Wednesday, January 26, 2011

More on Author-Agent Relationship

Recently I worked with an agent who loved my book, until he finally read a chapter near the end. Apparently he agreed to work with me after only reading the first half of the book. The offensive chapter was about the heroine who dies on the operating table and has an out-of-body experience that ultimately allows her to save someone's life. This wasn't about believability, since similar events are well-documented. His objection was this event was not "fore-shadowed." My instinct was to say yes, but that's how it happens in real life. Death sometimes happens without warning. I should add that while frozen she has a supernatural dream that foreshadows an important plot point. That might have been the problem.

That ended the relationship. I started over with another agent who wanted to rewrite the plot, except I'm an expert in the field I was writing about [subject redacted to protect author’s identity]. He seemed to resent my fame (there's a book written about me) and instead of helping me he seemed to compete with me, always talking about what a great agent he was and how lucky I was to have him while criticizing me (but not my writing) in trivial and obnoxious ways.

It's my conception that the agent supports the author, and does not compete with him. Am I being naive? In the first case, I suspected the agent was trying to steer me away from any themes that contradicted his religious beliefs. In the second, the agent's ego seemed to be more important than my success.

Frankly, at this point agents seem more of an impediment than anything else. Is this typical? Perhaps the real secret here is don't bother with an agent until you have a track record that establishes your credibility.

A lot of different thoughts ran through my head while reading about this situation, the first being that I think there’s a lot to both of these stories that is not being said. In other words, I have a feeling these situations are being spun to make the agents look bad. I just find it hard to believe that one author had similar problems with two different agents and yet the author is totally blameless.

Let me break this down a little further.

Situation #1: It sounds to me like the agent’s critique was a perfect and valid revision suggestion. Sure, in real life things like death or life after death are not necessarily foreshadowed, but books are not real life. There’s a reason they’re called fiction, and for fiction to work we need to, as readers, have some sense that either something is going to happen or even what might happen. Your trick/talent as the writer is to lead us through the story to that point, giving us clues along the way, without revealing what’s really going to happen or making us feel manipulated.

What I read from this, though, what stood out to me the most, is that the agent’s request for revisions ended the relationship. Instead of working with the agent to learn why it wasn’t working for him, you simply ended things. Now granted, I could be wrong, but I’ve been in this business long enough, met enough authors, to suspect that I’m pretty close to the truth. I’m sure my authors will happily tell you the many times I told them something wasn’t working in their books. Thank goodness they don’t fire me every time. Instead we work together to find a solution or uncover why it might not have worked for me. I think that 90% of the time they’ll agree the book is stronger in the end.

Situation #2: Now you’ve found another agent for the book, one who also sees that there are problems with the book and, again, instead of working with this agent you have decided that he’s resentful of who you are and working for his own ego instead of what’s best for the book. While I don’t doubt there are agents out there who are egotistical, I have a hard time believing that this agent read the book, worked to write up a revision letter, and discussed his concerns with you just to prove to you that he was better.

I’m not saying these agents are saints. Heck, I don’t even know who they are, and if agent #2 really criticized you personally then shame on him. If agent #1 offered on only half the book, then you must have a good product there. That being said, it’s not entirely uncommon. It’s also not uncommon for an agent to feel the first half of the book is great, offer representation, and still have revision suggestions. I’m not sure that makes him a bad agent.

Based on the two stories I’m reading about, and the two similar situations with agents, it’s starting to feel to me that maybe you’re the one who needs to put your ego away for a little while and look at the book objectively. Does it really need work? If two people think there are problems, whether they are agents or not, I would believe there might be problems.

It’s hard for me to objectively say that agents are an impediment. After all, I’m an agent. I think an agent can be a wonderful resource and business partner and that, if they work together, an agent and author can really make a book shine.

In your case, maybe the best solution would be to work without an agent. It doesn’t seem to me you want to listen to one anyway.



Erin Reel said...

Great advice, Jessica. Thanks for posting.

Jennifer Brodie said...

"Books aren't written. They're rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn't quite done it." Michael Crichton.

Mike Koch - Protect The Risen said...

Sounds like the author is writing the book for themselves and not an audience, which is perfectly fine. If however they intend to write for an audience then by all means they should take a hard look at the manuscript and most likely take the much needed advice of the agents. Agents after all, know better than authors what will sell and what will not.

Karen said...

having never published or worked with an agent before, is it typical for an agent to suggest a re-write of a plot? Maybe my understanding of an agent's role is wrong...

Unknown said...

I agree with Mike. If that's the case then why don't really they just self publish. Didn't the author mention they were well known. If so then use that platform to sell books.

Let's all keep in mind that agents are in this to make money as well. It's not personal. They have families, bills and

scott neumyer said...

+1 to Mike Koch. Completely agree with his assessment.

Melissa Alexander said...

I had the very same thoughts when I was reading the question.

@Karen, the role of an agent is to negotiate a sale of the manuscript (and various rights). It's not at all uncommon for a manuscript that shows a lot of potential but isn't *quite* there to be accepted by an agent. The agent then works with the writer to make the submission shine so it has the best chance of selling.

It didn't sound like the agent here was trying to change the plot. Instead he just wanted revisions to make sure everything was properly structured so the reader wouldn't feel the ending was out of left field and be disappointed with the story.

Anonymous said...

Jessica is giving great advice. And for those of us drowning in the query waters, DYING to get an agent, I think I can speak for the majority in saying I'd kind of like to slap this author in the head...just a little slap. Heh. ;-)

I once had an agent who I respected (still do) and valued her input. The ONLY reason we parted ways was because with the three MSS I wrote while we were together (other than the one she signed me for, and yes, I did TONS of revisions and it's a better book for it)we could never see eye to eye on my books. Not just one little part, but the core of them.

It stemmed more from trying to fit my work into a romance box when I was really meant to write something else. But that wasn't my agent's fault. It was mine for having not found my way before I signed w/her.

All that to say, the only time I would break ties w/an agent is if there are differences in the vision for your career as a whole. Not some little disagreement over something petty like one eensy part of the story.

This author needs to forge out on their own, because obviously, they have all the answers; leave the agents for the rest of us who are willing to work at the agent/client relationship and for the betterment of the MS.

Ciara said...

From reading the letter I definitely agree with Jessica, sounds a lot like the author has an ego. I mean if you can't take the suggestions of your agent, someone you presumably respect enough to sign with then how will you feel taking notes from your editor later in the process? The author in question seems to think that his/her books needs no revision. I think it's great that agents will care enough about a book that has potential to actually give notes instead of rejecting it for not being perfect!

Stephanie McGee said...

I am going to agree with Mike's observations. It does sound a lot like this author followed his or her heart (not necessarily a bad thing), but is not taking thought to what might be sellable. More importantly, it sounds like they're not aware of what an agent's job really is. They're there as your business associate/partner. They're there to help you get the best things possible for you and your career. And if that sometimes includes pointing out where your work can be improved, all the better.

Anonymous said...

This guy has had two bites at the apple, when most writers never get one! Seems to me agent #2 should have asked why he left agent #1. Agent #2 would have had a warning that this writer was difficult to work with.
I agree with the comments above. Good luck getting #3.

Sean Thomas Fisher said...

There doesn't seem to be anything "typical" about this situation. Obviously, this already famous author can afford to be picky and can also, seemingly, get another agent at will. After all, a book has been written about them. But they don't sound like they care that much if their book gets published or not.

Regardless of who was right and who was wrong, the assertion that the real secret here is to not "bother with an agent until you have a track record that establishes your credibility" is crazy. Without an agent, for an aspiring author, that's impossible and easy for him/her to say.

Kate Douglas said...

Excellent post and advice. As the author, we know what's going to happen and why, but unless we make that clear and interesting to the reader, it's not going to work. If the agent (ie: the reader) sees a problem, then there's most likely a problem. I've learned to take advice and criticisms in the manner in which it's intended--and that is to help me craft a better story. As writers, we have to put ego aside and consider the book and what makes it work--or not.

Karen--if an agent is interested in a project but feels it needs some work before they can find a buyer, they're definitely going to offer advice.

Josin L. McQuein said...

Critique is the only cure for Golden Word Syndrome. Sadly, the afflicted can rarely stomach the treatment.

In fiction, a last minute save with no prior set-up (especially through means that could be considered unusual or supernatural like an OoBE)isn't "realistic" in fiction; it's deus ex machina.

It doesn't even take much to set something like that up in a prior chapter.

And an agent saying that something isn't foreshadowed is NOT a religious complaint. It's a legitimate observation from someone who would rather not have readers throw the book across the room at the 2/3 mark.

Something else that I wonder about here is the mention of the 2nd agent wanting to rewrite the plot, and having that be a surprise to the writer. IF an agent not finish the book was such an ordeal the first time, why would you sign with a second agent who also hadn't read the book first?

This author isn't describing a desire for a "supportive" agent. The agents were supporting the author by not submitting the material as-is.

This line: "In the second, the agent's ego seemed to be more important than my success." is particularly telling. An author's success isn't only theirs, it's their agent's, too.

(My verword for this post is ironic subrartra, since my first thought was: What a brat.)

D_Blackwell said...

If the writer is recognizably famous and has a marketable platform, skipping an agent and going directly to a publisher should be doable. Evidently the book is shows strong potential.

Doable presupposes that the writer has the personality skills to slip in the gate. At that point, however, an editor is likely going to want to buff and polish the text. That will be a telling event.

Every reader earns an informed opinion. As a reader, that opinion impacts whether I talk up the book (or talk it down). Mr. Writer may be in the right on this. It certainly is possible. More likely, Mr. Writer's skin isn't yet thicker than rhinoceros hide.

Dave Ale said...

I can't remember who said it, but the difference between fiction and real life is that fiction has to make sense.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I have to agree with the comments that the first agent seemed to be offering a valid critique, and though this is only one side of the story, the way the letter is written makes it sound like the suggestion of a revision led to a cutting-off of the relationship. Guess what? Good agents will offer critiques. I agree it could be quite jarring, and might turn many readers off, if a religious/supernatural twist is thrown in 3/4 of the way through the book without any prior hint that the book would incorporate some of those elements. Death can happen without warning, but surely there is a way to work in some subtle hints earlier on. Maybe the protagonists expresses skepticism about such events after overhearing a news story, or there is some hint of the connection between her and the person whose life she saves, and so forth.

Without corroborating evidence, I can't tell if you're fairly judging the motives of the first or second agent. But it might help to examine your role in all of this, unless you really are famous enough that you can just go to a publisher without an agent and expect to get published, or your platform/visibility will allow you to do well enough self-publishing.

AimeeLSalter said...

Dave's comment made me LOL.

I appreciate your willingness to address this head-on, Jessica. It sounds to me like you nailed the issue.

Sarah Allen said...

This is wonderful! Thank you so much for this, I really appreciate how much advice I can get from blogs like yours before I even go into the finding-an-agent process.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

J said...

As I read this, I couldn't help but think that a person who believes he is a self-sufficient island probably doesn't see the need for working with another human, which is what I see as the heart of the author-agent relationship.

The Novel Road said...

An author who wants to be held as all knowing before he/she has any commercial success to base it on, is a naive person indeed. No one is all knowing - ever.

Mike was spot on. An agent knows commercial value, as well as literary. When you sign with an agent, it's hopefully based on research you have done into the agent's client list and successes within your genre.

There are great agents. Jessica is one of them in my opinion. I've have read here, more than a few times, excellent advice on choosing an agent. No where in that advice did I see any mention that an agent would cowtow to an author's dillusions of hyper-inflated self worth.

When you seek an agent, you seek a champion for your work. You also seek the wisdom the agent has gleaned by experience to shape your book into what will sell. Something an agent believes in and hopefully loves.

If you listen. If you learn and are willing to work, that champion will be there for you for years to come.

Robena Grant said...

Maybe the author needs to take a deep breath, find a couple of stories written in a similar vein to his, and then tear them apart. After looking at the structure and analyzing what makes them work, he might see how he can better foreshadow those troublesome final chapters.

jjdebenedictis said...

The first agent sounds like a gem. The second, not at all.

But the author also doesn't sound like a prize, based on this letter. I really hope the reason for that was the letter was written in anger, as a means of venting reasonable frustration over being back to square one.

Author, I wish you well. Keep working toward your goals.

However, please remember that if you "own" your failures, that means you can learn from them and do better next time.

If you blame others for your failures, however, then you're setting yourself up as a victim in your own mind. That might be easier on the ego in the short run, but in the long run, you're demoralizing yourself.

Whether you succeed or fail is up to you. Never (mentally) assign that power to another person.

lena said...

I wasn't sure why the writer was so dead-set against revisions. It seems that foreshadowing in a sentence or two in several places in the book would be very simple, and he could leave in the dream that he thought was so vital. Without foreshadowing, a big event like that could seem ridiculous. While I read this post and the comments, I kept thinking of that phrase about TV shows "jumping the shark."

Caryn said...

I can't help but wonder if the writer had his/her book critiqued by several critique partners before sending it out. Did the critiquers all think the book was ready?

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Ms. Trite says:
Agents are to writers what salt is to potato chips.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Fiction has to make sense. In real life, things pop up out of nowhere and knock us sideways.

But in a book, we need to know that a character is going down that path that will put them in the situation where something will pop out and get them.

If you can't accept an agent asking for revisions, what in heaven's name are you going to do when an editor asks for revisions?????

stephen matlock said...

Interesting and frustrating.

I mean, c'mon. TWO AGENTS for his book?!

The agent wants to sell the book. Why wouldn't the author want to co-operate to do just that?

I realize we all got to keep our voice, but if we want to sell our work, we have to understand the market and do what we can, within our integrity, to meet that market.

Janice Lane Palko said...

I'm with you Jessica. As a personal rule of thumb: If one person objects to a passage, I may question to understand where he or she is coming from. But if two people come back with the same critique, it's almost certain there's something not working.


Buffy Andrews said...

I just want to commend you, Jessica, for taking the time to provide such thoughtful answers. I know how valuable your time is, and I appreciate that you use so much of it to provide constructive feedback so that others might learn. Keep up the terrific work. Blessings, Buffy

Jenna Wallace said...

Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't part of The Call asking a potential agent "How much revision do you think my book needs?" and "What was your favorite part? Least favorite part?"

Shouldn't the author have had some kind of inkling how the agents felt about the book before signing on?

Andrea said...

I agree with person finding a problem could be subjective (though I imagine the chances of that are less if the person is a professional), but two says there is something wrong.

I'm not yet in the position to query agents for a novel, but I appreciate the chance to ponder what I'd do if faced with an agent's request for revisions. I hope I'd put my ego aside to take an honest look at my manuscript. It sounds as if this author had a difficult time doing that.

Thanks for tackling this issue in such a straightforward and honest way. It's great for newbies like me to be able to tap into your experience through this blog.

Bru said...

Totally agree with Jessica. As an ex-Agent I can only endorse her advice. That particular writer should work on her own until she can stand back and view her work dispassionately. I'm a writer myself so I know how difficult this can be but it has to be done if we truly want to be successful.