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It’s been almost a full year now since I signed with my agent, but the thing about querying is, if you did it for long enough, I’m not sure you ever forget what it was like.

Me? I did it on and off for four years.

I got something like ten rejections on my first ms before I stopped (not that I’d normally advise giving up after that low a number, it’s just that it was far more of a “market timing” thing – NA! – than anything else), fifty before shelving the second one (what, until my most recent ms, was “the book of my heart”), and then was very lucky to find my agent through The Writer’s Voice contest with my third, for which I only sent about five queries.

That adds up to a whole lotta two things: 1) Research 2) Rejections

When I queried the first time, I admittedly had no idea WTF I was doing. I basically picked agents to query based on which agency names I remembered from working at Simon & Schuster, which was sort of an iffy move because although it did mean they possessed some legitimacy, I’d worked in Adult and had no idea there were totally separate kidlit agents. I don’t know if there was a QueryTracker or AW or anything like that, I only know that I didn’t use any of ’em.

As it happens, I queried some fantastic agents at the time, only I didn’t know it. I honestly had no idea how many subpar agents were out there, and it was total luck of the draw that I picked agents like Amy Tipton and Jenn Laughran. Had I queried bad ones, I’m not sure I even would’ve known.

But I sure know about ’em now!

I’m not sure exactly what’s changed over the past year or two, but suddenly there are a whole lot of people out there who feel cool calling themselves agents despite lacking the necessary experience, contacts, and professionalism. Somehow, “I like books” became good enough for agent bios, and people seem to have lost sight of what they should be looking for, both as good signs and bad signs.

Hopefully, this post, written with the assistance of a few helpful writers who’ve had the reddest of flags thrust in their faces, will help clarify. (And, if you need to remind yourself why no agent is better than a bad agent, see Point 1 here.)

The agent doesn’t actually know the category he/she is representing.

Now, you might be all, “How would I even know that??” Well, here are some hints from real-life examples!

  • An agent says something like (direct quote!) “I would also recommend that you consider writing novellas to begin with (shorter romance-geared novels ranging around 50-60k words) not only because they also are an easier thing to sell, but also much easier to master before delving into really meaty novel stories.”

Oh, hey there! I’m real life, and I’m here to tell you that no one thinks novellas are easier to sell unless maybe they plan to go digital only. And if you do plan to go digital only, maybe share that information with your prospective client?

  • You get rejected because your word count is “too low”… and it was a 60,000-word contemporary.

Right, so, as a writer, you should be doing your own research about acceptable word counts, and if you have, you’d know that 60,000 words is absolutely normal for contemporary YA. On the lower end? Sure. Rejection-worthy? By no one who knows a damn thing about contemporary YA.

So now, why would an agent reject for something like that? Either, he or she really doesn’t know better, which, red flag – as a writer, you should be informed; as an agent, it is your freaking job to be. It may sound like it’s not such a big deal, but if your agent doesn’t know this, what else doesn’t he or she know??

And then there’s option B:

 The agent’s got something to sell

I’m going to hope and pray that every querying writer knows the cardinal rule of You do not pay agents, period. But apparently, there’s a new rule that needs to be stated:

Do not trust agents that try to sell you their services, their clients’ books, or anything else. Seriously.

In the case of one of the times I’ve heard about an agent rejecting for an absolutely within-guidelines word count, the rejecting agent “helpfully” suggested the writer consult an editing service for assistance in beefing it up.

How incredibly convenient that that agency provided paid editorial service.

Thankfully, I’ve never experienced any such thing, possibly in part because this whole “agents also offering editing services” thing has really grown to be a thing in the time since I signed. But here are some things that raised flags for other people:

“Once I queried an agent and received a critique of my query. I’m usually happy for a critique, but this query letter has pulled many requests, and the tone of the critique seemed as if it were trying to shake my confidence in my skills, so my spidey senses were tingling. More research revealed that the agency also ran an editing business. An agent claimed on AbsoluteWaterCooler that the two businesses were separate, but the intern who advised me to “clean up my query a bit” had both businesses listed under his name. This was a red flag for me.”

“She suggested I not waste my money attending writer’s conferences because I had a long way to go before I was ready for them. Instead, she told me to buy the CD’s of two particular conferences and learn how to write that way. She also suggested I buy her client’s books and read those for an idea of what mine should look like.”

Sound like anything you’ve experienced?

Look, I work in publishing, and have for years. I’m going to tell you a secret: the money sort of sucks. As a result, lots of publishing professionals have second jobs (including me!) and yep, they’re still in the publishing realm, because that’s where our skill sets lie.

But if you feel like someone who happens to have an agenda is pushing theirs on you, run. The harsh truth is, it doesn’t even matter if you’re right. Because you’ve already established that you don’t trust this person, and you’re not going to have a healthy agent-client relationship with him or her if that’s the case.

The agent makes unreasonable requests.

It’s been said by many a reputable agent – exclusives are really never in a writer’s best interest. I mean, think about it. They’re not exclusively looking at you; what kind of leg up could this possibly give you?

But OK, you’ve been asked for an exclusive, as has been discussed on this blog before. Now what?

  1. It should never be granted for more than four weeks. Seriously, how badly do you want to screw yourself?

Ah, but here we have: “I sent a query to an agent, and 2 days later she responded saying she would like a 7 week exclusive on a full.”

Guess what color flag that raises?

SEVEN WEEKS. That’s almost two months with exactly one agent, who may or may not want to rep you, looking at your manuscript, while you can’t query any others. This would fall under what I would deem an unreasonable request.

But then, there’s the reality that Sometimes you can’t grant an exclusive, because other agents already have your material, as is actually what you’re hoping for when you query.

So then what? Then you tell the agent you cannot offer exclusivity at this time. In my two experiences of being asked for an exclusive, one was my very first query so I had nothing else out and didn’t care, and the other simply waived exclusivity, as I would generally expect to be done.

However, what happened to our 7-weeker who found herself in that situation?

“The requesting agent asked me for the names of the other agents reviewing my fulls. I gave her the names of the agents and promised to let her know immediately if the agents offered rep. I also offered to stop querying for a period of time. The agent responded saying she is withdrawing her request for a full because I am unable to grant her exclusivity. To be fair, this agent did let me know that if the other agents passed on my work and if I’d be willing to grant exclusivity then, she would be happy to reconsider.”

Personally, I’m not in love with the whole “agents asking who has your ms” thing, but I know some do it to warn you if it’s a major Red Flagger whose got it.

My guess is this wasn’t one of those times.

Regardless, withdrawing a request for a full because you can’t get an exclusive?

RED FLAG. I don’t know why anyone would require exclusivity that badly, and certainly not for seven weeks, but even if this person was so high on your list that you wanted to grant it, how could you possibly trust that they wouldn’t try similar strange practices with editors?

The agent doesn’t treat you with respect.

There are different conventions in the agent-querier relationship, sure. Some agents respond to all, and some don’t. Some try to respond with something personal to every writer, or at least the ones who follow their submission guidelines, and some use a form rejection unless they’re requesting material. All of these things fall under the realm of acceptable.

Then there are things that should scream “run!” to you if an agent ever says them. Like:

“However, I knew after reading more that although I love your use of language, setting, tension, story idea, and style, it isn’t publishable yet. If it was, of course, you would have heard back from me immediately.” (Emphasis mine, because vom.)

It’s okay to think “I’m backburnering this because I don’t see this going anywhere.” I’m not really sure what the point is of saying it, or of actually doing it, if that’s how you feel. Regardless, this is an agent who has no shame in actually saying, “I’m treating you less than because your work is less than.”

You know how sometimes you say to lovely agents, “If I revise according to all your suggestions, can I resubmit?” Well, save that for the lovely agents. Besides, if your agent can’t figure out how to politely phrase things for you, who’s to say he or she is capable of doing so to editors?

See a recurring theme here? Always consider how their professional behavior with you could translate in other scenarios. If you can’t at least make yourself understand that you deserve better, think of it that way. Whatever works.

Finally, one more category of things I want to address, and I’ll call these “yellow flags,” because while they’re not objectively terrible things, they’re the kinds of things that reflect agent traits specific clients may want to avoid.

  • Slow communication. For me, this is maddening. If you ask me my favorite thing about my agent, it is hands down how quickly she responds and how consistently she keeps me in the loop. She gave this trait away immediately by requesting a full the day after I sent my partial, and offering a week later. I wasn’t kept on the hook in the slightest.

Contrast that with an agent who requested along the following timeline:
Query sent – 10/7/10
Request for partial – 12/3/10
Request for full – 1/24/11
Nudge from me – 10/4/11
Response on 10/12/11 – “still enjoying” but had to set it aside for clients’ work
Pass – 1/4/12

That’s 15 months from query to rejection. Now, if she’d loved it, it might’ve been faster, and if I’d nudged sooner, I might’ve gotten an answer sooner, and all in all, I don’t begrudge this agent for taking that amount of time.

But it was a really good sign for me that she was not for me.

  • Small sales. I’m at the point now where it’s clear I’m a fan of smaller presses, right? This is not a judgment of small presses or the agents who sub to them. I really hope that’s glaringly obvious.

But, what’s important to understand is this: A lot of small presses don’t require submissions to be agented. A lot of acquisitions done by small presses were actually initially done with the author, who then brought an agent in to secure it and negotiate contract terms. That fact is not clarified in Publisher’s Marketplace.

So what does that mean? It means that if you look up an agent’s deals in PM and think, “Oh, good, she’s got sales! I’ll sub there!” but all the deals are with places that don’t require agents, it is literally possible she secured none of them.

Now again, it’s perfectly OK that writers want to bring in agents later, and it’s OK that agents are willing to do this. But you may not want an agent whose entire sales records are based on these kinds of deals. And even if they’re not those kinds of deals, you have to ask yourself – if an agent is only making deals at places that don’t require agents, what’s the agent really doing for you that you can’t do yourself?

(Hopefully the answer is “negotiating awesome contract terms,” but again, you have no idea. Yellow flag!)

So, those are some thoughts from me and my brave contributors; have you seen any of these things? What raises red flags for you?

Photo credit: Jenny Kaczorowski

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