary, shit-stirring thing to do. 

And as a result, we got thoroughly chewed out and shamed for having the bare-faced effrontery to…try to do the due diligence everyone tells querying authors they must do? In a private forum that nobody but my PW group had access to? 

… Seriously?

To this day I don’t think we did anything wrong. But our agent showcase was coming up fast and nobody wanted to jeopardize our shot at this major thing we’d all been working so hard for, so the spreadsheet got deleted. The taboo against sharing negative information about agents and agencies is that strong. 

But what a curious mixed message, no? “Do your due diligence, writers, because a bad agent is worse than no agent! But how dare you share information between yourselves?” 

TLDR: I truly hate that it’s only OK to share negative info about agents or agencies after they’ve had a big public relations disaster and lots of people are angry at them. If I’d had any idea New Leaf was in the habit of dropping agents and their entire lists if those authors weren’t big earners, I’d never have bothered to query them. But nobody talked about this until New Leaf did it enough that the bad news hit critical mass and everyone started talking at once. 

What’s my solution to all this? I don’t really have one. But I do have some recommendations. The Bewares and Background Check forum over at Absolute Write is still apparently the one place in the universe where people are allowed to publicly share information about agents without the entire Internet falling on their heads, so if you’re researching an agent, I’d check there. Note: An agent having a thread there does not mean they’re a bad agent. It just means someone’s asked about them. People share positive things as well as negatives. 

Also, it’s worth contacting Writer Beware to see if they have any information about an agent or agency you’re considering. Or if you yourself have a bad experience to share. Don’t worry—Victoria Strauss is no snitch. She’s very good at keeping things confidential. 

Beyond that,  I just don’t know. For whatever it’s worth, the displaced New Leaf authors (and agent) have my sympathy.

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