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.
How to embarrass your agent, when to fire me…
You keep writing these blog posts that I hope I will never need to use!
I share that hope, Tuvia.
Nancy E Massand
Well done! So sane and civil.
I can be sane and civil when I want to.
There’s times you gotta walk away,
and times you gotta run.
and when agent starts to act like Che
Guevara, bring a gun.
Pitching books is dubious craft,
more peculiar’s not invented,
and many within are quite daft
or just wholly demented.
So fare thee well, I’m cutting ties;
the game has not been working,
and let’s not have no long goodbyes
for this is not tear-jerking.
I know you might not like this tiding,
so am I going into hiding.
Che it ain’t so, Andrew.
When the pitch brought no resolution
the agent needed another solution.
He assumed beard and beret,
wild-eyed, just like Che,
and to the pub board inveighed revolution.
Andrew, it doesn’t surprise me that your limericks are as right on as your sonnets.
Love you, brother. Praying for a restful night and a good day ahead.
Love you right back, Judith. Thank you so much for your prayers!
Marie Wells Coutu
“Firing” is such a harsh word. I like your use of “decruit.” I’ve had to do this once when my agent “didn’t get me and wasn’t communicating. It was a difficult decision and lots of prayer went into it, but in the end, I know it was for the best.
Thanks for this great post, Bob.
At such times it helps to remember that it’s supposed to be hard. Mutual love and respect is sometimes what makes it hard….but also what makes it right.
Bob, you crack me up! Thanks for your practical, applicable advice—and, for making my morning!
I do what I can.
I prefer the term, “parting ways” or “parting company.” My previous agent and I did that, after a LOT of discussion and prayer. Our careers were just going in different directions and it needed to happen. Not easy. I still adore her. And definitely a business decision. But it was amicable, for which I’m grateful.
Now if only ALL my business decisions went as smoothly…
Amen to that, Ramona. Now, where did I put that proposal….?
Bob, thanks for the info. I hope what you shared is not personally timely but f that ever happens I’ll look you up.
Two questions. When should we take into account lack of response from publishers? I think I know that certain times of year (like now) are not optimal for submissions. Publishers have acquired what they need for next year. Also, should proposals ever be held or resubmitted in a better season for a better chance, like early the next calendar year?
Jeff, always take editors’ response times into account. Some take longer than others, but all are overworked. And unfortunately, some let a non-response serve as their “no thank you.” So it can hard for an agent and author to know just what to assume, and when.
As for holding or resubmitting? Other than the last few weeks of December, when submissions tend to get lost in the holiday shuffle, the best time to submit is whenever a project is when it’s polished and perfect (though a few editors are more “open” or “closed” to submissions at one time than another). And I don’t recommend resubmitting something because it was sent at a less-than-optimal time; that just gums up an editor’s inbox.
Bob, regarding the time to submit, is there an advantage to waiting until the next writers’ conference to show our MS, or should we newbies just send it out when it’s as good as it’s going to get?
Dee, for a “newbie,” the best way to get a proposal into an editor’s hands is at a conference, because most publishing houses don’t invite unsolicited submissions “over the transom,” as we used to say (does anyone know what a “transom” is any more?). If you’re courting agents, it’s more of a toss-up, as our doors stay open, generally speaking.
Ha! Only us oldies know the term, or the word.
Thanks for the advice, Bob. I’ll wait and take it to Mount Hermon next year.
In the past I’ve had a number of editors tell me I need an agent, so guess I should check that out while I’m there, too.
Nancy B. Kennedy
Thank you for calling it the “general market,” not the “secular market!”
Bob, excellent post (and one which I’ll pass on to others). We work so hard to get representation that it seems almost counter-intuitive to let an agent go…but it has to happen sometime. Thanks for sharing.
Ann L Coker
I laughed at the first paragraph and then kept smiling all the way through the read. I love your writing style, as in The Bard and the Bible and your posts here.
I must add that our meeting at Taylor University’s 2018 writers conference benefited the process of my book proposal even if sending it did not suit your present needs. If we ever agreed on a manuscript, I can’t imagine firing you.
Bob, I “get” your wit and appreciate your helpful posts. Thanks. If we pay attention to what you and the others post on this blog, it should put us way ahead of the pack.
God, will you tell me where I’m wrong?
Please tell me why You need my life.
I’ve done my best to be strong
for my dogs, and for my wife.
I’ll fight this to the final bell;
I don’t believe You sent the cancer,
but if You could relent, and tell,
why did this have to be the answer?
I’m not whom I could have been,
and knowing that, I feel the guilt
of knowing that which You had seen
in making me, and could have built.
Nonetheless, I’m on your side
and I will not try to hide.
I like your writing style and your sense of humour 🙂
Good information for those of us whom have never had the privilege of working with an agent – yet.
I love your sense of humor and I don’t think anyone would ever want to fire you. I enjoy your emails. They are very informative. Keep ’em coming.
Although this information screams, “Be careful what you wish for,” I’m not taking the bait. I’m still praying, hoping, and wishing for the privilege to hire you, but I’m stuck in the proposal bay.
(the “Pothole Lady” from FCWC)
Love. This. So. Much.
claire o'sullivan who wishes otherwise to remain anonymous
great post. yet another one. I love the reverse psychology you mention with and wisdom that seems to spill over the transom in the SLA daily.
He Who Knows All had a blog about 1. never burn a bridge and 2. The 10 Commandments of Working with Your agent. Well, someone I know remembered both well. Number one was easy. Being polite, sometimes more than required occurs. He Who Knows All Things had someone’s MS that I can neither confirm nor deny, and he or she worried about those commandments in light of burning a bridge, that person may have, which I can neither confirm nor deny waited a year before sending an email. Prefacing (so I hear) with the subject line: The 10 Commandments.
(and I bet you thought I was going to repeat, I can neither confirm nor deny and well, I can’t).