Friday, May 08, 2009

Your Agent History

In previous comments there has been some concern that the author with a history of previous agents, let’s say one, two or three, is shooting herself in the foot simply because having so many agents labels her as trouble. Someone mentioned that she heard other agents say that this would be the case for them. Frankly, I never thought of it that way.

There are so many reasons an author might leave an agent or change agents. Certainly one of the biggest and most discussed are problems—communication problems, personality differences, etc. But there’s also the agent who stops working, the author who changes genres or the agent who changes focus. None of which are the fault of either author or agent, but more a change based on circumstance.

How I work with my clients and my expectations for and of my clients are completely different from every single other agent out there. We all work differently, and what works for one author doesn’t always work for another. It doesn’t mean that because you’ve had two other agents before you won’t work well with me.

So when do you tell an agent that you’ve had other agents? In the query, when a full is requested, or upon signing an agreement? I don’t think it’s necessary to ever tell an agent that you’ve had agents in the past if you don’t feel comfortable doing so, especially if you’ve never sold with another agent. However, as with all so-called rules in publishing, there are exceptions to this. Certainly, if you are shopping around the same manuscript that was already with a previous agent, you are going to need to tell agents that up front, in the query letter. If you are under contract with a publisher and have chosen to leave your agent for another, you’re going to have to make that information known and the query letter is the best place. Frequently we’ll need to know where things stand with the previous agent and it sometimes helps to see the contract she last negotiated for you so we can make sure what we do is consistent or better.

If you’ve never sold with another agent, but have concerns based on a previous relationship I think it’s fair to let your new agent know at the time representation is offered. I’ll often ask my new clients to tell me some of the reasons they might be leaving the old agent and what their concerns are. I don’t need to know the name of the agent, but I think I can work more effectively if I have some background and knowledge of your agent baggage. Think of it this way, if you’re planning to marry someone who was in a previous marriage, doesn’t it help to know, at least in part, what in a relationship might make your new partner skittish? The same holds true for authors and agents.

When in doubt, honesty is always the best policy. In the end though, you need to do what’s most comfortable for you and there is no right or wrong.



Anonymous said...

Jessica, you once said to include the mention of a former agent in the query because it's part of our publishing history. Ever since, I've mentioned it, saying that we parted amicably (for another nonfiction project). And I thought it would be good to let an agent know that I've been represented before. Do you think it's better to exclude it? I've never known how to handle this exactly. Thanks, as always.

Mark Terry said...

Makes sense.

Karen Amanda Hooper said...

Since I'm a new writer is it okay to mention I'm a pleasure to work with because I'm open to critique, suggestions and editing, I don't have unrealistic expectations, and I'm a great communicator but won't harass my agent because I understand they are busy and do have other clients?

Kidding. (Even though it's true I know to keep it out of the query letter.)

Angela said...

I think mentioning a past agent in the query can be a very big plus, especially if that agent has a good rep. It shows your work has merit, and caught the eye of someone who knows this industry and has the same goals as the agent you're querying.

Be subtle--no need to explain or air dirty laundry. In my query at the end I said something like, My work has appeared in Such & Such magazines, and I was a previous client of ___ at XYZ agency. This told them just enough to satisfy my goal of letting them know another agent had repped my work without having to carry on about what happened. Agents are smart--if they want to know the details over the break up, they will ask as things progress.

BTW, mentioning this in my query did catch my current agent's attention as she knew/had worked with the agent in question. That's another reason to be careful what you say about past relationships--it's a small world and you never know who knows who. Be professional.

The Writers Canvas said...

Good points as always, Jessica. Your blogs are wonderful; thanks again.


AE Rought said...

Jessica, does the fact that an agent and client get along well on a personal level matter when the agent has made no sales for the author, there was a long period of disconnect, and the vast majority of sales for the agency are in genres other than the authors current focus?

Anonymous said...

Though this is a blog about writers, agents, & agenting, what about opening it up a bit and connecting with other relevant topics?

The New Yorker Observer recently ran a piece about the call for books to be, "more like 'The Wire,'" something that was discussed at the recent Festival of Books panel about writing from the margins featuring Mary Gaitskill and Aimee Bender (Gaitskill had forwarded a copy to the moderator.)

Or, another Observer piece about Millenial's supposed cultural appetites and social behavior; one commentor referenced Mean Girls and Gossip Girls as "both aggressively zeitgeisty cultural products crafted for the tween market which may have positive moments but are generally grounded in backstabbing and sneaky girl behavior that's time eternal."

Even the recent NYMag piece about Gay & Nan Talese - two releveant publishing figures if there ever were two - their marriage, publishing and yes, even sex, all there and relevant to this blog's readers.

And, question wise, while Nathan Bransford has blogged about the ongoing agent roundtable agent series in Poets & Writers, we haven't heard your thoughts on that. I'd be interested to hear what you've thought of those pieces, individually or, as a group.

I'm not here to promote the Observer, NY Mag or Poets and Writers but it seems like the recently (and oft) referenced agentfail topic might recede some if it were placed in the context of other of-the-moment events.

Teresa said...

I have a situation where I submitted a novel to an agency that declined that particular novel, but invited me to submit future projects. My problem is this: it was many years ago when I submitted my first novel to this agency, and while one agent who read the novel has died, the other agent is still alive.

Now that I have started writing professionally again, should I send my second novel to this agency based on a ten year old invitation? I don't want to create ill will with this agency by submitting to another agent, but I'm not even sure if they will remember who I am after all this time.

Anonymous said...


Just query them as you would any other agent, but include a note about how [agent's NAME] invited you to subit further material. No need to get overly specific. They will know the story of that agent.

In general, there's no need to mention your past agents, unless specifially asked, In a query, you want to sell your current project. Anything else is a waste of precious space. You don't want to dwell on the past, you're completely dazzled by the brilliance of your latest book, right?

Teresa said...

Thank you, Anonymous7:22. That's sound advice. The rules of engagement have changed so much over the years, there are times that I feel completely out of touch!

Although I have to say: I've found the most practical information here.

Thanks again!

Anonymous said...

Here's a somewhat relevant but off-topic Q: How much of our publishing history should we include? Should we mention Journalism/English degrees if we have a 20-year career in magazines? I hate to make my query letter sound too much like a resume but I see this type of info on writers' and agents' website bios a lot...
Any thoughts?

BookEnds, LLC said...

Anon 8:28:

I would include it if you're comfortable doing so. It shows that someone else has already thought your work publishable.


Weronika said...

Great post--I wish this was my problem. :)