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
Bryan Russell (Ink) says
And great editorial advice is as good as gold.
I've been researching agents for the past two hours. Perfect timing. Thank you:)
Jane George says
Another aspect of an agent's reputation that's impossible for writers to know is if the agent is considered difficult to work with by many editors. Projects get passed on because of this, (overheard editorial moaning over unnamed agent(s) on Twitter), yet the writer would never know.
The English Teacher says
Dang. I was hoping it had something to do with hiring an Italian, like a spaghetti western…..
Darlene Underdahl says
"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."
Only one chance. I know it's not you.
A lot of us were successful in the business world with our writing, and we thought we were okay. We continue to learn…
David Berardelli says
All this, of course, is contingent on the assumption that the writer will actually manage to find an agent who will show an interest in him in the first place.
David Berardelli says
All this, of course, is contingent on the assumption that the writer will actually manage to find an agent who will show an interest in him in the first place. Even as a published writer with nine books out, I have yet to find such an individual, and I've been looking since 1974.
S. F. Roney says
Going in I was wondering what you meant by spaghetti agents. There are so many ways to interpret that. But, your analogy is perfect! Thanks for evaluating these scattershot types of agents!
"It's tempting to want to leap into the arms of the first agent who will have you."
As soon as I read that, Nathan, I had a really strong mental image of you running through a field of flowers wearing a grass skirt with your arms outstretched for your next client.
And I know you aren't an agent anymore. Strange.
Tess Cox says
Nathan, I haven't commented in a while. Have been to Ethiopia and back and now moving to Phoenix! So, sitting here with my laptop between my knees with boxes up to my ears I wanted to respond to this post to say "thank you!"
This post is both insightful and compassionate because it may save many of your readers a lot of heartache down the line….kind of like an older brother warning his little sister that some of the guys she's going to want to go out with are jerks… and what to look for.
I really enjoyed Pamela's comment about rushing into their arms, big kiss on the mouth and getting a dog together! Made me laugh…and also described my own attitude until I read this post! Coming back to your blog is always like dinner with friends….I just don't happen to know any of them! Blessings!
J. T. Shea says
Why do I keep hearing snatches of Ennio Morricone's music?
Cynthia Leitich Smith says
Thank you for this post! I do a fair amount of mentoring, and I'm hearing from too many newly agented writers who I suspect are already unhappy for the reasons you've spelled out here.
John Barnes says
I like the term "spaghetti agent" too, and will happily adopt it the next time I'm talking to a book-dotoring client about agents.
And yes, I've seen some and am lucky enough to have one who isn't, though this can lead to occasional exasperation in the other direction (in 28 years with one agent, a certain amount of exasperation is inevitable).
There are also spaghetti book doctors and book critique groups out there (people who have stock advice that applies to most work and just give it over and over, figuring that some of it will happen to be what a writer wants or needs to hear).
And I would argue that the whole traditional publishing industry is one vast spaghetti fling. In my other occupation, marketing research, I am constantly dumfounded at how much marketing other industries do, and how seriously, and how well, compared to almost any publisher's marketing department. The problem there is straight economics: basic marketing intel costs money and has to be refreshed often, and the price of a decent study is about what the advances on a dozen books by unknowns would be. So publishers would rather fling spaghetti, because it's cheaper and they don't believe the results are any worse.
Something of the same economics applies to agents. Used to was, a very large part of an agent's time was contact time, knowing what was happening in every publishing office all the time; this paid off in targeted submissions. Nowadays, publishing is so scattered, and so many "offices" are just nets of home-based freelancers, that knowing the real deal would be a more than fulltime job. Hence, when it costs too much to know, and it's cheaper to fling the sketties, the sketties will be flung.
I just got to type "The sketties will be flung." What a great day!
Amy Joy says
Hi Nathan. I've just started the querying process for my first novel, so this is great stuff to know now. Thanks for sharing!
Just what I needed to hear this week! Thanks, Nathan!
I don't think the fact that an agent is willing to revise with you is necessarily a sign that they are not a spaghetti agent. In my experience, these are the things that made me realize I had a spaghetti agent:
1) All other clients sold their manuscripts to large publishers shortly after signing. Not a single client sold to a smaller press or after a long period of time.
2) Clients who did not sell their books as described in #1 were dropped.
3) Agent was not interested in what else clients had written before signing or in what they might write next.
I know how hard it is to get an agent and I totally understand why writers are tempted to grab any offer they get, but having an agent like this will do nothing but waste years of your life, leaving you with worse confidence in your writing than you had before you signed.
Read all of the advice above and ask the right questions before you sign. Make sure the agent is interested in your entire career. Make sure they have sold to small presses. Make sure they don't have a closet full of dropped clients.
The Chawmonger says
Hey Nathan, this is an insightful observation. One thing I might add is that a spaghetti agent is also likely to have a weirdly diverse list of past clients/projects. Obviously every agent has to do more and less commercial stuff to stay afloat, but a spaghetti agent is more likely to take on a project he doesn't really understand, just on the off chance that it pans out. So if you write, say, literary fiction and agents who represent primarily literary fiction turn you down, it might not be a great idea to throw in your lot with someone who represents everything from self help to business to middle grade titles.