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Feminist Killjoy. Badly Behaving Bookliker. Writer and reader of all things speculative. 

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It Happened to Me: My Year with a Terrible Agent

I've been wondering for a while now whether I should go public with this. I know that a lot of people, when they have major problems with an agent, an agency, or other people in the publishing, don't feel comfortable speaking out. I understand that fear; I feel it myself. But in the end, I decided that something needs to be said.

Other writers aspiring to have their work published need to know what's going on with the agency called The Rights Factory. Maybe speaking out about them will get me into trouble with some people, but I've decided I don't care. I never want to work with anyone who would approve of such unprofessional behavior. I'd rather writers were informed and knew to avoid TRF altogether.
Back in early 2013, I was looking through a lot of agents to query. By the time I queried Ali McDonald of The Rights Factory, I was perhaps starting to suffer some burnout--that's the only explanation I can really think of for why I sent the query before looking deeper. I'm usually good with my research. But the initial results seemed okay.
When Ali McDonald responded with enthusiastic interest, I took the time to do a little more looking on TRF. And what you start digging deeper, really getting beneath the surface, past their handful of successful books, you find a lot of dissatisfied clients. Particularly, you find complaints about interminably long response times (not just to queries, but to clients) and shotgun submissions (which means submitting manuscripts to large amounts of editors at once, which is not a professional practice).
Well, damn, I thought. There goes that. I figured I could ask some pointed questions if there was interest, but I wasn't expecting much.
To my surprise, a short time later I got an email from a woman named Danielle, an assistant, who told me she'd read and loved my manuscript, and would be showing it to Olga Filina, another agent at TRF. (Notably, I never heard another word from Ali McDonald, and if you look at a site like QueryTracker, you'll find that she's been accepting manuscripts and then turning them over to other agents with the explanation that her client list is full for quite some time now.) Something like a week after that, I heard from Olga, who loved my book and wanted to talk representation.
These fast responses were in complete contravention to the rumors I'd heard, so at that point I figured, well, the least I could do was ask my questions.
Which I did, and bluntly. I didn't tiptoe around the topics at all. When I mentioned the slow response times and shotgun submissions, Olga told me that she was new to the agency, and that these things had happened before she was there, that the problem was in the past. She even told me she had heard the rumors herself and had her own concerns, but had talked to Sam Hiyate (the head agent) before joining, and was reassured. She gave the very distinct impression that it was only a few agents engaging in this behavior, and that they no longer worked there. And she assured me that her submission method was to submit to a small handful of editors she had personally spoken to about the work.
She sounded sincere. I saw no reason to disbelieve her when she assured me that she tried to get back to her clients in no more than 48 hours, with a week being the outside limit. Everything seemed orderly and professional. My husband agreed. (He heard this phone call too. I'm autistic and struggle with non-verbal language such as tone of voice, so he often helps me in situations like this.)
I went ahead and signed the contract, caught up in Olga's apparent enthusiasm for my work. The first signs of what would, in the end, prove to be trouble showed up then. My contract sat in the post office for two weeks, and I could not get a response from Olga as to what was going on. When I finally pointed out in an email that this was just like the rumors I'd heard, she apologized, said she'd been really busy, asked for the benefit of the doubt. I gave it. Maybe I shouldn't have. But years of bullying and abuse have left me distrustful, and much in doubt of my own instincts.
There were edits to be done, of course. And in that time, I often found it hard to get responses from Olga, usually having to prod her once or twice over the course of several weeks. Still, benefit of the doubt, I reminded myself. We set a deadline for my edits for the beginning of September, which gave me a little over a month to do them, and I got down to work.
I finished my edits by the beginning of September and then I waited. And waited. And waited some more. A full month passed before I finally got a response. By this point I was thinking there had better be a very good explanation or I was done. (A note about screen shots: 1) Emails have been blacked out, 2) My legal name is in use in the email, but I don't personally use it, so please don't call me by it, 3) This isn't everything, I only chose screen shots that highlight the worst points, but I have more proof if this somehow is not enough.)
Another attempt. Success!
I should've ended it. But when we talked on the phone, Olga explained that she'd been very busy, and she did sound exhausted. Sure, I didn't want to give up on my dream, but also, I was worried I was being too judgmental. It sounded like she barely had time to breathe. I put my doubts aside again. I mentioned that if she found herself really busy, and things had to be delayed, that she should just drop me a quick note. Or heck, have Danielle do it, I was fine with that. She told me she thought that was a great idea and would start doing that. I never got one of those notes.
She was ready to start submitting my manuscript. I took a deep breath, sat back, and waited. At this point it was October, and I heard nothing from her until I nudged her once the New Year had passed. I heard back that she'd gotten some "liked it but didn't love it" responses and thus braced myself for more waiting.
Why didn't I just run?
I waited patiently until June before prodding again. When I heard back, Olga told me that she was considering submitting to small presses after August (giving me the distinct impression that she'd received only rejections) and that she would send me a submissions list within the week. 
Pics. It totally happened.
That week passed. So did five more. I tried getting a response out of her once or twice, but nothing. I was fed up, done, absolutely finished with the stress of this so-called agent/client relationship. And just as I'm figuring out how to put together a letter informing her of termination of contract, out of the blue she finally sent me the submissions list (at this point, it was already August). That's when I discovered that I wasn't the only one she acted unprofessionally towards.
Of the 59 names on the list, only 9 had any markings of resolution, all of the rejections. Horrified, I sent an email back, asking for clarification--were these all outstanding?--and insisting on a quick response. For a change, it only took about a week. Olga told me that only the ones that were marked were firm no's. She also told me "many" of them were manuscripts she'd handed out at BEA and would be following up on when she was in New York in September.
Just in case you thought I was exaggerating. I'm not.
To which I can only say: What the actual fuck was she even doing in the nearly a year she was submitting my book? Why on earth were so many manuscripts sitting with editors from May to September without her following up, and why the holy bleeding hells did 50 editors have my manuscript? That was definitely not the careful, intimate strategy she told me she took. And supposedly she wanted to submit it to small presses, which would add even more editors to the list. I was flat out done at this point. I sent a notice of termination via snail mail and informed Olga, via email, precisely why I was terminating our contract. (The response I got to that was, incidentally, little more than a slightly more polite version of "k thx bye.")
I have no idea whether Olga intended to lie in the beginning or not, but the point is moot. This is how TRF operates. If you dig around, you'll see complaints of this behavior about all their agents, including Sam Hiyate himself. They seem to be able to do little more than drop your manuscript in a slush pile, which you could easily do yourself. For me, Olga went from enthusiastic to no real interest in my work, and for some reason couldn't be bothered to tell me so. Why, I'll probably never know. 
These are not experiences any writers should have with their agents. This is not professional agent behavior. I'm just lucky Olga is such an unknown to editors that she couldn't damage my name or manuscript with her irresponsibility. 
Damage or no, I'm setting this manuscript aside, with the consideration of perhaps self-publishing; aside from the fact that a lot of agents have already seen it, I feel that trying to query it again will just leave me bitter. But I do have a project, and now I have to go through the song and dance all over again. Somehow I have to find beta readers, somehow I have to write a query, somehow I have to send that query to agents, all while dealing with feelings of low-confidence and worthlessness that have come from that hellish year.
But at least now that I've spoken up, maybe less people will find themselves having to do the same.