(This column excerpted from Chuck’s 2015 book, Get a Literary Agent: The Complete Guide to Securing Representation for Your Work.)
No author I know signs with an agent wanting that partnership to end. But, sadly, things do break down sometimes. Here are four signs that your agent-author relationship has turned sour.
1. Lack of communication from the agent. This is the big one. Most agents will respond to your e-mails within forty-eight hours, if not much quicker. But if you’re e-mailing your agent and repeatedly getting nada in return, that’s a bad sign. It means your agent no longer considers you important enough to communicate with, or she is simply avoiding you. A serious lack of communication is a large problem and one of the first signs of a sinking ship.
2. Disagreement on big issues in your writing career. You and your agent should be on the same page concerning what you write and your career goals. Sometimes an agent sees an opening for you in another area and wants to guide you in that direction. You may take this change of direction easily, or you may not. If you feel uneasy writing what your agent wants you to write—whether it’s a completely different type of book or the suggestion to change the age of your main character from 33 to 63—then that’s another red flag.
3. Dreading to talk with one another. Personally, I always look forward to my agent’s phone calls. Why? Because she only calls with news, and news is welcome. Even bad news is welcome, because it gives us answers and closure, and helps us move on and decide the proper next step. So if you don’t look forward to your agent’s calls, or she always acts put out when you get her on the phone, that’s bad. This partnership is fueled by enthusiasm, and dread is the opposite of enthusiasm.
4. A major difference of opinion on an offered deal. An agent’s job is to get you a book deal. But, oddly enough, sometimes a deal offer can be a problematic thing and lead to disagreements between you and your agent. An agent is likely to be excited about her hard work paying off with a deal offer (and thus want you to take the offer)—but what if the deal is not what you expected? All of the following scenarios are plausible:
- The offer comes from XYZ Publisher, but a writer friend of yours published by that house has told you of her negative experience there.
- The offer for your nonfiction proposal was much lower than hoped, and you now feel like writing the book will not be financially worthwhile. (This scenario actually happened to me in 2009. My agent and I got an offer on a small nonfiction book I wrote. The problem: The publisher only offered a $1,000 advance, and we had no other offers. I could sense that my agent still wanted me to take the deal even with the measly advance, but when I told her I couldn’t say yes to that figure, she understood my response and respected the decision. We ended up declining the deal and moving on, faring better with our subsequent books.)
- A publisher offers you a healthy deal, but they, in fact, want to make your book the next edition of an existing novel series and take your name off the book.
- The publisher wants to release your book, but only as an e-book at first—with print copies discussed only after certain sales figures are reached.
If your agent is pushing you to take any deals such as these, but your gut tells you no, that’s a tough situation.
So what happens if you feel like your efforts together have taken a downward turn? At that point, it’s time to compose an honest e-mail expressing your concerns. Make sure you don’t get upset or point fingers. Just calmly express what’s on your mind. It’s also an invitation for the agent to write back and tell you what’s frustrating her. You both have nothing to lose at this point, and it’s time to stop holding back and express your true thoughts—albeit politely.
(Hi, everyone. Chuck here chiming in for a second. I wanted to say I am now taking clients as a freelance editor. So if your query or manuscript needs some love, please check out my editing services. Thanks!)
Ideally the open conversation will illuminate some issues or ideas you two didn’t understand before. Then you can use it as a jumping-off point for getting your relationship—and you career—back on track.
Conversely, the conversation may confirm your fears that the match is not a true match, and it’s time to move on. In the worst case, the agent may choose not even to reply to your “Let’s talk” e-mail. If that happens, it’s time to pull up the anchor and sail on. You can then send a follow-up e-mail requesting the termination of your partnership, effective in however many days as set forth by your contract. Thank her for her time and hard work, and start drafting a new query letter to begin your agent search anew.
Keep in mind that if you want to find another rep who might be a better fit for your style, you should cut ties with your current agent before doing any new querying. It’s disrespectful to both agents if you talk representation with new agents before formally terminating your current contract.
Comment on the post by Monday, June 1 for a chance to win a copy of Chuck’s 2015 book, Get a Literary Agent: The Complete Guide to Securing Representation for Your Work.
Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest Books edits the GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the CHILDREN’S WRITER’S & ILLUSTRATOR’S MARKET. His Guide to Literary Agents Blog is one of the largest blogs in publishing.
His 2010 humor book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK, was optioned by Sony Pictures. Chuck has also written the writing guides FORMATTING & SUBMITTING YOUR MANUSCRIPT and CREATE YOUR WRITER PLATFORM.
Besides that, he is a freelance book & query editor, husband, sleep-deprived new father, and owner of a flabby-yet-lovable dog named Graham.