Saturday, June 21, 2014

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

I got a comment on the blog that was important enough that I wanted to make a post about it.  Identifying info has been scrubbed for anonymity.
Dear Literaticat,

I got an agent several years ago at what is considered a really great NYC agency, but I'm not happy. My agent frankly scares me and is often not nice, and they want me to take my books in a direction I'm not comfortable with at all. . . So we're at a stand still.

I feel like a girl in bad relationship - afraid to break up in case no one else wants me, (everyone is always all, "Wow, you're with Fancy Pants agency?!") but I'm not really getting anything out of this relationship. I always envisioned an agent helping me build my career and that so isn't the case. They make me cry, and we're definitely not partners in this.

Signed, Should I Go Solo Again?


There are all kinds of things an agent might do for you. But here's what I think an agent MUST do: Be ethical, communicative, savvy about publishing, and work with you to help you achieve your career goals. That means giving advice - but also following your directions. After all, they are supposed to be acting on your behalf. That means, basically, as far as the publishing world, they are an extension of you. You don't have to LOVE your agent -- but I think you do have to respect them and trust that they have your back.

"Nice" is a personality attribute -- it actually isn't a basic requirement for an agent. It may be a requirement for YOU to work with a "nice" agent -- and that's fine! Now you'll know that for when you go agent-hunting again. Some people rub along best with those who are more like motherly nurturers, or excitable cheerleaders, or thoughtful therapists, or detail-oriented accountants. Some people really do want agents who are total unmitigated bastards . . . but even those total bastards still have to follow the base standard above with regard to their own clients.

[As an aside: I don't consider myself particularly "nice," in fact. I think I'm GENERALLY GOOD and KIND-HEARTED and COMMUNICATIVE and FUNNY (and also HUMBLE obviously haha just kidding not that) -- but "nice" is not a word I'd use to describe myself, and that's OK.]

Just like any long-term relationship of any kind, you aren't always going to love everything your agent tells you (and assuredly, vice-versa!) - and given enough time there WILL be weird communication breakdowns or confusions - but usually any issues like this can be worked out with a clarifying email or frank conversation.

If you simply can't have a frank conversation, though, that's a huge problem.  If they're doing things you don't want them to do, and not doing things you do want them to do, and not telling you things you need to be told, and making you cry and feel worthless, and you are actively afraid of them??? That's . . . not good, to say the least.

It sounds like you are in an extremely dysfunctional relationship with your agent. If I was in your shoes, I'd ask myself:

* Am I getting what I need from this relationship? * (Make sure what you need is within their power to give, too, obviously. "Timely communication" IS within their power. "Boatloads of cash" isn't - hopefully it will come as a result of both your work, but it is never guaranteed, of course!)

* If I'm not getting what I need, have I clearly articulated to this person what my needs are, that they are currently not being met, and what I need in order to continue the relationship? *  (If so, has the problem not resolved or gotten worse?)

* Would I be better off WITHOUT this person than with them? * (Hint - if you always get off the phone with them feeling like shit, or if you dread seeing their name in your inbox, the answer to this is probably yes.)

It sounds like the answers to these questions are No, No because I'm too afraid of her, and YES.

Even if this agent is REALLY SUCCESSFUL and GREAT for her other clients, it seems clear she is not a good agent-fit for you.  So, yep . . . time to move on, no matter how scary it is. Trapping yourself in a bad relationship is not going to help you move forward. Better to be flying solo and free than shackled to something that is holding you back. But you already knew that, probably.

Be brave! And good luck.


  1. I really appreciate this post and your advice toward author anon. I feel for her/him, but I agree with you that an agent doesn't have to be 'nice'. It's more a question if their personality or working style clashes that badly with yours and your plans for your writing career.

    I've been worried I'd run into a situation like this, but just like with bad relationships, you can get out. I wish author anon lots of good experiences in the future!

  2. Anonymous4:00 PM

    And what would be the appropriate, PC way to break things off when the agent has acted properly on your professional behalf but you feel a personal disconnect?

    1. If you think it is just not going to work itself out with a discussion, than a polite and kindly worded email should suffice. "You've been great and I so appreciate your enthusiasm but I am ready to make a change in the direction of my career and we should part ways." Type of thing. Make sure you look at your agency agreement and see if there is any type of waiting period or anything though, so that doesn't come as a surprise.

    2. I have fired a number of agents. Any agent you interview will tell you pretty much the same things before representing you--the only way to find out if they will perform is to try it out. If the relationship isn't working, you can move on. In every case, the agent I was firing was helpful and professional about it--clients move around, they're used to it, and want to protect reputation by not acting like a jerk when one leaves.
      So no need to be apprehensive--it's easy to detach. (By the way, I did finally find the perfect agent, and I will keep her forever no matter how much she whines and begs.)

    3. Mr. Pinkwater knows a good one when he has her...

      Back to the post- the key wording, IMO, is "my agent frankly scares me." That is more than enough of an alarm. There are enough scary things in this life and this professional association should never be one of them.

  3. I too had an agent that made people say, "Wow, you're with HER?" but it just wasn't right. She's a terrific agent for other people and on paper we were perfect but something just didn't click. I wrote to her saying that I thought it would be best for both of us if we parted ways, and she agreed and helped me find my current agent, who is a perfect match. Chemistry matters in this as in any other relationship and even though my agent and I have never met (we will next month!) the chemistry is there.

  4. For some reason Anon made me think of myself when I was working as a nurse. I knew I could take care of my patients but frankly there were some doctors (and other nurses!) who scared the shit out of me and for the longest time I just tried to avoid them at all costs. But in nursing sometimes you have to work with others to provide good patient care and so I slowly learned to communicate well, even with not nice people who scared me, because I realized my patients needed me to do that.

    Your books are like your patients, Anon. They deserve an author, agent, editor, and publisher who care about their well-being. I feel really fortunate to have an amazing "Dream Team" for my books. I hope you find the same.

  5. Wow, that's a terrible place to be. As someone looking for representation, it's something I admit worries me, that I won't click with my agent or that we won't work well together. I can only hope I never find myself in a similar situation.

    Fantastic post and wonderful advice!

  6. Anonymous1:54 PM

    Thank you so much for your wonderful advice, Jennifer, and for the lovely support of the readers here. I am Anonymous. Wow, I feel so Joe Klein right now.

    I know I have to leave, and I will be taking a deep breath and doing that very soon.

    To be clear. I'm a grownup (mostly) and get the whole "nice" thing. I guess I meant more, pleasant to deal with.

    You're sure you only work with YA authors? Anyone who uses the word "shenanigans" has my vote :)

    Again, thank you everyone!

  7. Anonymous6:35 PM

    I couldn't agree more with this post. I recently left an agent of 9 years because my agent was really holding me back from my dream. I was able to find a great agent that I feel much happier about two months after that. I thought I would stop getting work, but I didn't. Life goes on. If you're in a bad agent relationship, get out! There is still a future for you. Be brave! Thanks for the great post!

  8. Thank you for this advice! Even though I am far from being lucky enough to PICK an agent (if heaven drop's one in my lap I will pack him or her in cotton!), but until now I was made believe that AGENT=GOD and I better stop thinking or acting on my behalf as soon as one enters my life. But nothing can be worthy giving up on ourselves - wherever we encounter the problem of dis-respect!


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