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.
Tess, this is a very helpful post for a young writer like me.
My first agent experience was like your final example. The agent was very enthusiastic up front, sent out the pitch (and then manuscript) to all of the best editors, sent me notes on the progress, but then when no publisher got excited about the book, the relationship with the agent drifted and drifted. When someone works with me, I’ll encourage them and build them up and bring out the best in them, and I could tell she was depressed about the responses from editors.
So I just kept telling her she was doing a great job, and that it would only take perseverance and finding the right editor.
Months went by like this.
It was miserable.
But no one was really doing anything wrong. We finally had a heart-to-heart; it really felt like two pet owners talking about putting their beloved dog to sleep.
She was so emotionally drained she didn’t want to see any other work from me. So broken was her spirit, she expressed doubt that she would ever represent fiction again. And I think she has focused primarily on celebrity non-fiction books ever since.
Tess, this is a complete tutorial for writers, including the cautionary tale of your first agent.
I have a lot of beginning writers asking me the same kind of questions: they’re so pleased to have secured an agent that they’re unwilling to part with her even if she doesn’t return their phone calls or emails for months at a time.
I can understand their hesitation. Starting all over in the agent search would be daunting. But your abused wife analogy puts it all into perspective.
Thanks for a great post.
Excellent, Tess. Like Louise says, a complete tutorial. Ultimately it’s the relationship between the agent and writer that is most important… whether strictly a business relationship, or, hopefully, one that has a large dose of supportive enthusiasm…as long as it’s a positive relationship and you can talk to each other as equals then things are probably good. If you can’t, it’s time to start looking around. It is a partnership, neither can succeed without the other’s help. Open communications is a must.
Very good post, Tess, and the comparison to divorce is apt. It shouldn’t be, since it is, after all, supposed to be purely business, but there you are.
Tess, invaluable information. It’s so hard for new writers to know if their demands are legitimate, and you’ve laid it all out nicely. Thanks!
That’s really great information. A lot of times, we’re afraid to step on toes that NEED to be stepped on, especially when it comes to dealing with our livelihood. Concerning your first agent, it’s amazing what people think they can get away with, isn’t it?! I’m glad you had the courage to stand up for yourself and get to an agent who helped you get to where you are now!
Tess,What a useful and wonderful post. What’s great is that you give tangible reasons for a change and they’re all spot-on.
Thank you so much.
Ms. Gerritsen,Thank you so much for this post. After reading agent blogs, many of whom say something along the lines of “If you need hand-holding or weekly reports, I’m not the agent for you”, and feeling like my wanting to understand the business better would be seen as needy or requiring “hand-holding”, this post has helped me a lot. It’s good to see the writer’s side of this conversation. Thank you.
Good post, Tess! The BookEnds Literary agency blog has an informative post on the same subject today, from an agent’s POV. It might set some peoples’ minds at ease:http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/2008/08/stigma-of-changing-agents.html
Kathryn, thanks for the link! That’s another question that I”m often asked — are authors stigmatized for changing agents. As an author, and you help clarify that point. Many authors have switched agents over their careers – and it hasn’t hurt them at all.
However, when I hear that an author has had ten or more agents, I’m more likely to view the author as the problem, and not all those agents.
Great post, Tess. Fortunately I have a good relationship with my agent, but this is valuable information for those of us new to the game. Paljon Kiitoksia!
My first agent wasn’t dishonest, but let’s just say he wasn’t crazy about paperwork. He earnestly assured me that the IRS doesn’t REALLY need 1099 forms. He didn’t think I really NEEDED royalty statements if there was no check attached that quarter. Well, yeah, he DID notice that the royalty rate on a contract was incorrect, but he figured that since it was only one percent lower than agreed… .
He was always month or two late sending royalty checks, but there were always good reasons: he wife had chicken pox, he was on vacation in Florida for several weeks, he ran out of stamps. I kid you not. He ran out of freaking stamps.
Even so, making the break was difficult to do, and took me far too long. If you have to chase your agent for royalty statements, payments, tax reporting, and contracts, it’s probably time to make a change. An agent should remove a layer of tasks, not add one.
Hahaha-there must be a ton of people out there with names like Tess Gerritsen-that agent was just a crook stealing another person’s creative output.
Tess, sorry to come late to this one (story of my life)
I am on my second literary agent. I refuse to put anything in writing about the first one, but it was ‘an experience’ let me put it that way – one that nearly made me pull out of the business altogether.
My current agent is one of the best in the business, and I was fantastically lucky to be invited to join her list. I’m aware that you don’t often get a second chance.
I’m torn on whether it’s time to dump mine (highly respected; AAR member; great client list). I signed with her nearly two years ago. She showed great enthusiasm with my first book initially, but it never sold. During that time, her communications went from 24-hours to, “It’s been a week, and I never got a reply to my last email.”
She’s had a submissions draft for several weeks, and she said she was going to send my next book out soon, but I can’t help but feel the enthusiasm just isn’t there any more. A part of me wonders if she’s *ever* going to send it out. Why should she bother with a client who’s only costing her money; not making any?
I wish someone could tell me what to do, but I know it’s a decision I’m going to have to make myself. Preferably before I lose another book.
Zoe — (and others) it’s so nice to find that there are so many other authors who have experienced the same thing I have — I landed my former agent so quickly (in the first round of queries) that my head was spinning and I probably didn’t do enough REAL digging on her or I would have learned some of the grumbles from former clients. After deciding to “go our separate ways” after strong interest from a major house fell through (as did her enthusiasm), I’m finding that landing a second agent isn’t as easy as it was the first time. Many many many times I’ve questioned my decision and wondered if I should have just stuck it out — but when nothing is happening (or you’re not told of anything that is happening), isn’t it better to be out there trying to make something happen on your own rather than sitting around wasting time? Maybe I rationalize, but even if I never land another agent, I know continuing the co-dependent “will she respond today?” mentality would have driven me totally bonkers. Best of luck to everyone!!