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?”
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