What should you do if you find an agent?
The Association of Authors' Representatives offers this suggested list of topics for authors to discuss with literary agents who have offered to represent them:
Independent Publisher on Instagram
When a Good Agent Turns Bad
A Cautionary TaleHere is a cautionary tale for free. It cost me over $34,000.
Whether you are new to professional writing or you have published many books, few professional collaborations seem to offer more promise than working with a literary agent. In my career, I've had many agents, 30 to be exact.
That doesn't count the hundreds of query letters I've sent, imploring agents to represent me. Some who responded have been so obviously sleazy that I didn't even hire them. I don't count these bottom feeders among the 30 I actually hired to represent me at different stages in my career.
Wow, landing a literary agent! Is that all it's cracked up to be? If you want glamour, perhaps it is. My first agent, for instance, was impressively famous. When we met, he spent an hour regaling me with tales of his exploits in glamorous New York literary circles. Then he pocketed his share of the advance for the contract I had just brokered with Contemporary Books.
That first book quickly went out of print; I would have been able to purchase some copies for myself except that my agent was too busy to let me know. When he bothered to write, the book was no longer contemporary; it had been remaindered for six months; oops.
Most of the agents who followed weren't much more effective. One agent will live in memory as the greediest of the bunch, screaming over the phone, "Will you take the $1,000 or won't you?"
This was to be my advance for a book I had worked on for 6 years. My agent was furious when I declined. (I wound up self-publishing that book. By now, it has over 50,000 copies in print.)
A classy and beautiful New York agent managed to land me a contract with a major publisher. I held her in high esteem until years later, when she neglected to send me a royalty check. When I called up to ask her what had happened, she claimed I had moved. I hadn't.
Until this year, however, it never occurred to me that an agent could do worse than "forget" to mail a royalty check.
I received a rather costly education. I'd like to pass it along to you.
BEWARE CHARM, ALSO JOKES ABOUT WEINERSCHNITZEL
When I first hired X, he impressed me with a quiet kind of competence. He seemed like a hard worker, and his specialty was just what I needed: Representing self-publishers in foreign markets.
The first time around, X charged a fee for representing me at the Frankfurt Book Fair. When my titles attracted strong interest from foreign presses, he switched over to a standard agenting agreement, where he would negotiate contracts, collect royalties, and keep 20% of the proceeds, sending me the rest.
So began a partnership that lasted for seven years, starting in 2000. X brokered a number of contracts, including one that became a bestseller for a big German publisher. Advances and royalty checks followed.
In retrospect, my response to this good fortune made me a potential crime victim.
Sure, I asked to see all of our contracts and royalty statements. But when X didn't send them, I caved. He was an experienced agent. Obviously, he knew what was cool and, evidently, it wasn't cool to appear too interested in the petty details of a contract.
Out of a dozen contracts, he sent only three. As for royalty statements, I never saw one. Still, when he sent my checks, X would always enclose a charming-but-casual handwritten note, saying things like, "This ought to buy you a few Wienerschnitzel."
Instead of responding, "Yes, but how many books were actually sold to be able to buy these Wienerschnitzel?" I thought, "How European he is, and so very charming!"
Besotted by my agent's charm, I even sent him holiday gifts -- the only Christmas presents I have ever given a business associate.
Finally, in 2006, I went to Frankfurt. I wanted to meet suave Mr. X at last. He had become one of my favorite people in the world. Also, I hoped to sit in on meetings with foreign publishers, rightly thinking that this might increase the proportion of reading copies that turned into contracts.
Despite my great expectations, by the end of the Frankfurt Book Fair I was shocked. X acted downright Dickensian, and not like one of the heroes. Weren't agents supposed to be polite? This one was rude… to many of the people who came to his booth and, definitely, to me.
Frankfurt runs from Wednesday through Sunday. On Saturday night, X invited me to dinner with some friends. In retrospect, it is fortunate that he was particularly rude on that occasion, because I left early, returning to the youth hostel where I was staying as part of my highly glamorous big-author lifestyle. Crying for hours, shocked and disillusioned, I replayed his behavior throughout the Fair.
However hard I rationalized on his behalf, his actions added up to colossal contempt for me as a writer and a person. So I came to a decision.
X didn't expect me to come back to Frankfurt on the last day, because Sundays are slow. But I did come. In fact, I walked right up to his booth and fired him.
Then I looked up, past his shocked face, to the display at his stand, where the most important books he represented were shown. To my surprise, every one of my six titles had been removed. Out of sight, out of mind—isn't that an interesting way to represent your star client?
ADVENTURES IN ACCOUNTING
After the firing, email correspondence from X immediately changed in tone from charming to abusive. My erstwhile agent repeatedly informed me that I had "killed the golden goose."
This didn't make a great deal of sense to me, not until I looked over the records of our financial transactions. That golden goose had been me. And, in all fairness, my trusting behavior had turned me into a goose, to be sure.
With our agenting relationship officially over, I asked X to send me copies of every contract he had brokered on my behalf. No longer did I fear that he wouldn't like me if I seemed uncool.
Politely but persistently, I requested those contracts. He would send an insulting email and I would repeat my request. This correspondence began in October. Not until March of the following year did I finally have, nearly, a full set. Two of the contracts still hadn't been sent, but for them I had received a recent royalty statement.
Finally I could sit down and do the math. Each contract specified an advance. Each royalty statement indicated how many books had been sold, plus the current royalty rate. I could compare how much money I had been due against how much money that X had sent me over the years.
Even at this point, I didn't suspect any foul play. I simply wanted closure.
Numbers added up. Then understanding dawned and my mouth opened. "Omigod," I kept saying.
The shortfall was clear. Besides taking his 20% commission, X had given himself a rather generous tip of more than $34,000.
IN CASE YOU\'RE WONDERING
After I recovered enough to close my mouth, I checked the math several times. A week later, I wrote X, informing him that the jig was up; I set out the figures, listing all his past checks and comparing this to the money due from our contracts. In my registered letter, I gave him a month to respond. If he couldn't explain, or make good on returning my money, I threatened to sue him or contact the police, or both.
Just a couple of days before this deadline, X wrote back. He dismissed everything I had written, making fun of me (as had become his custom). About the two missing contracts, he claimed that he would never withhold contracts from me. Clearly he was right, because only four months later, he managed to send them to me.
My wonderful agent still hasn't returned a cent that he stole, although he has generously treated me to repeat accusations that, through my stupidity, I have "killed the golden goose."
But I haven't sued X, either. The lawyer I consulted was impressed with my case. Being an honest man, however, he recommended that I not pursue legal action. Even assuming that I won, would I be able to collect?
Only then did I remember what happened with O.J. Simpson and the family of Ronald Goldman. If they couldn't collect from a man in a different state, how could I? Because of my limited experience as an embezzlee (or victim of any significant crime), I had assumed that if one sued, and then won, in a court of law, monetary relief would follow.
Realistically, what was the point of bringing someone to court if I would never receive compensation? I could, conceivably, spend another $34,000 just in legal fees, money that wouldn't be recoverable, either.
Even working with the police might take a huge amount of my time and psychic energy. Did I really want to be called to testify out of state?
I decided to settle for writing this article. Maybe I can help others to keep from making a similar mistake.
AN EXPENSIVE LESSON
Never have I read the kind of advice that I\'m offering here, although I have been a writer ever since elementary school. Seeing bylines in high school and college, publishing with houses of various sizes, and selling a modest share of freelance articles to major magazines, I had gained some expertise in writing, but not in crime.
Like many readers of this magazine, I could wallpaper entire rooms of my home with rejection letters, proud trophies of writers who simply won\'t quit.
Certainly I have read all that I could, including Writer's Digest articles, about how to improve my skills as a writing professional. Yet never have I seen a story like mine. It could have saved me big time, in heartache as well as finances.
White collar crime doesn't just happen to writers, not without provocation. To protect yourself, risk being uncool. Ask to see copies of every contract that bears your name. Persistently request all royalty statements. Don't be afraid to do the math.
You'll avoid being a silly goose, golden or not. Being cheated is a worthwhile lesson, but inwardly costly.
Also, here comes some advice about signing up with an agent. Don't jump at the chance, should it be offered to you. I know you're eager. I know agents are part of the big dream for most writers. But a bad agent is worse than none at all.
Not only can agents embezzle, as mine did. Agents can be either incompetent or neglectful. They can waste your time, stalling publication of your good work. Belittling you through indifference, even a well meaning agent can hurt you. Even if you never bring a failed agent to court, you may feel (rightly) that he or she has squandered a part of your soul.
So question your relationship with any prospective agent. Scrutinize it like a marriage, not some good deal at a yard sale.
Beyond that, research the credentials of any agent with whom you're considering doing business. X wasn't a member of the Association of Authors' Representatives (AAR). In retrospect, it would have been wiser for me to choose an agent who was.
Of course, some beginning agents simply haven't brokered enough contracts to join AAR. One website, http://anotherealm.com/prededitors is a fine resource for checking up on these agents. Also, don't neglect to check the Better Business Bureau.
You may not write because of money, but writing is a business. So don't let your literary contract become license to steal.
* * * * *
Email the author (OnlineCommunity9@gmail.com) to be directed to her books, blog and websites.