Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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May 18, 2015

4 Signs of an Unhealthy Agent-Author Relationship

Chuck Sambuchino

(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.

About Chuck

chuck-fw-head-shot.jpgChuck 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.

Find Chuck on Twitter and on Facebook.

28 comments on “4 Signs of an Unhealthy Agent-Author Relationship”

  1. Thank God I haven't had this experience, but I've heard of several that have. Chuck's right...if something doesn't feel right in your gut - it probably isn't!

  2. Good points to remember and I will if I have to face any of these scenarios in the future. At the end of the day, you have to trust your gut.

  3. Excellent advice. Going with your gut instinct when dealing with agents is the same as dealing with anything else in life: if it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.

  4. My literary agent started out strong but lost steam along the way. After three years, we called it quits. Nowadays, it's extremely difficult to land an agent, period.

  5. I've been talking to agents for several years, and watching my friends get signed with varying results. I often see new authors sign with the first person who wants them, rather than trusting their gut and waiting for a great fit to come along.

    Experiences like Laura's, with a truly talented and involved agent, are light years from the opposite side.

    1. "watching my friends get signed with varying results. I often see new authors sign with the first person who wants them, rather than trusting their gut and waiting for a great fit to come along." Yup. That was me. I'm older and wiser now.

  6. Does the writer, In order to search for a new agent (assuming a writer has terminated a previous partnership), have to have a book ready to query (remaining unrepresented for however long that takes), or is there another kind of approach the writer should take, even without a new book to pitch?

  7. Today I found Writers in the Storm from a link on Susan Span's blog via agentquery connect Immediately I signed up to follow by email. I look forward to reading the archives. My copy of CWIM came last week.

    Wonderful advice on how to be professional, to recognize when it's necessary to move on.

  8. This is very helpful yet scary at the same time. I am sure you dIscus these and other issues in your book. Also having an experienced editor review my first manuscript sounds like a very good idea as I have heard that can be another loophole if your selective in who you choose to do that crucial step. Thanks for the excellent points!

  9. Nice article Chuck. I got here from your other Blog. This site looks like another "Must Read" site. I notice from the 4 big issues that none of them are visible BEFORE you sign with an agent. As another post, do you have any suggestions for warning signs to look for before signing, or even before querying, a given agent?

  10. Really great advice for those looking for their first agent, like me. Thanks so much for sharing!

  11. Great advice as always from both Chuck and Writers in the Storm. I am hopeful I make the right decision whenever I am offered representation from an agent. However I understand being new, and fresh and wanting so badly to be repp'ed that you miss the mark. Thank goodness life is about learning lessons and growing.

  12. Thanks for the insights. Looking forward to meeting you at the Books in Progress Workshop in Lexington and learning more.

  13. Always value your advice, posts, and books. My copy of your book on platform building is well worn, written in, underlined, pages folded over--you get the picture--and, most important, has been put into action. Perfect timing for me to be reading your new book. An agent is in my near future. Thanks Chuck!

  14. Thank you, Chuck, for this excellent advice. George Moore brought up the topic of warning signs to look for before signing with an agent. Do you address this in your book? Also, I am wondering how ending the relationship with one's agent might impact one's relationship with a publisher if the writer has already published at least one book with the company, particularly if the writer is working on a series.

  15. Interesting, thanks. Items 1-3 are signs of trouble in any relationship, and it's good to know the agent-author situation is no different. Item 4 is especially helpful for those of us who are new to this business and may wonder if such differences are routine. Many of us think we're lucky if any agent will sign us, and assume the experienced agent is always right. Thank you for telling us that sometimes we should listen to our gut and see if perhaps we should seek an agent who is a better match for us.

  16. It's tempting to think once you get an agent everything will be peachy. But since we live in an imperfect world... This is good advice. Thanks.

  17. Wow. Great post! Thank you. I had an agent for about 12 minutes and experienced the "you're not important enough" vibe with delayed replies and literal sighs of exasperation then being told "I'm in the middle of negotiating a deal with XYZ New York Times Bestseller...so away with you." You've succinctly outlined my 12-minute agent-author relationship.

  18. I'm at the other end of the agent experience--never had one, looking to find the right one. But I find this post to be very comforting and illuminating. It reminds me that I am not interested in working with just anyone, but am looking for a relationship that will not only help me sell my work, but fuel my writing life with positivity and trust.

  19. Useful article! I am one of the many who do not have an agent yet, and need all the insight I can get. Now that I have found you, Chuck - I plan on going through and reading everything I can get my hands on! It's a little scary, putting yourself out there, but armed with all the help I can get, hopefully I will make the right decisions. Thanks!

  20. Chuck, this may seem to be a, 'I've been there, done that.' However, I have. The first traditional publisher who sent me a contract one year later sent me a message that she was pulling out of the publishing business. She actually said she was going to sell. She didn't have anything to sell. My book is sitting dead at Amazon. I can't buy any, unless I want to pay Amazon's price. Any money I send to her for book purchases will go straight to her pocket. I won't get my books either. It can happen.

    It's very hard to turn down an offer if you haven't had one thru several hundred query's. But, like you said, it would have been better for me to turn down the contract than to accept her offer.

    I am going through your 2015 Guide to Literary Agents now trying to find the right agent.

    James M. Copeland

  21. I appreciate this advice from someone who has obviously been there and know what he's talking about. I am at the stage of securing an agent for my first works, so these things are definitely going to be on my mind for the future. Thank you so much.

  22. Hi! As an agent, I just wanted to provide a bit of context for one of the examples listed here. All of what Chuck says is VERY good advice, but there was a tiny moment where I thought, "this is worth telling the other side of the story". Under the section on scenarios where you and your agent may disagree, the example is "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 time to speak up about publishers with whom you do NOT want to do business, based on evidence both anecdotal or otherwise, is before your agent makes a submission, not after an offer has been received. No agent should pressure into ANY deal, but when we make our submissions, it's with the understanding that we would like to do business with the editorial to whom we have sent the material and requested review. Talk to your agent about where the book is being sent in order to avoid this tricky scenario. Furthermore, be wary of using another author's experience as your gospel: all publishers have failed a certain number of the authors they have published, whether through negligence or through no fault of their own. No publisher can claim that every author has had a perfect experience with them, and since every book is unique and every relationship surrounding every book is unique, there often isn't a simple way to discount an offer based on a friend's report. I do wholeheartedly agree with the overall sentiment though, which is that if you and your agent are having informed and detailed conversations wherein you still don't agree on these integral issues, it may be time to make a change.

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