Tuesday, June 03, 2008

When to Cut Ties with Your Agent

I’ve talked a lot about the author-agent relationship and imagine that there are a lot more posts on that topic in my future. I’ve certainly covered how to fire your agent when she is ignoring you, but what about the agent who is paying attention to you, but just can’t seem to sell your work? How do you know when to cut ties with this person?

The really difficult part about answering this question is that I can’t, really. I can give guidance, but making the decision to fire an agent is really personal and, frankly, I always feel that if you’re asking that question you’re probably ready to let go. I’ve often likened the author-agent relationship to dating or marriage, in a business sense, and I think this is no different. How often have you dated someone and known long before it was over that it was over, but instead of doing anything about it you just went along with the way things were simply because it was easier? If you say never, then you are either lying or you married the one and only person you ever dated, because at one point or another I think we’ve all done that. Okay, maybe it wasn’t dating, maybe it was a friendship, or your agent. . . .

Here’s the deal: if you feel your agent has lost confidence in you or your work or you feel that you need to be going in a direction that your agent doesn’t seem to want you to go in, you need to have a conversation. After nearly ten years in business it should come as no surprise that I too have had clients fire me. I don’t think any of us have gone our separate ways feeling any animosity for each other, at least I didn’t, but in at least a couple of instances I felt like the client was really, truly, for the first time telling me what she wanted, when she fired me. Communication can make all the difference in any relationship, and if you’re not good at it, now is the time to practice. Call your agent up; if she’s not ignoring you, then she’s presumably taking your calls, and have an honest conversation about your concerns, what you’re feeling, and what you would like to see more of. If you have a good agent she’ll be just as honest back, and at that point you’ll know whether this relationship is really going to work. Are the two of you now on the same page? Do you think you can continue to work together?

If the conversation didn’t go as you had hoped or you still really feel that this is no longer working, then it’s probably time to cut and run. Listen, no one can tell you when to break up with your boyfriend, divorce your husband, quit your job, or fire your agent. Sadly these are all decisions we need to make on our own, in our own time. The author-agent relationship is sacred; the agent is the one person in your career who you can consistently count on to be in your corner, and if you’re not feeling the love, maybe it really isn’t there.

As for the question of firing an agent because she can’t sell your work, well, that’s a personal decision too. There is no time frame on when a work should sell or if a work should ever sell. What you want, though, is an agent who continues to believe in you and your work and is willing to stick by you. Remember, though, an agent, like an author, can have periods where she too feels discouraged and upset. If we’re excited about something and it doesn’t sell, you have to give us the same mourning period you give yourself. It’s only natural.

Obviously I’m one side of this equation. What about authors? Any advice?



Anonymous said...

A friend of mine recently fired her agent. She'd been feeling neglected for a while, and been unhappy, despite several conversations. But it was when she asked for a list of places her latest work had been submitted to, and was ignored, that she finally decided to throw in the towel.

Anonymous said...

My advice to agents would be to "fire" an author if you know darn well you have no intention of ever giving them the time they deserve.

No, not every book is going to sell in five minutes and some might not sell at all. But if you know you aren't doing right by an author please, just let them know it's time to move on. Because this isn't what happens. You bring up your concerns to the agent -- they aren't answering your emails, they aren't letting you know if your stuff is being rejected, they aren't being proactive in sending yor work out, etc... and all you get is their promise to do better by you.

But they don't.

You waste a year or two with someone who really could care less if they sell your work.

Im on my third -- yes -- third agent. Dear God in heaven, what a pain in the butt its been.

I've been outright lied to, my ms have been left to languish on editor's desks for 8 months at a time without follow up. I've had to beg for any and all information about where stuff has been sent.

Where is the integrity? Where is an agent's respect for their own job? How can they face themselves at the end of the day, knowing they haven't done jack for you for the last 8 months and then aren't going to return your email, either?

Unfortunately, by the time you're fed up listening to all the "I'll get right back to you," and "I'll email you later about this" rhetoric, your ms has been shopped to too many publishers and you have to start all over with a new agent and book.

I would appreciate an agent that had the balls to say outright that they weren't passionate about my book anymore rather than giving me the run-around until I fired them.

Anonymous said...

Great topic, Jessica. I'm looking forward to reading the comments on this one.

I think that it's a hard decision to fire an agent . . . or for an agent to fire a client. But there are times when it's obvious the relationship isn't working, and parting ways is the best solution for all concerned.

As for firing an agent because he/she can't sell your work, I don't think that's fair if the agent made a good faith effort. On the other hand, if the manuscript hasn't sold because the agent hasn't been submitting it, or has been submitting it to the wrong editors/publishers, well, that's a different thing altogether.

Anonymous said...

I'm more than certain that there are writers in this business that love their agents. But more often than not, I've learned that the praise an author heaps on her agent in public is actually the stellar opposite of how she really feels abou the relationship.

Sad but true.

Agents get back to you when they feel like it; follow up with editors if they feel like it; let you know what's going on when they feel like it... it's an unbalanced relationship, with the agent in control of all the feedback.

I resent all the people that say to form a list of everything to ask an agent before you sign with them... The truth is, agents tell you what you want to hear to get you to sign if they want your book. The relationship after that has very little resemblence to those promises. I was told by an agent she would absolutely sell this book for me. Lo and behold after only 5 submissions, she's done. Suddenly doesn't think it'll sell. If an agent can be discouraged by only 5 submissiions, why the heck is she an agent? Talk about discouraging. I just spent a year and a half of my life for an agent to not care about my book. Now, if I go to another agent, the book is already considered "shopped."

Anonymous said...

How I wish you'd posted this six weeks ago--it would have made my decision much easier. Looking back, I wonder why I waited so long. The answer...it's uncomfortable to fire someone.

Over a period of eighteen months I watchd my agent's initial enthusiasm fade. I was told "I don't notify my clients every time I submit a work--just when I hear a decision." The last straw was her asking me to rewrite my latest work to make it conform to the genre in which she's most comfortable. So I severed our relationship.

I'm once more represented by an agent, one who "gets me" I think. At least, I hope so.

Kate Douglas said...

Anonymous 8:46, I probably praise my agent privately even more than I do publicly, so yes, there are authors who are VERY happy with their agents. I like to think we respect one another's strengths, communicate well and do what we do best without interfering with one another--I write and she tries her best to sell my books. It comes down to respect, communication, and an honest love for doing what you do. However, if I didn't feel this way, I imagine I'd be shopping for a new agent. FWIW, almost forty years ago I fired a husband and shopped for a new one, and I've had him w/o complaint for thirty-six years, and yes, it is quite a bit the same!

Mark Terry said...

Good post at the right time, I think. Thanks.

Therapist/Writer said...

I appreciate you opening this topic, Jessica. It's bound to bring out some bitterness because, as in any business, there are agents who are more ethical or more professional than others. I count myself lucky.

I did have to go through making the decision to separate from my agent. We cut ties (amicably) over a year ago. It was a very difficult decision, especially since my concerns had nothing to do with her ethics. She was (is) an honest, ethical, responsive agent who simply did not have the contacts in the publishing world in my genre. I also think that she "lost the love" for my ms when it didn't sell immediately. Never the less, I count myself as very lucky that she continued to act professionally during the split. She mailed my submission history, wished me the best and it worked out. Could have been a whole lot worse!

Unfortunately, since that ms had been "shopped" to a few editors, it's considered a used commodity. Or so I've been told. So, now, I'm in the position of shelving that ms. and beginning a new book/new search that someone mentioned earlier. That was my biggest fear when leaving my agent originally and it's part of what needs to be considered in the decision for or against leaving. I hate losing that book, and hope someday to resurrect it, but I don't regret my decision. When I think in terms of a long-term career, the partnership wasn't working.

For me, the bottom line in making my decision had to do with the loss of excitement more than anything else. Yes, it's a business, but there's an element of salesmanship involved and when an agent loses faith in his/her product there's a real problem. Or, I might add, when a writer loses faith in the agent.

I don't consider it a waste. I learned some things. I practiced my writing. Time to move on.

Jessica Nelson said...

Wow, finding an agent sounds like a scary thing. I hoe that if I ever get one I don't have to fire him/her. And that they don't have to fire me, lol!
I did hear of an author who had over forty rejections by subbing herself, then got an agent and sold almost immediately to an editor who still had the author's sub in her slush pile. Very interesting, I thought.
To a few of the anons, it stinks what happened to you. Unfortunately, agents are just people. Some might be lazy, some might be go-getters. I don't know, getting a bunch of "bad" ones in a row stinks but I'm positive based on all the agent blogs I read that there are great ones out there. I hope y'all find them.
Thanks Jessica, for the post. Good stuff.

Robena Grant said...

I think finally landing an agent for many new authors naturally seems like the first step to getting published, and it is. However, you can fall off that step if the work is unable to be marketed.
When the ego gets in the way and the author can't believe the work won't sell, he/she can fire the agent in a moment of fiery passion. But it isn't really the agents fault.
I think if I were working with an agent and the top three people she submitted to all said nay, then I'd pull my work and have another good hard look at it. I'd discuss with the agent what areas in my story needed changing based upon the comments from the three editors and I'd make them. Then I'd try again with the next three editors on the list.
Baby steps. I'm in no hurry.

DJ said...

I think it all boils down to good old-fashioned honesty. Honesty with yourself, first and foremost, about your work, your goals, and your agent. Honesty in your communications, from the beginning, with your agent, can't hurt either, but of course it has to work both ways. Thank you, Jessica, for the food for thought.

Anonymous said...

A positive agent/author relationship sometimes occurs naturally, but one can also be cultivated. How? By following a few simple guidelines:

1. Respect the fact that your agent is a busy person. If she's shopping around your work and you haven't heard from her, she probably doesn't have anything specific to report. When good news comes her way, you'll be the first to know.

2. Keep communications short and to the point. No need to talk about your home remodeling, your dog's surgery, or your flu-stricken sextuplets. After a brief greeting, get down to business.

3. Keep your word. If you say you'll send revisions within two weeks, do so. If you need more time than that, tell her long before the deadline approaches.

4. Submit your best work possible. I can't tell you how many times I've heard writers say something like, "Well, if it needs to be changed, we can do that later." You should feel that everything you send to your agent is in the best shape it can be, for the moment. It goes without saying that quality work is much easier to represent.

It is definitely more pleasant to work with someone who is respectful, cooperative, and punctual. And that goes for both sides of the relationship.

Di Francis said...

I'm happy with my agent and I have been all along. I like that when she took me on, I already had a contract offer from a publisher, but she still read the manuscript first to see if she could get excited about my writing. I have always felt that she is forthright and honest, knows how to calm a panicky writer, knows how to deal with the publisher side of the business and she communicates. That communication is the real key. Sometimes I can go long stretches without needed info, then I can email her every other day for a few weeks as things heat up. She's always reponsive and always gives me the info I want.

In this post, what's a curious question is the one--what if she can't see your work? I think it's somewhat different for writers breaking in. You're caught between this place where your agent is excited and interested, but can't get editors excited and interested. Does that mean that work is dead in the water? Does it mean write something new (yes to the second by the way--even if it sells, you want to be working all the time).

My agent has shopped around proposals that have not sold. She's also sold other proposals. I'm very sorry not to be working on some of the proposals that didn't work because I wanted to play in those worlds and with those characters, but there's a point at which you have to cut your losses. The question is when. I think your agent helps you come to that decision, but she can only do that if you trust her. I think if you don't trust her, then that's probably a serious sign of needing to find new representation.

Anonymous said...

I agree with both anon: 8.46 and therapist Writer. I too had an agent who only sent my ms out to a handful of main publishers (because they offer the biggest advances) before she decided that she couldn't sell it, despite telling me to get on and write the sequel. Now I can't submit either books to any of the main publishing houses because the initial book has already been shopped. So I feel that I have wasted the past 18 months and have to start all over again.
Someone once said that an agent is the only employee who interviews their employer!

Anonymous said...

One of the above comments about prior agents and sequels made me curious.

I'd think that if a sequel works as a stand alone that it could still be queried to new agents. As long as a new agent knew that a prior book had been submitted, it doesn't seem to me it should halt the submission of the new one.

In a stand alone series, it seems that the first could be re-worked to be the second. As an alternative, perhaps an editor who liked the second might be willing to take another look at the first.

Am I wrong? (I'm so often wrong it would be really amazing if I weren't this once)

Anonymous said...

I'm in this exact situation in that I split the sheets with my agent. Basically, she seemed to put me on the back burner after failing to sell several of my books. After finishing another and then approaching her with submitting it, she informed me she would not be representing any more of my books but wanted to continue to try and sell one of the books she really believed in. I left it at that but after another six months I informed her it was best to end our relationship and to please pull the book from a publisher that had had the book for over a year (when I would ask her why it was taking so long for the publisher to respond, her comment was 'they are notoriously slow to respond'. So now I'm in the midst of seeking new representation and have a number of agents looking at partials or fulls. So far no bites but plenty of passes. Hope abides. In the meantime I am working on another project.

Unknown said...

"Now I can't submit either books to any of the main publishing houses because the initial book has already been shopped. So I feel that I have wasted the past 18 months and have to start all over again."

I guess I don't quite understand: does it have to be at a "main" publishing house? Perhaps I don't know the business well enough to offer suggestions, but I think my first response in a case like this would be to move to self-representation (after a good hard look at the book, perhaps with a hired editor), and try to sell to a mid-size or smaller independent publisher. If they do well with the book, a bigger house may become interested in picking up the sequels, and your series is on its way. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

In response to Lucy's post 11.19pm: I'm not sure what it's like in the States, but here in the UK agents will only submit to the big publishinhg companies because they are the ones who pay high advances and the bigger the advance the better the agents commission. Most of the bigger publishing companies won't accept mss without an agent, so it's a bit of a catch 22 situation: if I got another agent he/she would only send my ms out to the bigger publishers who have already seen it. Because the bigger publishers are buying up many of the independent publishing companies over here, authors are finding that even the smaller companies are asking for submissions only via agents.

Anonymous said...

I think honesty is the key to the relationship. If the agent has cooled off toward the writer, he has to say so, and vice versa. When it's over, you have to admit that it's over and move on. IMHO.

Anonymous said...

I fired an agent who sold three books for me, for what I considered to be very unethical behavior.