Friday, August 08, 2008

You Have an Agent . . . Now What

A reader recently expressed frustration that there is so much information on the Internet about querying and how to do so properly, but so little about what to do next. What happens once the author-agent relationship is established and what can you do if problems arise?

Now, I’ve written a number of posts on how to handle the situation when the agent stops responding and you’re hearing nothing, but what if it hasn’t gotten quite that bad yet. I’m sure a number of you will have specific questions, but I’ve tried to come up with some information here on my own.

When getting that first offer of representation, you have already established a relationship with an agent. It might not be the person you ultimately agree to hire as your agent (because presumably you’re using this fabulous opportunity to shop around for just the right person), but it is the time to begin your relationship. To find out how the agent works and to get a sense for whether or not the two of you will be compatible.

I’ve said it over and over, but I’m not sure I’ve ever said it quite so simply: The key to a successful author-agent relationship is communication. Now, I realize that communication only works if it’s coming from both sides, but someone needs to start somewhere. It’s the rare agent who will make all the initial contact with an author. We have many authors, you have one agent. Because of that I advise all of my clients to contact me as often as they want about whatever they are wondering about. I get emails and phone calls all the time from clients about the status of their submissions, concerns about the direction of their publishing careers, advice on what to write about on the blog, confirmation of gossip and rumors, just to touch base, to tell a funny story, or to make sure I still think they are great. And of course any time I have information or news to share with my clients I pass it along.

Part of what I try to remember to do when signing a client is to get a feel for career goals. Unfortunately, in the excitement of signing a new client and enthusiasm for the project we’re currently working on, sometimes that information gets pushed aside momentarily. Eventually, though, the conversation happens and needs to happen and I think it’s wonderful when it comes from the client. I have a number of clients who actually write up business plans and goal lists for themselves and their careers. If you do that, don’t hesitate to share it with your agent. An agent can work best for you if she knows exactly what you want and what you need. So don’t be afraid to let her know that.

If you have specific ideas of what an agent should be you need to talk to your agent about that before you sign on the dotted line. Do you think an agent should be available 24/7 no matter what? Ask your potential agent how she handles communication. Better yet, get in touch with some of her clients and ask them. Ask the tough questions, not only how the agent handles such things, but also what some of her negatives might be. I know a number of my more recent clients talked with more long-standing clients before signing. They weren’t hard to find, just search our Web site or Publishers Lunch.

But what if you did all of that and still there are problems: suddenly the agent is not following through on what you felt she had promised, or you just don’t feel you’re connecting. What next?

Not Keeping Promises Agent: You’ve been told repeatedly that she’ll get back to you in a week and that was four months ago. You know that your submission is on hold, because she has promised revisions, and it’s beyond frustrating. What do you do? You have a very frank talk. Assuming she is returning phone calls and emails, you get in touch and tell her that you have some concerns with the length of time it’s taking to get your book out on submission. And then you need to judge whether her reaction was the right one or not. A good agent will explain what happened, apologize, and follow through finally on getting back to you in that week, or at least in a realistic time. If she’s not receptive, maybe it’s time to consider getting out before you’ve wasted more time.

Not Following-Up Agent: Your work has been on submission, you’ve heard from three of the five publishers, but for some reason your agent refuses to follow up with the other two publishers. What is going on? Following up is an uncomfortable business. No one wants to be a nag. Unfortunately, that’s part of an agent’s job. Again, you need to pick up the phone and possibly get very firm with your agent. You need to explain that one of the reasons you need an agent is to do those things you don’t like to do, including nag editors.

Making Decisions Agent: You have an offer from a publisher! Yippeee! What next? Well, it seems that your agent is going along without talking to you and making all of the decisions without you. Some authors are fine with this, others aren’t. When your agent calls to tell you an offer is on the table, your job is to find out what’s next. What is her plan and what do you need to do? Ask pointed questions: How is she going to negotiate this? What are her thoughts on the other publishers who still have the material? And you need to share: What are your thoughts?

Not Following-Through Agent: All of those promises that were made before signing on the dotted line seem to have been nothing but words. None of those things are now happening. Again, it’s time for a conversation. If the answers aren’t satisfactory, you need to determine what’s next for you and your career.

These examples are obviously extreme. In the grand scheme of things most of you should have wonderful experiences. You hopefully found an agent you really connect and feel comfortable with. The two of you have devised a plan for what’s next—maybe revisions on your manuscript, a discussion of where and who to submit to, and a submission plan—and you are either in the middle of revisions or happily writing your next book, one you’ve discussed with your agent.

I hope that helps answer some questions and concerns.



Kimber Li said...

Great educational post!

At the query stage, I think aspiring authors should do their homework like the Divine Miss Snark instructed. A lot of agents have blogs now or have been interviewed in a variety of places throughout Cyberspace. Some of the problems can be avoided by not querying incompatible (however excellent) agents in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, another timely and informative post!

I truly believe the most important ingredients for a successful agent/client relationship is a mutual enthusiasm for the story and a strong faith in one another's abilities. If you have that, and in return the agent has a track record of sales with NY publishers and a small list of happy clients, you both have something solid to build on.

Thanks so much for the info and troubleshooting tactics. :-)

Anonymous said...

Years ago, there was a Roz Chast cartoon in The New Yorker which had three panels, arranged left to right. The picture in each panel showed people dressed in normal formalwear, exotic garb of some sort, and finally fantastic-nightmare clothing -- like folded-up antennas, aluminum foil, bizarre solid objects, and so on. The panels' captions were "Dressed to the nines"; "Dressed to the sixes"; and "Dressed to X, the unknown."

Here's what made me think of that cartoon (you were wondering, weren't you?):

As an agent, have you ever had (or heard of, from the ubiquitous friend of a friend) a client of type X, the unknown? I'm assuming there's the client from hell, and the client from heaven, and then, well, the client you just end up not "getting" at all?

Anonymous said...

Very good, timely post. I think authors tend to panic when things don't go 'as planned' in the relationship. We hear tons of stories about how some clients are annoying nags and call all the we resolve to be the 'good' client and not nag at all. And in the process, we end up shooting ourselves in the foot.

And to be honest, sometimes we hate to recognize that a relationship isn't working. If the agent isn't showing enthusiasm despite repeated discussions, it's time to cut the cord after all. Sometimes it just takes hearing it from another person.

Great post - thank you so much for writing it.

Kate Douglas said...

I think a client/agent relationship, when it's working, tends to develop as time and new projects move forward. The client needs less hand holding and the agent has more knowledge of the client's ability to produce. At some point, the type of communication changes from the panicked calls from the newbie author (guilty party waving madly here) to emails noting various publicity, reviews, etc. to occasional phone conversations concerning new projects, etc. Like any relationship, it evolves into one that's comfortable but not overwhelming. Those first months of a new contract though, at least in my case, probably had my agent looking for a good place to hide!

Elyssa Papa said...

Jessica, thank you so much for this information. This is incredibly helpful, and I'm saving it for future reference.

SherMay said...

Thanks for the frank and positive post! "Long-term relationship" can be a scary phrase to some but I think it's exactly what most of us writers are looking for. The one-agent/multiple-authors ratio you mentioned might sometimes make an author hesitate to infringe for fear of coming across as naggy or high maintenance -- it's encouraging to know that an agent doesn't mind us initiating discussions about career plans and long-term goals.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Anon 9:50. I had an agent for a number of years. Wonderful lady, a published writer herself. She tried and failed to sell several of my books. Did get an offer from Dorchester for my third book which we decided to decline but then she seemed to lose interest after a couple more rejections. In the meantime I slaved away on another book. When I finished I contacted her and it was then she informed me she wouldn't be 'representing' any more of my books...but wanted to try to sell the last book. Well, needless to say I was blind-sided. Had no idea she was giving me the ol' heave ho. I had made it a point to be the 'good' client by not bugging her. I kept my contact strictly through emails and only asked for status reports quarterly, if that much. Needless to say, I will be much more 'in the loop' with my next agent (God willing I ever get one again). But once again your article is very helpful and I will paste your comments to my computer for when the time comes... and may the fiction gods grant that time soon.

Anonymous said...

So many liken an agent/author relationship to marriage, and just as it happens in some of the best marriages, people can grow apart. What you were writing when your agent signed you may not be what you want to keep writing. You may decide to spread your wings and try something totally different. Or it may be that market changes force you to redirect yourself into other genres or subgenres. If your agent isn't on board with your new project - if she isn't 100% enthusiastic about it - she can't sell it well. Hopefully she'll say so before making any half-hearted attempts to market the project and you will have the opportunity to move on and find someone else.
It's not to say the agent didn't do her job. But there's no denying how subjective this business is, and while an agent may love one project, she may dislike another. It's lovely if she thinks everything you write, including your laundry list, is awesome - but not terribly realistic to expect it.

Just another observation from the trenches. :)

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Robena Grant said...

A very helpful post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I work hard to not mistake professional relationships for personal ones, and I shudder to think that I'd ever feel married to an agent.

I understand the idea that you must work to find the best route of communication and avoid misunderstandings with your agent, but that's where the similarities end for me.

If I had an agent, I'd hope we'd get along nicely, perhaps grow to be friendly, but I'd never forget that some day, I might have to fire her. Or she might have to fire me. And I know from direct experience that it's really hard to stay friends with someone after you've fired them.

Besides, I don't need an agent to love me (or even like me, really) or listen to me blabber about my day. I need her to sell my books, and if she can't do that, well, she's just not useful to me. And I wouldn't be useful to her either, so we'd best part ways with as little personal pain as possible.

Anonymous said...

I don't think of parting ways with my agent as 'firing' her. She didn't feel excited enough about my new project to represent it. I felt it was the best thing I'd ever written. So I suggested perhaps it was time to move on. She said she hated to see me go, we shook hands and smiled, and I walked away. No hard feelings. I saw her just last week in San Francisco at a conference and was genuinely delighted to see her. We chatted for a while and I was glad to know she's doing well.

She was never my best friend. I don't want a best friend. But I do want someone who reads what I write and thinks it's awesome enough, she's happy to traipse across Manhattan and find the one editor who will love it just as much.

No, it's not exactly like being married - but it's a relationship that is as important to a writer's career as marriage can be to one's personal life. And just like dating can be a bitch, and finding the right man/woman can seem impossible, finding the right agent is freakishly similar in difficulty.

That's why agents like Jessica and Bookends, as well as others around BlogLand, are seriously wonderful for sharing their insights. If for no other reason, their candor gives the searchers among us a wee looksee into how they operate - how they agent. It's a gift and I appreciate it.

I wonder if there'd be a market for a service like for authors and agents? :)

Anonymous said...

I don't understand how an agent can be constantly communicating with writers and get anything else done and I'll wager most people in the business agree.

I am astonished that you send out rejection letters. If you don't want to do business with some wannabe, ignore her (I assume you only do business with women.) Trash cans were invented for people like that.

As for communicating after you sign 'em, all I can say is "Why?" You're not a baby sitter. If their crap does not sell, they will figure that out after you ignore them for a year or two. If it does sell, all you need them for is to sign the contract and/or make changes.

In due course agents are going to treat writers the way business managers treat their inferiors. It works for Fortune 500 companies. Why should it not work for the publishing industry? That problem Moonrat outlined a few weeks ago would not exist if agents and editors maintained a proper sense of hierarchy.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:40--

You seem to forget that agents work for the author. There shouldn't be any heirarchy. We are all in this for the same purpose. To sell books. We write them, the agents help us sell them.

I think when anyone on either side begins to feel superior to or more necessary than the other, that's when problems arise.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post! I'm an attorney, specifically a public defender. I make my expectations known to my client up front. I'm your lawyer, not your social worker. I want you to keep in touch with me, during business hours, but I don't want to 'chat.' I'll take care of my part of the transaction [interacting with the court] and you take care of yours [stay out of trouble, stay in touch, be on time to court, bathed and dressed, etc.] and this will go well! The client is well within their rights to check up with you and ask for accountability, but not to demand that you assuage all of their fears and whims. The difference between an agent and lawyer is that I count is as success when I get rid of a client - that means I successfully resolved their case. For you, it's just the opposite!

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Terri. Anon 10:40, what you say makes sense. Let me offer a different perspective. In the business world the person who controls the purse is the superior being, not the one who produces the products and services. So in publishing the editor pays the agent. If the agent is honest, she pays the writer. If not, she forgets to do that or even charges the writer a fee for being her agent. The editor and agent are making handsome livings, whereas the writer either gets nothing or works for less than the minimum wage. Only if the writer is a bestselling author such as John Grisham can he claim to be in a one up position relative to anyone.

In any business except publishing writers would be regarded as peons and treated accordingly. In Hollywood writers are actually despised by some producers and actors.

Apparently literary publishing works differently. But for how long?

Anonymous said...

A lot of weird Anons here!

I had the fortunate circumstance of being able to choose from a handful of offering agents, and one of the things that I loved about my current agent was that she sent an email before we talked on the phone that outlined how she liked to work with clients and what I could expect. And I can say that she's absolutely followed through on all of it too.

Thanks for this great post, Jessica!

Anonymous said...

I attended the RWA conference in San Francisco, and had the luxury of going to dinner with two NY Times bestselling authors. I just recently signed with a wonderful agent, and at this moment have a ms that's been pitched to several NY houses. So, while moving ahead in this career, I'm still a relative newbie. One of these lovely ladies, took the time to offer me a lot of wisdom and advice that she learned on her journey, and one piece stood out for me....the agent works for us...period. We should never be afraid to ask questions or give opinions to our agent. And if said agent doesn't return phone calls,emails etc, don't be afraid to address this issue....and if it's not working out....find someone who will work for you and communicate with you

Jennifer McKenzie said...

Here's my issue. (And I thought about emailing you to ask your opinion.)
A lot of fellow authors I know got an agent BECAUSE of a deal. In other words, the publisher wanted them and the agent came next.
The thing is, an author can't know whether that agent is going to LOVE the author's work.
I want an agent who will do what Barbara Poelle said she'd do for one of her authors---go to a monkey fight and win to get that sucker published.
What do you do if the agent came AFTER the deal? And if the agent isn't really loving your work, isn't it time to walk away?
What do you think?

Jersey Girl said...

This is a great post, thanks for sharing it because many aspiring authors don't know exactly what comes next, all we know is getting an answer to those queries is a huge step in the process - but it not the last.

Anonymous said...

I know this is a really old post, but it's great information! I, unfortunately, have found myself in the position where my agent falls into two of those categories: the "not following through agent, and the not keeping promises agent."

Thank you, for giving me the nudge that I needed to send that dreaded email. It's so easy to feel like you're alone, like you are the only author in the world this is happening to.

But question - after you have fired your agent (for reasons above), how do you address your previous representation in your query? If your work has not been submitted to publishers because agent not-following-through never even got you a first set of revision notes?

Do you say you're seeking new representation? Does that send up a red flag or make you stand out in the crowd?

Or, do you just query like you're any other writer and pray?

Thanks again for giving me the necessary push to send off that final letter.