Agents, Schmagents, and Pink Flags

Hi there.

I’m not sure if you saw the #SchmagentRedFlags hashtag on Twitter this week, but if you’re a writer who is agented or querying agents, you should check it out. For those unfamiliar with the term, a “schmagent” is short-hand for agents who are not very legit or respected in the industry. I wrote about them a while back in this post: Shady Business.

The hashtag shared some good insights and tips to new writers. But then I got involved in a conversation that made me pause. An agent – a legit, respected agent (not a schmagent) – said if an agency hasn’t done a deal with every Big 5 publisher, they aren’t legit. I agreed and disagreed with this, but it didn’t sit right with me and I couldn’t figure out why. Twitter was not going to be the right venue for me to say things without thinking first, so I left it alone.

My initial response was that some agencies are just super small and niche, but I kept circling back to new agents (which are not the same as schmagents, as you’ll see in my older post linked above!). So, I conceded her point and let it go because I did agree with her. Mostly, anyway. But I kept thinking about it after. Do agents need to have an established boilerplate with every Big 5 publisher in order to be considered legit? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed outdated to me.

It is 100% an advantage for an agent to have established relationships with as many bona fide publishers as possible, especially the Big 5 (Penguin Random House, Hachette, Macmillan, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster). If you’re a writer who gets an offer of representation, you should ask that agent who they have established relationships with and where they’ve sold projects similar to yours. If they don’t mention the major players at all, that might be a problem.

But, not every agency is the same, nor are the needs of all writers the same. Such as:

A 10-year-old agency specializes in only children’s literature. They’re known for several award-winning books and a few bestselling authors through publishers like Scholastic, Candlewick, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and have had success with a few imprints at Big 5 publishers. But, for whatever reason, they have never sold a book to Hachette. Maybe they got close, but never got an offer from them. Maybe they went with another publisher during an auction. In any case, after 10 years, they still don’t have a boilerplate with one of the Big 5. Are they considered a schmagent? I would hope not, and I would hope that a children’s book writer getting an offer from an agent with that agency would jump on the opportunity.

A similarly hypothetical agency could be one that’s been around for about 5 years and focuses on romance, and maybe some erotica and NA too. In only a short period of time, they’ve established important relationships with places like Harlequin and Kensington and are known for a few successful series within those genres. They might also find they work with mostly digital publishers these days because that’s where the market has shifted. Therefore, they might not really have had a need to sell to all 5 major publishers. A good agent follows the market they’re trying to sell to. They keep up with industry trends. Agents need to be open and adaptable, and if certain genres aren’t as big in print anymore, we need to adjust accordingly.

One last example I was thinking about are the quiet literary novels. Not Franzen or the big splashy Great American Novelist literary novels. I mean the ones that get critical acclaim and are brilliantly written, but the average reader probably hasn’t heard of them, nor do they care. You see these novels with places like Graywolf Press, Melville House, National Book Award committee discussions, and, well, these novels, basically. There are a few dedicated and amazing imprints with Big 5 publishers who still seek quiet literary fiction. They publish it well and put marketing dollars behind them, but an agent can’t rely on a few imprints to sell a book and then call it a day if that handful of editors pass on it. Sometimes books like this are a labor of love, and writers should want an agent who knows how to effectively sell their work even if it isn’t a 6-figure deal with Penguin Random House every single time.

So, those were my larger-than-Twitter thoughts about this and I’d be curious what others think in the comments. Mostly, I just think the industry has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, and the fact that we say The Big Five instead of the The Big Six should be evidence that agents can and should diversify their submission lists and establish new relationships in the industry.

Like I said before, a relationship with the major players is still a key component to being a good agent. But maybe it’s not everything after all. Maybe it’s not a red flag so much as a pink flag. Maybe in another five years we’ll have The Big Four, and even if we end up with The Big Three it won’t mean publishing is dying or dead or any other nonsense like that. It just means everyone involved needs to look outside the “model” and realize it might not exist anymore, so what’s next?

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6 thoughts on “Agents, Schmagents, and Pink Flags

  1. With all the publishers, does it really matter if an agent hasn’t gotten a book deal from one of the top five? I don’t think it does. Thanks for clarifying some things, especially the word Schmagent – I thought it was an acronym or a company name.

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  2. I’m glad you expanded your thoughts here. This comes at a great time as I’m in the process of navigating the proper decorum and information requests that are made of agents. As much as a writer is looking to get ‘discovered’ and find an agent, one does have to pause and wonder if the agent is the best fit. I’ve heard heavenly and horror stories from other writers and it does sour excitement into paranoia about full-read requests. I started feeling like I was finally ready to find an agent, but the more I’m learning it seems it is going to be a much longer search than expected!

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  3. Some follow up convos on this that happened on Twitter worth reading (from viewpoints of 3 agents at different sized agencies) –

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  4. Interesting thoughts! I really do notice that there are certain markets – even just looking at YA subgenres – that don’t seem to touch certain houses. For instance, when I think about light contemporary YA, particularly Romance, I think of Harper, Bloomsbury, Poppy, and to a lesser extent (especially now that Sara Sargent is gone) Simon & Schuster. So I’d think nothing of agent who primarily reps that not having sold to any Penguin Random House imprints. Obviously that’s a tiny window example, but as you said above, it works on grander scales. And depending one what you write and how well rounded you want to be, does it really matter how grand a scale your agency’s working on? I think the key (which, again, is just echoing you above) is how your agency is doing in terms of those contracts working within the lines of what your agency purports to be and represent. Not all of them do everything, and if you’re an author who doesn’t care (not because you’re apathetic but because what they don’t do does not and will never apply to you), then there’s no reason for that particular hole in their resume to be a deal breaker.

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    1. Thanks, Dahlia! I think it’s one of many areas to consider when looking for an agent, and it all goes back to what’s right for you and what’s right for your specific career. Everyone has different expectations and priorities. It was just bugging me that this convo was being associated with Schmagent Red Flags. It didn’t seem fair.

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