One of the hardest things about searching for an agent is that you don’t exactly know what kind of an agent you’re going to get. Even though you may know the agent by reputation, even though you may ask them every question beforehand, there’s a certain leap of faith you take as you sign on with an agent.
As you’re searching, one thing I would advise is to try as best you can to sniff out a spaghetti agent.
What’s a spaghetti agent? Well, it’s a term I made up. Basically, you know that phrase throwing spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks?
That’s a spaghetti agent. They sign up a bunch of writers even when they’re unsure about a project, they throw the manuscripts at publishers, and they see what sticks.
On the one hand, this isn’t actually the worst strategy in the world. As much as people would like to think that agents are clairvoyant, at the end of the day you never really know what’s going to resonate with publishers. So spaghetti agents are acknowledging that fact and are spreading their odds across a lot of different projects.
The problem with spaghetti agents
The problem for writers is that since spaghetti agents will send out projects even when they might be on the fence, they may be sending out projects that aren’t quite ready. And in a competitive publishing landscape, it pays for a project to be as ready as humanly possible. Spaghetti agents may also have a shaky reputation with editors because they send out so much stuff and it’s not always of the highest quality.
Back when I was an agent, I can’t tell you how many times I would find a manuscript that was close-but-not-quite-ready and wanted to work with the writer on an unagented revision, only to be undercut by a spaghetti agent.
I would offer to revise, the author would say they had an offer of representation on the table, and then I’d be in a bind. I couldn’t really say that I’d take on a project no matter what after a revision, and I couldn’t very well advise an author to give up the bird in the hand when they had someone enthusiastic about their work either. So I’d stand aside and let the author go. Sometimes this worked out for the author, quite a few times it didn’t.
What you can do as an author
When you’re offered representation, ask good questions. Ask how long they’re willing to keep your work on submission. Are they just going to try with the big publishers or are they willing to go down to small presses? It’s an important question, because one hallmark of a spaghetti agent is the submit and dash. They’ll send a project out to a few editors, gauge the response and then bolt if it’s not working quickly. Not every good agent is willing to keep something on submission endlessly so don’t put too much stock in this question, but make sure you’re comfortable with the answer.
And if you’re getting multiple responses of “I like this but don’t know if it’s quite ready” from some agents but then one wants to go out with it immediately… take a long pause and really really think it through. I’m not necessarily advising giving up the bird in the hand, and don’t be paranoid, because this may just be the one agent who really gets your work and they might be completely right that it doesn’t need work. But as always, just really, really think it through and make sure it’s the right choice.
The importance of patience
Don’t get caught up in the rush.
Having the wrong agent can be worse than having no agent. After working so long on your novel and wanting so badly to go out on submission, it’s tempting to want to leap into the arms of the first agent who will have you. But be sure and take your time, do your research, and make sure it’s the right fit before proceeding.
Otherwise, your manuscript could get thrown against the publishing wall before it’s ready, and you only get one chance to see if it sticks.
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Art: The Frugal Meal by Rose Hartwell
Krista V. says
Once again, Nathan, you addressed an issue I've never really thought about in such concrete terms, and you did it in a thoughtful snd cogent way. Thank you.
I've received some R&Rs in the last couple of months, and at the back of my mind, I've worried that someone would offer representation on the old version while I was busily at work and so excited about the new. It didn't happen, but I thought I was crazy for worrying about getting an offer. Good to know that maybe my concerns weren't so unfounded.
Michelle Davidson Argyle says
Excellent term! I've had a friend who got a spaghetti agent. It was awful experience for her, and I learned a lot hearing about her story. I think your term will stick in the publishing world. Pun intended. 😉
Great work Nathan!
It's my opinion that agents are more and more desperate as this part of the industry gets squeezed. Agents,etc in the middle are slowly dissolving out of the way…. authors have more and more control and will shorten the distance between them and the publisher..
Shawn Lamb says
Good post. One of the most crucial aspects to the agent/writer relationship is trust. In this competitive market, that is a rare commodity and writers must ask hard question to untangle the 'spaghetti' beforehand.
Marsha Sigman says
I really love spaghetti. Now every time I eat it, this is what I'm going to think of.
Your phrase is going to 'stick' with me.
Mr. D says
Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware can tell you who they are.
Nathan, you always post such helpful things. This is something I hadn't even considered, and it's so great that you're always there to show us the pitfalls to avoid!
And you're always so damn nice and encouraging as well. Thank you!
This describes my former agent precisely. She offered to represent me after reading a partial of my manuscript at a conference, even though I told her I was still working on revisions. She assured me it was great, and that she would be able to sell it, and that I would have plenty of time to complete revisions before publication. She had good references, and answered all my questions, so I signed with her.
Soon I noticed that the publishing houses she was submitting to weren't exactly a right fit for my manuscript. She would, for example, submit to a publisher that worked exclusively in romance, while my ms doesn't even have romantic elements. Then I discovered from a critique partner who is also represented by this agent that our manuscripts were consistently being submitted to the same publishers at the same time, even though we also don't write the same genre. It seemed like she just sent an editor every manuscript in her arsenal, whether it would be a fit for them or not, and hoped they might like one.
She did get my ms as far as pub board a couple of times, but eventually I decided to end our working relationship, get my ms in the best shape possible, and try again from square 1.
Sometimes when an offer for representation seems to good to be true…it is!
Ted Fox says
My agent ended up signing me not for the book I queried her about but rather for a new project based on a couple of blog posts I did last fall. I hadn't given them a second thought since I wrote them, but she went back into my blog, found them, and then basically pitched me on the idea of turning them into a Twitter feed that could eventually become a book.
That's when I knew I was in good hands (he said assuredly, like he ever would've turned her down).
Hi Nathan, thank you for this. I spent years with a 'spaghetti agent' and it was heartbreaking. It took three projects before I realized I wasn't getting anywhere and cut my ties. Lesson learned, but not one I'd recommend.
As with all relationships, sometimes you have to be in it before you know if it's going to work for you. And while nobody wants to sign with someone who indiscriminately submits their work, even with a non-spaghetti agent, figuring out if they're the right fit for you may take some time.
David Gaughran says
Two quick questions:
1. Do you think, if the current changes end up fragmenting the industry, that spaghetti agents will become more prevalent?
2. If the slush-pile moves online, do you think this will undercut spaghetti agents?
This post gave me chills. I'm not there yet, not querying agents even, but I'm close. It's thrilling and terrifying to see this post and realize there's another entire world that I'm inching ever closer to, and it's a world that I don't know the rules to. Freaking scary world. Thank god we have Nathan for a guide.
Daisy Harris says
Great post, Nathan! Makes me feel all the better that my agent puts my manuscripts through the wringer before submitting them.
I had a project I completed last fall that I really believed in. She sat on it, though, because it "wasn't ready." I was a little pouty about it at first, but a few months later (after writing a whole 'nother book) I had an epiphany about what was wrong with it, I revised again- and this time we both know that it's great.
(Really- it's sooooo much better.)
Anyway, I'm so glad we didn't send out the previous version. I'm even happier it didn't get published in the old form! Now it's got a chance of getting in with the right house and really knocking the socks off the reading audience.
So yeah- if someone says your MS isn't quite ready- take it seriously. You may later realize they were right.
sharon bially says
Nathan – interesting that when you saw not-quite-ready manuscripts, you suggested un-agented revisions. I know a lot of writers whose agents sign and THEN request the revisions. So far, all these projects have worked out, and the agents are all reputable — even top — ones. But I'm always a little perplexed about that approach: signing first, requesting often long, in-depth rounds of revisions afterward. Any insights?
I can't tell you how many times I would find a manuscript that was close-but-not-quite-ready and wanted to work with the writer on an unagented revision, only to be undercut by a spaghetti agent. I would offer to revise, the author would say they had an offer of representation on the table, and then I'd be in a bind. I couldn't really say that I'd take on a project no matter what after a revision, and I couldn't very well advise an author to give up the bird in the hand when they had someone enthusiastic about their work either. So I'd stand aside and let the author go.
This happens to editors/publishers as well. It's even more discouraging when you know they've got your revisions in hand, to use with that other agent or publisher.
Apologies, I should have left my full identity with the comment above.
Great post, Nathan! Rt'ing now.
One way to know an agent ISN'T a spagetti agent is if you're revising very closely and shaping the manuscript together with your agent. Plenty of fabulous, non-spagetti agents aren't editorial, but it's one way to vet it out– ask the agent on the phone what sort of revisions s/he is thinking.
I know of agents who signed 50-100 clients in their first year as an agent. THAT is a spagetti agent.
I can't speak for Nathan, but I'm a very edtorial agent, and I do both– request revise/resubmit, as well as sign and then revise with the writer as a client.
It all depends on how much revising I need to see, and what kind. It's easy enough to tweak plot points, hard to add depth to characters or add tension.
I had a spaghetti agent for a year and a half. Judging by recent actions, I'd say that whole agency has that policy too. (And they are a reputable agency)
It's sad watching other writers get excited when you know they are basically being thrown at a wall, but what can you do.
Wow Nathan – this is really helpful information. Thank you.
And I love the term spaghetti agent.
Michael Offutt says
I can't imagine anyone choosing to go with an agent over you when you were agenting. That just seems odd to me given how much I've seen of your knowledge in following this blog. It'd be like having a basketball team and saying, "Kobe Bryant? Nah…let's get the guy off the bench…"
They'd be giving up the two in the bush. Not the bird in the hand.
I agree with Michael… If I had the opportunity to work with someone I respected, someone who would beat the crap out of my writing with the goal of making it better, I would consider THAT the bird in the hand.
Kathryn Magendie says
Sounds like how R&T receives stories from poets/writers who we know have just thrown their story/poem to fifty-galleven editors of mags/online journals to see where it will stick – ungh!
You know – I am wondering: If an agent obtains a contract with a small press for an author, what's the difference if the author went directly to the small press themselves without an agent? Other than the 15%?(and I don't mean that snottily – it's a real question). Maybe this isn't the time to ask this question! But since you mentioned SP's it reminded me of my wonderings!
Wow… the bird in hand analogy is getting worked.
Andrea Cremer says
Bang on, Nathan. Such an important post!
D.G. Hudson says
Advice about approaching agents is always welcome, Nathan. It's an act of faith just to send the manuscript out, and then we've got to find the right partner.
I don't mind searching for an agent until I find the right fit. I want someone who will know those things I don't know, and give me good advice. However, I'm not adverse to learning things on my own – if it comes to that.
Tenacity keeps me going. But a bit of that LUCK you mentioned a few days ago would be helpful.
Will you tell us, Nathan, if you had a previous contact for your agent (like a referral), or did you search out the agent totally on your own? (although being an agent at the time must have helped?)
It seems like everyone's story is a little different when we hear 'how I got an agent', so thought I'd ask — if you have the time & don't mind answering.
Thanks for sharing some of your tips on the process of getting a book agented. Always appreciated.
Remilda Graystone says
Oooh…I definitely had not thought of this, but thank goodness you wrote a post about it because now I know a lot more. I know what to look out for now.
As always, thanks, Nathan!
Loree Huebner says
Great post. I never heard that term before but knew they were out there. Thanks.
This scares me. I think most of us reading the blog know how to steer clear of the many outright scam companies out there, but it's so hard to read between the lines on what's going on at actual, reputable agencies to determine whether an agent offering rep is a spaghetti agent or not. Thanks for the tips, Nathan.
I started researching agents and the publishing process about 6 years ago when I was doing contract work for a publisher and working on a YA novel. I've kept my optimistic "agents to query" lists on file since then (since every year was going to finally be THE year that I was going to start querying). It's interesting how my list has dwindled from an initial 70 – 80 agents down to the current 15 – 20 that I would be really excited to work with. Reading various forums and blogs over a long timespan, as well as meeting agents at conferences, has been really instructive in helping me hone my query list. Now, though, it might be a little TOO well-honed.
(And, by the way, this year really is THE year that I'm going to start querying. I am serious!)
Thanks SO VERY MUCH for this insightful post. The idea of pausing to think about accepting an agent's offer feels so intimidating because an author often goes for SO long without getting to that coveted point of success…the heart becomes desperate to take an opportunity when it comes. But I can see, on a practical level, why it's good to think it through first.
I had a friend who had a "Spaghetti Agent" in Hollywood, but he was soon told this one was unethical. The agent was said to grab up everyone, especially ones with projects that were too similar to ones they were already pushing so another studio wouldn't pick up competition. Don't know if any of it was true, and it seems like there are fewer sharks in the book pub world than in Hollywood, but just thought I'd pass the story along.
Paul Greci says
Great post, Nathan!! I thought long and hard about this when I started getting offers of represention.
Matthew MacNish says
This is why I'm giving up after one query if my dream agent doesn't want my story.
Pamala Knight says
Nathan to the rescue! I've been wandering the forum, trying to figure out a way to formulate a question to this very answer, so thank you.
It is tempting to want to leap into the arms of the first agent who will have you (and give them a big kiss on the mouth and ask if they'd like to get a dog with you) but it's also important that you find a good fit. And sometimes it's really hard to get that right. Thanks for the reminder.
Liz Fichera says
Spaghetti agents usually don't have very good reputations among established editors either.
That picture is making me hungry.
Bea Sempere says
Great term "spaghetti agents".
P.H.C. Marchesi says
Thanks for posting and sharing your experience!
Jen J. Danna says
I had an experience with a 'spaghetti agent' last fall and I'm so thankful that I clued in before I signed with him. There were several things that made me suspect that he wasn't exactly as advertised, but one of the things that raised a red flag was his belief that the manuscript was flawless and didn't need a single change. That made me suspicious because it was my first queried manuscript and I was still learning the ropes at the time (still am, really). I turned down his offer and signed with Nicole Resciniti of The Seymour Agency three months later. And when Nicole read the manuscript to help us revise it, she tore it limb from limb (all good and all in the interest of making it better). If it hadn't been clear before that the previous agent was simply looking for a quick and easy submission, it was at that point, in spades. As we're so often told, no agent is better than a bad agent and spaghetti agents fall firmly into the 'bad agent' category, in my opinion.
Anita Saxena says
This is such a helpful post. Thank you.
Anne R. Allen says
You've added an important expression to the writer's lexicon.
I've had two of them: well meaning and encouraging, but they couldn't sell my stuff. Then they dropped me and I was back at square one, totally confused. What I needed was somebody to say "this could be cut here and here and you've let your subplot take over here."
At least spaghetti agents submit things, though. I've been repped by two agents who — despite giving me assurances beforehand that they would stick with mss until they sold — would sub to six pubs, one only four pubs, and then give up.
I've been soured on agents for a while. Can't sell with them, can't sell without them. And I'm previously pubbed, for hell sake.
The Pen and Ink Blog says
Well I have a deal memo with Simon and Schuster for a picture book and that was un-agented. Now I am looking for an agent because I have a mid grade novel and a women's fiction novel. Obviously I have an agent carrot, but I don't want to use it. It's the kind of thing that brings the spaghetti agents out of the pot. Neither Tasha nor Second Chances have been out to publishers. Both of these books need to go through an agent who cares about the work. I will be looking for an agent who loves my style and is willing to work with me. I am an actor. I know there is a huge difference between an agent to loves your work and believes in you and an agent who only wishes to enlarge their stable. I have nothing but repect for an agent who is willing to give you unagented revision suggestions.
Zan Marie says
Wonderful insight, Nathan. Good, descriptive term. ; )
I'm always suspicious of people who are too complimentary, too fast. They're the fastest ones to turn against you!
For example, the guy who proposed marriage on our first date was back with his former girlfriend within weeks. Thanks, Doug, for teaching me about people like you!
I wish I had read this 2 years ago, before signing on with a spaghetti agent. I should have known better, as our phone interview was so awkward and unsatisfying, but she came from a big solid agency and I was desperate to get my mss. out there. Naturally, she had me sign a contract immediately. There were some uncomfortable conflicts over revisions. I took on board the good ones, and would not do the ones I thought ridiculous. Her own error-filled emails to me were not confidence-inspiring and when she couldn't make me do the ones she wanted she did the email equivalent of screaming. How demoralizing this was.
As promised, she threw it out there with no enthusiasm, just sprayed it all over NYC to see where it might stick (at the beginning of the Great Recession, no less, when a mss. needed all the enthusiastic representation it could get). I got the impression she just raided her boss's
Rolodex, that she really didn't have very many personal relationships to trade on. And after the first round of rejections, she cut me loose, a matter of 2-3 mos. Leaving me high and dry, with a mss. ruined by mass exposure.
Later I found out she quit being an agent to write herself. Do I wish her well? Hell no!
I am getting ready to self-publish and will never write another ridiculous query letter again. I am really not as bitter as this sounds . . .MUCH! 🙂
This usually happens with a newer or less established agent. In the short amount of time I've been writing/submitting (three years), I've seen agents come and go on the websites and conference circuit.
But NO agent can guarantee you a sale, even the ones with the biggest reputations. It's always a leap of faith for an agent to take on a writer.
If an agent tells you they will definitely sell your book, and for "x" amount of money, run. There are no absolutes.
The worst thing the established ones do is to pre-sell the manuscript: call up editor friends and pitch it at them before they've signed you. If they don't get any interest, they pass.
Miranda "Sibo" Paul says
Thanks for the advice. I'm preparing my agent letters and submission pieces this month and will be sending out soon. At the advice of several other children's authors, I've decided that I'd prefer to be agented rather than submitting directly to publishers. I will heed your advice!