Nathan Bransford, Author

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Do you have beef with literary agents?

Having once been a literary agent myself, I'm still pretty instinctually defensive of the whole enterprise.

It's not easy to be a filter, especially when every single one of the thousands of people who query you think they have a bestseller on their hands. Most agents I know are in it for the love of books, they scraped their way up, and they care about their clients. 

But every now and then something happens out there in the publishing Internetosphere and I'm reminded that there's also a whole lot of angst toward agents. And I'm not even talking about people upset about scam artists, I'm talking about people who are upset with legit agents.

So let's hear it. Do you have beef with agents? What are your complaints?

I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and consultations! And if you like this post, check out my guide to writing a novel.

Art: Black and white cow standing by Carlo Dalgas


MaryZ said...

I recently received a rejection from an agent three years and two months after my submission. Why bother?

Dana B. said...

On one hand, I view agents as being awesome. I don't have an agent, but I imagine they are a huge help especially where contracts and business end are considered. If you get a good one I'm sure they will help you considerably. Someone like me has so many questions, and distrust of publishers, I'd want a partner/agent I could trust to look out for my best interest.

But I have a problem with some agents.... I follow a lot on Twitter. Some I feel make fun of the queries they get. I'm not talking about constructive criticism or a query critique. I've seen some of them tweet back and forth about things they received in a manner I felt unprofessional and disheartening. And yes, these were real agents with large followings. (Not you of course).

I'm sure it's a pain to have to wade through all of the mail they get, and some emails are probably horrible, but every job comes with its downside. Plus, these agents were asking for queries. And since they potentially make money off of these clients, I feel they should be grateful for every query that comes their way. And if they must complain, don't do it publicly. Don't make someone fell bad just because you hold to the power to do so.

Dana B. said...

Wow, 3 years. I thought most had a policy that if you didn't hear from them within 6 weeks it was a no.

Anonymous said...

Twice this year, I've gotten a form rejection on a requested full. It bummed me out.

I know the accepted line of thought is that agents owe writers nothing. But something about the way agents often emphasize writers should go the extra step of personalizing a query, and then turn around and form a full stuck in my craw. I won't query either agent again.

Thanks for the anonymous venting relief!

Ted Cross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ted Cross said...

Mostly what I've seen (and I have probably 150 or so author 'friends' on Facebook) is people who have given up on even seeking an agent. I certainly don't intend to even try anymore. I don't believe publishers are evolving quickly enough to the changes in publishing, and agents do what they need to be able to sell to publishers. I'm just happy to keep seeing so many great self-published authors from Josiah Bancroft to Hugh Howey to Andy Weir and more.

Jaimie Teekell said...

Agents just seem like a fairy tale, like winning the lottery. You're almost definitely wasting time fussing over it. I have a beef with them like I do the people who have a 2nd house on Lake Como. They're foreign, far away, and of course some of them are snobby, but they don't have much to do with the art of writing as I understand it.

Mallory said...

I felt like I had a bit of beef with agents when I was querying my first project a few years ago, but now I look back on that first project and thank my lucky stars for all those heartbreaking rejections. Not only did they help me build a thicker skin, but I still had a lot to learn as a writer and a storyteller, and that first project was just not ready for publication. It was a truth I was not ready to accept, but one I definitely needed to.

I am fully aware that not everyone agrees with me, and that is totally fine, but personally I love the gatekeeper system in traditional publishing. It forced me to learn more about my craft and accept that my project just wasn't ready for publication when I thought it was.

Richard said...

I wrote a crime thriller a few years back and did my due diligence in writing a precise and polished query letter with assistance from an agent who was kind enough to provide a short critique. I then researched a number of agents for submission, including the one that helped me with my query. This person's agent website stated specifically that she was interested in the crime genre. When she sent me the rejection notice, it said "thanks, but I'm not interested in crime. What is wrong with this picture??

Sarah said...

I decided I wanted to be published in 2006. I didn't get an agent until 2013. Disheartening doesn't do the process justice.


Like Mallory, those years of rejections made me a better writer, and I am so glad that the work I originally submitted was rejected. I know that some fabulous writers have had awful experiences with agents, but for me, the gatekeeper system worked the same way Olympic trials would: the high standard forced me to improve.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

“It's not easy to be a filter, especially when every single one of the thousands of people who query you think they have a bestseller on their hands.”

EVERY single one, Nathan? A bit hyperbolic, perhaps? I can't speak for those who queried you, but my general impression of writers is very different, indeed almost the opposite.

I hear very few writers even admit to bestseller aspirations. Writers seem afraid to look too ambitious, and affect an almost Uriah Heep level of modesty. They are constantly warned against being uppity, comparing their books to big bestsellers or movies being a particularly mortal sin.

Many believe in and preach a Zero Sum Game view of publishing (and life in general!) whereby nobody can advance or gain except at another's expense. My view is very different. For example, when I visit a bookstore, physical or online, looking for a book, I rarely come away with just that book. Success can be synergistic, even contagious, and I don't just mean some paltry 'trickle-down' effect.

In answer to your question, I'll have whatever the agent is having. Beef, chicken, whatever. But seriously, no. Overall, I have a high regard for agents, good ones anyway. At the start of the decade agents were being written off as an endangered species. We don't hear much of that sort of thing now.

Nathan Bransford said...


I meant that as hyperbole and no, not every single author thinks they're going to a bestseller. But having sat in that seat, it has a strong undercurrent of truth to it.

Unknown said...

My interactions with agents when I was looking for one ranged from bad to good. I don't have a complaint, per se. I would call it distrust. There operate with a good deal of separation and lack of oversight from the author. They often want rights extending well beyond their time of working for the author. They want to receive the money for an author's work directly from the publisher and take their cut before paying the author. There are many opportunities for dishonesty and unethical behavior on the agent's part.

And, as Dana B. pointed out, many seem to feel contempt for would-be clients.

Lots of danger signals in an agent-author relationship.

David Biddle said...

For those of us without an agent who have sincerely tried to get one, and know without a doubt that we have good work, I think each of us could write a book or twelve on all the things we hate about the groveling experience and the horror of sending stuff off into the mouth of Nowhere again and again and again only to hear at best "Sorry. Not for me" or nada at worst.

I get that the biggest problem isn't so much agents per se as the system we're all trying to operate in nowadays. Everyone's gone digital. I can only imagine what it's like on the receiving end.

That said, specifically, there are two things, it seems to me, that are exceedingly frustrating for those of us "without":

1. Having to dole out partials and/or samples in multiple formats is ridiculous, arcane, and unnecessary. One agency just wants a cover. One wants a synopsis, cover, and first 10 pages. Another wants a cover, a chapter by chapter summary, and the first 3 chapters. A standard format makes a lot of sense. 300 word query and first 10 pages ought to do it. I'm pretty sure that's all anyone needs to make a decision on whether they want more.

2. And then there's that "More..." thing. I've sent full manuscripts out to about a half dozen agents requesting such over the last year. Only one got back to me (under a month wait time, the head shake and "good luck" note were fine; thanks so much to people who are professional and organized). But no one else has been able to get their act together to communicate a thing -- even after a tickler or two after 90 days (which, btw, makes us writers feel like such schmucks to have to send).

Honestly, I don't know if anyone writing literary fiction should waste their time with agencies the way things are set up now. Not when they're starting out at any rate. Going straight to a publisher or publishing through a collective or on your own is likely to get you further faster -- that is, if you've written something good and put in the time to polish it.

Anonymous said...

I'll list as Anon for obvious reasons.

I've had three different agents. One was a liar. One made promises he/she didn't keep -- even simple promises, like to read a manuscript asap, that then didn't get read for 8 months. Another was lovely but wanted specific changes to a manuscript before he/she would send it out. That's not unusual and I was eager to please as he/she was so adamant about it all. But then, those changes were the reason (literally, they named those added elements in their reject letters) that every editor passed on that manuscript.

In all cases there was no acknowledgment of their part in a manuscript not selling, or a manuscript not being read in a timely manner, or that they, in fact were creating chaos by lying to their own writer.

After six years and five different novels I gave the hell up. Pardon my French, but who needs that shit? :)

Anonymous said...

(I'm the Anon at 4:45 PM)

Oh, wait -- I forgot. I did try to get another agent after those three. On yet another new manuscript. One let me send a full, and proceeded to be "impressed" and asked me to make some intricate plot changes that took me quite a while to accomplish. She finally gave me a curt, "I guess this isn't right for me, but thanks."

The time that process took while said agent hemmed and hawed and decided? Five months.

Then, I sent that same manuscript to another agent, who ALSO asked for changes -- large changes -- including changing the sex of a character, because there weren't "enough girls." He seemed on the ball and the agency was quite successful. If felt that maybe he was the one to ease all the crap I'd been through. After massive changes and switching the gender of a character, which meant of course, that I also had to change chunks of that character's dialogue for it to make sense, as one can imagine, he passed on it with a pleasant, "Good luck!"

Time that took, from query, to massive sex-changing rewrite, to waiting for a reject? Five months.

Good God.

Anonymous said...

A few things that irk me:

- Agent tweeted along the lines of "If your title is something like Game of Lies: The Master it's a pass." Why does it matter what the title is? Don't publishers ask to change titles all the time anyway? Does the agent just hate colons?

- Don't mass email agents. Why not? I work in HR and get hundreds of submissions. I can tell when someone is a good fit for my organisation by reading the cover letter and skimming the resume. Does it help if a submission is directed specifically to me? Yes, I'll consider it more thoroughly. Will I reject a submission if I know it's a mass email? No, I want to know if they can do the work. I think the big reason agents hate mass email submissions is they want to feel special.

- Twitter #tenqueries type things by agents. They do nothing for writers because they are so vague.

"Fantasy retelling. Been done before. Pass."
"Ya Sci-Fi. Interesting premise. Request!"

Anyone serious about querying will know who they are submitting to and what they are interested in. The others will ignore these kinds of tweets. It's just another way for agents to get writers to follow and think the world of them. You want to help? Want better queries? Post critiques of what does and doesn't work with the full query. One of those is worth fifty vague tweets.

Things that I get
- Agents are in a position of power. They may say they want to work with authors but they know that authors don't generally get to big publishers without them. That means it's the agent's way or the highway. If they want smoke blown up their butt, blow smoke up their butt.

- Agents can't personalise rejections, there are too many. Plus, if an agent puts something like "The work isn't ready" or "Characters didn't seem believable" they open themselves up to arguments that they have neither the time nor the inclination for. It's best to say "Not for me" and move on.

Thanks for the opportunity to vent!

Caleb said...

It takes humility and grace to endure the agent submission process and come out victorious. It also takes humility and grace to continue in success as a published author. If you can't overcome months of rejection, you won't make it anyway. An author who is published by one of the top five is playing at the pro level. That's similar to an athlete in the NFL or NBA. Or an elected official in Congress (usually). Consider the years of competition, personal adjustments, etc. it takes to reach the top of any field.

I can always tell the difference between a self-published novel and one from a big five publisher. Always. The self-published works are generally good but I can sense the amateurish nature in some of the sentences, or the pacing, or certain plot points.

I'm okay with the process being difficult. I'm okay with the winnowing down. I'd like to see how my works compete with the big boys and I'm willing to suffer before I get there. I can always self-publish later.

Unknown said...

Caleb, :-) come back in five years.

Caleb said...

@Unknown, I see your point. :o)

Anonymous said...

I've sold over a thousand books (not giveaways) all on my own. Not huge numbers, I get that. But better than many indie presses and small presses.... and that opened exactly zero doors. Still can't get an email returned. My queries have been gone over by pros and all that. I'm convinced that a good query pales in comparison to knowing someone who can introduce you.

Like anything in entertainment, the gatekeepers pretend it's all about hard work and talent when it's more important to have the right friends.

Unknown said...

(I'm "Unknown" at 4:28 and 5:34)
I think writers should get on with their writing lives and not put all their eggs in the seeking-an-agent basket (one egg at most, zero is better). (1) concentrating on getting an agent's validation can lead to tunnel vision, as well as despondency and loss of motivation when you don't get one. (2) Agents are looking for something they think will sell, i.e., something that's like a recent big publishing success, which may not be what you write. (3) Concentrate on challenging yourself and enjoying writing. (4) Join or start a writing group. This is the single most important thing you can do to improve your writing and be successful. Really! While I don't entirely agree with Anonymous above, because the way he puts it, it sounds like if you just know the right people they will get you published, it is true that having a circle of writing friends and colleagues will help you in a multitude of ways. There is a social side of writing, and it is vital. (5) Take every opportunity to find readers (blogging, self publishing, whatever) because you simply don't know what's going to draw attention and readers to your stories. No one is an overnight success. (6) Learn about the business side of writing so that you don't become the victim of a lazy or unethical agent or publisher. Never sign a contract that you don't understand thoroughly and that your attorney hasn't read and explained to you. People's careers are ruined by bad contracts. (7) Join a writing group. (8) Join a writing group. (9) Join a writing group. (Repeat as necessary)

Anonymous said...

I don't understand the point in requesting 50 or 30 pages instead of the full manuscript. I assume that the agent will stop reading when she/he loses interest in the manuscript. This staggered approach slows things down and creates a false sense of optimism if a full request follows. If there is a logic to this that I am missing, I would like to know.

Cinthia Ritchie said...

I've had the same agent for years and I love her. She works her butt off for me, and for her clients, and because of her my novel nabbed a large New York publishing house plus two film rights so yeah, agents rock, or at least some of them do.

I don't know why so many people resent agents. They are simply people doing their jobs. You can't expect everyone to like or want to represent your work. That's simply life. Rejection is part of life. And I truly believe that if a writer is open to suggestion, then rejection can lead to better writing and a better book (or poetry collection, etc.).

I was rejected by quite a few agents before I found one that clicked. And yeah, those rejections hurt, and yeah, I felt discouraged and depressed. But I bucked up, wrote up new queries, sent them off and eventually everything clicked.

I think that too many writers quit after the first round of rejection instead of hanging in there, believing in their work and plugging away. Finding an agent is work. It's not supposed to be easy. And neither is writing. Or promotion. Or any of the thankless things we do because we really have no choice. We can't perceive of a life where we're not writing.

Unknown said...

You assume that everyone with the same skill as you, doing the same as you did, will have the same result. I think just the opposite. There is no way of knowing how many "Confederacy of Dunces" there are out there, whose authors couldn't make any headway no matter how many query letters they sent; that there is none would be improbable.

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Interesting, Nathan. Perhaps the writers who gravitated towards you were more ambitious, at least in their queries.

Nathan Bransford said...


When I was an agent I requested partials even though I knew it was somewhat irrational -- couldn't I just request the whole thing and read as much as I wanted? The key thing for me is that it established expectations with the author about how much I was really planning to read.

It was also one of my many self-coded tipoffs for when authors would contact me again. If an author came back to me and I'd previously requested the full manuscript, I'd want to look at the new manuscript almost 100% of the time. If I had rejected a partial, I'd consider it a bit more like a regular query. It was a way of signaling to myself so I could be more efficient.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the partial requests: That's a great explanation and I appreciate it. Thanks, Nathan.

Anonymous said...

Signed with a top agent in the business after turning down other offers of rep. Went on sub two months later. And shortly after that, the agent moved to a new agency and I got an email that basically said "Unfortunately, I cannot take all of my clients with me. Best of luck." That's it. No updates on my submission. No discussion on what came next. Nothing.

Turns out a large number of this agent's clients were left in the same boat. ):

Nora Lester Murad, Palestine said...

Agents are people in a system. I don't have a problem with agents but I think there could be improvements in the system. The emphasis on the query, for example, seems a bit of an unnecessary hurdle. It would be more efficient if we could post our first chapter somewhere and agents could browse and let us know if they're interested in seeing more. If writers must query each individual agent, as in the current system, then at least agents should send 1) an auto response that the query was received, and 2) a form rejection letter if/when the submission is rejected. Saying "If you haven't heard from me in 4 months you can assume your book is not for me" is not a fair response to someone who has researched an agent and sent a personalized communication. With the technology available today, this shouldn't add any additional work to agents' very busy schedules. (Thanks for asking!)

JOHN T. SHEA said...

Venting is fine, but it is difficult to think of a useful response to anonymous horror stories about anonymous agents. Writers have openly complained about agents, naming both the agent and themselves. Otherwise one is tempted to tar ALL agents with the same brush, which some writers clearly want.

Nora Lester Murad's ideas are very interesting. Trident Media Group, the big NYC literary agency, is running something like what Nora suggests, on WWW.THEPROSE.COM website for a few weeks. Anyone can post between 1,000 and 5,000 words and the agency will read it and contact the writer if they're interested.

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