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Telling the Truth About Client-Agent Problems

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article on The Passive Voice blog called, "I think my agent's dead, what to do?" The article shares a letter from a writer lamenting over her agent's long periods of silence and lack of communication.

After many months and repeated attempts at contacting her agent, the writer said this:

"I’m stuck wondering what happened to her and where does it leave me? Do I have an agent? Is my novel out there being considered? Or did she get terrible responses back from the editors and decide she hates it after all? Does she regret signing me on? Is that why she’s gone AWOL on me? Is she seriously ill? Dead? Did she quit her job? If she has dropped me, shouldn’t she let me know?"

The letter was interesting and sadly all too familiar. I wasn't too surprised to see over 100 plus comments from other writers sharing similar agent experiences. Over the years, I've heard stories from friends who've had frustrating and difficult periods with their agents.

Unfortunately, silence, poor communication, and uncertainty are all too common problems in agent-client relationships. 

In the age of self-publishing, many writers have decided to forgo the frustrations and have chosen not to have an agent at all. And that's a completely valid option.

For those who are traditionally published or hybrids (a combination of indie and traditional), then having an agent is still an important consideration.

Recently, I've changed agents. While I really liked my previous agent on a personal level, over time it had become clear to me that I needed a new agent to better fit my working needs. I didn't really consider the possibility of NOT having an agent, since I have too many projects in the traditional publishing fires.

During the whole process of changing agents, I realized that it's really difficult to know the quality of various agents out there. The majority of writers don't like to publicly bad-mouth anyone in the industry. So most of the time when we complain about agents or publishers, we tend to do so in general terms (without naming anyone specific).

Sometimes we say nothing at all because we blame ourselves for the problems. We think if only we were a better writer or more interesting person that perhaps our agent would like us better. And because none of our agent's other clients are saying anything, we think we're the only one having problems.

But staying silent about the problems doesn't help the writing community. Our silence only perpetuates the problems in the industry. And after all the frustrations I've heard about over the past few years, I'd like to see client-agent frustrations become the exception, rather than the norm.

So what should we writers do? Should we speak out more openly about our experiences?

Perhaps . . . if we can find a professional way to do it.

Of course, there is the Writer Beware site that lists thumbs down agents to steer away from.

But what about reputable agents? How do we know who's good and who's not? Who communicates well and who doesn't? Who works hard and knows the industry and who is just getting by?

My solution before switching agents was to get plenty of references on the new agent I was interested in approaching. I contacted several authors who'd been working with this agent for many years. And I asked them pointed questions about the quality of the agent, her work ethic, how she communicates, how often they experienced frustration, and any problems they'd had.

After getting their honest responses, I had a much clearer picture of the new agent. And then of course, I had a long conversation with the agent before signing, in which I shared some of my concerns.

Obviously, I'm not the world's perfect client. And there's no perfect agent either. But I think too often writers are settling for much less than they deserve in the client-agent relationship.

So my advice to anyone searching for an agent for the first time (or the second or third or more) is to make sure to get references. Ask current clients lots of questions. (Most agents have a client role on their website that you can look at.) Ask previous clients why they left that agent. And don't sign until you get a clear picture of how that agent operates.

Also, I would caution new writers from becoming so desperate for an agent that they end up ignoring red flags and settle for just anyone they can get. Such a decision could eventually do more harm than good.

What are your thoughts? Do you think writers need to be more open about agent problems? If so, how?

14 comments:

  1. Jody, this is a timely post for me. I was with a wonderful agent, but her style of agenting wasn't a good fit for me. Unlike most writers, I need help focusing on just one thing at a time because I get super excited about new possibilities. That excitement distracts me and pulls me away from productivity. I could easily spend the rest of my career flitting from thing to thing and finishing almost nothing. If I'd taken more time before signing I could have saved she and I both a lot of anguish and frustration. I wouldn't hesitate recommending this agent, but I add my caution to yours. Look before you leap when it comes to signing with an agent.

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    1. Hi Edie,

      Sometimes we have to switch agents because the style just isn't right for us. As you said, by talking with other writers before signing, you can learn a lot about not only about potential work problems, but about the agent's style as well. Because even if the agent has a great work ethic and good communication with clients, their style/personality may just not fit for any number of reasons.

      Thank you so much for adding to the discussion! :-)

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  2. Excellent post, Jody. I've had three agents, so I know what you mean. Honestly, every agent has a different communication style, and if you feel there's not enough communication PRE-contract, there will probably be just as little post-contract. Also, agents have different strengths, and you need to nail down what you're looking for in an agent before deciding. For example, some are editors, so they naturally spend lots of time editing your work, pre-submission. This can be an excellent thing and a learning experience, but it might not be crucial if you have many books to get out and just want an agent to MOVE things and submit quickly. Also, the connections agents have in the industry are uber-important. It really helps to have author friends you can trust to tell you, on the down-low, the strengths/weaknesses of their agents. Most are good! But some would not click with YOUR writing or communication style. And if an agent goes months without contacting an author, that's NEVER a good thing.

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    1. Heather, I know you are self-published. I'm showing my ignorance here, but how can an agent help a self-published author? I know they usually find a traditional publisher for their authors. Do they help you with publicity?

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  3. Jody, You've handled this post discreetly, and for that I congratulate you. The dilemma upon which both authors and agents find themselves impaled is that the more successful an agent is (and those are the ones we want, aren't they?), the less time they have for routine contact with their clients. Some authors want this, some are content to know their agent is spending that time working for them and other clients--fine-tuning proposals, talking with editors, hammering out contracts, etc. The answer probably lies in cloning, but we're not there yet. Until then, you've made an important point--know what you expect from an agent and let them know it before you sign up. Of course, later on things may change, at which point communication becomes ultra-important.
    Thanks for sharing.

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  4. For a time it seemed we put agents (as a group) on a pedestal, believing they were the key to publication. There were complaints about gatekeepers, and yes, desperate for representation, many writers were thrilled by *any* offer. I think research and patience are important -- allowing ourselves time to cyber-stalk agents and learn what people in the industry are saying about them and what they are revealing about themselves. Attending conferences where we have opportunities for face-to-face exchanges is a great way to learn about certain agents, editors and publishers.

    There's a parallel between writers looking for the right agent and a congregation searching for the right minister/pastor. We believe God has a good match out there for us, but before we commit to the first person who shows interest in us, we first must understand our needs and then put effort into studying who's available and what they have to offer that will meet those needs. Checking references is also important.

    Thanks for addressing this topic, Jody. Agent switches happen but we seldom hear much about them or why they were necessary.

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  5. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments about this sensitive issue! I truly appreciate the input.

    Carol, patience is really a key. And as you said, we can learn a lot about an agent through watching them online and through conferences. But . . . I don't think we can always evaluate the ins and outs of how they work just by observing them since so much of their work is behind the scenes. For instance, it's difficult to know how well they respond to emails, or how well they know editors, or how aggressive they are in making sales, etc. That really has to come by getting references from current or former clients.

    And, I think it's okay to change agents too. Even though it was extremely uncomfortable for me to have to change, I quickly realized in talking with other authors that most of them had also had to make changes at least once if not more during their careers.

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  6. I think it would be difficult to express these problems openly, because so much of our brand is online. Speaking negatively can definitely hurt an author.

    I knew my agent was right for me within a short amount of time. She has an amazing disposition. She works hard. She wants what's best for her clients. When I decided to indie publish, I first talked it over with my agent. She was sooo supportive. She'll be in my life no matter what the future brings.

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  7. In the 14 years since I signed my first publishing contract, I've fallen into the trap - twice - of signing with big-name agents. And they were great with my Harlequin career...that is, until I realised they weren't even reading my books. Since the Harlequin contract is boilerplate, I was basically paying them for a yearly phone call.

    The first break came when I began writing historical mainstream (I was writing contemporary for Harlequin), and came close to selling - but my first agent and I came to a parting when he insisted I was *not* to write first person because he didn't like it. When he became rude and dictatorial about it, it felt like he'd become my dad. I felt the professionalism was eroded past the point of recover. Sadly, it was a rancorous parting, and when I've seen him at conferences, he turns away from me.

    My second agent lost interest in doing anything for me when the mainstream she worked on didn't immediately sell, and became very rude about me "sticking to what I know". She wasn't reading my books either. I left without hard feelings, but determined not to sign again because of a big name.

    Two years later, through a reading at a conference, I suddenly had three agent offers on the table, but I refused to rush. this time, I did as you said, Jody, and interviewed their authors, saw the kind of books they'd sold, and though it was so hard, I eventually came to a decision. Though the other two were fantastic, I chose the boutique agent in a small agency. And so far I haven't regretted it at all. Though she's very successful, she hasn't yet earned a cent from me, but it hasn't changed her enthusiasm. She more than supported my decision to leave Harlequin, and has worked with me to sell my second attempt at historical mainstream, has given great advice and never lost enthusiasm, has never been rude or tyrannical. I hope to stay with her throughout my career.

    Sorry this is anonymous; Google won't accept my name or password.

    Lisa Chaplin

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    1. So sorry you had trouble with google and leaving a comment! Seems to be happening more lately! But I do thank you for sharing your experience so that others can read it and learn from all you've experienced!

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  8. I struck gold with my agent in 2008. I met her by accident - seriously. It's been wonderful. I love the agency too because they help promote. Just saying because all too often all we hear are the bad stories.

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  9. I appreciate this post, Jody. I sometimes think that agent woes are brushed under the table a little more in Christian circles than secular ones because no one wants to make waves. In some ways that makes sense, but if there's a bad agent taking advantage of authors, then I do think that should be announced and authors warned. :-/

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