What the Agent-Author Relationship Actually Is

I have to follow-up Wednesday's post for a sec, because Natalie Whipple clarified a critical point that I had trouble getting in my head until now. From her post:
It seems the vast majority of querying writers are of the opinion that the "no response" policy is rude. There have been comparisons to agents being employees, and that writers have the power even if it may not look like it at times. There have also been comparisons to "customer service," and the fact that it's just bad business not to respond to a customer.

I think writers are kind of missing the point.

Because the agent/writer relationship is NOT an employer/employee relationship. The agent/writer relationship is a partnership.
Natalie does a great job laying out what that means in her post, and I'll try not to repeat her (though repeating her makes me sound so smart, so I might a little).

A business partnership is fundamentally different from the producer/consumer or employer/employee relationships we are used to. It is symbiotic and -- here's the most important thing -- EQUAL.

Not equal as in both sides have equivalent abilities; that would be pointless. Equal in terms of power. Each side wants something the other has and is willing to give something up to get it.

The agent gives up their unpaid time and the writer gives up a percentage of their profits. That sounds like one is paying the other, but there's a subtle and significant difference. In a partnership, neither can tell the other how to do their job. And if either one fails in their job, neither gets paid.

Writers query specific agents because they believe they would make a good partner. The agent has expertise and connections you want, and you like the way they work. If "no response means no" means you don't like the way they work, then (as I've said many times before) don't request their partnership.

Agents take on writers because they believe they would make a good partner. The writer has skills and stories the agent can sell, and they like the way the writer works.

This is why there's "a call" when an agent offers representation. It's not about the book (they've read that already). It's about the person and whether or not both of them feel they can work well together.

Business partnerships don't work well if one partner believes they are better than the other. They can (it's still business, after all), but eventually one believes -- rightly or not -- that they don't need the other and they part ways. Sometimes badly. Sometimes so badly that other agents hear of it, and the writer finds that nobody wants to work with him at all anymore.

Don't laugh. It happens.

So this sense of entitlement I keep railing against just closes doors unnecessarily. It reduces your chances of finding a partner who will work with you. You probably wouldn't want an agent who treats his authors like sweatshop workers. Guess what makes most agents not want to work with you?

Okay, I'm done now, I swear.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Now this I can totally get behind.

I think it's really difficult to know if someone is going to make a good "partner" in this business, until you actually do some work together. While I might be able to work on an engineering project with just about anyone, creative work requires "partners" that understand you in a deeper way, that are a good fit for the kind of person you are, not just filling a spot in the assembly line.

This includes not only agents, but editors, cover artists, the marketing team and owners of publishing houses.

Having respect for each other is the first step to a successful partnership. Whether the "no response means no" policy shows a lack of respect (or just simply a way to deal with the crush of queries) is a personal call. For me, I like Query Shark's "my time is no more valuable than yours" approach - that level of courtesy, combined with a bracing honesty, sounds like someone I would enjoy working with. But I wouldn't know unless we had a chance to work together! :)

Matthew MacNish said...

I completely agree. I've never had an agent, of course, but I have plenty of friends who do, and they describe varying levels of friendship in the relationship. As far as I'm concerned I don't have to be best friends with my agent, but they have to love my writing.

It's really all about the writing, anyway.

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yes. This. So many people get so angry. And for what? I never understand the entitlement, or the resentment that some people build up. Ugh. So much energy just wasted on negativity.
Like you said, if you don't like their practices, don't query them. Problem solved

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's an issue of feeling entitled, but if I read that an agency only contacts authors it chooses to represent, I wouldn't query them. With so many agencies frowning on simultaneous submissions, it makes no sense to go with someone who doesn't respond with even a form letter to let you know you're not right for them.

In essence, I don't think it's rude, or that the agency is obligated to blah blah blah. But for me -- an OCD and highly nervous person -- I would go insane if I queried someone and never heard back either way, so I think those agencies would not be right for me.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post, Adam. I hadn't read Natalie's post, so thanks for the run down. I think her point is valid. I hadn't thought about it that way before, but it does explain a lot.