What if I'm not happy with my agent?
Someone wrote to say, “I’ve been thinking of changing agents. I’m not convinced my current agent is a good match for me. What wisdom would you have for me?”
I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ve occasionally had authors approach me to talk about the possibility of dropping their agent. It usually goes something like, “I’m just not happy with my current agent, and I’m thinking of switching…”
For a long time I struggled with how best to respond to those words. I have a policy against actively poaching other authors, but I have a business to run, so it’s not like I can refuse to answer the phone when a good author calls me to talk about his or her situation. However, I’ve learned to always start the conversation with the same sentence: “Have you talked this through with your current agent?” I mean, it would seem like a reasonable expectation that an author who is unhappy would go to his or her agent, express the dissatisfaction, and try to seek some sort of resolution. If there’s a communication problem, or some unanswered question, it seems like two people who have invested in each other would talk it out. (In other words, we’d all act like adults.)
“Lack of communication” is the #1 problem between authors and agents. So having regular communication can alleviate a lot of the problem. But that doesn’t always happen, especially when there’s some disappointment in the job being done. People seem afraid of conflict, and would often prefer to flee the situation than to have a potentially difficult discussion. I can understand that reasoning, but I can’t really respect it. You see, the majority of people will claim they’re leaving an agent because there’s some sort of problem with the work being done. But my experience has taught me the real reason most authors leave an agent is because “the agent hasn’t sold my book.” (It’s sometimes “we don’t seem to communicate,” and it is occasionally “my agent is incompetent,” but often it gets back to the lack of a sale.) I’m not saying that’s completely illegitimate — certainly a main piece of your agent’s job is to sell your work, and if the agent can’t sell it, you may eventually face the realization that this isn’t the agent for you. You might need somebody who takes a fresh look at work, or tweaks it another way, or has a different set of relationships. Still, I’d encourage you to think through that decision carefully before dropping your agent. Because if you move to another agent, you have to start the entire agent/author process over again. Things aren’t going to necessarily move any faster. You have to find someone, get to know him or her, ask questions, make sure the individual is a fit. Then you’ve got to share your proposal with him or her, let the agent work with you to get it so it feels right, then allow time for the agent to get it into the hands of acquisition editors. Oh… and here’s big news: If one agent has shown your proposal to a house and they’ve turned it down, chances are remote that house is going to be interested in taking another look just because somebody else is representing it.
So just changing from one agent to another may not be the solution. This is why I’m always surprised to hear that some authors who have been in the industry a relatively short amount of time have burned through four or five agents. An educated guess would be that some authors might have been better off to stay with one of those agents, rather than bounce around between various people.
And, of course, that will mean putting in time on the front end, not rushing into a decision, and making sure you find an agent who is a good fit for you and your work. One of the basic principles of working with other people applies to hiring an agent: The best time to fire a person is when you don’t hire him. Too many authors say “yes!” to the first agent who expresses interest in their work, then discover a year later the agent isn’t all that great. Suddenly they’re staring at a wasted year that might have been more productive had the author moved a bit more deliberately at the start of things.
Most of the good agents (and I’ll go on record here as saying there are a LOT of agents, but perhaps a shorter list of GOOD ones…um, IMHO) have invested something in an author. The agent has helped the author come up with idea, maybe helped shape it, or might have even spent time reading and commenting on the writing in order to help the author improve. Perhaps the agent has put a lot of time and energy into life coaching or career training or marketing assistance. All of those things are significant parts of the author/agent relationship. So yes, you need to remember that it hurts to invest a lot in an author, help develop their ideas, establish a relationship, then have the author cut things off because he or she feels you “haven’t sold it fast enough for me.”
Something happened to me recently that you may find instructive. An author called me to talk about her unhappiness with her agent. I encouraged her to express that dissatisfaction directly to her agent — I even suggested some wording she might use to get the conversation started: “You know, we’ve been working together for quite some time now, and it feels like we’re out of touch…” The author called her agent, the two of them talked the situation through, and all is well again. (Yeah…I’m a hero. Sorry — my telling you how wonderful I am is not the point of my story.) Would I have been happy representing that author? Absolutely. Great writer; great person. But in my view, it seemed like it was only fair for her current agent to hear and respond to the author’s complaints. For me to jump on board, agree that her current agent is a bonehead, and try to talk her into joining my agency would lack class and abrogate a professional ethic.
Look, I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career, but stealing authors from another agent isn’t one of them. I got bugged recently when I saw a literary agent contacting authors who were represented (and who the agent KNEW were represented) to try and convince them to switch. It’s one thing for me to answer the phone when an author calls me; it’s another thing entirely to go cold-calling to try and talk people into dumping their current agent in order to switch to me. That’s not ethical. It can also get that agent into potential legal trouble if there is any tortious interference (that is, convincing someone to get out of a legally binding agreement).
All this isn’t idle speculation on my part. I recently ran into one person sending solicitation letters out to authors: “Come work with me — I’ll make you a star.” That sort of thing. I had that happen with a very big author several years ago. The author had a bestselling book, and we had a legitimate six-figure offer from a very good publishing house. Then a Hollywood agent showed up making huge claims. “Chip isn’t doing enough!” he claimed. “I could get WAY more money!” He talked a great game — Movies! TV shows! Bestseller lists! HUGE deals!!! I asked the author to check and see if that Hollywood agent had ever (EVER!) done a book deal. Nope; it turns out he hadn’t — but that didn’t stop the author from firing me and signing with Mr. Hollywood. The result? No movie. No TV show. No bestseller list. No huge deal. In fact, after more than a year, the agent signed that author with THE VERY SAME PUBLISHER I’d had an offer from, and it was for THE VERY SAME AMOUNT as the offer I’d received. No kidding. (Yes, I thought about going to court. And no, it isn’t worth it. Life’s too short to spend your money on jerks and lawyers.)
All this has probably come about because there’s this image people have about how easy it is to be an agent. “I’ll just sign up some authors, send them out, and soon we’ll be doing deals and making money!” That goes to show how stupid some people are (especially in today’s publishing economy). I don’t know what career is actually easy (I made my living as a writer, editor, publisher, and pastor before becoming an agent, and NONE of those jobs were easy), but I can certainly assure you that making a living as an agent isn’t on the “easy” list. I’m not complaining; just stating the facts. So before you sign with the woman who used to work at a bookstore but doesn’t know any editors, or the guy who used to be a marketing specialist but has never read and edited words, you might want to ask some hard questions: How long have you been agenting? How many books have you contracted for your authors? What were their titles? What have you represented in my genre? What’s your approach to giving editorial and career guidance? Where did you get your training? Are you a member of AAR?
Everybody has to start somewhere — in fact, we have twice promoted my assistants into the role of literary agent, since both learned the process and worked in the industry. But you want to be wary of agents who don’t have any training and don’t have a system to receive that training. They won’t know what they’re doing, and a bad agent can damage your career. You also want to be careful of people who claim to be agents but who are also trying to sell you other services (they won’t even let you be a member of AAR if you’re trying to sell your authors editorial, management, and other services). And, in my opinion, you want to be careful of anyone who claims they’re going to fast-track you to Hollywood. I’ve been doing this a long time, and in my experience that is almost always a load of BS.
Are there some bad agents out there? Sure. I know of some people who don’t have enough industry knowledge to be agents. I know a couple so-called agents who don’t seem to be able to recognize good writing, or who I don’t think I’d take career advice from. But there are also good agents, who will take care of your career and give you wise counsel as they walk through the process with you. If you’re got somebody representing you who doesn’t know what they’re doing, or who doesn’t have any publishing relationships, or who you’ve completely lost confidence in, then maybe you need to consider your options. But I’m suggesting you be wary before you dump an agent who might have really helped you, just so you can work with Mr Hollywood or Miss Promise. Talk through your concerns with your current agent, and be honest — let him or her have a chance to respond before you make a big career change. Sometimes all that’s needed is to clarify expectations.
Look, I’ve been married more than 30 years, and believe me, I still mess up. I sometimes fail to recognize there’s a problem. (“Um…is something bugging you?”) I sometimes say and do thoughtless things. If I can’t get it through my thick skull while living in the same house with the woman, then you can pretty well expect I’ll be hopeless when it comes time to try and guess what is wrong with an author I see once a year and exchange emails with every couple of weeks.
Now if all that sounds like I’m preaching patience, I am. And maybe it’s a mixed message, since if you’re with a crummy agent, I’d understand why you would want to move. But my main point would be to appreciate relationships. There are several authors on the writing loops who have admitted to having not appreciated the success they had when they were younger. I can think of a couple authors who had great success early in their careers, but admitted they grew impatient, didn’t appreciate everything that was done for them, and now wish they could go back and make things right. It’s a lesson that’s easy to forget in our what-have-you-done-for-me-lately culture.
I think I’m extremely loyal to the people who are part of my team. If anything, I’d stick with an underperforming partner rather than switch. After all, the replacement might be a worse option. And getting a new player up to speed is never easy. As the saying goes, “You need to dance with the one who brought you.”
And sometimes you need to let a person grow into his or her role. Thanks, Peter.
Someone has gone through four or FIVE agents??? Wow. They must be incredible writers. Getting a single agent to respond to an e-mail is a total cause for celebration on the writing loops.
A bit of success goes a long way, Savvier…
I really enjoyed and appreciated this. Your advice about communication is so important and applies to all areas of life. Thanks for a great reminder!
Good. Nice of you to say something, Denise.
Your honest and straightforward perspective is much appreciated. I too believe that lack of open and honest communication is one of the biggest issues in relationships, whether with a spouse, a client or a friend. To be in a relationship where we are able to say what we mean is a blessing. One I believe we could all embrace. While married a few less years than you have been, I married a man who is the biggest non-game player and what a huge blessing. I know when he says something, it is with a gentle heart and it is what he means to say. I don’t have to ‘interpret’ his intention. Saves a whole bunch of time, too. 🙂 One of the things I like about your blog is that you do the same thing, even though I suspect it sometimes gets you in trouble. 🙂 Thanks for another great blog.
Appreciate that, Susan.
So how do you know when an agent is doing a good job for you? Maybe I haven’t sold a book because of my writing. Or maybe the market just stinks at the moment. It’s not like hiring a general contractor, where I can see the house going up (or not). Maybe that should be the topic of a future post, Chip.
That’s a good idea, Ron. Thanks.
Great post. It seems like most relationships, whether personal or professional, are strengthened or weakened by the communication. I’d think especially in an author/agent relationship communication needs to be open–both ways. Thanks for the admonition to open up that door to talk if a writer has a concern about his/her agent. Remembering that intimidation is not the M.O. of most agents should help authors feel safe in addressing concerns they have. Of course, i’m not agented yet, so maybe I’m just writing non-sense.
I appreciate your perspective, Chip.
Thanks, jeanne. And I agree with you — intimidating others won’t work in the long-term.
I believe lack of communication is a major factor in relationships that go South. As long as two people communicate openly, there can be mutual understanding. But silence is tough to interpret. Silence can mean the other person doesn’t think you’re worth talking to, or that s/he is giving you the cold shoulder, or that they have lost interest and hope you’ll go away…. On the other hand, silence can mean the person is buried under a mountain of work, or sick, or deceased. Rather than fleeing the silence, it’s better to get in touch.
Having recently gone through the “buried” season, I can affirm what Rick is saying here.
I would say that you might give authors a BIT more benefit of the doubt. These decisions aren’t made lightly, and usually they’re made for reasons that can’t be easily rectified. No one wants to break up with their agent, especially with the market so tight. These decisions can’t be made without lots of prayer and guidance.
True. It’s painful to sever a professional relationship, and when an author has worked SO HARD to find an agent, leaving one would be a really hard decision. I only know three people who have left an agent, and they worked it out for over a year before making the move. Sometimes, it’s just the best thing to do. I think there should be a follow-up post on how to spot a bad agent! Maybe it wouldn’t take a year or two next time. When they’re not communicating, not submitting your work, and can’t tell you where (or when or how or IF) they’ve sent out your books, it’s time to move on.
No argument with that. If the agent isn’t doing his or her job, you’ll have to consider changing… but talk it through first, to make sure that’s what is happening.
And I think I’ve voted my comment up AND down. I have no idea what these buttons mean! Laughing at myself here…
If it makes you feel better, I didn’t realize those were for “Votes” until you mentioned it. 😉
My computer just makes them look like arrows. Bad wi-fi!
That’s a new feature, heather. I’ll admit I don’t know if I like them or not.
Sure they can, Heather. These types of decisions can be made quickly, in the heat of the moment, and with some doofus standing beside you saying, “Yeah, you really oughta break this off…” But I”m not trying to bash authors. I”m trying to get people to be patient when things don’t happen quickly.
OK I’ll admit it: I spent a couple of days last week on a retreat, holed up in a cabin in the woods, with one of your clients. I tried like heck to talk her into dumping you and hiring me, but she wouldn’t go for it. I can’t figure out why.
But seriously, I am very new to the game and have yet to sell my first book, but I am guessing that agents who poach clients are about as trustworthy as spouses who have affairs. If my agent poached me when I was a hot commodity, I’d think he would drop me when the market turned and go after the next big star. The same goes for clients who “cheat” on their agents. I don’t know that I’d particularly want a client who left her agent without trying hard to work it out first.
I’m not saying that clients and agents are married, but there has to be some level of commitment and trust that is not easily broken. Because it is a relationship and all relationships take work to maintain.
Yeah, I think that’s a fair analogy, Sally. It can’t be pushed too far, since some business relationships just feel like they come to an end, or we feel a need to correct things, but constantly bouncing around suggests a flighty person, not a stable one.
I’ve always loved Amanda, and now I think I love her a little more. Loved the post. 🙂
Agreed, Bethany. No agent-hopping for me. 🙂
I love how this post makes such a great case for patience, good communication and proper motivation, Chip! Wise words which I have a feeling can apply to other relationships in addition to that of agent-author.
Thanks, Melissa. And you too, Bethany. (And yes, Amanda is fabulous.)