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The Myth of the "Expert"

Posted on 2008.12.30 at 01:50
Tags: , , ,
This post, I fear, has been a long time coming. Me, I tend to lurk quietly on the "professional" side of blogging, unless I'm talking about myself (my Virgo Type A personality's most favoritest thing evar!) or someone specifically asks for advice. I read industry blogs widely, though, and sometimes things I see that are erroneous or harmful or just plain wrong-headed that I squirrel away and eventually, build up to critical mass. This is one of those times.

Here's the truth--as a new writer, you really need an agent. You could lose count of the myriad ways to be screwed without one, and let's face it, paying someone 15% commission to decipher legalese, negotiate subrights and beg editors for extensions on our behalf is worth every damn penny.

But here also is the truth: All agents are not created equal.

Setting aside the fee-charging and outright scam agents, there still exists a vast spectrum of representation, from top-notch to pretty okay to incompetent. It can be very, very hard to tell these three apart and ten times as hard to figure out what agent is the best fit for your novel. Largely, I see in my travels hither and thither on the web, because of the positioning of so-called "experts". These experts can be the agents themselves, their assistants, editors of the small and large press, editorial assistants of the small and large press, mailroom clerks, poodles...you name it. It's easy to blog, and it's equally easy, if you are an incompetent or inexperienced agent/editor/poodle, to lead newbie authors astray.

I'm all in favor of industry blogs. I read Miss Snark every day when she was blogging. My own Agent Rachel used to blog and has plans to begin again. I enjoy Nice Mommy, Evil Editor, an editrix from Samhain who's entries are informative and hilarious and Nathan Bransford's no-nonsense style, just to name a few.

But these are real experts. Their credentials are readily available for vetting and they have years of industry experience. These are not the self-styled "experts" that pass bad advice and make me yank out clumps of hair in Internet Rage. I know that in a world where many of us don't subscribe to Deal Lunch, wherein it's easy to see who's selling and acquiring (for real) and who's doing this as a nice hobby in between knitting projects, that we turn to the free, blessed internet for research on who to query. I know that there's a dearth of information that's nearly impossible to wade through available online. I know that as a new writer you are pretty much a babe in the woods without your shoes and the industry is a serial killer with night vision goggles and a hankering for a human suit.

Therefore, I offer the following, to help you evaluate agents based on their blogging and their publicly available sale data. And in the interest of not propagating the kind of Iron Curtain mystique of "the industry" that so many wannabe-pros rely on, here are my credentials: I'm a multi-published author of speculative fiction in both adult and young adult markets. I currently have 12 books under contract with three publishing houses and I have worked with three different editors and one agent. I acquired said agent with a query letter + sample before I sold my first novel. I am not an agent, editor or other "business" professional, nor have I ever interned or assisted in any capacity to an agent or publisher.

That brings up my first point--

  • Your "expert" has no professional industry credentials. "I am an aspiring author" is not a credential. Neither is self-publishing, reading lots, or working in the mailroom at Random House.

  • Your "expert" reveals priviledged communication in a public forum. It's a slipperly slope here. I tend to think that excerpting query letters is fine (and have had it done, gladly), but posting an entire email exchange between parties, unless one party is a scammer or other sort of Bad Nasty Person that newbies should be warned against, is over the line. Do you really want an agent who will snark and snap and post your private emails behind your back?

  • Your "expert" behaves unprofessionally. This is sort of a "Duh" moment, but I'm shocked pretty much every day by what some "professionals" think is appropriate to spread around a public forum. Here's a hint--agents who blog about personal concerns, health or the lack of it, their preferred lunch spot or how fabulous and wonderful and connected they are more than they do about making book deals or how to break into the industry is not an agent who is committed 100% to their chosen profession. And they will not be committed to your book.

  • Your "expert"'s boss does not reign them in. Offshoot of above. I recently saw an agency assistant post an absolutely, unforgivably rude and un-helpful rejection of a query on a public forum, and then encourage commenters to gang up on the rejectee. It's an agent's job to police their staff and their agency image. Again, just think of what might happen if you caught said assistant on a bad day. Do you really want to waste writing time on a flame war with an intern? No. Say whatever you like in private, but if a business is going off on some poor clueless author with no other purpose but shame and snark...they're not going to be repping my work and they shouldn't rep yours either.

  • Your "expert" has no sales, industry connections, or industry expertise. "Sales" are fairly easy to verify, and usually indicate both connections and expertise. Any agent should be willing to furnish a client list that you, Newbitty N00b, can check against Google. If your agent has been in business for longer than six months and has only made small press sales--or, heaven forfend, has no sales at all--then they're not someone who has connections, or they don't know how to aggressively sell work to large houses or all of the above. Bottom line--find someone who knows what the hell they're doing and has made a high volume of verifiable, profitable sales. (The exception here, of course, being assistants who become agents at established agencies. Then, they have the expertise of the entire firm backing them.)

  • Your "expert" gives you the wiggins. Trust your gut. If you find an agent's behavior unprofessional or cringe-worthy, don't query them. Chances are you wouldn't be a good fit anyway.


Anyone can be anyone online. Anyone can say anything. Always verify the background and expertise of the person blogging at you before taking their words at face value. Save yourself from the ego-driven "experts" and start at the top, with your "dream agent". You have nothing to lose at the query stage.

Here endeth the advice.

Originally published at Caitlin Kittredge.


Comments:


Stacia Kane
stacia_kane at 2008-12-30 12:22 (UTC) (Link)
Just adding something, if I may. :-) Be careful too of people who say things like "Any writer would turn cartwheels to be repped by Agent So-and-so." Don't take that at face value; find out WHY. I've seen things like that said about agents with very few sales, and have never been able to figure out why that is. Don't take what anyone says at face value. Do your own research!! Look for their SALES.
T.M. Thomas
tmthomas at 2008-12-30 14:28 (UTC) (Link)
And I'd add that even agents with amazing sales records may not be the right fit for n00b and the n00bsterpiece. Research what they've sold, to whom, and if it fits with what you want to do.
Caitlin Kittredge
blackaire at 2008-12-30 20:35 (UTC) (Link)
Yup, what Stacia said.
mmerriam at 2008-12-30 13:01 (UTC) (Link)
Would you mind if I used this post as notes to assist me on the next set of "Publishing 101/202" panels I'm on at various local conventions next year? I'll happily attribute all this advice back to you, and make sure the audience gets your website and where to find your books.
Caitlin Kittredge
blackaire at 2008-12-30 20:32 (UTC) (Link)
Not at all. Please distribute it with credit as you see fit. (That goes for everyone else reading too.) :)
mmerriam at 2008-12-30 20:35 (UTC) (Link)
Thank you, Caitlin!
Victoria Schwab
veschwab at 2008-12-30 14:43 (UTC) (Link)
Very well said. Add all these to the fact that many unagented writers want it sooo badly, or they wouldn't be here, and that determination/desperation leads them to scour the internet for information, not all of which is reputable. It is incredibly difficult to see clearly without having actually travelled the roads, as much of the savvy you only learn from exposure. Thanks again for this post. I hope people read and take it to heart.
Caitlin Kittredge
blackaire at 2008-12-30 20:36 (UTC) (Link)
Well, thanks. It's a hard path to navigate blindfolded and I was lucky to have published friends when I started out who steered me away from bad agents.
A large duck
burger_eater at 2008-12-30 15:15 (UTC) (Link)
Here's a hint--agents who blog about personal concerns, health or the lack of it, their preferred lunch spot or how fabulous and wonderful and connected they are more than they do about making book deals or how to break into the industry is not an agent who is committed 100% to their chosen profession.

I'm with you on the fabulous and wonderful and connected, but why shouldn't an agent post about restaurants, head colds, how much they hate traffic, whatever? I post about those things, and I'm committed to being a novelist, 100%. Can't an agent blog about gourmet cheeses and spelunking?
James
impatient_hands at 2008-12-30 15:38 (UTC) (Link)
or eating gourmet cheeses while spelunking...
T.M. Thomas
tmthomas at 2008-12-30 18:05 (UTC) (Link)
and sneezing.
Caitlin Kittredge
blackaire at 2008-12-30 20:34 (UTC) (Link)
Of course they should :). I'm just saying it shouldn't be the primary focus of their professional blog. Personality is a Good Thing in an agent, but if there are more cute cat pictures than book deals on their site, it may be a problem.
cathschaffstump
cathschaffstump at 2008-12-30 15:55 (UTC) (Link)
Well articulated.

Catherine
So Be It I'm Your Crowbar
lilac_wine at 2008-12-30 16:43 (UTC) (Link)
I just had a come to jesus talk with a newbie the other day about several of these things. When an agent says they can't tell you who any of their clients are or who they sell to because it's a secret, I'd run the other way. Some things are confidential, "I've made eight sales to Harper Collins this year" or what have you is not confidential.
karenjunker
karenjunker at 2008-12-30 18:53 (UTC) (Link)
Yeah...and then there are the agents who just plain lie about their sales, don't send their sales to Publisher's Marketplace because they "don't have the time" or list their clients' previous sales on their website to make it look as if the sales were the agent's own.
Caitlin Kittredge
blackaire at 2008-12-30 20:35 (UTC) (Link)
Yup, all of this is true and good advice. Advance #'s and contract particulars are privileged, sales to specific houses and editors are not. Good agents WANT you to know what they've sold.
katatomic at 2008-12-30 21:27 (UTC) (Link)
One other point that was lightly touched on but should be huge in the minds of all aspiring who are in the query process: just because an agent is a Big Name or willing to look at your work that doesn't mean they are the best agent for you.

It's hard to say no to an offer of representation and even harder if the agent is reputable and good. But if they don't fit the writer well, it'll be a miserable, short relationship that will cast a pall on the writers career from minute-one. Writers don't have to love their agent, but they do have to have confidence in them and be treated with respect. They have to comfortable or the relationship will work against their success, not for it. If the agent's blog makes them cringe, that might be a good indicator that the agent in question is not the right agent.
Jill Myles
irysangel at 2008-12-31 17:47 (UTC) (Link)
This is very true! Just because an agent is 'not right for you' does not make them a bad agent. It just makes them not right for you.
(Anonymous) at 2009-01-02 21:53 (UTC) (Link)

"Neither is self-publishing, reading lots, or working in the mailroom at Random House."

I just spit coffee all over my desk!

well spoke!
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