Is It Time, Dear Writer, To Ditch Your Literary Agent?

It used to happen once every couple of months. Then once every month, now I’m up to about once a week. What I’m talking about is, authors emailing me to see if it’s time to leave their agents.

When this happens, the writer often frames it like, “Well, how do you and your agent do things?”

And I say things like:

ME: She sells my books? I dunno, I write them, and then Stacia helps them navigate the BOILING CHAOS STORM that is the publishing industry?

THEM: But what about emails?

ME: Emails, like, Hillary’s emails?

THEM: No, does your agent answer your emails?

ME: Well, of course.

THEM: In what timeframe?

ME: A reasonable one? Actually, an unreasonably fast one, usually — within the day, sometimes within the hour. Pretty fast turnaround to questions and stuff.

THEM: She not only responds to your emails, but she responds to them quickly?

ME: She does, and in fact endures a great deal of nonsense from me, including occasional Career Freakouts and other psychological gesticulations. But given your response, I’m guessing yours doesn’t… respond at all?

And from there, we uncover a host of uncomfortable sins. And this can be for a lot of reasons. Maybe the agent is wrong for you, or you’re wrong for her. Maybe she’s too new. Maybe she has too many clients. Maybe you’re too small a client and she’s got bigger beasts to hunt. Maybe she’s a terrible agent — or maybe you need to recalibrate your needs.

I never really like to recommend that a writer leave her agent — not because that’s a bad idea, but because I’m not comfortable being the one to say, YEAH, TIME TO JUMP OUTTA THE PLANE, as that’s awfully easy for me to say, because I’m buckled up in a nice, cozy seat. Telling you to do the hard thing is easy when I don’t have to do it with you. Plus, then you jump out of the plane, get sucked into a turbine, are turned into a red mist, oops.

That said, there is a calculus involved in determining whether or not to persist in the relationship, and that calculus is different for every author. But — but! — I do think that there are things, mmm, nnny’know, you should look out for, just in case. If enough of these boxes are checked, maybe it’s time to consider moving on. Let us discuss some of these:

1. Your agent doesn’t communicate with you in a timely manner — or at all. That’s not good. Your agent is the champion of your book and ostensibly, your career. They are its babysitter — and I don’t mean that dismissively, I mean, you want your child to be in capable hands, and further, you want that babysitter to answer the phone if you would like to find out how your baby is doing. If you go weeks without hearing anything from an agent, or months, or forever, you have a problem. It probably means they forgot your baby at the mall.

2. Your agent has little idea about your career. I am a firm believer that an agent should rep more than a book — the agent reps the author and, by proxy, the author’s drinking habits I mean career. I’ve had long conversations with my agent about strategy and about different editors and publishers and genres and also about where you can get a really good margarita. Okay, the margarita thing is secondary, but just the same, my career is viewed as having a trajectory — an arc, not a single point in time — thanks to talks with my agent.

3. You pay the agent. I shouldn’t even have to say this, but if you’re paying the agent up front — as in, not a commission off sales — you probably got yourself a scammer on your hands. Remember: the money flows to the author, not away from the author. A reputable agent is one you pay a commission to — meaning, they’re only making money when you’re making money.

4. Your agent doesn’t seem to like your books. This is a thing. I’ve seen it. I don’t understand it. But any time the agent gets a new draft of your book, they tell you in words minced or unminced that they don’t like it, they can’t sell it, won’t rep it. Now, a good agent will tell you the truth about a book if it doesn’t work — it’s not their job to pass a hunk of crap up the publishing ladder just because Baby Huey will throw a tantrum otherwise. But it’s also possible there’s a very real disconnect between you and the agent in terms of what they like. Worth a look at the rest of the agent’s catalogue in terms of authors and books she reps. If you’re made to feel like an ugly duckling in a flock of preening peacocks, might be time to scout elsewhere.

5. Your agent doesn’t seem to like your chosen genres. This is also a thing. You write erotic epic choose-your-own-adventure books, your agent reps self-help books for narcoleptic parrot-owners, and ne’er the two shall meet. You want an agent familiar with the genre of what you write, not just in terms of the books themselves but also in terms of the industry circles and imprints that support that genre.

6. Your agent is not the right size. It sounds great having a rock star agent who reps mega-clients, and certainly it can be. But having known a few authors who were with some high-profile agents at the time they were debut authors, they often felt lost or under-sized in comparison — they were not, quite simply, a priority.

7. You’re doing the work. Some authors end up being the ones to pitch editors and seal deals, with the agent there mostly skimming off the success of the author. This isn’t common, but I’ve seen it happen — the author is the one doing the leg work, the submitting, the everything, and then the agent just passes along the contract and boom, 15% collected.

8. The agent seems to be on the side of the publisher, not the author. An agent who defends unethical publishing behaviors is not an agent you want to have. You certainly don’t want an agent who is hostile to publishing, and who has a realistic view of what you can get away with and what slings and arrows you’re probably going to have to suffer — further, you also don’t want to be a prima donna to the agent, acting like, WELL, YOU DIDN’T GET ME A MILLION DOLLAR ADVANCE SO OBVIOUSLY YOU LOVE THE PUBLISHER MORE THAN ME. But at the same time, an agent who seems to be more interested in protecting his relationship with the publisher than the relationship he shares with you, the author… eek, yeah, no, not good.

9. Your agent just ain’t selling your books. Something just isn’t coming together, but your books ain’t moving. Assuming you have confidence in those books, it may be time to look further afield for a new agent. It’s not a personal thing — but if a real estate agent were not helping to sell your house (or at least helping you to understand why the house isn’t selling), then some new blood may be necessary. And by “new blood” I do not mean human sacrifices, please be advised. Human sacrifices are a no-no. That’s how publishing used to work but new regulations have strictly forbidden it blah blah blah, so now it’s no longer “politically correct” to sacrifice humans and — well, it is what it is, so you may just need to find a new agent.

10. Something just isn’t right. This is an unquantifiable thing, I know, but sometimes in any relationship — things aren’t jiving. The gears keep slipping. The agent doesn’t like you. Or you don’t like him. You don’t ever feel on the same page. Something feels off, weird, like you’re forever out-of-sync. You and your agent don’t need to be friends, but this is ideally a relationship that will go on, so if something isn’t right, it’s worth figuring out what it is and if your gut is trying to tell you something.

Listen, I get it.

Getting an agent is tough. It feels wildly special, like you’ve been given the keys to the first gate of the kingdom, and you feel like losing the agent is giving away the keys. But understand now that a bad relationship with an agent is almost certainly worse than no relationship at all. And if you were good enough to get an agent on the first go around, I’d argue you have a good shot the next time, too. (Plus: self-publishing remains a viable, if crowded, arena. Though even there I’d argue you should eventually get an agent. I’ve sold some self-published stuff to publishers domestic and foreign, and that happened only because of my agent.) You need to recognize that you’re the one with the power — meaning, you’re the one with the kick-ass book that needs a home. The agent is a liaison, a loose partner, a valuable player with real insight — but the agent is not your boss. The agent is not the only agent that exists. The gate to the kingdom isn’t even real in the first damn place. You do what you gotta do for you and your book.

Before you go voting your agent off the island, though, do a few things —

First, make sure it’s not just you. Like, ask the tough questions — are you being unreasonable? Are you overreaching and creating unfair expectations?

Second, talk to some other authors — successful and unsuccessful. Ask around how they do things with their agent. Talk it through. Establish a baseline for “normal.”

Third, talk to your agent. Be upfront and honest about your concerns — politely, duh — and try to suss out what’s up. Maybe the agent feels it too. Maybe the agent can course-correct. You don’t need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. You can save the baby for later, because babies make great baby jerky when brined and smoked and dried and — wait, I’m doing the thing where I talk about eating babies again, aren’t I? Ha ha ha, my therapist told me I needed to stop doing that. *smacks self in forehead* STUPID WENDIG. STUPID STUPID WENDIG.

Then, if it’s time to truly say goodbye to your agent, you do it the right way, the correct and kind way, which is to say you gently pull the lever next to your desk and open the trapdoor beneath the agent’s feet, thus plunging them into the ACID BATH or BARRACUDA TANK that you built and —

*receives note*

*reads note*

Okay, don’t do that.

No acid baths.

No barracuda tanks.

Trap doors also a no-no, apparently.



*long sigh*

Fine, I guess what you do is, you write a nice letter and blah blah blah you let them go live on a nice farm upstate. Be sure not to procure a new agent before you end your relationship with the former, and also if you have existing books on submission or contracts in play, you need to talk to the agent to see how that gets handled. (If you have an agency agreement, it should outline that. You want to make sure that the agency gets its due for work done, but also isn’t able to invest in you or your work long after you have left them. Like with any publishing relationship, read the damn contracts and protect your booty.)

It’s hard out there in PublishingLand, so do what you gotta. As always try to approach others with empathy and compassion. Be smart, be kind, watch your six, eat your Wheaties, buy my books.

(EDIT: it’s also worth noting the obvious thing that’s not always that obvious, but if the agent is also in some way bigoted, creepy, or harrassment-y, yeah, that’s also a tremendous red flag.)

* * *


“Think Thomas Harris’ Will Graham and Clarice Starling rolled into one and pitched on the knife’s edge of a scenario that makes Jurassic Park look like a carnival ride. Another rip-roaring, deeply paranoid thriller about the reasons to fear the future.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Out now where books are sold.




27 responses to “Is It Time, Dear Writer, To Ditch Your Literary Agent?”

    • Been there. Except in my case, there was no contract signed and when, after two years I wasn’t able to write what the agent wanted me to, to fit in with the market, we parted.
      Initial response? Devastated. BUT – the fact that I’d been forced into trying to write something that wasn’t ‘me’ made me think about – and actually write – what I DID want to. Over the next five years I polished the two novels I’d worked on with her, learnt more about the craft (thanks, Chuck!) and finally approached an indie publisher direct, fully believing they’d say no and I’d end up self-pubbing. They said yes.

      Would I look for another agent now that I’m published? Probably not. They are extremely worthwhile if you are going for a big deal, but I have accepted I’m only ever going to be small fry in the book world, so I don’t think I need one. Yet.

  1. This may seem like a low question ‘like if I already wrote a book then I should know how to get an agent’ but what’s the best way to get one?

    Do I look through that overwhelming list on the Marketplace?

    I’m not one to give up but lately I’m thinking of starting over, ditching everything, social medias, marketing, etc. Nothing is working except for me. Any advice? I’m tired of begging and rejection letters tell me I’m better than that.

    Frankly, I’d like to just write and let someone who knows what they are doing pitch for me, but I may not be in that realm as yet. So, I think I should not care anymore and let someone find me. One day away from the edge …

    Or maybe I’ll swan dive.

    • makes the search process less overwhelming. If there’s a problem with your query letter of your manuscript, it won’t help, but it is invaluable for locating agents and managing queries.

  2. Chuck, Chuck… babies have TOO MUCH FAT to make good jerky. Takes too long to dry out. OTOH, try baby pemmican… delish!

  3. Love the real estate agent analogy. When my mom sold her house a few years ago, her agent nitpicked in all the right places, from removing a vase that crowded a corner and made the room look an inch smaller to the big stuff, like painting, etc. She adopted my mother’s house like it was hers, nurtured it down to its baseboards, and got my mom a fab deal. It wasn’t always fun, but they got it done right.

  4. I did a year with an agent who got a book ‘like mine’ (whatever that really means) on Oprah. Because, how’s a green newbie to resist a phone call from a person with that sort of record? But it was soul destroying. Okay, just voice destroying, I can’t prove existence of soul. And she did, in fact, seem to hate the book after that first phone call where she seemed to ‘get’ it and we agreed on the direction for revisions. I am weirdly comforted to know it’s a thing.

    Of course I’m now agent-less, but we live in hope. And perhaps the next time the writing gods will bring me an agent who is a straightforward human being. Also your advice on what a first chapter has to do is painfully true and ridiculously wise, so perhaps I’ll have better choices next time round, who knows. Your blog rocks. Thank you!

  5. The relationship with an agent always has to stand the usual tests of professional conduct and it’s remarkable how many don’t meet it. Here in New Zealand the agency system is almost non-existent – the place is too small, and everybody essentially ends up knowing everybody else. I still remember the time I rang up Penguin’s NZ office, asked to speak to the managing editor – who I’d never met before – and got put straight through. I pitched and sold a book to him, over the phone – and he put the time in to listen. THAT would never happen in New York. But that’s New Zealand for you (to be fair, when I did it, I was pretty well known here as an author, and he knew who I was, but still…)

  6. I’ve had 4 agents. Seems excessive, I know. Agent #1 didn’t work out and we agreed to part company. It took me 9 years of dithering to find agent #2. She left the big NY agency she was with when I joined her to go solo and I followed her. So when she got out of agenting I didn’t have a backup as the agency contract had been dissolved. I got a book deal with DAW, and then has a choice of agents (5 good offers). I went with Amy from Donald Maass Literary. 3 years later, Amy has just left the agency. Now, my contract is with the agency so I knew they’d have to place me with another of their agents but – hey – they could have given me to the tea lady… BUT THEY DIDN’T. I’m delighted to announce that my new agent is Don Maass himself. We just had a long skype conference and… he’s brilliant. We got on well. Our ideas mesh. He’s already given me some great advice, and we’re talking again in a month. I am so happy.

    Emailing you separately about a blog post idea, Chuck.

  7. Are agents *really* the gatekeepers to book publishers these days?
    Do publishers really just throw out any manuscript that comes in without an agent’s cover letter?
    And if that’s the case, what are the ethics of acting as your own agent (aside from the problems of having two sole proprietor businesses instead of one)?

  8. This is a great article and thank you for writing it. I’m sorry to say that there are red flags here that I ignored for too long before I cut my agent loose. When I did, I had lost all of that valuable time. She did minimal work, was painfully slow in submitting anything, and I had to review and tweak her pitch letter myself. In a pre-arranged phone call, I had to wait and listen to a lot of rustling paper while she “found” my ms and file. She did have good editorial contacts, but the follow-through was poor. In retrospect, I chose someone who had a much larger self-image than an actual resume. Now I have no agent and, frankly, am extremely leery of even looking for one. It doesn’t help that the industry itself is so skewed. I think it’s one of the few businesses I know where folks barely out of undergraduate college get awarded a title, a bio and a headshot without actually having passed any major career milestones to deserve same. I’m going the small press route for now; I just don’t have the stomach for the pretend game in a larger game that’s already bare-bones depleted anyway.

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