by Tess Gerritsen
Recently, several different writers seeking my advice have asked me this very question. It’s a question that makes me squirm, because there’s no easy answer.It’s like being asked, “Should I divorce my wife?” The wrong advice could be disastrous. And the problems these writers told me about weren’t clear cut enough for me to comfortably give a firm answer one way or the other.
They complained that the agent wasn’t selling their work fast enough. Or the agent wasn’t communicating often enough. Or the agent no longer sounded enthusiastic about the manuscript. These writers were growing more and more uneasy with the relationship, but they didn’t know if things were bad enough yet to call it quits.
The indecision was driving them crazy, and they wanted me to tell them what to do.
Which of course I can’t, because I’m not in their shoes. But I can tell them my experiences with agents during my career.
I’ve been published for twenty-one years, and I’m on my third literary agent. I think that’s probably about average for a veteran author, although I have no firm data on that; it’s just what I hear from talking to other authors.
My first agent came highly recommended to me by an editor. He had a big name in the business, and I was overjoyed when he took me on as a client. He sold my first book (to Harlequin) and I assumed we’d have a long and happy association. The book was published, had good reviews, and I sat back and waited for sales figures.
And waited and waited.
A year and a half went by. I received no royalty checks or royalty statements. I was a meek and extremely naïve young author, so I assumed this was simply business as usual. I wanted to know what was happening, but I was terrified of offending this high-powered agent, so I was hesitant to even call him and ask him point-blank what was happening. Instead I wrote a polite letter or two (this was before the age of email), asking him how the book was selling. His replies were something along the lines of, “there are no royalties because the book didn’t sell all that well.”
Finally, at a conference, I met another Harlequin author whose book had come out the same month mine did, and she said that she’d already received several royalty statements and checks. Even if I wasn’t receiving checks, she said, I should be getting royalty statements.
It was now two years since my book had come out and at last I was starting to get suspicious. You probably think I sound terribly dense, but at the time I didn’t know any other writers. There was no online network, no easy way to ask for advice. And the last thing I wanted to do was challenge my agent because I was afraid of losing him. I was like an abused wife in a bad marriage, desperate to stay married, unwilling to even admit that I was being abused.
Finally, I got up the courage to call Harlequin directly and ask if they had, just by chance, issued any royalty statements. Oh yes, they said. And they’d sent my agent two thousand dollars in royalty checks as well – money that my agent had been pocketing for two years.
When confronted with the facts, my agent told me that there’d simply been a clerical error in his office – that for two years, his staff had sent my royalty statements and checks to another client with a similar name. Ha ha, what a careless mistake, but these things happen. At last, he mailed me the money he owed me.
That’s when I fired him. But it had taken me two years to do it, two years of agonizing over my decision. Only later did I learn that this same agent did the same thing to a far more prominent, internationally bestselling author – to the tune of millions of dollars. So as a victim, I was in good company.
For a few years, I went unagented. Since I was still writing romance for Harlequin, I was able to sell my next few books directly to the publisher, without having to pay a commission to any agent. The arrangement made sense, as long as I kept writing category romance. But as the years went by, my aspirations grew. I wanted to write bigger books, mainstream books, and I knew I needed an agent to make that move.
So I signed on with Agent #2.
She was prompt and professional, and we had a good working relationship. But her health was a problem, and within a few years, she retired. Before she left the business, she recommended a number of agents whom she admired and she suggested I query them.
That’s how I ended up with Agent #3, who has been my agent for thirteen years and has guided me and helped build my career into what it is today.
Every writer’s career runs along its own individual trajectory, but I think there are a few lessons one can take away from my own experiences with agents.
The first lesson is obvious: fiscal dishonesty is an immediate firing offense. If you have proof that your agent is fooling around with the books, or withholding money, you must end the relationship. This decision is an easy one.
Lack of communication is another one that ranks high on my list of unacceptability. If you must call or write repeatedly before your agent responds, then something is seriously wrong. I’m not talking about the weeks when she’s on vacation or in the hospital; I’m talking about times when she’s in the office and simply avoiding you for days on end. This is not the kind of agent you can work with.
Dishonesty about submission information would also be a reason to fire an agent. If she refuses to tell you where she’s sent the manuscript, if at all, then how do you know if she’s doing her job? How do you know if she’s gotten offers and turned them down? Agents need to be frank with you about the progress they’ve made with selling or not selling your manuscript. If she’s not circulating your work, if it’s just sitting on her desk, then what’s the point of having her as your agent?
Finally, there’s the matter of enthusiasm. Sometimes, an agent may take on a client with great excitement, and then fail to sell the manuscript. Over time, she may lose faith in the story, or in the client. And that loss of faith may come through in her voice when you talk to her. This might be remedied if you then deliver a second manuscript that’s terrific – and get her excited again. Or her disillusionment may grow to the point where she’s just going through the motions of sending out the book. Or she starts to hunt for ways to gently tell you she no longer wants to represent you. This break-up is one of the hard decisions, because there’s nothing inherently wrong between you. It’s like a marriage between two people who have simply drifted apart, and it may take months or years for it to finally end.
And yet, end it probably will. Whether sooner or later is the question.
Now, I’ve written this entirely from the writer’s perspective. I’m sure agents have their own stories to tell about nightmarish writers or difficult breakups. I do hope they’ll write me with their stories (yes, anonymously if you’d like). I’d love to hear an agent’s point of view on this topic.