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WORDS FOR WRITERS – Leaving an Agent

While I’ve spoken at length on how to get an agent, something I haven’t discussed is how to leave one when your relationship isn’t working out any more.

I’m not talking about ragequitting  because you got told off for bad behavior, or because your book isn’t selling, or because you weren’t an instant and critical success. I’m talking about having a big, long, honest think about whether your relationship with your current agent is still a good one that’s serving your books and your career, and deciding that no, this agent is not longer (or never was) a good fit.

I’ve had two agents in my decade-long writing career, and last month, I just parted ways from my second one.

It’s a scary thing to do, because (at least in my case) it made me feel like a failure as a writer.

I have to keep reminding myself that walking away from a relationship that’s not working isn’t failure — it’s selfcare.

The truth is, in a way it’s you who is employing the agent. It’s not the other way around, even if you have to query them to take you on as a client. It’s a percentage derived from your royalties -therefore your work – that they pay their bills with. So they should be serving your career and your work.

(I mean, but not in a subservient way. Obviously, you signed with them because you trust their advice and guidance, which you should always discuss if you disagree with. It’s still a professional relationship; you’re not the boss of your agent any more than they’re the boss of you.)

And if your agent isn’t serving you or your work, then they’re getting in the way of it.

It’s as simple as that.

So where did I go wrong?

After the unexpected success of “Triptych”, which I published with a small press with no agent, I sent around my second book to a few agents on the hope that someone would want me now. My first agent was one of three that I had phone calls with, but the only one who made an unconditional offer. He wanted me immediately, and he wanted to sign me right away, so I said “yes” right away instead of thinking it over and digging a little deeper into his communication style, his aspirations for my career, or what his other clients had to say about him.

Why?

Because I wanted an agent so bad. I thought it would make my career. And no one had told me “It’s better to have no agent than the wrong one.”

There were a few warning bells going off in my head when I signed with him, but I ignored them, because AGENT! That made me a real writer, right?

We were together for… I think about a year? Maybe a bit more? And it was… not good. I didn’t like how he spoke to me. I didn’t like where he tried to get me to steer my book in rewrites (it was a mess). I sent him a different book and he dismissed it as “victorian romance trash” when it was neither Victorian, Romance, nor Trash. When I was being emotionally traumatized, and viciously and violently harassed by horrible stalker, he shrugged it off and sent me this:

 When I was being emotionally traumatized and viciously and violently harassed by horrible stalker, he basically just shrugged it off and sent me this:

Like, WTF man. When your client tells you she’s scared and she’s being harassed,  and threatened with real violence, you listen and you do something about it.

I eventually found out that he never even read “Triptych”, even though he kept saying “why can’t you just write me another book like Triptych?” I kept pitching him books like “Triptych” and he kept brushing them aside because they weren’t like what he thought “Triptych” was, not what it actually was, It was so frustrating that I would jam my face into a pillow and scream.

He even failed to show up to be my plus one when “Triptych” was nominated for a major award – I flew to NYC (in a thunderstorm I may add!) to walk this red carpet, and he couldn’t even bother to take the half hour train ride to the venue.

The only time I ever met him in real life was for a brunch while I was down for the awards, and it was like the worst first date in the history of terrible romcoms. If I could have, I would have been texting my BFF under the table to rush into the resto and announce that my mother was in a coma or something just so I could escape. He looked me in the eyes and said what more or less amounted to: “Shut up, little girl, and write what I tell you.”

The minute I left the restaurant, I burst into tears.

I knew I had made a mistake in signing with him, and I knew that I was going to have to fire him in order to have the career I wanted, and to be able to write the books I wanted. And that was scary, because I was worried that I would never get an agent again. I felt like I’d screwed up everything by making the wrong choice. It felt like I was giving up on my dreams.

I see now that what I was really doing was taking steps to help those dreams thrive. But I’m not gonna lie, I cried for days after that weekend.

Clearly I had not learned my lesson, because I promptly made the same mistake a second time. Like…

Immediately.

Still sobbing, I went to the Javits Centre for BookExpo. Hovering miserably beside the editor for “Triptych” while she schmoozed, a woman I’d never met before offered me a tissue. We spoke a little, and I learned that by luck, she was one of the three agents I had spoken to on the phone previous to selecting Agent #1. She was very nice, and very consoling, and listened attentively while I poured out my story, and my worries, and my snot.

A week or so later, when she nabbed my number from my editor called me to tell me that she’d love to rep me after I’d made the clean break from Agent #1, it seemed like a no-brainer.

So once again, I said “yes” to the first person who offered instead of taking a step back and really thinking about whether we would be a good fit.

I didn’t compare the kinds of books I wanted to write to the kind of books she had a past record placing well.  We didn’t have as thorough a conversation about my career and what future books would be as I would have liked, and I now realize I should have had. I didn’t bother to find out whether she ‘got’ what it is that I do.

(I know that, now, in the world of Twitter and Instagram, blogs, websites and #MSWL and #pitchmad and all these amazing way to connect with agents on social media, it seems crazy that I could not realize that these agents weren’t for me, really, but you have to understand that I started looking for agents fifteen years ago, when the only real way to figure out who agents were was to read Publishers Weekly, Publishers Marketplace, and get the big old directory of agent’s addresses, genre specialties, and submission preferences from the bookstore once a year. When I started querying, you had to send in paper copies of the book through the mail.)

Regretfully, after working with Agent #2 for seven years, I’ve learned that I don’t actually write what she thinks I write, and I don’t know how to write what she knows how to sell. My works err more on the side of Literary Magic Realism, which is not at all the far more mainstream spaceships-and-lasers scifi and wizards-and-swords fantasy that she’s very good at selling.

Agent #2 didn’t ever seem to quite “get” what my books were, and therefore (at least to my mind) was framing them as something they were not as she was shopping them to editors and publishing houses. And thus submitting them to the wrong people in the wrong places. Which always leads to rejections. How could it not?

That she sold “The Accidental Turn Series” and “The Skylark’s Saga” at all are down to the acquiring editor hearing Agent #2 talk about “The Untold Tale” in a keynote speech and approach her. The publisher sought out my agent and said “I want those”. And while I’m happy with the end result of working with that indie press, especially with how my editor there made the books leaps and bounds better, it felt like a let down to still be publishing with small indies after my debut novel wracked up so much critical acclaim.

After that, Agent #2 read (or, I assumed she read) and declined to represent two other books I’d written, immediately. Another book, she half-heatedly shopped and then pulled it back and shelved it after about half a year. She waved away even more ideas I pitched to her for development, or suggested major changes to the ideas I brought to her that I thought were not at all in the spirit of the books or my oeuvre. At that point, it was clear that we were not sympatico, and likely never had been.

waited until I had finished out my contracts with the indie publisher for “Accidental Turn” and “Skylark”, and for some personal life stuff to get sorted, and then parted ways with Agent #2 last month.

While I was very upset, and very angry at myself that I had to leave an agent a second time, I was very happy (dare I say, relieved) that I had finally done it. I had known I needed to leave Agent #2 for, gosh, years.

Part of what held me back was I didn’t want to endanger my six-book contract with the indie press.

But a lot of it was also my fear that if I left this agent, I would never get another. That I had screwed up again. That I was a failure. Again.

But you have to – have to – remember:

No agent is better than the wrong agent.

And:

An agent who isn’t advancing your career is standing in the way of it.

So how do you leave an agent?

It’s not difficult at all to split with an agent, no matter how nerve-wracking and heartbreaking it is.  There’s no real trouble to it because all good and legitimate agents will have a “time to part ways”/”sunset” clause in the original contract you sign with them. (It’s a red flag if they don’t!)

So the first thing you want to do is read that clause very carefully, and follow the steps outlined in it.

In my case(s), I a polite email stating that I wanted to invoke that clause, and end our relationship. I laid out the reasons why, and luckily, Agent #2 agreed. (Agent #1 was more of a sulky pill about it, but that’s part of the reason I left. His professionalism left a lot to be desired). Then I sent a certified letter in the mail stating the same this I said in the email, for legal purposes.

And that’s it. That’s all it took.

(Why had I agonized over this for literal years? You know why.)

In both cases, the agents just emailed back something that more or less amounted to” “Okay, yup, got it.” Because I believe both of them knew that it wasn’t working any more, too.

Agent #2 mentioned that she’d been sorta feeling like it was time for us to split anyway, so it was good to know that we were at least on the same page about that one thing, if not much else. And there’s no hard feelings between us, as far as I’m aware.

When I left the first agent I asked for a list of everyone he’d submitted my books to, so I knew who’d already rejected them when it came time to shop it around again. My second agent had already provided that on my request for the book we’d shopped years ago when we pulled it, so I didn’t need to ask her for that. It’s always a good thing to have – a list of everyone who’s already seen which books and why they said no.

Nothing stayed with Agent #1, as he had placed nothing. The books that Agent #2 placed will continue to be managed by her – and she’ll still get her cut of my royalties from those books, because she is still working for those books – but she has no claims to anything I write and/or profit from in the future.

And now that I am agent-less, the whole process starts all over for me again.

I have to write a totally new book, polish it, and query it around, just like anyone else.

I have the advantage of being able to claim nine published novels and a handful of nice awards to my name at this point, though. And I author friends whose agents I am familiar with through them, so I can decide more easily if I want to query them, or perhaps even arrange to have a chat with them before hand, if their amenable. Hopefully that makes this process a bit less entrenched and nerve-wracking.

And I’m a far more mature storyteller now too – I’ve learned my lesson. I won’t sign with an agent until I know we really click.

And of course, now-a-days there’s that robust and useful social media culture around publishing as well, which will give me the chance to scope out the people I want to query.

Do I think I’m going to get another agent? I’m hopeful. But I’m trying not to get too hopeful. I do so much want to be a career writer, and it’s been nine years since my debut, so I’m hoping maybe my next book will push me over into earning enough money to do so.

How am I feeling right now?

Some days I cry and feel like if I had just worked harder, if I had just been better, I wouldn’t have failed so badly at finding the right agent – which is silly capitalist nonsense because how can working harder have anything to do with incompatible client/agent relationships? Sometimes I beat myself up for being a two-time loser.  Sometimes I decide that I’m going to quit writing once and for all, because I’m obviously not cut out for it.

But sometimes I really do believe that third time will be the charm. Sometimes, I remember that I’m not beholden to those Agents and what they think I should be writing vs. what I want to be writing, and it feels like a hundred pounds has been lifted off my chest. Sometimes I laugh about it. Sometimes I work on my New Agent Excel Sheet and dream big “overnight success after ten years of hard slog” dreams.

But most of the time, I just remind myself that I did the right thing. I took the right step, even though it was scary, because taking that step means that I’m helping my dream to thrive.

And that the wrong agent was always standing in the way of the right one — whoever that turns out to be.

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JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS – Leaving an Agent