Good intentions

Dear Miss Snark,

Last November I signed with a former acquisitions editor turned literary agent to represent my narrative nonfiction manuscript. I am her first client (she now has two). Previously I had approached agents with bigger names and garnered some interest, but no offers of representation. I was impressed by her professionalism and background in the field, and I felt she could sell my book if it was salable.

We were getting ready to send out my proposal to publishers when I learned this weekend that she was about to start a full-time office job. She has two young children to support and is taking this job to obtain benefits and a stable income while her freelance business gets off the ground. She claims that she will be able to make necessary communications with editors during breaks and her lunch hour--which will fall between 2 and 3 PM EST. She has offered to release me from my contract, but still believes strongly that she can do the job.

What do you think? Moonlighting can work in plenty of occupations, but can it work for a literary agent? What level of availability and instantaneous response do editors expect from agents? Naturally, I would prefer to make this decision before she has contacted publishers on my behalf, rather than after.

Since I don't have firsthand experience with this aspect of publishing culture, I thought I would try asking the recognized expert. Thank you for any insight you can provide.

It's entirely possible she'll do a fine job. Editors rarely expect instantaneous answers.

Why I think this is a bad idea is the answer to a question you didn't ask but I'm going to answer anyway.

You'll always be third. Her kids needs will come first (and I'm not saying they shouldn't). Her job will come second (and were I the one paying her that salary and bennies, I'd fully expect and demand that too). You, the client will come after. Always.

There are days, and more than a few, when the fecal matter hits the whirly bird. I've learned to plan only four hours a day at most, because the other 8 are generally taken up with things that pop up and need to be dealt with promptly. Yesterday it was negotiating a contract point that I'd thought was settled but the editor didn't. And then there were two developments with projects on submissions that meant I had to call the clients and get them started on stuff right away.

Yes I can do that after hours or on lunch hour, and yes your agent only has two clients to juggle.

Here's the other reason: a good agent is pro-active. I read the trades every day. I read them to stay abreast of news my clients can use. I probably make 10 calls or emails a day that don't turn into anything, but that doesn't mean I don't do it. One will, and you have to make those useless ones to get the right one. I also read a lot of ancillary stuff, a lot of it on the web, and sometimes that info is of great use to my clients. And I go to readings, and parties, and other industry related events to stay in the loop.

This is the piece of the job that will NEVER get done by someone only able to work part time.

This is a hard decision and one for which there is no cut and dried answer.
Your agent seems very upfront and honest in her dealings with you. I'm sure she has good intentions. Miss Snark, fan of Satan that she is, knows well what paves the road to Hell.


Anonymous said...

On the other hand, this agent may be hell bent on escaping her day job and bust her ass for her two clients. Desperation is a powerful force.

Ryan Field said...

Agent X in New York works three days a week; shows up at the office around eleven in the morning and is home by seven. Agent X has best selling clients, has never done a conference (thinks they are a waste of time and money) and is in a financial position where there's no need to take on a full time job other than agenting. Is this luck? Talent? Call it whatever you like, but Agent X usually spends more time worrying about the koi pond then reading a lot of stuff on the web, and yet Agent X does a fine job and all (well, most)of the clients are pleased.

My point here is give this truly ambitious admirable person the benefit of the doubt for at least a year. Good things often come from hungry people; and she sounds like she's pretty damn hungry to me (she's not going to be happy working in an office forever; she wants that sale as much as you do). While Miss Snark may be correct in the long term, I know from personal experience that determination and ambition are excellent trump cards.

Anonymous said...


A succinct lesson in why every writer should obtain the most professional agent that they are capable of attracting.

pws said...

You mention "The Trades". I was wondering what your daily 'trades' read consists of.

Anonymous said...

Miss Snark makes telling points, as usual. However, her argument seems to assume you have options, that is, other agents to choose from. On the plus side, this one's a former editor with contacts, she's hungry, she likes your work, and right now you're her hope, her beginning, her dream. I can feel your pain: If I choose her is it out of desperation, or am I seizing opportunity? I lean to the latter. Good luck.

Robin L. said...

I agree with 'ryan field'. I'd personally give this agent a chance. I've written an entire novel while working and raising two little ones. Determination is a powerful thing. And I think having someone believe in your work is really powerful as well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, this wannabe-agent sounds very upfront and honest with this prospective client. I'd be interested in knowing how upfront and honest she's being with her new employer.

I've worked in offices where the employer asked for a commitment of six months to a year. It's not legally binding, but it's a reasonable request. Every time someone who is hired after saying, "Sure, I have no problem committing to one year" leaves for something better, the people who stay have to take up the slack, a new ad has to be placed, and a new person has to be interviewed, hired, trained, etc.

Obviously, the onerousness of this process depends partly on the size of the company, and I've usually worked in small-ish offices, but it's not a negligible thing to make a verbal promise and then break it just because it's at-will employment. (I don't like it any better when employers use that to justify throwing away employees like used Kleenex, either.)

I'd suggest talking to this agent as I would a prospective hire. I'd ask what commitment, if any, she made to the new job, and what she envisions for the next two to three years of her professional life. It's not unlike dating a guy who's cheating on his wife - if this agent made a committment that she'll break as soon as her "real" professional life picks up, guess what she might do to you down the line?

katiesandwich said...

Hmm. Sounds like a sticky situation. I think you have to go with your gut on this. I agree with Miss Snark's points, but the fact that this agent is being honest with you about this is a good sign, I think. She could easily have kept it from you, and you would've never known, but she thought it was important to tell you. I believe that stuff like that says a lot about a person's character. On the other hand, I don't know who the agent is and have never had dealings with her.

But this agent is doing two jobs, agenting and her office job, and she has a family. How many writers do the same thing, except with writing? A lot. Not me, thankfully. Quite frankly, I don't know how they do it. I'm smart enough to be grateful that I don't work outside the home. So it can be done, I think, but I also think that you should be comfortable with this. And if you're not, well... Anyway, that's my two cents.

SAND STORM said...

"Miss Snark, fan of Satan that she is, knows well what paves the road to Hell"

um manuscripts?

KingM said...

The way I figure it, you'll know within a month or two if it's going to fly. It would take at least that long to find another agent. I say give her a chance and see what happens.

Good luck.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has to start somewhere, and this sounds like a shot for both of them.

Go for it.

Heidi the Hick said...

I think my main concern would be that the client found out afterwards that the agent was taking on an office job. Kinda feels like the ol Bait & Switch.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps this is a question to add to your "to ask" question of your potential agent if you feel it is a problem -- do you have an outside job/is agenting your only source of income.