Nathan Bransford, Author


Monday, April 25, 2011

Spaghetti Agents

One of the hardest things about searching for an agent is that you don't exactly know what kind of an agent you're going to get. Even though you may know the agent by reputation, even though you may ask them every question beforehand, there's a certain leap of faith you take as you sign on with an agent. (I was of course wildly fortunate with my own agent.)

As you're searching, one thing I would advise is to try as best you can to sniff out a spaghetti agent.

What's a spaghetti agent? Well, it's a term I made up. Basically, you know that phrase throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks?

That's a spaghetti agent. They sign up a bunch of writers even when they're unsure about a project, they throw the manuscripts at publishers, and they see what sticks.

On the one hand, this isn't actually the worst strategy in the world. As much as people would like to think that agents are clairvoyant, at the end of the day you never really know what's going to resonate with publishers. So spaghetti agents are acknowledging that fact and are spreading their odds across a lot of different projects.

The problem for writers is that since spaghetti agents will send out projects even when they might be on the fence, they may be sending out projects that aren't quite ready. And in a competitive publishing landscape, it pays for a project to be as ready as humanly possible. Spaghetti agents may also have a shaky reputation with editors because they send out so much stuff and it's not always of the highest quality.

Back when I was an agent, I can't tell you how many times I would find a manuscript that was close-but-not-quite-ready and wanted to work with the writer on an unagented revision, only to be undercut by a spaghetti agent. I would offer to revise, the author would say they had an offer of representation on the table, and then I'd be in a bind. I couldn't really say that I'd take on a project no matter what after a revision, and I couldn't very well advise an author to give up the bird in the hand when they had someone enthusiastic about their work either. So I'd stand aside and let the author go. Sometimes this worked out for the author, quite a few times it didn't.

What can you do as an author?

When you're offered representation, ask good questions. Ask how long they're willing to keep your work on submission. Are they just going to try with the big publishers or are they willing to go down to small presses? It's an important question, because one hallmark of a spaghetti agent is the submit and dash. They'll send a project out to a few editors, gauge the response and then bolt if it's not working quickly. Not every good agent is willing to keep something on submission endlessly so don't put too much stock in this question, but make sure you're comfortable with the answer.

And if you're getting multiple responses of "I like this but don't know if it's quite ready" from some agents but then one wants to go out with it immediately... take a long pause and really really think it through. I'm not necessarily advising giving up the bird in the hand, and don't be paranoid, because this may just be the one agent who really gets your work and they might be completely right that it doesn't need work. But as always, just really, really think it through and make sure it's the right choice.

Having the wrong agent can be worse than having no agent. After working so long on your novel and wanting so badly to go out on submission, it's tempting to want to leap into the arms of the first agent who will have you. But be sure and take your time, do your research, and make sure it's the right fit before proceeding.

Otherwise, your manuscript could get thrown against the publishing wall before it's ready, and you only get one chance to see if it sticks.






67 comments:

Krista V. said...

Once again, Nathan, you addressed an issue I've never really thought about in such concrete terms, and you did it in a thoughtful snd cogent way. Thank you.

I've received some R&Rs in the last couple of months, and at the back of my mind, I've worried that someone would offer representation on the old version while I was busily at work and so excited about the new. It didn't happen, but I thought I was crazy for worrying about getting an offer. Good to know that maybe my concerns weren't so unfounded.

Michelle Davidson Argyle said...

Excellent term! I've had a friend who got a spaghetti agent. It was awful experience for her, and I learned a lot hearing about her story. I think your term will stick in the publishing world. Pun intended. ;)

Nate said...

Great work Nathan!
It's my opinion that agents are more and more desperate as this part of the industry gets squeezed. Agents,etc in the middle are slowly dissolving out of the way.... authors have more and more control and will shorten the distance between them and the publisher..
Best
Nate
Compass Book

Shawn Lamb said...

Good post. One of the most crucial aspects to the agent/writer relationship is trust. In this competitive market, that is a rare commodity and writers must ask hard question to untangle the 'spaghetti' beforehand.

Marsha Sigman said...

I really love spaghetti. Now every time I eat it, this is what I'm going to think of.

Your phrase is going to 'stick' with me.

Mr. D said...

Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware can tell you who they are.

Jen said...

Nathan, you always post such helpful things. This is something I hadn't even considered, and it's so great that you're always there to show us the pitfalls to avoid!

And you're always so damn nice and encouraging as well. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This describes my former agent precisely. She offered to represent me after reading a partial of my manuscript at a conference, even though I told her I was still working on revisions. She assured me it was great, and that she would be able to sell it, and that I would have plenty of time to complete revisions before publication. She had good references, and answered all my questions, so I signed with her.

Soon I noticed that the publishing houses she was submitting to weren't exactly a right fit for my manuscript. She would, for example, submit to a publisher that worked exclusively in romance, while my ms doesn't even have romantic elements. Then I discovered from a critique partner who is also represented by this agent that our manuscripts were consistently being submitted to the same publishers at the same time, even though we also don't write the same genre. It seemed like she just sent an editor every manuscript in her arsenal, whether it would be a fit for them or not, and hoped they might like one.

She did get my ms as far as pub board a couple of times, but eventually I decided to end our working relationship, get my ms in the best shape possible, and try again from square 1.

Sometimes when an offer for representation seems to good to be true...it is!

Ted Fox said...

My agent ended up signing me not for the book I queried her about but rather for a new project based on a couple of blog posts I did last fall. I hadn't given them a second thought since I wrote them, but she went back into my blog, found them, and then basically pitched me on the idea of turning them into a Twitter feed that could eventually become a book.

That's when I knew I was in good hands (he said assuredly, like he ever would've turned her down).

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan, thank you for this. I spent years with a 'spaghetti agent' and it was heartbreaking. It took three projects before I realized I wasn't getting anywhere and cut my ties. Lesson learned, but not one I'd recommend.

traceybaptiste said...

As with all relationships, sometimes you have to be in it before you know if it's going to work for you. And while nobody wants to sign with someone who indiscriminately submits their work, even with a non-spaghetti agent, figuring out if they're the right fit for you may take some time.

David Gaughran said...

Hi Nathan,

Two quick questions:

1. Do you think, if the current changes end up fragmenting the industry, that spaghetti agents will become more prevalent?

2. If the slush-pile moves online, do you think this will undercut spaghetti agents?

magpiewrites said...

This post gave me chills. I'm not there yet, not querying agents even, but I'm close. It's thrilling and terrifying to see this post and realize there's another entire world that I'm inching ever closer to, and it's a world that I don't know the rules to. Freaking scary world. Thank god we have Nathan for a guide.

Daisy Harris said...

Great post, Nathan! Makes me feel all the better that my agent puts my manuscripts through the wringer before submitting them.

I had a project I completed last fall that I really believed in. She sat on it, though, because it "wasn't ready." I was a little pouty about it at first, but a few months later (after writing a whole 'nother book) I had an epiphany about what was wrong with it, I revised again- and this time we both know that it's great.

(Really- it's sooooo much better.)

Anyway, I'm so glad we didn't send out the previous version. I'm even happier it didn't get published in the old form! Now it's got a chance of getting in with the right house and really knocking the socks off the reading audience.

So yeah- if someone says your MS isn't quite ready- take it seriously. You may later realize they were right.

sharon bially said...

Nathan - interesting that when you saw not-quite-ready manuscripts, you suggested un-agented revisions. I know a lot of writers whose agents sign and THEN request the revisions. So far, all these projects have worked out, and the agents are all reputable -- even top -- ones. But I'm always a little perplexed about that approach: signing first, requesting often long, in-depth rounds of revisions afterward. Any insights?

Angela said...

I can't tell you how many times I would find a manuscript that was close-but-not-quite-ready and wanted to work with the writer on an unagented revision, only to be undercut by a spaghetti agent. I would offer to revise, the author would say they had an offer of representation on the table, and then I'd be in a bind. I couldn't really say that I'd take on a project no matter what after a revision, and I couldn't very well advise an author to give up the bird in the hand when they had someone enthusiastic about their work either. So I'd stand aside and let the author go.

This happens to editors/publishers as well. It's even more discouraging when you know they've got your revisions in hand, to use with that other agent or publisher.

Angela said...

Apologies, I should have left my full identity with the comment above.

Angela James
www.carinapress.com

Mandy said...

Great post, Nathan! Rt'ing now.

One way to know an agent ISN'T a spagetti agent is if you're revising very closely and shaping the manuscript together with your agent. Plenty of fabulous, non-spagetti agents aren't editorial, but it's one way to vet it out-- ask the agent on the phone what sort of revisions s/he is thinking.

I know of agents who signed 50-100 clients in their first year as an agent. THAT is a spagetti agent.

Mandy said...

Sharon--

I can't speak for Nathan, but I'm a very edtorial agent, and I do both-- request revise/resubmit, as well as sign and then revise with the writer as a client.

It all depends on how much revising I need to see, and what kind. It's easy enough to tweak plot points, hard to add depth to characters or add tension.

~Mandy
D4EO Lit

Anonymous said...

I had a spaghetti agent for a year and a half. Judging by recent actions, I'd say that whole agency has that policy too. (And they are a reputable agency)

It's sad watching other writers get excited when you know they are basically being thrown at a wall, but what can you do.

Mira said...

Wow Nathan - this is really helpful information. Thank you.

And I love the term spaghetti agent.

Michael Offutt said...

I can't imagine anyone choosing to go with an agent over you when you were agenting. That just seems odd to me given how much I've seen of your knowledge in following this blog. It'd be like having a basketball team and saying, "Kobe Bryant? Nah...let's get the guy off the bench..."

Anonymous said...

They'd be giving up the two in the bush. Not the bird in the hand.

Munk said...

I agree with Michael... If I had the opportunity to work with someone I respected, someone who would beat the crap out of my writing with the goal of making it better, I would consider THAT the bird in the hand.

Kathryn Magendie said...

Sounds like how R&T receives stories from poets/writers who we know have just thrown their story/poem to fifty-galleven editors of mags/online journals to see where it will stick - ungh!


You know - I am wondering: If an agent obtains a contract with a small press for an author, what's the difference if the author went directly to the small press themselves without an agent? Other than the 15%?(and I don't mean that snottily - it's a real question). Maybe this isn't the time to ask this question! But since you mentioned SP's it reminded me of my wonderings!

Munk said...

Wow... the bird in hand analogy is getting worked.

Andrea Cremer said...

Bang on, Nathan. Such an important post!

D.G. Hudson said...

Advice about approaching agents is always welcome, Nathan. It's an act of faith just to send the manuscript out, and then we've got to find the right partner.

I don't mind searching for an agent until I find the right fit. I want someone who will know those things I don't know, and give me good advice. However, I'm not adverse to learning things on my own - if it comes to that.

Tenacity keeps me going. But a bit of that LUCK you mentioned a few days ago would be helpful.

Will you tell us, Nathan, if you had a previous contact for your agent (like a referral), or did you search out the agent totally on your own? (although being an agent at the time must have helped?)

It seems like everyone's story is a little different when we hear 'how I got an agent', so thought I'd ask -- if you have the time & don't mind answering.

Thanks for sharing some of your tips on the process of getting a book agented. Always appreciated.

Remilda Graystone said...

Oooh...I definitely had not thought of this, but thank goodness you wrote a post about it because now I know a lot more. I know what to look out for now.

As always, thanks, Nathan!

Loree Huebner said...

Great post. I never heard that term before but knew they were out there. Thanks.

Harper said...

This scares me. I think most of us reading the blog know how to steer clear of the many outright scam companies out there, but it's so hard to read between the lines on what's going on at actual, reputable agencies to determine whether an agent offering rep is a spaghetti agent or not. Thanks for the tips, Nathan.

I started researching agents and the publishing process about 6 years ago when I was doing contract work for a publisher and working on a YA novel. I've kept my optimistic "agents to query" lists on file since then (since every year was going to finally be THE year that I was going to start querying). It's interesting how my list has dwindled from an initial 70 - 80 agents down to the current 15 - 20 that I would be really excited to work with. Reading various forums and blogs over a long timespan, as well as meeting agents at conferences, has been really instructive in helping me hone my query list. Now, though, it might be a little TOO well-honed.

(And, by the way, this year really is THE year that I'm going to start querying. I am serious!)

Kevin said...

Thanks SO VERY MUCH for this insightful post. The idea of pausing to think about accepting an agent's offer feels so intimidating because an author often goes for SO long without getting to that coveted point of success...the heart becomes desperate to take an opportunity when it comes. But I can see, on a practical level, why it's good to think it through first.

Kevin Ott
www.kevinott.net

lauren said...

I had a friend who had a "Spaghetti Agent" in Hollywood, but he was soon told this one was unethical. The agent was said to grab up everyone, especially ones with projects that were too similar to ones they were already pushing so another studio wouldn't pick up competition. Don't know if any of it was true, and it seems like there are fewer sharks in the book pub world than in Hollywood, but just thought I'd pass the story along.

Paul Greci said...

Great post, Nathan!! I thought long and hard about this when I started getting offers of represention.

Matthew MacNish said...

This is why I'm giving up after one query if my dream agent doesn't want my story.

Pamala Knight said...

Nathan to the rescue! I've been wandering the forum, trying to figure out a way to formulate a question to this very answer, so thank you.

It is tempting to want to leap into the arms of the first agent who will have you (and give them a big kiss on the mouth and ask if they'd like to get a dog with you) but it's also important that you find a good fit. And sometimes it's really hard to get that right. Thanks for the reminder.

Liz Fichera said...

Spaghetti agents usually don't have very good reputations among established editors either.

Anonymous said...

That picture is making me hungry.

Bea Sempere said...

Great term "spaghetti agents".

P.H.C. Marchesi said...

Thanks for posting and sharing your experience!

Jen J. Danna said...

I had an experience with a 'spaghetti agent' last fall and I'm so thankful that I clued in before I signed with him. There were several things that made me suspect that he wasn't exactly as advertised, but one of the things that raised a red flag was his belief that the manuscript was flawless and didn't need a single change. That made me suspicious because it was my first queried manuscript and I was still learning the ropes at the time (still am, really). I turned down his offer and signed with Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency three months later. And when Nicole read the manuscript to help us revise it, she tore it limb from limb (all good and all in the interest of making it better). If it hadn't been clear before that the previous agent was simply looking for a quick and easy submission, it was at that point, in spades. As we're so often told, no agent is better than a bad agent and spaghetti agents fall firmly into the 'bad agent' category, in my opinion.

Anita Saxena said...

This is such a helpful post. Thank you.

Anne R. Allen said...

You've added an important expression to the writer's lexicon.

I've had two of them: well meaning and encouraging, but they couldn't sell my stuff. Then they dropped me and I was back at square one, totally confused. What I needed was somebody to say "this could be cut here and here and you've let your subplot take over here."

Anonymous said...

At least spaghetti agents submit things, though. I've been repped by two agents who -- despite giving me assurances beforehand that they would stick with mss until they sold -- would sub to six pubs, one only four pubs, and then give up.

I've been soured on agents for a while. Can't sell with them, can't sell without them. And I'm previously pubbed, for hell sake.

The Pen and Ink Blog said...

Well I have a deal memo with Simon and Schuster for a picture book and that was un-agented. Now I am looking for an agent because I have a mid grade novel and a women's fiction novel. Obviously I have an agent carrot, but I don't want to use it. It's the kind of thing that brings the spaghetti agents out of the pot. Neither Tasha nor Second Chances have been out to publishers. Both of these books need to go through an agent who cares about the work. I will be looking for an agent who loves my style and is willing to work with me. I am an actor. I know there is a huge difference between an agent to loves your work and believes in you and an agent who only wishes to enlarge their stable. I have nothing but repect for an agent who is willing to give you unagented revision suggestions.

Zan Marie said...

Wonderful insight, Nathan. Good, descriptive term. ; )

tamarapaulin said...

I'm always suspicious of people who are too complimentary, too fast. They're the fastest ones to turn against you!

For example, the guy who proposed marriage on our first date was back with his former girlfriend within weeks. Thanks, Doug, for teaching me about people like you!

Anonymous said...

I wish I had read this 2 years ago, before signing on with a spaghetti agent. I should have known better, as our phone interview was so awkward and unsatisfying, but she came from a big solid agency and I was desperate to get my mss. out there. Naturally, she had me sign a contract immediately. There were some uncomfortable conflicts over revisions. I took on board the good ones, and would not do the ones I thought ridiculous. Her own error-filled emails to me were not confidence-inspiring and when she couldn't make me do the ones she wanted she did the email equivalent of screaming. How demoralizing this was.

As promised, she threw it out there with no enthusiasm, just sprayed it all over NYC to see where it might stick (at the beginning of the Great Recession, no less, when a mss. needed all the enthusiastic representation it could get). I got the impression she just raided her boss's
Rolodex, that she really didn't have very many personal relationships to trade on. And after the first round of rejections, she cut me loose, a matter of 2-3 mos. Leaving me high and dry, with a mss. ruined by mass exposure.

Later I found out she quit being an agent to write herself. Do I wish her well? Hell no!

I am getting ready to self-publish and will never write another ridiculous query letter again. I am really not as bitter as this sounds . . .MUCH! :)

Anonymous said...

This usually happens with a newer or less established agent. In the short amount of time I've been writing/submitting (three years), I've seen agents come and go on the websites and conference circuit.

But NO agent can guarantee you a sale, even the ones with the biggest reputations. It's always a leap of faith for an agent to take on a writer.

If an agent tells you they will definitely sell your book, and for "x" amount of money, run. There are no absolutes.

The worst thing the established ones do is to pre-sell the manuscript: call up editor friends and pitch it at them before they've signed you. If they don't get any interest, they pass.

Miranda "Sibo" Paul said...

Thanks for the advice. I'm preparing my agent letters and submission pieces this month and will be sending out soon. At the advice of several other children's authors, I've decided that I'd prefer to be agented rather than submitting directly to publishers. I will heed your advice!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

And great editorial advice is as good as gold.

:)

kdrausin said...

I've been researching agents for the past two hours. Perfect timing. Thank you:)

Jane George said...

Another aspect of an agent's reputation that's impossible for writers to know is if the agent is considered difficult to work with by many editors. Projects get passed on because of this, (overheard editorial moaning over unnamed agent(s) on Twitter), yet the writer would never know.

The English Teacher said...

Dang. I was hoping it had something to do with hiring an Italian, like a spaghetti western.....

Darlene Underdahl said...

"Otherwise, your manuscript could get thrown against the publishing wall before it's ready, and you only get one chance to see if it sticks."

Only one chance. I know it's not you.

A lot of us were successful in the business world with our writing, and we thought we were okay. We continue to learn...

David Berardelli said...

All this, of course, is contingent on the assumption that the writer will actually manage to find an agent who will show an interest in him in the first place.

David Berardelli said...

All this, of course, is contingent on the assumption that the writer will actually manage to find an agent who will show an interest in him in the first place. Even as a published writer with nine books out, I have yet to find such an individual, and I've been looking since 1974.

S. F. Roney said...

Going in I was wondering what you meant by spaghetti agents. There are so many ways to interpret that. But, your analogy is perfect! Thanks for evaluating these scattershot types of agents!

Anonymous said...

"It's tempting to want to leap into the arms of the first agent who will have you."

As soon as I read that, Nathan, I had a really strong mental image of you running through a field of flowers wearing a grass skirt with your arms outstretched for your next client.

And I know you aren't an agent anymore. Strange.

Tess Cox said...

Nathan, I haven't commented in a while. Have been to Ethiopia and back and now moving to Phoenix! So, sitting here with my laptop between my knees with boxes up to my ears I wanted to respond to this post to say "thank you!"

This post is both insightful and compassionate because it may save many of your readers a lot of heartache down the line....kind of like an older brother warning his little sister that some of the guys she's going to want to go out with are jerks... and what to look for.

I really enjoyed Pamela's comment about rushing into their arms, big kiss on the mouth and getting a dog together! Made me laugh...and also described my own attitude until I read this post! Coming back to your blog is always like dinner with friends....I just don't happen to know any of them! Blessings!

J. T. Shea said...

Why do I keep hearing snatches of Ennio Morricone's music?

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Thank you for this post! I do a fair amount of mentoring, and I'm hearing from too many newly agented writers who I suspect are already unhappy for the reasons you've spelled out here.

John Barnes said...

I like the term "spaghetti agent" too, and will happily adopt it the next time I'm talking to a book-dotoring client about agents.

And yes, I've seen some and am lucky enough to have one who isn't, though this can lead to occasional exasperation in the other direction (in 28 years with one agent, a certain amount of exasperation is inevitable).

There are also spaghetti book doctors and book critique groups out there (people who have stock advice that applies to most work and just give it over and over, figuring that some of it will happen to be what a writer wants or needs to hear).

And I would argue that the whole traditional publishing industry is one vast spaghetti fling. In my other occupation, marketing research, I am constantly dumfounded at how much marketing other industries do, and how seriously, and how well, compared to almost any publisher's marketing department. The problem there is straight economics: basic marketing intel costs money and has to be refreshed often, and the price of a decent study is about what the advances on a dozen books by unknowns would be. So publishers would rather fling spaghetti, because it's cheaper and they don't believe the results are any worse.

Something of the same economics applies to agents. Used to was, a very large part of an agent's time was contact time, knowing what was happening in every publishing office all the time; this paid off in targeted submissions. Nowadays, publishing is so scattered, and so many "offices" are just nets of home-based freelancers, that knowing the real deal would be a more than fulltime job. Hence, when it costs too much to know, and it's cheaper to fling the sketties, the sketties will be flung.

I just got to type "The sketties will be flung." What a great day!

Amy Joy said...

Hi Nathan. I've just started the querying process for my first novel, so this is great stuff to know now. Thanks for sharing!

amysjoy.blogspot.com

Rachel said...

Just what I needed to hear this week! Thanks, Nathan!

Anonymous said...

I don't think the fact that an agent is willing to revise with you is necessarily a sign that they are not a spaghetti agent. In my experience, these are the things that made me realize I had a spaghetti agent:
1) All other clients sold their manuscripts to large publishers shortly after signing. Not a single client sold to a smaller press or after a long period of time.
2) Clients who did not sell their books as described in #1 were dropped.
3) Agent was not interested in what else clients had written before signing or in what they might write next.

I know how hard it is to get an agent and I totally understand why writers are tempted to grab any offer they get, but having an agent like this will do nothing but waste years of your life, leaving you with worse confidence in your writing than you had before you signed.

Read all of the advice above and ask the right questions before you sign. Make sure the agent is interested in your entire career. Make sure they have sold to small presses. Make sure they don't have a closet full of dropped clients.

The Chawmonger said...

Hey Nathan, this is an insightful observation. One thing I might add is that a spaghetti agent is also likely to have a weirdly diverse list of past clients/projects. Obviously every agent has to do more and less commercial stuff to stay afloat, but a spaghetti agent is more likely to take on a project he doesn't really understand, just on the off chance that it pans out. So if you write, say, literary fiction and agents who represent primarily literary fiction turn you down, it might not be a great idea to throw in your lot with someone who represents everything from self help to business to middle grade titles.

Related Posts with Thumbnails