Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Killing the Messenger

AKA: When Authors Leave Agents

I've already spoken on the blog about making sure an agent is the right fit for you before jumping into a relationship. But even all the caution in the world can't predict if you'll ever *gasp!* have to think about leaving your agent.

I wish I could say I've never been dumped.

But I can't.

It happened almost a year ago, with one of the very first clients I signed. We had a FANTASTIC relationship (I thought). I loved his work, he loved my notes, we went on sale...and...the book didn't sell. We went through rounds and rounds of revisions, but always the same thing. It had flaws, which I HAD understood going in, but I loved the book enough to give it a shot because I loved his style enough to want to do more. So, the plan of attack turned into "let's take what we've learned from all of these editors and use the feedback to make the NEXT book AMAZING."

And so the next book began. And...I didn't like it. There were many of the same problems as the first, and I was starting to recognize that the author really may not be capable of bringing it to the next level. Still, I gave him my notes on what I thought needed to be done to make it something I could take to market, because I STILL loved his voice, STILL was willing to try and dig until that gem I'd sensed in there actually shone. But he was beyond insulted by that point; we'd worked so much on the first book that he hadn't even felt it was HIS work anymore, and so my coming back and telling him I didn't like something that WAS entirely his was devestating.

Why am I sharing this story with you? Because it is at THIS point: unsold project(s), dead-end manucript(s), a rejected manuscript - that many authors feel they need to make THE DECISION: stay -- or move on?

Here are some things to consider if you're considering leaving your agent:

-Do NOT do it just because things aren't going your way

-Do NOT do it just because things aren't happening FAST enough, or how you WANT it

-List out your reasons for leaving, and honestly ask yourself if they sound selfish and whiney, or whether or not your agent LEGITIMATELY is doing a bad job

-If you're upset with editorial feedback, think about the feedback given: is it sound and backed by reason? (As an agent, I consider it my job to be honest. I won't take the chicken way out and pitch a manuscript I know is sub-par just so editors will say it for me. It's my career on the line every time I make a submission; and I'm not going to risk it just to try and make you happy.)

-Have you or the agent lost enthusiasm for the work/relationship - which you feel can't be overcome with a heart-to-heart discussion on direction and next steps?

-Do you not trust the agent's advice? Do you not respect the agent? (To which I say: WHY did you sign with him or her in the first place?!)

-What is your history with the agent? Have you been successful? Has the AGENT been successful? (Keeping in mind, of course, the new vs. established agent stats - a new agent with no sales isn't necessarily a bad sign. A new agent who isn't networking, has no sales within a year, particularly if not backed by a big and/or established agency, or an agent who is sort of...eh, might be worth thinking twice about, however).

-Think of the reasons YOU signed with this agent in the first place. Have things really changed, or are you just frustrated?

-Have you tried discussing your concerns with your agent first? (My former client did end up emailing me a few months later to apoloize and see if we could start anew; we both agreed everything could have been sorted out with COMMUNICATION. However, that doesn't mean we're working together again; the trust was broken. You don't want to leave a good thing that's just shadowed with frustration and miscommunication.)

-Are you basing your judgement on rumor, or fact? I.E.: did you suddenly read a raging post on a writer forum and get freaked out, or did you find out from Preditors and Editors your agent is on the no-no list?

-Have you read through your Agency Agreement to understand what leaving will REALLY mean? (I'm not saying this should deter you; just be prepared. Are you able to sever ties now (some agencies require an initial agreement term)? Is there a "re-capture" clause, during which time, if your work sells, the agency will still commission? Are there any stipulations about what the agency will continue to represent post-termination?)

Regardless of what your decision becomes, I will say that the best way to do this is over the phone. This particular former client, on advice from a writer friend of his, decided to email and cc every person in my office to part ways with me, bad-mouthing me but hoping that one of my colleagues would want to take him on instead.

Bad. Idea.

If you MUST email to break the news (and even after you do so, official termination will require a letter) then do so in a professional, rational, calm mannor. Never in a rage. Never insulting. You do NOT want to put yourself on ANY agent's black list; no matter if your agent truly is the worst person in the world, take the high road out. Even if you're dumping them now, they'll still potentially be your colleague later once you sell a book. And once you do leave, keep in mind, again, that anything you say WILL reflect back on you - as always, sometimes it really is better to say nothing if you can't say anything nice at all.

A further word of caution: if you're considering leaving because you think you can cut corners with the whole finding-an-agent process the next time around, think again. Just because so-and-so liked your work doesn't mean anything to me (especially if it's for the book you're trying to find new representation for; if it's already been shopped around, I really don't want to touch that).

If you have published works, yes, it will be easier to find a new agent than if you don't - I just caution you to read my post on things to consider before jumping into another relationship.

However, agents get emails all the time from clients who were previously represented. And guess what? Doesn't change a darn thing about your submission - in fact, it makes me wonder...are YOU difficult to work with?

It's not a black mark on your record to part with an agent. It is, however, if you decide to bad-mouth them. Agents know and respect each other. We understand that relationships don't work out; styles just don't mesh sometimes. That doesn't mean we're going to jump in with a "whee!" if you're coming into things as an agent-hater. I definitely don't have time for anyone high-maintenance on my list.

And for the love of God, do NOT decide to go behind your agent's back and try and find a replacement before you've severed ties.

Most of all, though: remember that this is going to hurt us too. It’s crushing to lose a client, even if we know it really is for the best.


  1. Great, great, great article and advice. Passing it along.

  2. Great post, Natalie! I totally agree with all of your points.

    Also--my feeling is that a lot of authors split with agents because of what they consider a lack of communication on the agent's side. Maybe it's something that should be discussed when first signing--what are the author's expectations re: communication, and can the agent work with that?

    Also--something I suggest that authors ask themselves when considering a split is: do you feel like your agent is there for you, or is your agent actually ADDING to your stress level?

  3. This is really good stuff. I ran into a situation recently and didn't know how to handle it.

    Later, after a friendly separation, I then didn't know how to put the project history (no submissions yet, but it had been agented) in my new round of queries.

    I didn't want to sound like I was a ship-jumper, but sure didn't want to go into specifics why I was in fact a ship-jumper. Then the agent got fired a week later and it all got even stranger.

    (I still don't know how to accurately and respectfully address/explain it in a query, though.)

  4. Debra, you make some good points. Another thing to consider when in the process of picking an agent is her personal revisions process. I know of someone that split because it was revisions after revision for months. It never even got to the submission process. It was a friendly split, and she has a new agent and is now out on submission, but it makes you realize when in the process of getting one more questions to ask. As if you weren't already under a lot of stress to begin with, right?

  5. This is a great post- outlining how small the agent world is and being mature about things, even if you are a "new" writer who has not sold any works, yet. Professionalism is always appreciated everywhere.

  6. This was really insightful. I appreciate all the help for those of us trying to see the potential hardships we could face once we actually get an agent.

  7. I love your straight-forward advice. Stepping back and taking a look at the larger picture is always a good idea.

    Great post!

  8. Great post! Acting in anger is never a good decision, and bad mouthing someone only ends up making YOU look bad.

    I'm starting to sound exactly my mother.

  9. Writing is a talent...like any talent, it needs to be honed. It takes time and hard work to become a truly talented author and, for some reason, some authors aren't willing to recognize that.

    I'm also noticing that many aspiring authors believe landing an agent is the end goal. That's it. They don't think beyond that and realize that even if they're lucky enough to find an agent who believes in them, there will still be work to be done.

    I watched Trish Milburn/Tricia Mills work for years to get published. She finally landed an agent and still, several years passed before that publishing deal came. She kept believing in her agent, though (and vice versa) and they have a great working relationship to this day. Watching her, I think, gave me a more realistic perspective on the process. People just need a little patience!

  10. Fabulous post, thank you! I've been curious about this side of things.

  11. What an enlightening post! Wonderful read and a reality check for many. Truth is most writers are so happy to even get an agent that they never consider thinking so seriously on whether the agent is a good fit until they find out the relationship isn't working. These bring to light points on both sides. Thanks for sharing the insight.

  12. Hey Natalie! Great post. I'm sorry you had to go through that with that client that left. I know you really work hard to help your clients! Thanks for everything you've done for me. :)

  13. Good to hear the agent's side, too. It's so true that the high road is always the best road, and you should always approach the relationship reminding yourself that your agent also wants your book to catch on and sell. She wants to bring you to the best you can be, but oftentimes, growth can be a painful process.

  14. Wow, thanks for sharing. That's too bad that not only did he leave, but he left in a bad attitude. Leaving anything with a bad attitude is never a good idea, especially when it's something hard to get.

  15. Eek! I can see how that would hurt; to be doing everything you could and still see the vision of mutual success. You obviously wanted to help him build a career, and perhaps he wanted a quicker/easier sale (not that I don't understand what that feels like, too :).

    It would be nice if there was a neat little lesson in every burn but sometimes the lesson is just that so much of life is completely out of our hands.

    All the more reason to appreciate those on the snazzy new client page. (Like.)

    But I have to say, if an agent is still into your writing (not even even but ESPECIALLY if it's not selling), call and try to work it out, people. . .


  16. Wow - this is some powerful, enlightening information. Thank you for your candor.

    As an aspiring author still in search of an agent, I can't even imagine having this type of reaction. Working relationships that benefit both people should ALWAYS be handled with respect, courtesy and honesty.

    Hope the (former) clients like this are few-to-zero and far between for you!

  17. Just wanted to let you know that you are my featured agent on my blog today: http://bit.ly/g27oBr

    Thanks for a great blog--I'm looking forward to reading more.


  18. Very interesting. I think so many of us don't even think of that as a possibility, especially when you're in the midst of trying to find an agent. Even if you do, there's no guarantee that the manuscript will sell. Thanks for the perspective.

  19. How generous of you to share this story. I love that you believed in the writer to go through so many rounds of revision, and even stayed with him through the second manuscript when you didn't love it and had doubts it could be fixed. Unfortunately, as painful as things like this are, the truth is not everyone is going to love our work. But when everyone finds a problem, it's time to revise. If you believe in your own work enough, you have to dig in. If you don't, then you're not ready for the next step anyway. You're better off without him, but it's his loss.

    Thanks for turning this into a lesson a lot of writers need. The chances are, there will be books that don't sell.

    Is it a good idea to ask about what will happen if the book doesn't sell during THE CALL?


  20. Wow, great insight from both the post and the comments. While I love that my agent is my champion (a metaphor that I shamelessly stole from Laura, BTW ;) I think I would probably be surprised if she didn't offer some kind of editing advice, no matter how strong I felt the piece to be. Martina, FWIW, I did ask my agent that during THE CALL, and I know others who did as well. While nobody wants to think of the author-agent relationship in those terms, the reality is, the market is tough! Not everything sells.

    The key here seems to be good communication- something everyone can benefit from!

  21. There are two sides here. This writer made boatloads of changes to please you and you still didnt sell the book. So I could see how it might be hard for this writer to make boatloads of changes on the next book at your request.

  22. Great advice. I think people need to remember when they sign with an agent that it doesn't mean their book will sell. Maybe people need to be more realistic of the process and what it means to get an agent. As an attorney, I've been fired before and you always wonder what could I have done differently? I'm sure it's the same for authors and agents.

  23. I've noticed some sites (writing communities) are full of people who are angry with a past agent. That's fine and all, but yikes, please don't post it on the internet. Those things always come back to bit you. BTW, I'm your newest follower. Looks like a great blog. Mine is Life of Lois