Everything I Know: Agent Drama

Advice Sometimes I get questions about life, and sometimes I get questions about the politics of the writing business. Here’s one of the latter.

Dear Smart Bitch Sarah:

You’ve said that you won’t reveal the names of the people who write to you for advice, and I really hope that’s true. I’ve got a problem and I’m really not sure what to do. I have the most amazingly talented critique partner. I think she’s amazing, I love her writing – I can’t say enough good things about her.

The thing is, I think her agent just blows. We’re not represented by the same person, and I don’t want to upset my critique partner but some of the things her agent does are just awful. Her agent doesn’t respond to phone calls at all, and requires that she set up an appointment even to discuss an upcoming project by email. The agent is unsupportive of my CP’s ideas, and tells my CP not work on projects that I know specific editors are looking for. The agent encourages ideas that are not at all my CP’s strengths or interest, and seems totally out of touch with what’s going on in the market right now (which arguably isn’t much). Most of all, this agent does a number on my friend’s confidence every time they speak, and some of the things I’ve heard her agent say are just appalling.

I think my CP is starting to doubt her agent, but she’s also told me she’s terrified of having to hunt for another one, and figures she’s better off represented than not at all. I’ve tried to raise a few of my own questions and talk with her about what my agent and what our colleagues’ agents do that’s different and seems to be more effective, but I don’t think she wants to hear it.

I hate seeing her talent under represented and I don’t know how to get that through to her.

Fuming and Supportive

Oy. Oy and whoa. I can well understand her fears of not being without an agent, especially in a difficult publishing market, but if her agent is ringing your alarm bells, I don’t blame you for being concerned, especially if this agent is making your friend feel badly about herself and her writing.

Unfortunately, I think you’ve done all you can by telling her your doubts about her agent, and discussing the issue with her. If your CP is already feeling neglected and ill-used by her agent, you’ve probably given her more to think about. The decision is hers to leave and it doesn’t sound like she’s ready and willing.

It’s a lot easier for people outside the situation to recognize when two people ought to be together, working or otherwise, and when they should move on apart from one another. Fear and habit can keep a lot of people in a state of inertia. I don’t confess to always understanding the relationship between agent and writer but your letter doesn’t describe what I would want as a healthy working partnership. I think at this point, having brought it up and having listened to your CP’s concerns, your only option left is to remain her friend and hope she reaches a conclusion similar to your own: that she may be better off elsewhere.

While it’s certainly not fun to help your friend recover from any conversations with this agent that have left her doubting herself, your support and encouragement likely do a lot, and your continued presence as an enthusiastic critique partner may one day help her make a decision that could help her career. 


General Bitching...

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  1. 1
    El says:

    It might also help to direct your friend to some of the agents who have a significant online presence. There are probably a dozen or more who regularly blog; there are quite a few on Twitter. Your friend might find agents to query who feel like a better fit, without having to fly blind. Even if they don’t cover what your friend writes, they might be able to suggest someone compatible who does.

    Sorry, most of the agents I know about are SF/Fantasy, so I’m not the best person to name names. But there are resources out there.

  2. 2
    Morgan says:

    Yikes! This makes me even more greatful than I already was to have such a wonderful agent and agency backing me up. I hope the friend in question finds a way to make things better for herself. I understand her fear—I would be terrified to be unagented in the current publishing climate. At least this writer has talent going for her, and hopefully she will find the courage she needs to find an agent who is more deserving of her.

    I wonder what would possess an agent to encourage a writer NOT to pursue projects that editors are actuallylooking for? Has anyone else had this experience?

    Anyways. Good advice, Sarah. I think this person has done all she can—her honesty and support is the best gift she can give a struggling friend who may need validation and is not yet ready to make a decisive move. Is her own agent looking for new clients? Maybe her friend can make a switch :o)

    more66: There are more than 66 reasons why I cherish my working relationship with my agent.

  3. 3
    Morgan says:

    Why do I always misspell “grateful”? In my defense, it is 2 in the morning right now :o}

  4. 4
    El says:

    Clarification—the idea is to get a feel for the agent’s style, NOT to query them on their blog.

    Exception—someone recently queried Colleen Lindsay on Twitter. After a moment of being appalled, she decided to run a contest—query 140 characters or less. She got over 300 queries, many fake and wildly funny.

    This was, of course, a one-shot deal….

  5. 5
    Barb Ferrer says:

    Yes, it’s terrifying to have to search for a new agent, especially in the current climate, but what’s more terrifying is what can happen to your confidence and ultimately your career.

    It can take a long time to recover both and neither may ever be quite the same again.  They might be better—your CP may come out of the experience a little sadder, a little wiser, perhaps even more cynical, but the renewed sense of hope can also be an amazing thing and can really rejuvenate a love for the craft.  Especially if you find an agent who really gets you and gets your work and encourages you to follow the muse.

    However, the only person who can make that decision is your CP, for herself.  I know it sucks donkey balls to sit back and watch her go through such a horrifying experience, but it’s such an intensely personal decision.  Just be supportive and let her know that you’re there if she needs to bounce any ideas off you.


    Someone who’s been there.

  6. 6
    Barb Ferrer says:

    I guess I should have clarified.  I’m the one who’s been in the position of the letter-writer’s CP, in having to decide when the relationship with my agent was no longer working—for either of us.

    Regardless, either side of the coin isn’t easy.

  7. 7
    Julie Leto says:

    First, good on ya for looking out for your friend.

    Second, please tell her that every author I know (and I know quite a few!) will tell you that having NO agent is better than having a BAD agent…even if that agent is only bad for you.

    There are enough aspects of this business that chip at our self-confidence.  You don’t need to pay for it!  The agent works FOR the client (huh…that’s why we’re called CLIENTS and not EMPLOYEES) so it floors me that she would be directing your friend’s career in such an intrusive manner.  Yes, my agent gives me advice…but only when I ask for it and only after picking my brain about what I WANT to do so she can come up with the best ways for me to be able to do that.

    Yes, the market is tough right now.  Yes, some agents have more than enough clients and aren’t actively looking for new ones (Kristen Nelson, who has a very active blog presence, only took on two new clients last year, if memory serves.)  But there’s someone out there for her if her work is marketable.

    Key word: marketable.

    I can’t remember which self-help writing book talks about “crazy-makers.”  Is it Ann Lamont?  Maybe that Simple Abundance book.  Anyway, it is important to people who rely on their emotions to do their jobs (creative types!) to get crazy makers out of our lives if at all possible.  I can’t imagine paying a crazy maker 15% to take some of the joy out of my career.

    Now, maybe it’s not the agent’s fault, either.  You are, of course, only hearing the story from one perspective.  But clearly, your CP is not happy or confident with her agent’s ability to help direct her career…and that’s reason enough to end the relationship.

  8. 8
    Amie Stuart says:

    I’m still back on her agent makes her set up an appt to chat via email about stuff. Wow…just WOW!

    but what’s more terrifying is what can happen to your confidence and ultimately your career.

    Man! What Barb and Julie said. I don’t think I can add anything else.  You are an awesome friend and I know it’s hard sometimes to watch our friends fall down and get hurt, but sometimes we have no choice. Just keep being an awesome friend :D

  9. 9
    katiebabs says:

    The author has to do what is best for her. She seems so unhappy. She should find a new agent because her current agent doesn’t seem to really care about her interests.  I would tell her start looking.

  10. 10

    You know, I understand why this friend feels this way—there was a point when it seemed to me like having an agent was a magic ticket to get you over the no-unagented-submissions barrier, and then, you know, if the editor likes your work, I figured it doesn’t much matter.

    But then I saw how much my agent did for me that wasn’t just about the sale, and now I am such an advocate for good agenting.  I never really understood how a bad agent was worse than no agent, but it is so true.  Agenting is like dating.  It sucks to be alone, but if your agent is abusive—and it sounds like this one is, because what is more typical of abuse than shooting down someone’s self confidence?—it’s better to be independent.

    Still, it sounds like your friend knows all this—she just needs to overcome her fear and get over it.  I think the best thing you can do is build up her confidence—same as with a woman abusive husband.  Tell her how awesome her writing is.  Try to undo the psychological damage this agent is doing.  Tell her she can make it, if she follows her heart and her strengths.  And then hope that she believes you.  :)

  11. 11

    And arg, that should be “a woman with an abusive husband.”  Way to not write a coherent sentence, Courtney.

  12. 12

    Personally, I think the best thing to do is whatever you can to boost her up. It is indeed scary thinking of hunting for a new agent, but the thing to remember is that if you got one, chances are you’ll get another.

    If fear of not finding another agent is what’s driving your friend, I’d do whatever I could to remind her of that. That she is talented. That any agent would jump at the chance to rep someone as talented and smart and wonderful as she is. That there are lots of agents out there, good ones, for her to try. Yes, by all means, have her read some agent blogs and see what they say about the agent/client relationship. The idea of making an appointment to send emails is outrageous; I don’t even make appointments to call my agent on the phone (although I generally don’t call, as he’s busy and so am I; but if I called him right this minute there’s not a doubt in my mind he would talk to me), much less by email. Your friend deserves better than this; we all deserve better than that. You’ve already proven what a good friend you are. I encourage you to continue being so, by doing whatever you can to boost your friend’s confidence.

    What about your agent? I assume you and your CP write in the same or very similar genres, have you thought about getting her in touch with your agent? What about the agents of the colleagues you mention? Would any of them be willing to help—an email that says something like “My agent mentioned just the other day how much s/he wanted a project like yours; I wish I could refer you to him/her!” in a friendly, enthusiastic way? Knowing that she has a support system like that, and hopefully a few options, may give her the courage and confidence to make the break. Is your relationship with your agent such that you could explain the situation, and see if they’d be willing to take a look at your friend’s work (after she makes the break of course)?

    You didn’t mention whether or not this agent had been able to sell her work; I’m guessing not, because if she had a book or books under contract she wouldn’t be so scared. But it’s obvious this agent is not going to be the one to sell her work, and she’s unfortunately spinning her wheels. Seeing a fellow writer—especially one with real talent—stuck with a bad agent is one of the most heartbreaking things there is, at least to me. I really hope your friend finds an agent who’s right for her, and I wish you both the best of luck.

  13. 13

    The biggest warning bell ringing here, for me, is the agent being unresponsive and requiring appointments for emails.  How the heck does that work?  If I send you an email regarding an issue, do you not then have said email?  What would an appointment entail?

    Either we’re not getting all the details, or the agent is in fact unresponsive.  Now, the CP may be the kind of person who’s nagging the agent four times every day, which throws the blame ball back to her.  But if she’s not, if she’s writing on occasion with a legitimate concern, then maybe it’s time to fire this agent and either go it alone, or look for a new one.

    I have heard repeatedly in this business that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all, and everything I’ve seen backs this up.  I also wonder if this agent is a member of AAR and has legitimate credentials and experience.

  14. 14
    Stephanie says:

    Friend – first call your CP up, tell her to read this blog and the comments.

    CP – if you’re reading this – GET OUT NOW. Staying with an agent who doesn’t get you, your strengths, and who doesn’t respond in a timely fashion is time suckage. In this industry where everything can take up to a year or more, you can lose two years, three years, maybe more – staying in a bad relationship with an agent.

    It sucks to have to search again. I get it. But it sucks worse – in my opionion – to waste time.

    I spent years going to conferences attending every agent panel/workshop/author-agent class there was as well as trying to do the appointment stuff – just so I could get a sense of the personalities. Listen to them, feel them out, then figure out who you think you can work with. It helps. A lot. So do the blogs.

    I swear just reading that letter reminds me of the 3 years I spent with agent 1. It just wasn’t a match. No ones fault. Just not a match. You get divorced. You move on.

  15. 15

    This agent’s unwillingness to accept calls, emails, etc, strikes me as unsupportive.  I work with a small agency and my agent is always available when I need her.

    However—I have a different view of what makes a good agent.  For me, the most important thing isn’t how an agent interacts with her authors.  It’s how she sells their books to editors.

    My agent is a tough cookie.  It’s just her style.  I don’t always take her advice, and I try not to be oversensitive about her criticisms.  Writers need to be confident enough to make their own decisions and believe in their own work. 

    If this agent won’t continue to represent her client unless she falls in line, they should part ways.  If the author can stand up for herself, and write what she wants to write, maybe they can continue to work together.

  16. 16
    Suze says:

    DTMFA.  If CP is scared to fire her agent before she goes looking for a new one, no problem.  It’s not a marriage, it’s a business relationship.  I’ve looked for other jobs before quitting the one I was in.  She can shop for a new agent before firing the one she has.

    I don’t know of anything more frustrating that watching someone you care about stay in an abusive, unproductive situation because they fear moving into the unknown.  Keep on supporting CP.  Not nagging, because then you’ll just add to her stress, but sympathizing and helping her research other agents.

    Have you checked Writer Beware to see if the unresponsive agent is identified?  Checking out the list of bad agents, and WHY they’re bad agents, might help CP crystallize her issues.

  17. 17
    P.N. Elrod says:

    An inept agent is worse than no agent at all.

    Remind her the agent works for the writer, not the other way around.

    She needs to fire this agent and get a better one.

    And not to worry, this is done every day. She does not need to be with someone who keeps torpedoing her!

    Finding the right agent is like finding the right spouse. Sometimes it’s not a good fit and you have to end the deal and find a better one.

    Send her to MY agent: Lucienne Diver


    I cannot say enough good things about that woman. She gets behind a client 200%, and is NEVER too busy to take a phone call, though that’s hardly necessary as she keeps one wholly informed.

  18. 18

    I want to second everything Julie Leto said above. No author should expect a “perfect” relationship with their agent, but trust in their agent’s business skills and ease in their professional correspondence is critical. An agent is supposed to be an author’s advocate and the person an author trusts to guide their career to its fullest potential. If your friend can’t even trust her agent to reply to her emails/phone calls (assuming they’re business related and not “chatty” in nature), then how can she trust this agent with something as valuable as her writing career?

    The decision, though, has to be your friend’s. Encourage her to read the post here and the replies, and also to express her needs to her agent. Maybe the agent doesn’t realize your friend is expecting more from her.

  19. 19
    Leslie H says:

    To all my CP…I DID NOT write this letter.

    But I COULD have.

    There is a HELL of a lot of truth in this. Abusive realtionships are not just parents and spouses! They are employers, agents, siblings and ‘friends’. YOU have to be tough enough to walk away even if it is into the unknown.

  20. 20
    Morgan says:

    Suze said:

    If CP is scared to fire her agent before she goes looking for a new one, no problem.  It’s not a marriage, it’s a business relationship.  I’ve looked for other jobs before quitting the one I was in.  She can shop for a new agent before firing the one she has.

    Is that really ethical (looking for a new agent before the old one is fired), if you are under contract with your agent? I am given to understand that such a thing would be breach of contract—or, if not, just extremely unprofessional behaviour that may come back to haunt you later. Am I way out of line here? If so, please educate me :o)

  21. 21
    Keri Ford says:

    If CP is scared to fire her agent before she goes looking for a new one, no problem.  It’s not a marriage, it’s a business relationship.  I’ve looked for other jobs before quitting the one I was in.  She can shop for a new agent before firing the one she has.

    Is that really ethical (looking for a new agent before the old one is fired), if you are under contract with your agent? I am given to understand that such a thing would be breach of contract—or, if not, just extremely unprofessional behaviour that may come back to haunt you later. Am I way out of line here? If so, please educate me :o)

    Morgan, I’ve always had the understanding that NO, you don’t do this. For the simple reason that publishing is a very small world and there’s a very good chance you could be quering your terrible agent’s good friend and she doesn’t get blindsided by the news.

    I’ve also heard that the agent would like to know before you start shopping so the agent can discuss with the author on why she’d like to leave her to see if they can reach a new agreement.

  22. 22
    Jessa Slade says:

    Fear is a terrible thing. All F&S;can do is what she’s doing: Fume and support. And actually, F&S;might want to think about letting go of the fuming part. I have writing friends who have been unwilling or unable to fight for their own careers or potential careers, and I found that my angst on my friends’ behalf wasn’t all that productive. Like Jeaniene said, the decision needs to be CP’s.

    On the supportive end, SFWA has pages of great info about evaluating agents that might help CP see what a healthy professional relationship should look like.

  23. 23
    Suze says:

    I’ve also heard that the agent would like to know before you start shopping so the agent can discuss with the author on why she’d like to leave her to see if they can reach a new agreement.

    Okay, if it’s specified in the contract or considered in bad form within the publishing world, then no, don’t shop around before firing her (or him.  Why am I assuming it’s a woman?).

    I’d be reading the contract closely, though, to see what my options are if I’m dissatisfied with the service.  I’d also be looking around in the publishing world to see what other people do when unhappy in an artist-agent relationship.

    Professional people always welcome feedback to adjust behaviours, but this agent doesn’t sound very professional at all.  If she’s treating her clients (source of income) so disrespectfully, I’m wondering what her relationships with editors are like.

  24. 24
    JaneyD says:

    Yes, it’s not the done thing to “go behind” the agent’s back.

    I did that and it wasn’t nice of me, but at that point I was “window shopping” , and let prospects know from the start that I was “only looking.” I assured them I would fire the old agent before going aboard with a new one.

    If one is uncomfortable doing that, then fire the old agent first before hunting for a new one.

    It’s not like you’re going to lose any sales if the old one is such a screw-up.

    Tell the new one “it just didn’t work out” and be professionally silent on just why. If they’ve been in the industry for any amount of time, they can guess why, especially if the old agent has a “reputation.”

    As has been stated here, check your contract if you have one.

    And like PN Elrod said, the agent works for the writer, not the other way around.

  25. 25
    Anonymous Happily Agented Author says:

    I personally think it’s BS that you don’t go looking for/exploring a new agent before you fire your current one.

    I know that many people think that for some reason it’s unethical, but in my opinion, it’s not.

    Just as a poster above said that they’d never leave a current job before looking for a new one, why would you leave an agent before at least investigating a replacement?

    Now, before everyone jumps on this, let me say first that I agree a bad agent is NO GOOD for anyone. But assuming that you’re an author and looking for another agent—for whatever reason—I see no reason why you can’t do investigation. Discussion. Off the record consultation.

    It happens all the time in business, and, as we’re reminded again and again in the publishing world: it’s a business. It’s not personal when our work is rejected or our books are dropped from a house because the numbers aren’t there. It’s business.

    Well, so is preserving your own career. And if that means putting out feelers, having discussions and conversations with other agents before you decide to make a move…then so be it.

    I have talked to several multi-published authors who have said the same thing: they would not terminate a business relationship with their agent until they’d at least investigated, and had some sort of confidence in, a replacement. Some of them have indeed done so.

    Obviously, actually signing a new contract while you’re currently contracted to an agent is questionable—depending what your contract says. My contracts are not with the agent/agency, but with the publisher, and in those contracts, my agent/agency is identified for that particular contract/books.

    But if/when I decide to shop for a new agent, you bet your bippy I’ll be interviewing and discussing potential relationships before making a decision to move. How else will I have an idea as to whether it’s the right move for me?

    And as to the point of embarrassing yourself by soliciting from your current agent’s best friend…eh. You can make good decisions about how you go about doing so, and who you speak to. A good agent is used to confidentiality, and you can find out who knows whom. You can even have “introductions” made by other clients, etc.

    I think that the stance that it’s unethical is a myth that’s perpetuated by people who are too afraid of their agents (or the thought of an agent) to do anything but sit there and be told what to do. 

    I know many people in the business, and none of them (privately, off the record anyway) buy into this “rule.”

  26. 26
    Julie Leto says:

    AHAA makes very good points and I don’t disagree.  That said, I do know that many agents do talk to one another on a regular basis and the prospective new agent has absolutely no reason to be confidential about a client of a friend contacting them.  So you really have to trust that this person is not going to rat you out (and therefore, muddy your name in publishing) before you contact them.  But then again, you only want to work with people you trust, right?

    It’s a double-edged sword, but AHAA is right that it can be done if handled well.

    However, if the author in question is not published, then she offers little to the new agent unless she has a new, marketable idea to offer.  It’s different from a multi-published author with contracts coming in.

    Additionally, I wanted to point out that AHAA also has a wise situation in her contract—she contracts with her publisher, NOT her agent.  I believe that is usually the best way to go.

    But all of this is immaterial IMO.  A bad agent is so much worse than no agent (in each and EVERY case) that I see no reason not to fire the agent and move on with the search.  Who cares if you have a backup or not?  If the other agent is wholly ineffective, you’ve got nothing to lose!  What exactly is this ineffective agent doing that makes them worth keeping while you look????

  27. 27
    little old me says:

    Thank you P.N. Elrod for the link. It is always nice to hear about agents from their writers. Anyone else have an agent that they think is fab?

  28. 28
    Nonny says:

    Little Old Me… I assume you are probably the original writer of the e-mail? I’m not agented myself, but in addition to this site, I’d recommend hopping over to Romance Divas, joining up, and asking the question about agents for your friend there. We have a lot of people that are agented or have been with not-so-great agents in the past that would be happy to PM you info or point you in good directions for what she writes. Absolute Write‘s forums are also a place you might look. :)

    Best of luck to you and your friend. Others have already said what I would… that is such a sucky situation to be in. My thoughts are with you guys.

  29. 29
    S. W. Vaughn says:

    Anyone else have an agent that they think is fab?

    Ooh! Me! :)

    Cameron McClure, with the Donald Maass agency. She’s wonderful, and extremely patient. Practically a saint. *G*

    I have to agree with many of the comments above. This just doesn’t sound like a good working relationship. And I sympathize with the OP’s friend – just the thought of casting off the ‘agented’ tag gives me the shakes. Seems like it’d be nightmarish to start all over again.

    But then, I can’t say how many times I’ve started over, because I’ve been involved with less-than-reputable publishers (and even an agent), and it does hurt a lot. But it’s always been for the best, when the initial breaking up is over.

  30. 30
    Julie Leto says:

    My agent is Helen Breitwieser of Cornerstone Literary, a boutique agency in Los Angeles, though she cut her teeth agenting at William Morris in NYC.  She’s been my one and only agent and we work together fabulously.  Love her!

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