Chip MacGregor

October 19, 2015

How do I fire my agent without hurting any feelings?


Someone wrote to say, “I have published one nonfiction book, and have a contract for another.  But I’m not happy with my agent, and would like to change. What suggestions can you give me to make this happen without hurting feelings?”

You want advice for ending a relationship with no hurt feelings? I have none. The end of any relationship usually has some hurt feelings. If you’re decided, I’d bet that there will be some pain. But before you move forward with that, I’d like you to consider something… 

Most of the time an author wants to fire an agent it’s because some expectation wasn’t met — the project didn’t go out fast enough, the phone calls weren’t frequent enough, the money wasn’t great enough. The frustration builds, and they eventually get to the point where someone says, “That does it — I’m leaving!” But in my experience, having a good conversation can often clean up the bulk of the problems. (Not always, but a lot of the time.) So go back and talk to your agent before racing into this decision. And by the way, having clear expectations, for what both sides want, can resolve a lot of issues. Frequently a good conversation about the struggles you’re having will give the agent a better picture of how to move forward with you.

Case in point: I once had an author fire me and state, “You can never remember my children’s names!” My response was something along the line of, “Um… you have children?” I didn’t realize that part of the relationship was so important to her — turns out she felt it was critical. Now I try to do a better job of gauging what each author wants. Just so you know, there is no “one right way” to have an agent/author relationship, just like there’s no “one right way” to have any friendship. Each is unique.

So make sure you talk through the issues before you jump into a decision. With that in mind, let me offer a few guidelines for trying to move forward…

First, be clear. If your agent hasn’t emailed you frequently enough, say something like, “I’d prefer if I heard from you more often.” Get the issues out on the table. Last year I had an author complain to me about her agent. I encouraged the author to talk about her expectations clearly with her agent. She did, the two of them worked it out, and all is now well. As in most relationships, if you don’t have a clear airing of issues, it’s just about impossible to resolve the issues. 

Second, be honest. I had an author approach me a few years ago and describe this difficult event she’d had with her agent. That agent happened to be a friend of mine, and when we were chatting one time, the author’s name came up. Turns out that event never actually happened — the author was simply unhappy, and decided to make up a story in order to get out of the relationship. Hey, just tell the truth. If something happened that you didn’t like, talk about it. Perhaps there’s an explanation that will make things better. Maybe there are simply differing assumptions. 

Third, be reasonable. I know an author who wanted to fire her agent because he didn’t get her a deal in 15 days — on a project that smply didn’t merit that sort of pace. They say pride goes before a fall, so try to keep your ego and expectations in check a bit. Sometimes patience is all that’s needed — publishing is a slow business. And decisions I’ve raced into tend to be the ones I regret. A writing project, even a great writing project, can often take some time to sell. Don’t be in a hurry to change agents just because things haven’t gone as fast as you’d hoped. 

Of course, there are times where things just don’t work out. Two people don’t get along the way they thought they would, or an agent has tried and simply can’t sell a particular author. If you’ve come to the conclusion that it’s just not working, then talk about it with your agent. Neither side really wants to stay in a relationship that’s frustrating. In the end, you’ll need to write a polite letter that basically says, “Thanks for all your good efforts, but I’m going to go a different direction.” Make sure you’re contractually clear to move on, then try to end cleanly. Don’t burn bridges in this business.

Got a question about publishing or writing? Send it along and I’ll do my best not to screw up the answer.

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  • Ramona says:

    I have to admit I have never understood the hand-holding aspect of the agent/author relationship. I consider my agent a friend, but this is also a business relationship. I mostly expect to hear from her when something happens that needs my attention. I like to hear she received my last proposal; that she wants me to make changes. That so-and-so turned it down, or offered a contract. That an editor is looking for something I might provide. Everything else is gravy. I LIKE gravy, but I don’t NEED it to make the relationship a good one. I adore chatting with my agent (she IS a friend), but if I don’t hear from her for a couple of months, I’m not going to be pitching a hissy fit about it.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Everybody’s different, Ramona. Some authors really need the hand-holding part of the job. And that’s fine, so long as the expectation is clear (and hand-holding is a benefit offered by the agent).

  • Jaime Wright says:

    Isn’t it unreasonable to expect an agent to be “on call”? I figured we’d be doing pretty good if I had an agent who could contact me more than twice a month. Are my expectations too low? I think I’m the sort who’d be more afraid of asking too much rather than expecting too much. But yeah, the up front honest communication is the clincher. Being Dir of HR, (I know, weird huh? wouldn’t expect that would you?), I’ve found communication DOES solve 80% of issues. IF both parties are willing to communicate.

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