Is it ethical to query agents, just to gauge interest in my work, while still represented by an agent? While I can understand the analogy about not quitting one job until you've lined up another, I think that a writer's relationship with an agent is more like a marriage . . . meaning, you don't start "dating" until you've ended things with your current partner.
I sat on this question for quite some time, and sat and sat. I thought about how difficult and how stressful it is for authors to finally have an agent and decide they are going to start over. And I thought about the unwritten ethics of agents poaching authors from other agents (unethical) and authors looking for new agents while still under representation (unethical), and I had to think about my feelings on all those subjects.
And here’s what I came up with. Firing an agent and hiring a new one is not the same as finding a new landscaper or changing doctors, because landscapers and doctors are getting paid for the work they are doing as they are doing it. An agent is not. An agent does a lot of work before ever getting paid and a lot of work in between royalty checks with no guarantees more payment will come. So while I know it’s incredibly stressful for an author to suddenly go agentless again, I think that you need to make the decision to fire your first agent before querying others.
Let me go into more detail. I do a lot of work for my clients that they don’t necessarily know about. If a book is out on submission I am spending hours and hours honing my query letter, I am talking to editors about your work, and researching my own list of editors to find just the right people. Finding the right publisher isn’t enough, I need to find the editor who I know your writing, your voice, and your story will speak to. Once the book is out I’m continuing to build my list of possible submissions and I’m sending editors updates, follow-ups, and checking in. In other words, I’m nagging up a storm. While doing all of this I’m spending time on you and your work and not on my other clients. And I’m not getting paid.
For those clients who are not out on submission, but who are already sold, I’m working on subsidiary rights, I’m thinking about the directions of their careers, I’m hounding editors for checks and contracts and negotiating. I’m talking to editors about list placement and what can be done to build a bigger and stronger career. In general I’m working to make my client a star. And there’s no guarantee I’m going to get paid what I’m worth. In other words, sure, I’ve taken my 15% of the advance, but in this business there’s no guarantee that I’m going to be making anything more. Royalties are not guaranteed. Most important, though, it would be a shame if I’m working with the editor to set the stage for your next deal only to find out, a short time before that deal comes, that Aggie Agent is handling it instead and that I’m out. I really have no recourse as long as I get that certified letter, and Aggie doesn’t have to do much of anything. I’ve already set it up.
I also think there’s a trust issue. Much of an agent-author relationship is built on trust. You trust that I’m not going to take on another author that’s directly competitive with your work. Sure, I’m going to take on more cozy mystery authors, but I’m not going to take on another author writing a knitting mystery. That’s a series that would cut into the exact market for the knitting mystery series I already have, and do you really want to find out that your agent is also representing your biggest competitor? I also trust that you’ll be honest with me. If you don’t think the relationship is working any longer, then I need to know that up front. I need to know what’s wrong and if, in your mind, I’m still working for you.
For me, I’m suspicious of the author who is querying agents while still under representation. It seems sneaky and underhanded to me and it immediately sends up a red flag. Many times I have been queried by authors who have fired their agents, but are waiting out the grace period. I’m fine with that because the other agent already knows what’s going on. I’m not comfortable working behind the back of my colleagues, however.
I do think your example was right. While the author-agent relationship is obviously a business relationship, we all know it goes much deeper than that and is thought of as more of a marriage. Why wouldn’t it be? You often call your books your babies, so why wouldn’t you be looking for just the right “partner” to take that book out into the world? You wouldn’t think it was right to answer personal ads while still married, while your partner is still busy keeping the relationship alive, and you wouldn’t want to know that the person who wrote the ad you just answered is already in a relationship either. I think the agent relationship is similar. It’s built on trust and, let’s face it, it involves emotions. Handing your baby over to someone to raise it and present it to the world isn’t easy. It takes trust, and if you decide to trust me enough to take that job on I trust you enough to value our relationship.
Let’s put it this way. If you promise to be honest with me, and fire me before seeking out other representation, I promise to stick by you through big deals and no deals and only quit when I feel the passion has died.