Thursday, January 2, 2014

When Your First Agent Doesn't Work Out

For my first post of 2014, I thought I'd do something about endings and beginnings. So....

Here's the dream: once you've signed with an agent, all your worries are over. Revisions will be a breeze, communication will be a delight, and within weeks of submitting your manuscript, your agent will negotiate a six-figure, three-book deal.

Here's the reality: sometimes, your first agent doesn't work out, and you have to part ways.

This is an aspect of the publishing process that I believe doesn't get enough attention. (At least, I seldom see it spoken about in public forums. There are exceptions, of course, as in this post from Dahlia Adler.) I can understand why people tend to keep quiet about the subject: it's embarrassing, dispiriting, depressing. You're afraid to say anything for fear of being branded a malcontent or a dupe. You'd rather just put the whole thing behind you.

But in my experience, terminating a contract with a first agent is more common than one might believe. It happened to me. It's happened to many writer friends of mine. If it hasn't already, it could happen to you.

My story, in brief: I signed with an agent who seemed perfect for me and my project, but once we got down to the work of preparing the manuscript for submission, significant differences emerged. Communication between us dried up, the common vision I thought we shared turned out to be illusory, and in the end the relationship could not be sustained. I exercised the termination clause in our contract and moved on.

Most agents, I believe, are excellent at what they do: they're committed, experienced, smart, hard-working, canny, supportive, inventive, and all the things an agent should and must be. A few agents, possibly, are none of these things. They're not unscrupulous, they're just not very talented.

But from my personal experience and the experience of my friends, I've come to believe that the most common reason the author/agent relationship fails is simply because the two individuals are incompatible. Maybe they made a bad match, a hasty decision, at the start, or maybe one or both of them changed along the way. It happens in every other kind of human relationship. Why shouldn't it happen here?

In this light, it's worth noting that the major signs of breakdown in the author/agent relationship are the same as the signs of breakdown in any relationship:

--Failure to communicate. I wouldn't expect an agent to respond to my every query instantly, but when days, weeks, or months elapse without significant communication between the two of you, something is definitely going wrong. Likewise, if you're not understanding each other, if one or both of you is no longer listening, it's time to move on.

--Failure to evolve. Your book needs to go somewhere. Maybe it doesn't need to be accepted for publication immediately, but it needs to develop, to progress, to move in some direction (even if that direction is, "well, it's time to write another book"). Stagnant or stalemate relationships are a major sign of trouble.

--Failure to respect. If your agent doesn't respect your writing or your ideas or your decisions, that's bad. If you don't respect your agent's expertise or advice or plans, that's equally bad. Either way, the relationship is definitely not working out.

--Failure to care. Ideally, your agent should remain deeply passionate about your book from start to finish--and you should remain just as passionate about your agent. If the passion dies, it's time to get out. In writing and publishing, lukewarm support is no better (and possibly worse) than no support at all.

All of the above characterized my relationship with my first agent, and I'm thankful--for both our sake--that I saw the signs and made the move to end the relationship. At first, I tended to blame my agent, but I've come to recognize that it's not about blame: it's about differences that can't be reconciled. So long as the break is accomplished in a professional manner--i.e., terminating the contract before searching for other agents, not bad-mouthing anyone, etc.--it's best for both of you to bring an unproductive relationship to a close.

One caveat: I was fairly lucky in that my agent hadn't started submitting my manuscript when I terminated our contract. It's common in agency contracts to stipulate that if your book sells within a specified period after termination, the agent is still entitled to her/his commission. So if you're in that stage of the process, be aware of the potential repercussions of making a move, and consult an attorney if you're unsure. (But then, I'd advise consulting an attorney before signing a contract in the first place.)

Given how hard it is to acquire an agent, most authors are understandably reluctant to terminate an existing contract. The fear that you'll never find another advocate for your work can be a powerful deterrent.

But that's not a good enough reason to keep hanging on. Ending any relationship is hard. In the long run, though, not ending a relationship that isn't working is even harder.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing. I recently terminated my contract with my first agent for some of the reasons you mentioned. As you said, it's not about blame, it's about differences. It was such a difficult decision because I didn't want to give up an agent after I'd had to query for 6 months to get one, but ultimately, I think I made the right decision.

    Reading about other writers who parted with an agent before even selling a book makes me feel better about it, so thanks again!

    1. I'm glad the post helped! I know that when I terminated my relationship with my first agent, I felt that there was something wrong with ME--so I think it's really important to share these stories. Best of luck as your writing career continues!