Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Agents Are Not Your Employees. You Are Not Their Customers.

About a week and a half ago, Nathan Bransford asked an interesting question: Should Agents Respond To All Queries? Since I am a former client of his, I tend to watch these topics fairly closely, even though I don't often weigh in. I've read the responses, both from writers and agents, and I find the whole thing rather interesting. It seems it's not so much about the "no response mean no" policy anymore, and more about what agents "owe" writers.

It seems the vast majority of querying writers are of the opinion that the "no response" policy is rude. There have been comparisons to agents being employees, and that writers have the power even if it may not look like it at times. There have also been comparisons to "customer service," and the fact that it's just bad business not to respond to a customer.

I think writers are kind of missing the point.

Because the agent/writer relationship is NOT an employer/employee relationship. The agent/writer relationship is a partnership.

It has really bugged me that some people are claiming that agents are writers' employees. Anna, my agent, is NOT my employee. She is employed by Curtis Brown. If I viewed her as my employee, that would mean that I am completely in charge of not only the relationship, but my own career.

This is not the case.

I know that might sound terrifying to some writers, but it is the truth. If you are seeking an agent, you are seeking a business partner. That business partner has certain assets that would be beneficial to you, such as connections at publishers and experience with the market. But to get those benefits, you have to give up some freedom, so to speak. You are no longer the sole person invested in your career—you have a partner.

If Anna were my employee, that implies that I have the freedom to boss her around and tell her how to do her job. I can't even imagine! It implies that I could tell her how I want her to submit my work to editors and who I want it subbed to. I could tell her to sign my friends because I like their work even if she might not. If I were truly her employer, I suppose I could decide to pay her less commission, too.

Obviously this is not the case. Nor would I want it to be! I am with an agent because I believed it would benefit my career. I wanted help and direction in my writing. I wanted a partner who could help me get my work out there in a bigger way than I could on my own.

I am lucky to have Anna as my partner in this writing adventure. It is a symbiotic relationship. I provide her with good material, and she finds an editor to buy it. She gets to enjoy my success as well as hers. We discuss things—I don't tell her what to do. I use her wisdom, while she listens to and embraces my ideas. This is what it is to be in partnership with an agent.

Which brings me to the "customer service" comments. While I can see why writers are saying that they are agents' customers, it's simply not the truth. You can say that you will be paying for a service, thus you are always right, as the "good service" canon says. But it's slightly different. You are NOT a customer—readers are customers. You are a potential business partner.

Agents do not take any money upfront, though their upfront work load can be quite heavy. There is usually much editing to be done. They have to prepare a sub list, make calls, use their connections, all while balancing other clients AND potential clients. So you can't really be called a customer because you have paid nothing for their work—and there is no guarantee that you will pay for their work.

So what is the agent really looking for when open to queries? An agent is looking for a good investment.

That's right. Because it's a partnership. Agents want to invest in your work, give you a leg up in hopes of propelling your career forward faster than you can. And if they are able to accomplish that, they take a small commission—their return on the investment.

In your query, you are not saying "Look at me! I will pay you and give you business!" No, you should be showing an agent how you'd be a good investment. You are saying, "These are my assets. This is what makes me a good investment." It's a subtle difference, but one that changes everything.

The truth of the matter? Nathan Bransford made no money on me. For over a year, he put in hours and hours of work. He did everything he possibly could for my book because he believed I was a good investment, that I could be published writer. And honestly, it killed me sometimes that I couldn't pay him, that I couldn't pay Anna until I finally sold. Because these two agents have been the best partners a writer could ask for, and I wanted to hold up my side of the deal and write a book worthy of selling.

I know querying is hard. Heck, it took me two years and almost 200 queries to land an agent. But let's at least be clear on what the agent/writer relationship is, because I think when we understand that we are neither employer or customer we get to the heart of the matter. And that's this—we are in this together.


  1. It always amazes me when I see people make those employer/employee comments. It's another level of how much so many aspiring writers don't understand the industry - that they're running on assumptions that have no grounding in reality.

  2. Fantastic post! I don't have an agent, but always thought it would be like a partnership.

  3. Love this post. So true and very well said, my friend.

  4. Very VERY well said. It is a partnership, absolutely. We are both bringing something to the table. Writers bring material and agents bring the resources to get that material out there. It is also worth noting that, while we writers have one book agent as a partner, that book agent has a multitude of writers as partners. And that's only fair. After all -- as you noted -- an agent can put hours and days and weeks of work into a client only to never see financial gain. That's why there has to be a mutual respect and an understanding of each person's role. I also believe that, as writers, we absolutely should be working as hard as our agent. By that, I mean all that stuff that everyone talks about -- self marketing and research and Twitter and blogs and all that jazz -- but also on WRITING. When we're on submission, we should not be sitting around, angsting about editors and dreaming of The Call coming in. We should be writing. Agents sign WRITERS. That's how I interpret "work as hard as your agent." Your agent's job is selling. YOUR job is writing.

    * Apologies for longest, ramblingest, babbliest comment ever...

  5. I really appreciate this perspective, and absolutely agree that it is a partnership. And you want a partner who believes in you. Thanks!

  6. Well said, and thank you for saying it. :)

  7. I agree with you whole-heartedly. It is a partnership. Agents don't work for writers anymore than writers work for them.

    Regarding the "no response means no" policy, I'm not a fan, but it won't stop me from querying that agent. As long as they say what the time-frame is, I'll check it off my list if I don't hear back. I am an advocate of the auto-reply, though. If the agent has auto-reply that says "Hey we got it and we may or may not get back to you" it helps because otherwise the writer is left wondering whether the query was lost in cyber-space.

  8. Hear, hear. This is so absolutely the truth and I wish more aspiring writers would listen to it.

  9. YES! An Agent and Author really work for each other, and they work together! A business partner is a really, really good way to put it. And I expect NOTHING from an agent that doesn't want to sign me, including a response on my query. No Response Policies don't bother me one bit!

  10. Very well said. Thanks for posting this.

  11. I've seen many, oh so many comments from writers saying they "fired" their agent for such-an-such reason, and they always make me cringe. You don't hire or fire an agent. As you said, you enter into or dissolve a business partnership.

    Agents are advocates for an author's work, they are advisors for an author's career, and they are partners invested in an author's success (i.e., making money from their work).

    On the other side of things, I've never once come across an agent who thought they had been hired by a writer or that they had hired a writer. (Well, not a reputable agent, anyway.)

  12. I agree that an agent/writer relationship is a partnership, but I don't see what that has to do with "no response means no."

  13. Who the customer is really comes down to where the money comes from. The proximate customer of an agent is a publisher (less directly, it's readers). Turns out that this is also the answer for who the customer of a writer is. If an agent thinks of authors as their customers, then you're most likely looking at a scam agent. If a writer thinks of an agent as his customer, (s)he's very confused.

  14. I've been toying with setting up a site that would enable an agent to just set up their rejection letters and be able to forward a query e-mail to a pre-set address to send out the form rejection letter.

  15. This post really touched me, Natalie. I completely agree. This summer, the aspiring (and sometimes established) writer climate felt hostile in the blogosphere. I got tired of listening to statements such as traditional publishing is dead, agents are obsolete, and writers can do it all themselves. To me, that's just arrogant. Agents provide valuable services, and I can't imagine not having my agent in my corner. We are a partnership--well put.

  16. Off the top of my head I can think of as many reasons why the relationship can be described as an employee/employer relationship as I can for a partnership. In fact, if it is a partnership, it's a very uneven, unequal partnership.


    * You pay an agent for her work done for you. An agent does not pay you for your work done for her.

    * You pay an agent 15% (or whatever the agreed upon rate is). In many cases (most cases?) this amount is an imbalance for the amount of work done.

    * If your agent fails to hold up on her end of the agreement, extricating yourself from the agreement, as a writer, can be difficult. Finding another agent can be awkward if not difficult as well. Conversely, if your agent decides to sever her relationship with you, they will continue doing what they're doing and not give it much thought.

    * Your agent is also "partnered" with anywhere from 10 to 40 other authors who, at any moment in time, may be vying for her time. Depending on a host of factors (ranging from other commitments to the politics of dealing with you before dealing with another author who is making more money for the agency) your needs my not be addressed/met by your "partner" for longer than you would like.

    * You must seek out the agent and interest her enough to create the partnership. Rarely does an agent seek out a writer.

    * For the writer to have the agent become a partner, the writer must sign a legal contract, agreeing to the terms and conditions set down by the agent/agency. The agent does not need to sign a contract with the terms and conditions the writer sets down.

    I am not opposed to the idea of an agent as a partner. I just think that partnership needs to be seen clearly.

    -- Tom

  17. Great post. I've always viewed my agent the way I view a skilled physician. I want knowledgeable advice from my agent. I want someone who knows more than I do about the industry, but ultimately let's me make key decisions--with his input. I want someone I can rely on, trust, ask questions of, and have help in making informed decisions. And I have never, ever, ever viewed my physician or my agent as an employee or customer service.

  18. Tom,

    Good points but I think you are making a few generalizations.

    "You pay an agent for her work done for you. An agent does not pay you for your work done for her."

    Depends on how you view the relationship. I just got a check for 85% of what my agent sold. I am paying him, but he is also paying me.

    "You pay an agent 15% (or whatever the agreed upon rate is). In many cases (most cases?) this amount is an imbalance for the amount of work done."

    Depends how you define work. Straight hours? Probably. But bottom line accomplishment? Not so much. What my agent does for me is easily 15% of the total deal. How many people spend years writing books and don't make a cent. Time is only part of the equation.

    As far as leaving an agent, my deal is a handshake deal for my most recent book. I could walk away today and probably find a new agent within a week. But I think it would be just as painful for my agent as it would be for me.

    Yes my agent has other clients. But last time I checked that didn't limit the relationship from being a partnership. A football coach coaches lots of players, but they are still part of a team. I wouldn't want my agent relying on my sales alone.

    "You must seek out the agent and interest her enough to create the partnership. Rarely does an agent seek out a writer."

    This is true. But more a law of supply and demand than defining the partnership. If there were millions of new agents and only a few thousand writers, the reverse would be true. But how would that make it more of a partnership?

    "For the writer to have the agent become a partner, the writer must sign a legal contract, agreeing to the terms and conditions set down by the agent/agency. The agent does not need to sign a contract with the terms and conditions the writer sets down."

    Actually your agent contract is just like your publishing contract. If there is something you don't like or want to add, you can negotiate it.

    While I do understand your points, I think too many people view agents as a brick wall to be climbed over, hidden behind, or gotten around. they are people doing a job that has as many risks and rewards as any other job and more than most.

    Next time you go to your doctor ask him if you can only pay him if he cures you.

  19. Well said. It really puts the relatonship into perspective. Thanks!

  20. Great post and very well stated. Thank you!

  21. Best words I've heard on the subject. But wow, now I'm suddenly feeling pressure to perform, and I don't even have an agent!

  22. I compare querying to the opposite - it's almost like applying for a job. (not that the agent becomes our boss, but in querying, we're trying to sell ourselves and our books, much like applying for jobs). And does every person who fills out an app get a job? No. Does every person who interviews get a call? No.

    (do I like not getting a response? no. but I do try to understand)

  23. I'm totally agreed on the investment perspective. I owned a business and let me tell you first-hand that looking for investors is very much the same thing. You (usually) must seek them out, not the other way around. You must prove yourself to be a good investment. They make that investment in you and in the end, you both hope to make money off the venture. It's a great comparison. Great job, Natalie! :)

  24. Great post. I have to say that the no-response thing never bothered me. As long as agents said on their website "if you don't hear from me in X amount of time, assume it's a no". I thought that was very fair. I obviously kept track of when I queried them so when the 3 month mark or 2 month mark or 6 week mark came, I just marked them off as a no and moved on. Sure it's probably faster to get an actual no but it never bothered me when I didn't.

  25. This post makes me want to get up and dance! A business partnership! Why has this concept eluded me so!

  26. I can definitely relate to this post. I am a teacher, and there has been a lot of talk about how teachers supposedly provide "bad customer service" to their students. And I have been told how to do my job on more than one occasion, but I am getting better at asserting my authority and what my role as a teacher is.
    I think that a lot of writers take it personally when agents don't respond to their work. Their work is personal to them, and naturally they view their work as important, so they probably think of it as an insult when agents don't respond to them right away or at all.

  27. With all due respect, this isn't how it should be. Once upon a time, agents did act as employees and viewed themselves as employees. But in recent years they've been steadily stealing more and more power and authority over authors that they shouldn't have. They should be your employee. You are hiring them to sell your book. They are your salesman. The publisher is your partner. Agents need to be put back in their place. The way things are now is bad for authors and getting worse all the time. (In traditional publishing anyway.)

    Authors stop groveling.

  28. I agree. The agent/writer relationship is a partnership. A business partnership. Your agent is your best advocate, pure and simple.

  29. @sarah mccabe

    Once upon a time when? I had my first agent in 1985 so I'm assuming your experience must predate mine by quite a bit.

  30. The post is perfect from the standpoint of the mental and emotional connection between agent and client.

    To interject a bit of law, writers and literary agents would both benefit from labeling the business relationship as agent-principal rather than agent-client, employee-employer, customer-business, joint venturers, shareholders, partners, and so forth.

    Agency law is quite straightforward in its initial composition: the principal gives the agent authority to perform specific task on her behalf, while the agent agrees to accept the authority and perform responsibly. Money may or may not be involved.

    The agency relationship is built on trust and clarity, thus you have the agreement - a meeting of the minds between principal and agent as to extent of authority, compensation (if any), and any other details comprising the understanding between the principal and agent. The agreement stands as evidence about all these issues.

    I don't have a literary agent yet, but I will, and the agreement will not be one of I'll-get-mine-and-she'll-get-hers. That's flawed logic. The agency relationship is meant to be a collaborative one, not a compromising one.

    I have a quote on my bulletin board: anything born of compromise is bound to be mediocre. I wish I'd written that. While compromise is a necessary element to many relationships, it has no place in an agency relationship. Replace compromise with collaborate. Come together and determine if writer and agent are good fits in every way that either thinks will impact the relationship. If the fit is promising, agree to collaborate and put down the elements in writing so that the collaboration is not lost to exhaustion, time, or interference, so that you can always go back and remember why you ever agreed to be agent and principal, so that the agency can move forward with maximum momentum.

    If the fit isn't a good one, walk away: the best you could possibly hope for is the mediocre compromise. That is true for the writer. It is true for the literary agent.

  31. Amen. I view it sort of like a marriage. A long term partnership with almost as much of a committement, only you don't have to do their laundry or remind them a hundred times to take out the trash.

    Honestly, I would rather have a form rejection than no response just so I know it's time to move on. But I understand this is not always possible.

  32. Very well said. I've always viewed it as a mutually beneficial relationship of equals.

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