Monday, May 31, 2010

Time to part ways?

Q: There are lots of agented writers on AbsoluteWrite and other forums, posting anonymously and expressing their concerns about lack of communication from their agents and whether it’s time to sever ties. These are usually reputable agents but some time into the subbing process, communication starts dropping off and emails are no longer responded to within the week like used to be the case – or at all. [Could you do a] blog post on ‘when a writer should be worried about their agent’.
First of all, do you have realistic or unrealistic expectations?

WHAT AGENTS (often) ARE:  Agents play a lot of roles. They are talent scouts. They are salesmen. They are negotiators. They are cheerleaders. They can be editors or writing coaches. They are usually diplomats, and occasionally bullies.

They also generally have a great deal of interest in piles of money and would be happy to swim in it, Scrooge McDuck style. (Mmm, actually, maybe that's just me...)

But a big part of what agents are is professional enthusiasts. And as much as nobody likes to talk about it, that initial enthusiasm can definitely flag. Agents, like editors (and like the public and most all of you, no doubt!) appreciate variety and freshness in products, whether buying them or selling them.

And not everything sells, let's face it. So yeah, if your book has been out... and out... and out... and it hasn't sold... and you don't want to revise... and you aren't working on anything new... I can understand an agent starting to cool. So ask yourself:

* Have you and your agent discussed a submission plan? Do you understand and feel comfortable with it? Do you trust your agent?

* Are you willing to revise (or even overhaul) your first book, if it goes out to editors and doesn't sell in a first round?

* Are you working on new and exciting project(s) while your first book is on submission?

* Are you communicating with your agent about what those projects are?

WHAT AGENTS (usually) ARE NOT:  Psychics. Magicians. Babysitters. Crit buddies. Licensed Therapists. So ask yourself:

* Do you sit on your hands and not email or call... but then freak out that your agent doesn't like you, is ignoring you, or doesn't know what you are thinking?

* Do you send your agent absolutelyeverything you write, daily in-progress first drafts, in a deluge, incessently, without even re-reading them?
* Do you email or call multiple times a day for non-urgent questions, and/or expect an immediate response to non-urgent questions on weekends, holidays, or when you know that your agent is out of town?

* Are you... how can I put this delicately... are you a downer? I mean, I want my clients to be honest  and communicate with me. I definitely want to help them problem-solve and work out issues. Still, there is such a thing as overkill... do you share GOOD news as well as bad? HOPES as well as fears? Fun and exciting project ideas? What are YOU an "enthusiast" about? I really do want to hear that! Because if all I get from a person every time I talk to them is a big ol' ball of misery, well-- that doesn't make me overjoyed to hear from them. You know what I mean?

(PS: NONE of my clients fit any of those descriptions, so y'all can quit trying to figure out who I am talking about. This is generally speaking!)

WHAT TO DO IF YOU REALLY THINK THERE IS A PROBLEM: It is rare, I hope, but it is something that I know does happen. Maybe the agent seriously falls off the face of the earth, or maybe they just seem to be dragging their feet when it comes to you specifically. Maybe they are reacting badly to new work you are submitting, or maybe you feel like you can't get a straight answer out of them.

It isn't easy to tell how you are going to work with somebody until you actually do it. But obviously an agent isn't doing you any good if you can't even get hold of them, or if they don't want to sub any of your work. So ask yourself:

* You know (or ought to know) how very, very, excruciatingly slow publishing is. Maybe your agent just doesn't have any news to report. Are you truly being patient?

* If you ARE truly being patient, but you just aren't getting feedback from your agent, have you called or written to ask for updates/news, or submission plans?

* If you have called or written to ask for updates, and you haven't gotten a response, have you called or written to ask for an appointment to talk seriously? You need to have The Big Conversation in which you ask for a game-plan, or tell to be more responsive, and express what your needs are in the relationship.

* If you have done all of those things and had The Big Conversation... are you happy with the result? Do you feel like your agent "gets you" and will fix whatever problems you've had?  Do you like them, trust them, and feel that they appreciate you and your work?

If you've had The Big Conversation and you are NOT happy with the result, it is probably time to part ways.  Don't feel that this is a stigma. It is not a bad reflection on you as a writer OR them as an agent... sometimes things just don't work out, for any number of reasons, and you are better off not having an agent than having one with whom you aren't 'on the same page'.


  1. I have a question about the "other projects" thing. Assuming you have an agent who has a novel on submission, and assuming the writer is working on an unrelated project while it's on sub. (As opposed to a sequel in case book 1 doesn't sell), should the writer tell the agent they're working on something new right off or wait until it's at the fully outlined stage or wait until it's finished?

    Once it's finished, I'm assuming they don't send a regular query letter to their agent, but what do they send to let the agent know the particulars of the book? A synopsis?

  2. Great post and advice, Jennifer. Thanks! For the record, I adore my agent.

  3. Josin: I think it should be a natural and organic part of a conversation. My clients tell me all the time things like "OMG I AM SO EXCITED ABOUT WHAT I AM WORKING ON!! IT IS ABOUT ________" and I say "YAY SOUNDS AWESOME CAN'T WAIT TO READ IT!" or similar.

    When it is at a place where you feel comfortable (for some writers that is after they have 60-100 pages done, for some it is when the book is finished completely, your mileage may vary), you say "I am sending you my new project, as you'll recall it is about ____________, please enjoy!" And if they ask for a synopsis or outline, you send that too.

    I mean really, all the agents I know are pretty cool. I can't imagine feeling scared or formal about them. If you want to know what they prefer... just ask for heaven's sake!

  4. Awesome post, Agent Mine.

    And...uh...OMG...I really AM so excited about what I'm working on! ;)

  5. Tiffany: SO AM I!!!


  6. Loved this post. Great advice.

  7. Nice post. I do know so many authors who have parted ways with their first agent--for a number of reasons including circumstances and career changes, not all because of issues like these. I think it's great that you speak honestly about what happens when something doesn't sell and enthusiasm wanes...nobody wants to admit that it happens, but it has to, at some point, and I'd sure like my agent to be candid about it and talk about moving forward (and I love my agent and feel certain she would do just that, but I've heard of writers whose agents simply avoid those difficult conversations by avoiding the writer!)

    I also like your checklist. It's always best to reflect on one's expectations!

  8. Thanks for this! Having parted ways with an agent (which was not a good situation to begin with), I can only say I wish I knew more way-back-when.

    Live and learn.

    So, hypothetically speaking? Let's say I query you on my next project, you adore it, and say you'll go to the ends of the earth for me, from now until the end of time.

    There's that lil' project you've already passed on. Didn't light your spark. Would I have to forever put that project away to sign with you?

  9. This was very informative and answered some questions I had about life after agent.

    I'm sure this knowledge will make me a less high-maintenance author. I thank you. My future agent thanks you. :-)

  10. *sigh* I'll just get to the 'getting an agent and getting published' stage first.

  11. Question: Let's say you are currently not represented, and you have an offer on the table, or suspect and offer might be coming, let's say it could even be a two-book deal, what should you do as an author with that?

    Should you try to find an agent at that point to negotiate, will that make an editor angry, are you better off to go it alone.

    And lets say you do decide to query an agent with this, to get their attention, through the thousands of e-mails they get, could you just write, "2-book deal offer!" In the subject line?

    Just curious how to handle this situation, if it ever happens.

    Thanks Jennifer,

  12. BRENDA:

    If this is the case, say "thank you, I am still looking for an agent buy I will get back to you shortly" -- DO NOT ACCEPT THE OFFER!!!!

    Then you are quite right - email agents with a subject line like "two book offer" - you will get swift responses, I promise.

    If you accept the offer from the publisher first, your new agent won't have any negotiating to do on your behalf. If you can hold off, your new agent can probably at least make you enough money to cover their commission. :-)

  13. Thanks Jennifer. That helps a lot!
    I sat next to you at a conference actually, at lunch. Thought you were hilarious!

    And I've chatted with you on Verla's.


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