Oliver has a long, highly informative chat with author, actor, and voice actor J.M. Frey about her experiences as a writer, including what happens when your book grows to around the 200K word mark, self-publishing, the challenges of author exhaustion (incl. frank discussion of how the economics of publishing deals have evolved), when she received her first piece of fan art based on her work, and more! Jess is terribly knowledgeable, and we strongly recommend you check out her site not only for all the great advice it contains, but also to study how Jess presents herself online.
While I’ve spoken at length on how to get an agent, something I haven’t discussed is how to leave one.
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 success. I’m talking about having a big, long, honest think about whether your relationship with your current agent is still a good one, analyzing whether that relationship still serving your books and your career, and deciding that no, this agent is no 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 – with which they pay their bills. So they should be serving your career and your work.
But also… not.
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. They do a heck of a lot of work for that percentage, more than you’ll ever see and really understand.
All the same, if neither of you are making money on the books you write, then it’s time to think about why that may be.
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?
My debut novel “Triptych”, which I published with a small press and no agent (not for lack of querying – over 30 rejections), was a very unexpected critical success. I sent around my second book to a few agents on the hope that someone would want me now. Several expressed interest, and I set up calls with three of them.
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.
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:
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 help her 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…
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. 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. 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. She’s very good at her job. Just not very good for me.
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 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 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.
I 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 – I have to – remember:
No agent is better than the wrong agent.
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. 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 sent 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 Agent #1, 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. Agent #2 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 passed.
(In the end I never re-shopped/queried that novel. Instead I put it on Wattpad. It won the Watty Award in 2019, was picked up for an exclusive engagement on Radish. When that was complete, I selfpubbed it in 2020.)
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.
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 they’re amenable. Hopefully that makes this process a bit less entrenched and nerve-wracking.
I’m a far more mature businesswoman 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.
Being a professional voice actor has been a dream of mine since I was 13 years old and first watched Sailor Moon. It was then that I realized that there were actors behind the cartoons, and as a child actor at the time, I was determined that one day, I too would be a Moon Princess, or a colourful Little Pony, or a fiesty school girl travelling through the past with a strange half-dog warrior. Basically, I wanted to be whatever strange and fantastical thing animators and mangaka could think up.
My desire to do this for a living was solidified when I purchased a cassette tape of the English Sailor Moon soundtrack (with most songs performed by the incredibly talented Jennifer Cihi – my absolute freaking IDOL). I played that cassette to death, and more than one person pointed at my stereo and asked me if that was me singing.
Me? I sounded like the literal singing voice of Sailor Moon? Wow.
I was quite lucky, then, later in my acting training, to take voice acting classes and workshops with two separate people who were involved in the English dub of Sailor Moon. As I grew as a performer and author, I was also quite fortunate to be either an actor or fellow con guest of so many other amazing VAs, who all gave me great advice.
Since then I’ve pounded the pavement as a freelance VA for years, and with the guidance of several of those VAs, revised my demos last fall. The lockdown slowed some things down for me, but I started sending out my demos this summer, got some wonderful responses, and had the privilege to choose to be represented by Jennifer Fry.
I want to thank the following people for helping me create an amazing demo, and for pushing me to pursue VA work professionally: Deb, Rodney, Adrienne, Stephanie, Kyle, Roland, Gini, Alyson, and Kirby.
Question: If I do decide to go the agent route, at what point would it be recommended to start looking? Total manuscript completion?
Basically, yeah, wait until the book is written, polished, and has been through beta readers or critique groups. You only get one chance to impress an agent. Always, always, always ensure that what you’re sending them is the very best version of it. Also, waiting until the manuscript is totally complete also means that a) you’ve proven to yourself and to the agent that you can finish what you start and b) you won’t get caught with your pants down if they respond right away asking for the full, after you’ve sent a partial.
But more than just a totally spit-shined MS, also ensure you write a complete pitch package before you start to query. Why? Because agents invariably ask for come combination of these documents as well as the query letter and MS, and it makes sense to just sit down and do it all together once instead of scrambling to create new docs with each submission.
Elevator Pitch: One or two sentences to hook ’em. Imagine you have the length of one elevator ride to intrigue a publisher/agent/producer. What would you say? (Example: A girl vigilante and her mystical, semi-sentient rocketpack are shot down behind enemy lines, and now have to rely on the help of an underground rebellion to not only get home, but end a decades-long war. The only question is whether the rebellion can be trusted, or if they’re planning to turn her in for the bounty.) This is the only part of the pitch doc I recommend memorizing, because you may have the opportunity to pitch someone in person at an event, and you want to have a slick response to: “So what are you working on now?”
Back Cover Copy/One Paragraph Pitch: Basically, write the stuff that goes on the back of the book. Try to keep it to about 100-200 words. You will use this in your query letter, as well as turn it over to marketing when it’s time to design your cover.
5 Page Synopsis: Write out the entire plot of your novel, beat-by-beat, pointing out cause and effect and character growth, INCLUDING the ending (surprise your readers, not your agent.)
3 Page Synopsis: Turn that same doc above into a 3 pager.
1 page Synopsis: Turn that same doc above into a 1 pager. (Why? Because these are the industry standards, and these get asked for a lot).
If the book is first of a series, DO NOT WRITE THE SERIES. Write the back cover copy/pitch paragraph & a 1 page synopsis, and included it in the package as well. (Why not write the whole series? What if the publisher only wants the first book? You’ve wasted your effort. Or what if your editor asks you what book #2 is about and the two of you come up with a MUCH BETTER idea? Wasted effort.)
Once you’ve done all that, then you can craft your Query Letter, and begin to submit to agents. (I made an Excel with each agent I wanted to submit to and their individual submission requirements.)
Question: Was just wondering, is it better to have an agent? Or would submitting directly to publisher’s on your own be better? I’m not yet at the submission stage but I started to wonder, would it be recommended to get an agent, or go it alone?
It really depends on what kind of career you’re looking to have. Some people are after the big J.K. Rowling kind of thing, and some people are looking for something small and local.
Agents are required for the first, and not so much for the second.
Having an agent means you have access to the Big 5 Publishers (Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillion, Random Penguin House, Simon & Schuster) through the best channels. You MAY be able to submit to those houses via the slush pile with no agent, but doing so through an agent is best. Agents know the editors, and talk to them frequently. The Big 5 are are big companies and things can get lost in the shuffle, so it’s always better to have an agent who will and CAN follow up for you.
But if you’re looking to submit to ChiZine, or REUTS Publications, or any of the good mid-list publishing houses, or any of the great quirky small presses, you don’t need an agent for that. I signed my first book to a small press without an agent. I signed my fantasy series to a mid-list publishing house with one. She’s working on getting my next book into the Big 5 now that I have a proven track record and an established readership.
Advantages to Having an Agent
Built-in beta reader
Access to the large publishing houses that you couldn’t otherwise submit to
It’s nice to have someone as excited about you finishing a manuscript as you are!
Advocates for you and is in your corner if there are contracting disputes, legal battles, or just plain issues like the publisher not delivering something on time
Already knows the industry and can guide you through the hurtles, roadbumps, or emotional breakdowns
Can help shape and craft your career, listen to your ideas and suggest which one to do next, etc.
Is there to help you navigate adaptation rights, such as audio books and TV
Probably has a big mailing list and social media following so there’s extra eyes on your work right away
Can handle any pitches or proposals that come your way and make sure that any partnerships are legal and protect you and your work
Marketing support – your agent/agency will have connections with review publications, bloggers, etc. and will know which avenues of promotion are worth pursuing before you spend the money on them. Sometimes, they know before you do which new website or app is going to be the next cool place.
Your publishing sibs (authors with the same agent/agency as you) are a supportive and connected network that are usually happy to push and blurb one another’s books, answer questions for each other, and generally celebrate when one of you finds success. (And their awards and bestseller hits reflect well on you because you share the same agent/agency)
Advantages to Going It Alone
Keep all your royalties for yourself
Can craft your career however you like, which means you don’t have to write something saleable if you just want to write something fun and nichey
Can do business directly with the publisher with no middle man (though I’ve found I still can contact the publisher/my editor/marketing team no probs with my agent; she’s happy to let me be as Type A as I need to be)
More control of your marketing, and your brand.
Less pressure for deadlines or to churn out the “next thing”
The publishing industry is a hot mess right now. Nobody is willing to take any risks at the top tier levels, the editors are looking for the Next Big Thing, but don’t trust what the readers are telling them they want, and basically most of New York is flooded with professional cowardice. They only want The Next Big Debut Author (aka Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give) or the next big hit from an author with a string of hits. Smaller presses have less pressure to sell hits, can take the weird, and the wonderful, and the small, and interesting. (That is not to say your small press book can’t hit big, it just will need a lot of flogging to review publications, award competitions, etc.)
It takes so much tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiime to go the traditional route. Books may take yeeeeeeeeeears to get signed because everyone is waiting on the next person down the chain to read it, or pitch it, or put together the contracts. UHG. A book I wrote in 2012 is coming out September 2019. With no agent and a direct line to the publisher, you can speed the process.
You can be more creative with your marketing.
However, you do have to look at the disadvantages too. Going back to my example of signing my first book sans agent – I got screwed and didn’t know it. It was the first contract I’d ever signed. Eventually my agent got me out of that legal tangle (and the book is being republished with a new house and a new cover), but she wasn’t obliged to because she hadn’t brokered that deal.
On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had a best-selling author contact me for advice about how to deal with their agents because the agent has gotten lazy with her A-list clients, stopped advocating for them, stopped pushing, and generally relegated them to the back burner.
Again, it all depends on you, what you write, what kind of career you want, and how much work you want to do or how involved you want to be.
Remember, there’s also nothing saying you have to pick one or the other and that’s it. You can start with an agent and decide it’s not for you and let them go. (Remember, they work for you, not the other way around). You can publish small first, like I did, and then seek an agent for your second or third book.