A friend tagged me on a Facebook post. A literary agent was going to be at a local coffee shop that evening! They were looking to meet local writers and illustrators - all genres represented! How could I not?
Now, I have devoted a lot of time to developing a list of potential agents. I was not prepared to throw that work, and my long-term goals, away on a what-if, so I only took some of my artwork. I decided I might further my freelance illustration plan, and hear what the agent had to say.
Well...this, it turns out, is more of a cautionary tale then a holy grail moment. This meet up was a good reminder that as an author, especially a new, unpublished author, you need to do your research.
This person was not an agent. This person was a recent transplant to the area who had purchased a small used book store and who had friends with connections to publishing companies. The publishing companies (which she did not know the name of!) were small, boutique companies looking for authors. All genres were being accepted not because there was good outlets for all genres, but because the people behind the scenes were new and did not yet have any expertise in any genre.
The "agent" was a hopeful author herself, who was looking to pitch a non-fiction book to a publishing company. Of note, the company she was planning to pitch to was not one that she was there "representing."
I haven't devoted any space in my posts to the differences between publishing fiction vs non-fiction. But in my day job, I have co-authored non-fiction book chapters. The process is very, very different from writing an interesting story and then finding a way to get that out for others to read. What a publisher gets for a non-fiction book is a sample chapter, an outline, and the expertise of the author which is provided in great detail. Basically, with non-fiction, publishers are trying to determine what expertise the author has around the topic.
The "agent" did not know even know expectations are different for authors of fiction vs non-fiction. In fact, she asked one poor sci-fi author for an outline of her next book. She asked another how many chapters her work-in-progress was going to be. *Insert panic and heart-palpitations on behalf of those poor authors*
Rather than go into further detail about the ineptitude of this person, let me highlight the warning signs:
- This "agent" did not have any experience with publishing companies. Reputable agents are closely tied into the literary world, often having worked in publishing firms, professional editing, or literary agencies.
- She offered editing skills (for a fee), but her only editing experience was technical report writing, which was a part of her previous job. Non-fiction includes more nuanced things like tense and prose, which are a very different beast. She could not provide references or contacts who could verify her expertise. She also did not know the difference between copyediting, content editing, and line editing.
- She completely lacked knowledge about the literary world: the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction, how and what you would submit to publishing companies, royalties, advances, or contracts. This is the expertise you pay for when you sign with an agent! What good is an agent who cannot work to leverage a better publishing deal for their author? If your agent can't help you navigate a submission, why are you giving them 15% of your profits?
- She had no previous clients and no track record of successfully representing authors. Even new agents should have interned or worked closely with another agent and be able to tell you who they worked with.
- She asked if illustrators would be willing to work only for royalties for a self-publishing project. Self-publishing contracts between illustrators and authors are almost always fee-based, because self-publishing is a real gamble that takes a LOT of commitment to sell books. An illustrator who is only receiving royalties on this type of book might be doing all those illustrations for free because the book might not sell at all.
- She gave me this other author's story to read! Sharing unpublished works of another author is not professional.
- She was unclear about what services she would provide a client beyond editing!
I think it would be unfair to characterize this person as trying to prey off of authors and illustrators. My intent is not to villainize her. I believe this person was hoping to just "fall into" being an agent.
As an author, you need to make sure you are informed enough that you would see through this type of "help." Hitching yourself to an ineffective agent could be worse than having no agent at all. Remember, an agent is a source of information about the literary world. They are an informed guide who can provide information, introductions, expertise, and leverage. An agent is your credentials, especially as a new author. Getting a good agent is a vote of confidence in your writing and your potential...so what does an unknown agent, one who is completely unknowledgable about how things are done, say about you to publishers?