Monday, November 22, 2010

Breaking up is hard to do

Someone I know has an agent she is unhappy with but is reluctant to make the break in case she cannot find a replacement. She has been told it is not acceptable to look for another agent before she parts company with the present one. It made me wonder just what is the correct way to deal with this situation.

I've had an author fire me because - despite lots of attention and support - I hadn't realised their latest draft of a manuscript was the one ready to go out. This was after two years of drafting and me giving feedback and advice. So two weeks after the manuscript was sent in, I hadn't sent it out because I didn't think it was the final, and I was fired. Was I cross? Yes, mainly because there was no warning and no chance for me to fix it. I just got fired. But, truthfully, nothing would have been good enough for that author. Still, I would have liked a warning.

Authors tend to fire their agents without ever flagging that they're unhappy in the first place, which is not really fair on the agent, to be honest. It's a business relationship, but in the termination phase it becomes clear that the author often doesn't see it that way, so they break off the business relationship the way they would a personal relationship: the agent simply gets dumped with the whole 'It's not you, it's me' line.

Author/agent relationships can go wrong for all sorts of reasons. Often the personalities don't fit and you don't find out until you're already enmeshed. Sometimes the agent can't get the author published, feels bad about it and lets contact peter out, not wanting to fire the client but at a loss as to what else to do. Sometimes the author becomes successful and doesn't think they need an agent any more, forgetting the role the agent played in that success. Australian authors have been known to fire local agents in pursuit of overseas representation.

So my advice to your friend is this: let the agent know that there's a problem. A simple email saying, 'I have the feeling that perhaps this relationship isn't working out for us' or actually nominating what the problem is could result in a better relationship. The agent may be able to fix the problem and, with renewed vigour, improve things overall. Then your friend wouldn't have to find a new agent. Agenting is partly customer service - if the customer makes a complaint, then endeavours are usually made to remedy the problem.

If she has tried this and it's still not working out, she can of course leave without having another agent, but she's obviously taking the risk that she won't find one.

And one last thing ... While the agent-author relationship is a business one, agents are people too. We succumb to normal stresses and the push and pull of working. I'd love to get to my to-do list in a timely fashion but I can be mid-task when the phone rings and it's a publisher who then talks for half an hour, then I may have to go to a meeting or I have to read something quickly and that task I was doing goes unfinished till tomorrow. Or the next day. Authors - clients and submitting authors - don't see all of that; they just see the unfinished task. And cranky authors
and unfinished tasks can build up to the point where the agent wants to just not talk to anyone or answer any emails.

Also, you'd be surprised how rarely we hear the words 'thank you' and, in an industry that's not highly paid and long hours are worked, those two words can mean a lot (when they're merited, of course). In the middle of a task-failing, phone-ringing, editorial-report-writing day, they mean a lot. It's a small courtesy but it greases the wheels of social - and business - exchange. Most business relationships that fall apart can be remedied by something that simple (seriously) if people can put aside their pride and sense of outrage or entitlement. So perhaps your friend should first check to see how the relationship has been run from her side, and then work out where it's going wrong before she pulls the plug. She should also give the agent a chance to say 'thank you' back - thank you for your writing, thank you for being my author. But if neither wants to say it, it's time to end it.


Gregory House said...

That is a very considered piece of advice, in talking to other aspiring writers or even those who have ‘made it’ I frequently find that while they may write as an avocation, getting represented, published, printed is a business. That simple fact is frequently overlooked. So as in any business common politeness and frequent communication will get you more than rude abrupt abrasive demands. Even in the age of instant communication those courtesies hold true perhaps now more than ever.

Tasmanian Devil said...

Listening to authors being interviewed on the radio or at literary festivals, one quickly forms an impression of their character - and whether one wants to rush out and purchase their book as a result. Is the loneliness of the profession, the cause of some authors being so shockingly rude? I wonder how they snare agent contracts in the first place.

Anonymous said...

As a mid-list author who has had (cough, cough) several agents now, I think this is great advice. The main problem for me has been professionalism. I'm not a needy author. I don't want hand-holding, a new bestie, or anything like this. What I do want is my emails replied to, say, within a week. And my mss read within two months. I want my agent to have some kind of idea when he/she should be following things up with my publisher (option clauses etc.) and actually give a rats about selling my rights on elsewhere when they become available.

Amazingly, most of the agents I've had can't seem to do many of these things. You can point out that someone should be on top of this stuff, but if they don't operate to the standard of professionalism you're looking for, then they just don't.

Thankfully, I now have a brilliant US agent who can do all of these things at the same time for all of her clients. She's remarkable, actually (and, yes, I thank her pretty much every email because I can't believe how lucky I am to have her and her fantastic backing).

Am definitely going anonymous for this one, lol.

Anonymous said...

Likewise. I've thank mine, flattered mine, cheered her up when she was down, but I still haven't heard from her in six months. Not since the third house turned down my manuscript. She asked if I thought I needed a book doctor and I told her no - we might try a different query letter first.

She stopped answering my emails. After a my next email telling her I'd like to talk to her on the phone, she asked how things were going with the book doctor.

Sorry, I know there are a lot of crazy authors out there, but some relationships are really not worth saving...