Until recently, the only time I was fired from a job was when I worked for a department store, drilling the holes in bowling balls. Apparently, you can’t put the holes just anywhere.
Since becoming a literary agent, however, I have been “fired” a few times—not by He Who Knows All and Pulls the Strings—but by clients. In each case, actually, we reached a mutual decision; but that’s probably because I’m such a nice guy.
So, rather than talking in general terms about agents (who can be as different from each other as apples and oranges, night and day, clichés and nonclichés), I thought I’d offer a little advice on when to fire me as your agent. Not that any of my current clients would do such a thing (and you know who you are!).
- When you want to take a direction that doesn’t fit my expertise or philosophy
Sure, when we started out, you were writing brilliant Christian-living books, but you’re feeling a pull to write Y/A or middle grade or fantasy novels, which I don’t represent. Or you want to write for the general market, which I don’t pitch to. Or you want an agent who will shop all of the above simultaneously, which isn’t how I operate. Those may be great choices for you … and an indication that it’s time to let me go.
- If I’m not replying to your emails in a timely manner
Timely is relative, of course, and some days and weeks are busier than others. (After all, I do have to work on my tan.) But if you meet with “radio silence,” so to speak, and a few efforts to remind me or get through my security personnel haven’t resulted in success, fire me. That hasn’t happened yet (I’m much too Midwestern-polite and OCD); but if it ever does, send me packing.
- If (after your proposal is polished and ready to go) I don’t submit your work in a timely manner and communicate to you as editors respond
This also hasn’t happened (though clients are sometime surprised and maybe frustrated at the multiple back-and-forth efforts we go through in refining a proposal). But if it does, give me the ol’ heave-ho.
- If you sense I don’t really like you or your books (other than the usual writerly insecurity)
Some of us (as writers) have insecurities about ourselves or our work. But we want to be represented by agents who not only get us, but love us and our writing (while keeping in mind that I want to be your encourager, an iron-sharpens-iron sort of partner in the process, not only a cheerleader). Sometimes a writer gets a sense that an agent isn’t his or her strongest advocate. If for some reason I haven’t managed to convey respect, appreciation, and affection for you and your work, you might want to “decruit” me.
- If it feels like we’re not meshing (for example, we frequently misunderstand each other, we’re not hitting it off, you just don’t connect with my sophisticated sense of humor, etc.) and repeated attempts to “get” each other haven’t had the desired effect
I regularly tell writers that personal chemistry should be a huge part of a decision to work with an agent—on both sides. After all, the hope is that the two of us will be working together for a good long while—decades, perhaps. So it’s ideal if we like each other. Unfortunately, sometimes it becomes clear that we’re just not a match. And that’s okay. Say it with me: “That’s okay.” And when that’s the case, it’s okay to give me a constructive discharge.
When you start to suspect that it’s time to RIF (reduction in force) me, talk to me. Don’t just fire me without warning; that’s not cool. I know it’s not an easy conversation to have, but it’s important to share your concerns (politely, not accusingly). I tell people when I offer representation, “my communication style tends to be brief and to the point. I don’t spend a lot of time beating around the bush, and for some that may seem a little too blunt at times. I don’t think I’m ever insensitive or rude; but if I write or speak too cryptically or directly, please don’t hesitate to ask for clarification … or apology.” And remember that email tends to squeeze all softness out of words, so they often “sound” harsher than was intended. So give me a chance to clarify, apologize, correct, and adjust; it’s possible that your dissatisfaction might be resolved without the drawing of blood.
Also, make sure it’s me, not you. That is, are your expectations realistic? Are you going through a tough time? Are you taking your meds? Talk to other writers who have agents. Ask how their agent does things. Try to gauge how your experience compares to theirs.
Finally, if you do it, do it the right way. No cuss words. No name calling. Check your agency agreement, which defines how to terminate the relationship. Then, in the case of our agency, send an email saying something like this: “I’ve decided to discontinue our agent/client relationship, according to the terms of our agreement. Thank you for all your efforts on my behalf.” Very little else is necessary, other than asking for confirmation of receipt. Maybe send me a box of tissues, as I’m pretty sensitive. But if we’re both courteous and respectful, there’s no reason we can’t continue to be friends. Unless you bought a bowling ball from me. In that case, there’s no going back.