Literary Agents: TOP TEN WAYS to Make or Break that Relationship AFTER you Sign – Part 1


The unpublished writer (not to include self published or e-pubbed writers, who seldom have agents) always seem to think that the first major step in becoming a commercially published writer is finding and being signed by an agent. (Of course, we know here at MW that it’s really finishing that first book, but that’s our little secret. Shhhh.) And they are right. But that is only the beginning in a relationship that is intended to make you both money. Yeah – that is the purpose of the writer/agent relationship: to make money. And there are sooo many reasons / ways a writer (and sometimes an agent) can screw that up.

I’ve compiled a list of the top ten ways (off the top of my head) that a writer can make or break this very important relationship. I may delete or change or rename any over the course of the next weeks. I will certainly take them out of order. One of the other writers might want to take on one or two or add to the list. Our readers might want to add to the list or have me expound more. I have no problem with a Top Twelve or Top Fifteen. Even a Top Thirteen and a Half would be okay.  :mrgreen:

But the first one … mmm, tenth one? … is mine.

1. The agent as Negotiator
2. The Agent as Bad Cop to your Good Cop
3. The Agent at Cons
4. The Agent as Friend (when that is possible)
5. When to Send Prezzies: (cards or gifts and what works and what doesn’t)
6. When to Expect Your Agent to Drop Everything and Return Your Call/Email
7. When the Agent Says No (to a new project after you have signed with and worked with him/her for a while)
8. Know When to Say Goodbye: (when your agent has more problems than you do: Alzheimer’s, health issues, mental issues, drug abuse, bringing in the next {but flakey or dishonest} generation to run the family biz, refusing to pay royalties, lawsuits, and lots of other crazy stuff)
9. Miscellaneous Stupidities (firing an agent improperly, dividing royalties, divided loyalties, having a big mouth, etc.)
10. Keep the Agent in the Loop (and the times I failed at this)

Notes: 1.) This post is based on my own mistake. A mistake that got me in trouble. I am sharing this one with permission of my agent, Lucienne Diver. 2.) I am on a river somewhere this afternoon, so I will be checking in every few hours after 1p.m. EST. 3.) I usually don’t share my own stupidity with everyone, preferring to share only the lesson learned. (Pride?) But this is an object lesson too good (or bad) to keep to myself! I have now begun to see the humor in it all. Onward!

Once upon a time (less than a decade ago) publishers were running 20 years behind the rest of the business world / business community in keeping up with the times. They were behind in technology: some used no POD, still print-set ARCs, some still sent hardcopies through the mail for edits (okay, some still do all this stuff!) some older agents and editors even refused to have email accounts. But times have changed. In this day of rapidly evolving business models and the success of e-books, publishers are catching up fast. Editors and publishers and agents tweet, blog, FaceBook. They reTweet their counterparts’ tweets. Info about books, series, and writers are at their fingertips. NOTHING is secret anymore. If you give a writer’s new book a scathing one star review, believe me, it will get back to the wrong person – maybe the agent of the writer you just bashed. Maybe the agent you intended to query next week. Oops.

I was just in a situation where keeping my agent in the loop (weekly, in this case) would have kept egg off my face with my publisher. Back in the start of the last negotiations with my publisher, over six months ago, I had told my agent that I wanted to do a compilation of short stories or three novellas as part of my next contract. I also wanted to introduce a spin-off character from the Jane Yellowrock series with his own short story and then a novel. My publisher was not interested in any of this. Why? All those things would result in a decrease of my book sale numbers, followed by a decrease in chain-store order numbers, followed by a huge lull in my career. Excellent decision. For six months ago—late 2010 or early 2011.

I told my agent that I was going to do the four shorts (or a version of them) on my own, for PR purposes. She said to go ahead. No biggie. And so I set to work. And she put it out of her mind. So did my editor. I started in on book covers for the compilation. And as I am wont to do (I’m a Leo. So sue me) I went nuts. Overboard. Hog-wild. And I didn’t tell my agent what I was doing. I had been turned down, so why care, right? Wrong.

I hired a model. Found a small press to do Cat Tales in trade and e-book. Set my PR company onto it. Six months of work and money and time. And I didn’t keep my agent in the loop.

During that time, the e-book market exploded. The rare writer, like Amanda Hocking, began to report making BIG money with e-books. Publishers started to take a fast look at lost revenues and what their own writers were doing with e-books, both backlist and PR shorts. There was a frenzy in the market, the fastest change in the publishing market, maybe ever! And – maybe most important – during the same six months, I hit the NYT Bestseller extended list. This changes everything in a writer’s life, from career track, to the way the pub thinks about her personally, to the way contract negotiations are handled. And I didn’t think about any of this. And because I didn’t keep my agent my in the loop, she couldn’t tell me any of this.

Into that intensely-studied, evolving market, I blithely (read foolishly) released word that my compilation was ready to be released. I released that magnificent cover everywhere! Cat Tales was an instant hit. Fans tweeted about it. ReTweeted about it. Shared it on FaceBook. On fan sites. It was … it was pretty amazing. And unexpected. It was what happens after you hit NYT BS List.

Through the fast-paced world of electronic social media, my publisher discovered that I had (seemingly) gone off the rails, out on my own, and walked away from my publishing company. In a big way. And I had, sorta, though in all innocence. I hadn’t talked to my agent about my expanded, magnificent compilation plans in six months. She had no idea how much work had gone into it or hard I was planning to push it. I had not kept my agent in the loop. I take full responsibility for everything that happened after.

Word came down the line from publisher to department-head to my editor. Who called my agent. Who had (by then, after six months) forgotten what I was planning, and no idea what I was doing with the four short stories. Because I had not kept my agent in the loop. My agent – whose job is to cover my back and who wanted to cover my back – couldn’t. She was left feeling flat-footed, horrified, and confused. Because I had not kept my agent in the loop.My agent, who has to maintain a good, working relationship with all these people, and who, for all I know, might have been in the middle of 7-figure deal with an A-list client and needed their good will, was whammied. (I don’t know, this. I never asked her. But it is possible.)

I was left feeling abandoned and stupid, dangling in the wind, terrified. I had panic attacks, couldn’t sleep. I wasn’t abandoned by my agent, BTW, even though I had left her with no options and no way to come to my defense. But my feelings felt that way. All because I had not kept my agent in the loop. Have I pounded it in enough yet, do you think?

Agent called me, and my back-peddling ensued: apologies to agent, then to editor, then me writing a nice letter of apology to be passed up the line to the publisher. And discussions of what my publisher wanted from me about this project – Cat Tales. And they did want it, because the market had totally changed in six months. So had my career track. Contract negotiations ensued. A nice plant delivery of apology went to said agent. Small press accepted loss of project with equanimity. And I learned a valuable lesson, (actually more than one but that’s for a later post) keep my agent in the loop.

Lucienne hasn’t seen this last paragraph, but in the interests of sharing my lesson with you all, I am adding it. As I sent versions of this post to Lucienne, and she commented, and I rewrote it and sent back, I developed a more full picture of the events that transpired that awful week, and the things she did to protect me behind the scenes and to push my career in a forward direction. I was not abandoned. I was not left dangling in the wind. My career and I were being negotiated, guided, and developed. I learned my lesson, again, on deeper level while writing this post: keep my agent in the loop. I’ll be talking to that agent a lot more often, even if it’s just one-liner emails to keep her informed.


19 comments to Literary Agents: TOP TEN WAYS to Make or Break that Relationship AFTER you Sign – Part 1

  • Deb S

    Thanks for sharing, Faith. My stomach clenches in sympathy, but hopefully you’ve now saved a few people from suffering that kind of anxiety in real life.

  • Deb, being stupid (*human* might kinder) isn’t a crime, but it, “Shore can get you in a mire of trouble.” As per my pawpaw. 🙂

  • Glad that it worked out in positive way, Faith. And I think that I should probably give Lucienne a call in the next few days to make sure I’m keeping her in the loop, too….

  • Agents can’t read our minds. Thinking that an agent has feelings and thougths (or lack of them) about us and/or our work is pretty common (see above post), though not realistic. An email every few weeks would have been sufficient in my case. And come to think of it, an email to my editor might have been nice too. It’s weird, but after 20+ years in this biz, I am still learning how to play in the sandbox.

    And I just heard — Lucienne is going to Dragon Con! We need to get together for coffee, tea, a beer…

  • Oh, Faith!

    Thank you so much for giving us another peek into things that can happen in this business. It’s really breathtaking how fast it’s changing that even a pro can take a misstep. I’m so glad it worked out in the end.

    Lucienne is an fantastic agent.

  • Was this the same week as another project got noted in the “out of the loop” crossfires? 😉

  • This tells me that I definitely need to talk to my agent (when I get one), because in my mind, I could see an apology to the agent, but the publisher? You offered the project to them and they didn’t want it! That’s their own sour grapes, isn’t it? So clearly, I have much that I don’t understand about the industry, which is why we have agents in the first place!

  • Another lesson in how quickly the business side of things can change. Thanks for sharing this so openly, Faith.

  • Jeremy Beltran

    Thank you so much for this story. If I had been in your shoes I am positive I would have done the same thing or knowing my luck made it worse. It would never have occurred to me to keep my agent (when I get one) in the loop that much. Again thanks — JER

  • Julia

    Faith — thank you so much for sharing this story. I’m grateful for your honesty and integrity in putting all this out there. It’s great counsel. I’m so glad that things worked out well, in the end.

    I wonder if you (or others) might comment on a dilemna that’s also related to keeping the agent informed: I’m just about ready to query agents for my fantasy novel. I was literally putting the finishing touches on my first round agent list, when I got a call from an editor at a respected non-fiction trade press. I’d been recommended to her by one of her authors, and she wanted to talk with me about my publishing a non-fiction book with them.

    I’m thrilled! But I’m trying to get clear on what this means in terms of keeping everyone in the loop. Do I need to mention this with prospective agents in the novel query? Or in an initial conversation, if they’re interested? (I did briefly mention the novel to the editor, who wished me luck and said it was no problem for her.)

    Just to complicate matters, I’m also involved in academic, scholarly publishing. I’ve assumed that this is a different matter, a seperate sphere with a small readership… To what extent does this also fall under the rubric of keeping the agent informed?

    Any advice would be very appreciated!

  • EKC — Yes, it’s pretty amazing how quickly things change now, when for 50 years *nothing* changed in the pub business. And yes, Lucienne is wonderful!

    Yes, Christina, it was the same week. I’ll share about that a bit in part two. Oy — being dumb comes in waves for me.

    David J., not really. The publisher is always right. Look at it this way. They are investing a lot in me right now. The fact that they want me and my work can only be to my benefit. Had I kept my agent in the loop, she would have kept my editor in the loop, and the pub might have made an offer sooner. As it is, I spent money and time I didn’t have to. A smart writer wants a pub to like them. No matter what. The publisher is always right.

  • Edmund, if I can keep own writer from living with the panic attacks I lived through on that awful week, then it is worth airing my stpid laundry.

    Julia, Most fiction agents don’t deal with non-fiction. I’d be up front with that agent that you *have alreay made* a non-agented deal with a small non-fic press about a different project, but it should be informative, not asking them take over. And I would surely mention it any time I can. Briefly. It’s a feather in your cap and makes you look like you undertand the biz.

  • Julia

    Thank you, Faith! That sounds like a great way to address it. I appreciate the advice.

  • *wince* Ouch, Faith.
    Thanks for sharing, though. These Lessons Learned are precious gems of knowledge for those of us ‘not-yet-there.’

  • Oh my. Thank you for sharing that, Faith. I’m glad to hear that it worked out well in the end!

    So out of curiosity, given the typically lower promotion budgets these days, if an author wanted to buy inexpensive advertising somewhere, is that something to run by one’s agent first?

  • It would be an easy thing to do, I think. The publisher said no, so you went off and did it on your own. That would seem reasonable, and probably would have been had your stories gone onto your personal blog as “fun things for fans to read”. I think the point I got from your post is that the shorts became marketable items and so though I don’t think you needed to talk to your publisher (they said you could do it yourself), your agent is the person people turn to with questions about buying your marketable work and your agent didn’t know about it. I suppose it seems obvious in hindsight, but if I could see the future as clearly as the past, I’d just get the lotto numbers and retire. 🙂

    If/when I get an agent I’ll have to remember they are the person who’ll be contacted regarding anything I write that can be sold so they had better know about anything I write that can be sold. Thanks.

  • The sheer speed at which the market has changed has knocked everyone for a loop. I can definitely put myself in your shoes in this instance, and I probably would have done exactly the same thing. Worse, I might have been a little excited that the market was changing for the better, which would mean more sales and publicity for me, and never even stop to consider that the change in market might also affect how my publisher felt about the project. Thanks for sharing this “cautionary tale”-I know I don’t exactly have a head for business, so I really appreciate these behind-the-scenes posts.

    That said, I look forward to seeing you, David, and Misty at Dragon*Con! Will you guys (and Lucienne!) be on any panels?

  • Julia, you are welcome. Good luck, and keep us in the loop. We are interested!

    Lynn, it was a painful lesson. Hopefully well-learned.

    Laura, most agents know where their other writers are buying ads, and which ones are paying off. But frankly, unless you have a *very* web-savvy PR person (like I finally do) who is adept at tracking Internet resutls to ads, it’s hard to be 100% sure of the efficacy of any of them.

  • Scion, you read it perfectly. Frankly it was the confluence of events that caused the problems. But now I know better!

    LScribe, D*C is going to be a blast! David, Misty, and I are in a booth together, and yes, we are looking forward to panels. We should all do the coffee/tea/beer thing together.