Nathan Bransford, Author

Friday, July 31, 2015

How to know when to leave your agent

Not sure what's in the air these days (well, besides nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and the smell of hot dogs seriously where is that coming from), but I've heard from several authors who are wondering whether it is time for them to leave their agent.

Also, I realize that this sounds like a lofty problem for the agent-less, the equivalent of a mansion owner wondering if they should get a new pool to replace the one they have, but I would encourage you all to read this post as well, not only because you may have an agent someday, but also I'm hoping to lay out some of the things you should and shouldn't expect of an agent.

Leaving an agent is a really tough decision, and one you absolutely should not take lightly. You are forgoing an advocate, you could possibly be burning a bridge, and it's incredibly important to act as rationally and non-emotionally as possible. But sometimes it's the right decision.

So. How do you know if you should leave? I'm going to divide this up into good reasons and bad reasons. A HUGE caveat is that every situation is different and you ultimately have to choose the best path for you.

Bad reason: Your agent couldn't sell your book.

Even the best agents strike out sometimes. This doesn't make them a bad agent. Sometimes it just doesn't happen with the first book. If they made a good faith effort to submit it, they did the best they could and it just didn't happen, and they still believe in you, that alone is not a very good reason to leave.

Yes, some agents have more clout than others, but the book itself and serendipity are way more powerful than any agent. If you like your agent and they just couldn't sell your book, I wouldn't hold it against them.

Good reason: Your agent has behaved unprofessionally or unethically

It can be so tricky for authors on the outside to know what constitutes unprofessional and/or unethical in a business that can feel very opaque. Especially one that tolerates a level of eccentricity that would make Edward Scissorhands feel awkward.

But if you find that your agent is being shady or doing something headslappingly bad like blasting your manuscript to 50 editors all at once on the same email thread, have a heart to heart. If they don't have an explanation that satisfies you, you may have your answer.

Bad reason: Your agent doesn't write or call you back immediately

You're not your agent's only client. Days are busy. You have one book to worry about, an agent is juggling dozens.

Give it some time. Be patient. Remember that snails look at publishing and think, "Whoa dudes let's pick up the pace, huh?"

That said...

Good reason: Your agent has gone incommunicado.

You should be able to get in touch with your agent. Maybe not immediately, but within a reasonable time frame. This is actually a very good thing to establish from the outset -- how quickly should be reasonable for responses?

If you try and try and try to get in touch with your agent and you just can't get in touch with them, you may have a problem on your hands.

Bad reason: You want to leave without being transparent about your concerns and giving your agent a chance to respond.

Good relationships depend on trust and communication. If you have concerns, express them. Your agent should appreciate your honesty and have good answers for you.

Especially when so much happens outside of view, and especially because you may not have insight into the customs of the industry, what can seem totally strange at first blush can make much more sense when your agent explains it.

Don't let things linger. If you're concerned, speak up.

Good reason: Your gut is telling you it's time to go.

You've expressed your concerns.

You have given your agent a chance to respond.

You listened to their response in good faith.

You have let some time go by.

You have gotten feedback and perspective from other knowledgable people.

You have reflected.

You aren't taking this decision lightly in the slightest.

You still think it's time to go.

Okay. It's your career. You have to make your choices. If you have acted in good faith, listened, and you just think it's time, it may well be time.

Art: The Signal by William Powell Frith


Norma Beishir said...

I think my reason for leaving an agent I still consider to be the best was both a good and a bad reason. She was selling my books, and doing an impressive job of it. She was busy, yes, and normally, I wouldn't have found that problematic. But I had just gone through a death in the family and was stressed and overreacting to everything. The timing was the worst.

But the bottom line, everything else aside, was that I felt burned out. I was being marketed as a glitz/women's fiction author, and I wanted to change direction. I had no more ideas in that area. My agent didn't want me to change genres. I didn't see a solution.

Richard Mabry said...

Nathan, It's worth noting that you speak from experience (you were an agent, and a respected one, for quite some time) and without an axe to grind (you're no longer an agent). You've done a good job of giving the pros and cons. I've parted company amicably with one agent, and it was a good move. I've never seriously considered leaving my current agent, but in publishing (as in so many other things), it's unwise never to say "never." Thanks for giving us some good points on which to hang our hats.

Anonymous said...

I'd be awfully grateful for some advice from writers in the know, here.

How long, would you say, is "reasonable," when waiting for a reply from one's agent (to legitimate questions regarding pub deal, contract, new submission, etc)?

What if my agent's resonse rate is about 50% (and I only email, cringing all the while, maybe twice a month, and never call). Average response time = 1 - 3 weeks.

Is that reasonable? Or should I be worried? (well, I am already worried.)

My agent is kind, cheerful, and enthusiastic. I do think he cares. It's just this communication problem. It's eating away at me.

I've brought it up once already, asked for 1-minute biweekly check-ins, "just to ease my neurotic mind." He said absolutely, but has never followed through. Should I bring it up again? Is 1-3 weeks' response time reasonable, considering we have active business? What should I do?

First Step said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Thomas Stratman said...

Thanks. Thoughtful, balanced, informative.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7/31, 2:40:

When you say the response rate is 50%, does that mean your agent *never* answers half your questions?

That would be a problem for me.

But 1-3 weeks is not unreasonable if all your questions get answered eventually. Publishing moves slowly, and there are few things that need faster answers.

I do think biweekly check-ins are a bit much, unless you are constantly writing and submitting a large volume of material. I find that I need to be in frequent contact with my agent when something is happening--say, we're prepping a ms. for submission, or conferring about contract details during a negotiation--and during those times, responses should come within a couple of days, and we may exchange many messages or talk on the phone.

But then there are long stretches when nothing much is happening--I'm just writing something new, or she's just waiting for editors to respond to a sub--and we have no need to communicate for weeks or months, because there's nothing new to say.

That said, the "right amount" of communication is unique to each relationship. Ultimately, this is your career and your decision about what you need.

Pimion said...

Nice article, Nathan. But I couldn't agree with that one:
"Bad reason: Your agent couldn't sell your book."

You say it's okay, even best agents have bad days, but what if the first book is your last book because of the agent's failure? What if there won't be any second book?

JeffO said...

Nice post, Nathan. If anyone reading is seriously thinking of splitting from their agent, this post should help give a clear-headed, unbiased view on whether it's the right thing or not. A couple of comments on the comments:

To anonymous 1, why are you cringing when you e-mail your agent? I only cringe when I read my agent's e-mails if I know they have editor rejections attached. You should not be afraid of your agent.

To Pimion--when a book fails to sell, you have to look very carefully at why it's failing to sell. It could be that your agent is not that good, or your book is out of the categories they represent, in which case, maybe you should break with them. However, I would advise you to really look at what editors say when your manuscript is rejected (and your agent absolutely should be sending you that communication). My agent sent me what the editors said on my last manuscript. I received a lot of compliments, but the book was not. Quite. There. This is an issue with my writing, not my agent. So I've written another, which is in the revising process now. If that doesn't go anywhere, I'll write another, and so on and so on.

If your first book is the first in a series and nothing else will get written without that first book being published, I would advise you to have a strategy session with your agent. Maybe you need to rework that first book. Maybe you need to put the idea for the series aside for the time being and come up with something else.

Anonymous said...

Anon @ 2:40:

I personally think waiting 1-3 weeks for a response to an email is very UNreasonable. I mean, 3 weeks??? That's bad time management on their part. Sure, the publishing industry is slow, but a slow response in this day and age is 1-3 DAYS, not weeks. And if your agent is not responding to half of your questions, that's a bad sign as well. We all get that they are busy, but if they can't organize their time and respond to client's emails within a reasonable time frame, then that's on them, not "the publishing industry." (And if the publishing industry is so slow, shouldn't that mean they have plenty of time to reply to emails, not the other way around?) A good agent will manage their time, put clients first, and make time to respond to client emails.

Anonymous said...

I am in this same quandary. We discussed communication when I signed since I already had an agent who disappeared for months and didn't submit when they said they would. This agent doesn't answer me unless I write at least 3 emails. Despite "sorry" and promises, it keeps happening. It feels awful. The agent was supposed to get back to me about a project early June. It's August and I have no timeline, feedback, or anything.
Is that reasonable? LOL.

Marie Fincher said...

Of course, agent is unable to sell your book! When I needed it, I wrote my essays and published them in my own blog or in some magazines, people read my articles and then they were interested to by my book. Thank you for this post, it's truly helpful!

Kasi Blake said...

I knew it was time to leave my agent when she walked out on her agency without telling them or me. So, really, it wasn't me so much leaving her as her leaving me. But, still, I would have left her at that time if I'd had a choice. One of her fellow agents told me she just walked out without giving notice or anything, and they were scrambling to take care of her clients even though they already had a full load themselves.

Anonymous said...

Nathan, It's worth noting that you speak from experience (you were an agent, and a respected one, for quite some time) and without an axe to grind (you're no longer an agent). You've done a good job of giving the pros and cons. I've parted company amicably with one agent, and it was a good move paper writing service. I've never seriously considered leaving my current agent, but in publishing (as in so many other things), it's unwise never to say "never." Thanks for giving us some good points on which to hang our hats.

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