Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Parting Ways . . . An Author's Decision

If you’ve been following the blog I’m sure many of you remember the story of the agent who fired bestselling author Jennifer Cruisie. But what happens when a published author feels that she needs to make the decision to fire her agent? How does the author make that very scary change? What happens to the author’s work, whether it’s sitting on an editor’s desk or the agent’s, and what does said published author need to woo a new agent?

As for how an author makes that decision, I think I’ll have to leave it up to the authors to tell me. Granted it’s not easy, deciding that your agent isn’t right for you, firing her, and suddenly flying solo (at least until you can find someone new), but making the switch is usually a lot wiser than sticking with someone simply out of fear. Remember how the agent search is like dating? Well, having that relationship is like marriage, and certainly no one expects or plans to have to be out there again and start “dating.” But just like some marriages, some author/agent relationships aren’t meant to last forever.

What happens next really depends on the author, the agents, and each and every individual experience. Typically, though, if you are planning to continue in the same vein of what you’ve already been writing successfully, you won’t need a proposal to find a new agent. You’ll simply need to set up some interview times. When I’ve been approached by authors looking for new representation I’ll always ask for a copy of a proposal or manuscript if part of the reason you’re switching is to go out in new and different directions. If not, I’ll only ask to see a copy or two of some of your published works. Even if I’ve read you before I might want to refresh my memory and make sure that I feel I can represent your work. After all, reading for pleasure is a lot different than reading for representation.

Most important, though, I’ll ask what your goals are, what direction you’re hoping to take your career in, and what exactly you’re looking for in an agent. I don’t need you to give me all of the dirt and tell me how horrible your previous agent was, but it does help to know why you’re leaving her. I need to know whether or not I think your goals are realistic for me. In other words, whether I think I can do what you didn’t feel your previous agent was doing for you.

The biggest question asked was what happens to the author’s previous work—those handled by the now-fired agent? Obviously anything that was contracted will remain under representation by your previous agent. In other words, she’ll still be the agent of record for those projects. As for what happens to submissions that she made and that might still be sitting on an editor’s desk, that depends on your contract with the agent. In the BookEnds contract we ask that you give us four months from the time you’ve fired us to finish any outstanding projects. In other words, we certainly will not continue submitting, but we would handle deals from outstanding submissions that come in within that four-month time frame. Of course, there are ways to circumvent this, and if you really felt that the relationship had deteriorated so much that you can’t imagine another minute with said agent, you could certainly have a discussion about transferring all of those materials to the new agent.

If you don’t have a contract clause that stipulates how long the agent has to finish up projects after the relationship is dissolved, you could give her a fair amount of time and then ask that all submissions be pulled. I would definitely try to work that out with her once you’ve let her know you’re dissolving the relationship. Not only is it important for peace of mind, but your new agent also needs to know that she’s the only one working for you.

Whether or not a new agent would take on these outstanding projects depends on a variety of things, including the direction you want to take your career, whether or not the new agent feels that outstanding work is your strongest, etc. This would have to be something you’d discuss when offered representation by a new agent.

Parting ways with your agent is a daunting and scary task no matter the circumstances. My best advice is to first have a discussion with your agent about any concerns you have with your relationship. She might not even know that you’re unhappy, let alone why, and a serious and frank discussion may make all the difference. If you’ve had that conversation, or tried with no response, and have come to the decision that you are left with no other choice, then it’s time to make the cut. Remember to keep it professional and everything will go smoothly.



Aimless Writer said...

Since I don't have an agent-yet! I'm not sure I know what I need, but in a perfect world it would be someone who loves my work, gets me a good deal and has time to connect with me regularly even if its just via email.
I hear horror stories of authors who never hear from their agents. I don't expect an agent to phone me every week but an occasional email update would be make me feel like I'm still on her radar.
When preparing a list of agents to send my work to I often wonder whether its better to send to a small agency in hopes I won't just be a nameless number or go to a bigger agency thinking they might be more well known in the industry and have more contacts?
I work for a small non-profit company and being smaller we do provide more personalized service-would it be true with an agent too? Or should we just research the individual agents and see where our work best fits regardless of the size of the agency? Does size really matter?

Tammie said...

I agree with aimless writer. I'm looking for someone to be upfront and honest with me and while I don't want to be a pain, the occasional email with updates would put me at ease. My big thing is I'd always want to make certain we were both on the same page of issues, be it deadlines, expectations, revisions and so on.

If I felt I was an intruder instead of part of a team, I'd have to walk.

Anonymous said...

I've been through this. It simply wasn't working out and, for the sake of my career, I had to make some changes. I could go into the horror story of lost contracts, contracts with missing pages, never-mailed-out proposals etc., but I won't. Suffice it to say that the publishing house started going around her and working directly with me (which made that 15% fee hard to swallow). I was ready to leave, but there was a book deal in the works (which I delivered to her on a silver platter). I stayed with my "bad" agent until that was completed, then made the call. My contract spelled out what the agent was responsible for. Those never-submitted proposals? I gave her the option of representing them for me or sending them back to me. She returned them, and I used one to land my next agent. (I also clearly spelled this out in my cancellation of representation letter, which I had her sign.) The break-up talk wasn't easy, but when it became clear that she wasn't even aware of how poorly she had performed, I used the old "it's not you, it's me" line. It was probably the chicken way out, but I really don't think my comments would have sunk in. I also didn't want to do anything that would give me the "difficult author" label. This agent has been in the business forever and has contacts. I just ended it quickly, took the blame, and never looked back.

Anonymous said...

Before you part ways, make sure of your reasons. I parted ways with my agent a bit too quickly. I'd sold a book on my own, then he sold two more to the same editor. Better terms. He'd also tried other, "bigger" houses, but it didn't work.
I wanted career movement, and thought his being in the midwest was all that stood between me and better deals, an opinion shared by some writer friends. Agent was surprised I was leaving. We parted on friendly terms.
A year and a half later, with my new NY agent, I see I was wrong. First agent worked damned hard, communicated, and had a great reputation. New agent's agency has a great rep, but I'm at the bottom of the foodchain here, going nowhere fast. Agent collecting on deals with original editor, basically doing nothing more.
At least I didn't screw up my relationship with my editor.

Laurie said...

What about when an agent has more than your partial, and you learn something about her that makes you "pull" your submission? No contract signed, but the partial was submitted via email. This is an area I haven't seen addressed anywhere - what happens to those emailed partials and fulls if you don't come to representation? If you've already found out something "iffy" about the agent, how do you protect yourself from your work being used or plagiarized?