When The Agent-Author Relationship Goes Bad

by Lesley McDowell

It’s probably the most-asked writers’ question:

How do I get an agent?

And it’s probably one of the best answered, too. There’s no lack of advice on this subject, from Jericho Writers’ own Agent Match to any number of websites and chat forums, with agents themselves, publishers, and well-known writers, all offering tips and stratagems to hook that must-have gatekeeper to publishing heaven.

But what happens once you have secured an agent? How you conduct that relationship, one of the most important you’ll ever have in your writing and publishing career, is crucial. If it goes well, then that’s great. But if it goes wrong, what can you do? Where oh where is the advice you need then?

Because these relationships do go wrong – a lot. It’s hard to realise that from the lack of information out there because the publishing industry doesn’t like talking about the downside. It’s an industry that thrives on the positive, not the negative – it needs writers as much as writers need it, and it doesn’t want to put them off.

Which is understandable. And a bad agent-author relationship is not what the industry wants to have to deal with. But writers do have to deal with it, and deal with it more often than they might expect.

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Why it goes wrong

Is your agent not returning your emails or calls? Is s/he your agent not sending your book out to all the publishers that they promised they would? Is it a personality clash? Are you just not the right ‘fit’ for one another?

First of all, you want to establish if you’re making your agent any money or not. If not, then they may want rid of you, they just won’t say it. I’ve been with three agents so far. We tend to think a multiplicity of agents in our career is a bad thing, because we all know the stories of successful writers who have had the same agent since forever, who’s their best friend, their right-hand man/woman, godparent to their first born, etc. It’s the agent-author relationship we all aspire to: success on both sides, as the agent nabs the best deals with the biggest publishers, and the writer cements said agent’s income and status by selling big and winning awards. Fabulous.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time it doesn’t work like that. And while we shouldn’t blame our agents if they can’t sell our work to a publisher, or if said publisher can’t sell enough of our work to the public or get it onto prestigious shortlists, we can and should hold our agents to account if they’re ignoring us as a result of our book or manuscript failing.

My three agents were all very different. One was with a huge agency, two were with smaller ones, and in different locations. Two were strangers before I signed with them, one was a friend. I left all three of them, although in one case I definitely jumped before I was pushed.

Why did I move on each time? Well, the first time was because I didn’t feel my agent was very engaged with my work or pushing it with publishers. Her response to my novel manuscript was generic and I worried I was going to miss out. My second book had just come out and was getting a lot of coverage. I thought I might be in a strong position to get someone else so I moved on.

Some people have likened the author-agent relationship to dating, and when you want out, the excuses tend to be the same (‘It’s not you, it’s me’ – I did actually use that one; ‘I think the timing/chemistry/feeling’s just not right/there’; ‘You just don’t understand me’ etc). And because having to end it is always excruciating, we use these excuses, when the truth almost certainly lies elsewhere and goes unspoken.

My second move wasn’t so much of an ending because we had a kind of understanding in the beginning that if he got me a deal, I’d stay with him, and if he didn’t, I wouldn’t (already it sounds so personal). In the end, I got my third deal myself, but I still paid him an agent fee because he’d done a good job sending round a non-fiction proposal for another book (which didn’t make it). My fourth book, a historical novel, wasn’t really his area, so I went shopping for another agent, and, after a lot of leg work, I ‘hooked’ one.

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What to do when it does go wrong

My third agent experience was the one that really pushed the scariest questions. When you find yourself in a no-win situation and you know you want to leave, these are the ones you lie awake at night asking yourself: ‘Is it too late to back out of my contract?’ ‘Will it harm my chances of signing with anyone else if I do this again?’ ‘Is moving from agent to agent just making me look bad?’

I was never given a reason for my third agent ignoring me, but it soon seemed clear why. After signing me up, she had worked with me over a few months to get my manuscript right, then sent it out with much excitement. After three months, I’d heard nothing so I emailed her but got no reply. Then just three days before Christmas, she emailed me the news that the first round of publishers had all rejected it. I burst into tears, but she had promised to send it round a second lot of publishers in the New Year, so I clung to that small ray of hope.

She didn’t email me again until the end of February, and that was only because I’d eventually rung her to ask what was happening (she was ‘in a meeting’ and couldn’t come to the phone). By May, I’d had two emails from her in 8 months, no list of the publishers she’d sent my manuscript to in the first instance, despite my repeated requests to see their responses, no idea who she’d sent it to in a second round (there was no ‘second round’, as it transpired), and my requests to meet face-to-face were ignored.

I couldn’t ignore it any longer – I was being ‘ghosted’, and probably because of my book’s failure to get picked up in the first round. I was being dropped, without it being spoken out loud. What on earth should I do? Hang on in there? Hope that someone out of the blue took my book and my agent started talking to me again? I looked for advice online, but there was little to help me. I asked agented friends, but they weren’t sure either.

I came to the only conclusion I could. My confidence was being eroded – I hadn’t written anything in the eight months since my agent had sent out my novel, and all my ideas for other books seemed pointless. I had to stop feeling worthless because I was being ignored, and that was when I knew I had to end it.

So I did. I emailed to say I wasn’t happy with her lack of response and felt that the relationship wasn’t working for me.

No reply.

I emailed again, this time to say quite firmly, that it was over.

No reply.

I posted a written letter, as my contract stated that it could be terminated only in writing.

No reply.

I wrote another letter.

Finally, a response, thanking me for my ‘brave, wonderful novel’.

It was a relief. It took another six months after I ended the contract for me to start writing again, but at least the writing did return. I don’t yet have another agent, but my confidence is still growing and I am looking for one. I’m also trying smaller publishers who don’t require submissions from an agent.

10 Top Tips for Surviving The Wrong Agent

I’ve learned several things from this experience, and here is my advice to anyone in a similar situation.

  1. Do not let anybody, be it agent or publisher, damage your confidence. That’s different from feeling sore after a rejection, or refusing to take advice on rewrites. It’s about protecting yourself from damaging treatment by someone who appears to be holding all the cards (because they don’t).
  2. If your agent is ignoring your emails about a new manuscript you’ve submitted, and this continues for over six months, cut them loose. They’re not working for you.
  3. If your agent promises to send your work out but they don’t, and all you get is prevarications and excuses, cut them loose, too.
  4. Agents need writers as much as writers need agents. There may be far more writers out there than there are agents, but the right one for you still exists, you just haven’t found them yet. Keep looking.
  5. Get used to the notion that in your career you may go through many agents. Just as we now move from publisher to publisher more than we did in the past, so too with agents are we more mobile. Scriptwriters in tv and film got used to this years ago; now print writers have to as well.
  6. Don’t believe an agent who promises you the moon, but do hold them to account if they’re falling below deliverable promises.
  7. Give an agent a chance to correct what they’ve done before you fire them.
  8. Don’t be afraid to talk about your bad experience. The less silence there is on this subject, the better for everyone.
  9. Trust your instincts: if your instincts say this isn’t working, then they’re probably right.
  10. Remember that, as a writer, you’re more than just a brand.

Recently, my blog about this experience was viewed over 1000 times and I was inundated with writers, some very well-known, on their own bad experiences. So it does happen to most of us at some time, and it is survivable. The important thing I learned from it is to develop a sense of flexibility, appreciate your own mobility, and keep positive. This is the game, but some know how to play it better than others. You have to make sure you are one of the better informed.

Lesley is one of our fantastic editors who is available to give you an in-depth, constructive critique on your novel of agent submission pack. You can find out more about our editorial services here. To read more of Lesley’s blog, you can have a read of her blog here.

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