Weird Literary Agents

February 21st, 2017 | Posted by Steve in Fiction | Nonfiction | The Writing Life

Weird Literary Agents

So I’m once more using my database of agents to look for a partner in a new project.  I try to get all the information I can about an agent before wasting my time and his or her time. I carefully examine their web sites, any other web sites listing them, and I have several printed books to refer to as well, the best being Jeff Hermann’s annual guide. I do this in order to submit to them queries carefully tailored to their wishes.

I add to my database as I go. I always prefer agents who are members of AAR, the Association of Authors Representatives. That web site has a wonderful agent search engine and it’s free, so go use it. These are the gold standard and sworn not to rip off authors. Not being a member of AAR doesn’t necessarily mean an agent is bad; merely that he or she is not a member. But membership is a handy way to screen them. If I were a literary agent I would certainly want to be a member so, as a writer, I want an agent who thinks like I do.

But I run across odd agents. Not many. Some. A few funny, a few sad. Some general categories:

– The 20th-century fans. These refuse to use email for communication, preferring stacks of paper in packages with small stamps plastered all over the outside. Stamps went out with buggy whips. Do they use telegrams too? The sheer labor and expense involved aside, the main question is this: Do I want an agent who is uncomfortable with modern communications technology out there representing me? (Answer: No. I skip them. They’re likely too busy with their letter openers anyway.)


– One (only one, and no more, I hope) with an unchangeable and sweeping indemnity clause in the submission form I must fill in at their web site. Pass. I’m not going to cover their legal fees because some weirdo chooses to claim that my manuscript was something remotely like his manuscript. I’m accustomed to indemnity clauses in my nonfiction work but was always able to modify them to be more reasonable. But this one was a required checkbox on a form. I told Laura Gross, the agent, she was cutting herself out of may of the best professional writers — and then reported her to the ASJA (American Society of Journalists and Authors) of which I am a long-standing member. They agreed that the agent was out of line.

– I’m so special. The agent who insists upon an exclusive look at your manuscript. Only rarely encounter this any more. In fact some agents make apoint of saying they assume yours is a simultaneous submission — you have sent to more than one agent — and they are fine with that. I like to compare an exclusive demand to your telling a new car salesman to park that shiny car in his back lot and not show it to anyone else while you take up to two months (optimistically) to make up your mind. Let me know what his response is.


– Bad web sites. Lots of bad web sites. Literary agents aren’t the most technically-savvy bunch and some web sites were painful to navigate. But even that was better than the ten percent or so who had no web sites at all and no other clue as to what they want or how to communicate with them. Probably more 20th-century fans; I have no way to know. Pass.

– Burying the data inside the blather. Most agent web sites’ descriptions of their agents tell me where they went to school (I don’t care) or the names of their pets (I care even less) and brag endlessly about the authors they’ve repped in the past (usually far past; they don’t often update these web sites.) I don’t care, or care very little. I want to know what genres of writing they prefer to rep. I just wish to know if this is a person who wants to see the type of manuscript I have prepared. I don’t know why they make it so hard to learn that — and then complain about getting so many emails from authors who are off-topic. That information, if available at all, is buried in the endless verbiage. I’ve gotten good at scanning but, even so, it’s a pain.

– The dead. I even ran upon a few I could cross off my database because they died or retired. Even finding out someone is dead is not that easy; their listings in the various online sites go on and on. We’re all immortal on the Web, I guess.

But, with all the flaws, most literary agents are trying to do their best in a tough business and I appreciate their work. Spend a few hours per day reading agents’ web sites, interviews, blogs and personal descriptions and you can respect their efforts. Now, if you excuse me, I have some tweaking to do to my database …

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