Agent sidelines

Dear Miss Snark:

I'm a relative newcomer to your blog, and I'm learning a great deal -- thank you.

You may have covered this, but I didn't see it in the archives. I recently ran across a literary agency that offers consulting services as a sideline: contact negotiation, general editorial commentary and line editing (three separate services). They are upfront about stating explicitly that if you submit to them and are rejected, using their paid services will not necessarily get you a
second look (though they do say that it might), and they charge an upfront retainer for those services.

Is this a red flag? They're not referring people to outside editors, and they're not making any promises, so it didn't seem wildly unreasonable, but it didn't sit quite right, either.

Am I being overly suspicious?

Thanks again. (And thanks especially for the "Links to Cool People" -- I'm now a huge Maud Newton fan!)

You'd be better off to hire a real editor if you want editorial advice. Agents are not editors. Ex-editors may be better editors than those of us who weren't ever editors, but still, why hire a salesperson for the assembly line?

The elephant in the foyer here is that people believe, no matter what we say, that if we just read their work we'll want to represent it. They'll pay for editorial consultation to get it read. There is no amount of "warning" that will dissuade them.

I know we can't save people from themselves, but this is exactly why AAR has a rule about this kind of thing.

I look at agents who have little sidelines going and I remember the best advice I ever read about being good at something was in "Waiting for Dizzy". The advice was from a musician who said you can only play one instrument really really well. You can be ok on several instruments, but superb on only one. You have to focus. I think about that every single time I'm tempted to make a quick buck doing "consulting".


Elektra said...

I take it said musician wasn't a one-man band?

Anonymous said...

Well, damn . . . Always good to see someone else who finds early jazz players a rich source of wisdom and life lessons. When I find myself moping about the agent-hunting process, and grousing about spending years writing something of substance (I hope), and then having to distill that substance into a couple of pages, and knowing a 23-year-old editorial assistant in his or her first job will decide whether it is compelling enough to ask for pages or to show his or her boss, I think of these guys, and the incredible dedication they showed just to be able to make their art, and the absolute mastery of craft that was the first requirement to play that music... Well, it shuts me up pretty quick.

Anonymous said...

Old Arkansas sayin'

That feller got lots-a-outhouses, but onlyest one of 'em door works!

Haste yee back ;-)

Dave Kuzminski said...

Who was the agent?

Anonymous said...

Lately there seems to be a number of agents writing fiction. Makes me nervous if they're writing the same genre they represent. Such a possiblity for conflict of interest.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
"Lately there seems to be a number of agents writing fiction. Makes me nervous if they're writing the same genre they represent. Such a possiblity for conflict of interest."

WTF does this comment have to do with a literary agency offering consulting services as a sideline? And, how the hell could there be anything wrong with an agent writing fiction? If this is what makes you nervous take a pill!

Anonymous said...

"Such a possibility for conflict of interest."

Really? How?

1. The agent decides to reject a manuscript because it is "better" than his? How does that help him? And how does it hurt the writer, who has likely been been rejected a few times for other reasons? If the rejected work is good enough, some agent who is not writing fiction will snap it up. And if it isn't, well, you can finish the thought.

2. The agent "steals" someone's story idea? Please. These people read thousands of story pitches a year. Thousands. I doubt anyone's idea is so breakout that it has intrinsic value in itself. And even if it does, the premise that an agent-novelist would then logically try to swipe it manages to be both naive and cynical at the same time.

I don't think it's a "conflict of interest" that bothers people. I think it's the notion that agents shouldn't exist outside of their professional responsibilities. "How dare she write / play golf / maintain a blog / raise a family? My agent should be thinking about my book 24x7."

This is silly, and typical of a writer's self-absorbtion. I've been guilty of it myself. And I've found myself wondering how a novel-writing agent could keep from becoming swept up in the near-infinite details of writing her own novel and maintain focus on her clients.

Then I remembered what it's like working 100% on commission, and I stop worrying.

Anonymous said...

To Michaelgav: I couldn't have said it better.

Anonymous said...


I think you miss the point. The conflict of interest in question is that agents exist in order to advocate for writers. Agents are salespeople and, as has been made abundantly clear here and elsewhere, publishing pays squat. The payoff, and backbone of a commonly articulated ethical standard, for literary agents is that they are working on behalf of the writer because they believe in what they do and for whom they do it. Since an understanding of how people operate is a prerequisite for any even remotely qualified editor or agent, the idea that an agent would be clueless that if you tell authors they can hire an agent to edit their otherwise completely-over-the-transom work, those authors won't believe on some level that they have a better shot at getting an offer of representation by that agent than if they didn’t have that extra face time is a little tough to swallow. The conflict of interest here doesn’t have anything to do with the writer being worried about the agent stealing their ideas or being worried about other people writing better fiction. It’s between the agent’s basic imperative to be an advocate for writers and being willing to take advantage of a writer’s enormous passion for their work by dangling an almost empty promise in front of them—just enough for bait—and charging money for it upfront. You may say the writers who fall for this are na├»ve, and perhaps you’re right. But fleecing the people you say you’re in the business of advocating for, or even just opening the fleecing-room door, is pretty sleazy, it seems to me.

Kit Whitfield said...

That agency sounds extremely suspicious to me. They're raising money on the side by offering editorial services. This tells you two things:

1. They evidently don't feel they're making enough money just by selling their clients' books.
2. They aren't dedicating all their time to getting their clients' books sold, but are wasting hours and hours reading stuff they may not take on.

Sounds to me like they're using the word 'agency' as a means of tempting in people who want their scripts read, rather than as an accurate description of what they actually do.

Run like the wind.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous #4--

That's a very well put and thoughtful argument, and I don't disagree with it at all.

I was responding to Anonymous#2, who wrote the following:

"Lately there seems to be a number of agents writing fiction. Makes me nervous if they're writing the same genre they represent. Such a possiblity for conflict of interest."

I don't think an agent who writes a novel is setting up a conflict of interest. That was the point of my soapbox commentary.

On the original post, the idea of an agency selling an editorial consultation, there doesn't seem to be any disagreement that this is at best a sleazy, misleading gimmick.

I wish the original poster would reply to Dave and tell us who offered these "services."

Anonymous said...

Michaelgav...I don't think you missed the point of the comment to which you responded (it had nothing to do with the original post, but it was a good response to the stupid comment about agents writing their own fiction). I think Anon #4 is a bit confused and probably always will be.

Anonymous said...

Hi -- I'm actually both anonymous #4 (thanks for the clarification on your point, Michaelgav, I gotcha now) and the original poster. The agent's name is Andrew Zack, and this is his site:


Apparently he's in California now.

Anonymous said...


Well, it weren't that feller with all them outhouses. He's nature-made vexed n silly!

Haste yee back ;-)

Anonymous said...

Anon #4...When I saw Andrew Zack's name I remembered it from a past interaction (a good one) and had to click on over to the web site. If you recently "ran across" this literary agency you must have noticed that he's NOT taking any queries or submissions at this time, and has not been for quite a while. But more than that, according to his web site he explains, in a polite way (too polite for me), that despite the post stating he's not taking queries, he's still getting them anyway. He even went and posted this on the HOME page, in DARK RED letters, so the pushy jackasses of the world would get it and stop querying.

So why on earth would you even care? No queries means no queries...not snail mail, not e-mail, not pony express...whether this agent has a sideline editorial service or not.

Anonymous said...

The following was taken from the homepage of Andrew Zack's very professional web site:

That's right, we're no longer at our old address, so please, please, PUH-LEASE do not send any queries or submissions to our old address. The guy who lives there now won't appreciate getting your mail.

So where is the new address? Not posted, since we are currently CLOSED to new queries and submissions, as posted on our Submissions page. However, so many authors apparently don't go to that page that we feel the need to post that closure here. We closed to new queries and submissions a year ago, other than for an offer made in conjunction with our work for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. That offer has expired, so we really are completely closed to new queries and submissions.

Why? Because we have over fifty current clients who need our attention, as well as a dozen or so completed manuscripts that we requested over a year ago or so that need to be read. We can't keep piling up paper here, so we put a halt to anything new coming in.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I haven't looked at this in some time, so I don't know if anyone's even still reading this thread, but here goes:

Ryan Field, if you're out there:

I don't quite follow your logic in assuming that not taking queries for the moment makes sidelines okay -- the agency doesn't say it's never taking clients again, so are they going to stop offering editorial services if they decide to accept queries again? Do agencies frequently stop taking new clients, and if so, is it normal for them to start accepting them again eventually? And in the meantime, aren't they still supposed to be spending all their time on their current clients? I'm not going to assume anything either way here, but from the response the initial question got, this still doesn't seem quite in line with the AAR code. I'm not saying this guy is evil, I'm just asking where the line between stand-up and shady starts.

For the record, I didn't initially mention the name of the agent because it struck me that, though I'd never seen a question about agents offering their own editorial services before, if one agency has them listed, odds are others do, too, and I wasn't sure -- as I originally stated -- if this was dicey or not. This agent was the one that I saw, but the question was a general question. I posted his name because I was asked; I thought twice about it, but this blog and its attendant comments have been both intelligent and useful, so I figured people could decide for themselves what they thought. I'm glad you had a good interaction with him. I'm not making accusations, I'm asking questions because I don't know and this is a great place to learn. And I care because I actually do manage to occasionally think about questions even when they might affect more than just me, or when they might have something to do with a future decision as opposed to what's right in front of me at this very second.