Literary Agents: Top Ten WAYS to Make or Break that Relationship AFTER you Sign, Number 7: When the Agent Says No (to a new project after you have signed with and worked with him/her for a while)


This is a tough one. It used to happen fairly often, way back when, that an agent might work with a midlist writer client for some years and then they would find themselves between projects. Meaning that, for any number of reasons, the client was not picked up for a new book when the last publishing contract ended.

The reason the client was not picked up was usually simple – he didn’t sell enough books to be offered a new deal in the current market. But there were other reasons too. Perhaps a line of books was no longer to be carried by the publishing house. This happened back in the late eighties / early nineties (I think) when all of a sudden, readers stopped reading Gothic Romance. Overnight, sales dropped and houses dropped lines, authors etc. 

It happened again in the late nineties and early aughts when, for lots of reasons, readers of traditional mysteries and thrillers stopped buying so many of them (the readership was older and they began to die off, the world situation had changed, etc.).

And it happened again when book companies were restructured by buy-outs and mergers. Entire lines were dropped. Writers who had been making decent money began to see contracts not being renewed. The writers had to reinvent themselves or perish.

Yes, I was one of them, though I saw the hand writing on the wall (yeah, I know – so sue me) and got into fantasy. I was lucky. Few mystery writers were, and some ended up in small presses or without a publishing venue at all.

Another reason writers might be dropped, is that they were new to the house and their editor was canned. This is called being orphaned. Been there done that one too as my AKA Gwen Hunter, mystery/thriller writer at Pocket Books. The new editor had no reason to take a young writer under his wing, and wanted to find unpublished writers and make his own chops, not build another editor’s leftover writer. I faired better when I was orphaned as Faith, and ended up with a great editor who wanted to build me at ROC. (Yippee!)

A final reason I can think of for being dropped was the change in publishing houses (just before the advent of the digital upsurge of book sales) where pubs dropped many of their midlist writers to concentrate on bestsellers. This may have been a mistake on the part of houses (you think?) because it drove readers even faster to the digital market to find the writers they had come to love. But that’s another story.

Being dropped by an agent happens less often now, in the 2010s, because agents know they can place a writer’s work in the digital market, but that can be a comedown and a serious blow to a writer’s ego. It also means they are starting over in a market that has less pizzazz. And for that reason, the answer from an agent is often, “No. I won’t take on this project except as a digital format because it’s isn’t selling well in the tradition market.” Or, “No, I’ve tried to sell this project and no one in the traditional market wants it, so we can go one of two ways: I can take it on as digital format, or we can try something else.”

And that last bit is why I’m writing this post. It’s about not giving up. It’s about trying something else. Agents (barring any other problems) have a writer’s best interests at heart. After you have worked with them a while they become friends. They want you to sell books. They also make money when you make money – another reason to sell your books. So when they say no to your new project, and give a good reason (which can be totally different from the ones I listed here, of course) a writer has several choices:

1. Quit. This one happens a lot. It is so hard to start over that a lot of writers just stop writing. They grieve their lost situation, and their careers, into the grave.
2. Grieve for a while and then start writing. (This is what I did)
3. Walk away from the agent and try to find another.
4. Walk away and publish digitally. (Oh – BTW. There are signs that the digital bubble market is dwindling or at least taking a temporary nosedive. There are indications that digital sales dropped last month. However, with Borders closing, that may pick up again.)

Let’s just concentrate on number two – grieve for a while and then start writing. This is my advice to writers who undergo a the loss of a writing career. You do have to grieve the loss of anything, beloved pet, a job you liked, parent, child, favorite aunt, current writing career, etc.. You have to give yourself permission to grieve, all seven stage of grief, (though no two people will spend the same time in one area of the grief process. It will vary.) But give yourself, allow yourself, a specific amount of time to grieve. Then stop. And get to work. Walk away from the grief and Get. To. Work.

Why? Because grief can be addictive, and you are a writer. Writers have stories to tell. Writers can’t give up. No one likes a hero in a book who gives up, who whines when they lose something. Your heroes didn’t grieve themselves into the grave. Neither can you.

What do you do? How do you tackle this new … opportunity? Yeah, opportunity, because that is what it is. Golden doors leading to a dozen possible wonderful futures. You can let you mind roam free. Perhaps for the first time in your career, the first time since you sold your first book, you can write anything you want! You are not bound by contractual obligations to write in one specific subgenre or even one genre. You can start in anywhere with three or four or a dozen ideas. Let them bounce around in your head. Then BIC and put these ideas on computer, or even on paper.

A lot of writers I know went back to pen and paper at this stage and found their writing went in new and exciting directions. Offer each potential project to your agent (who has a better understanding of the market and where it is going) and when that wonderful agent (you know, the one who recently told you no) likes one, work on it and see where it flies. Yes you are starting over. But new civilizations always build on old ones. And you can do this. You are a writer. So write. And let wonder agent rebuild your career.  [Or try a different route through small press or other method. See comments below. 🙂 ]

My pal Tamar Myers did this, and her new books were launched to amazing critical acclaim. David B Coe did this. And Thifetaker is the best thing he’s ever written. I did this, and I ended with Jane Yellowrock and a whole host of characters I adore. Opportunity out of, “No”. Pretty amazing, I think.

TOP TEN list

  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, stupid things NOT to say to an agent, editor, or publisher.)
  10. Keep the Agent in the Loop (and the times I failed at this)

Links to previous posts in this series:








17 comments to Literary Agents: Top Ten WAYS to Make or Break that Relationship AFTER you Sign, Number 7: When the Agent Says No (to a new project after you have signed with and worked with him/her for a while)

  • Probably good advice, career-wise. But what if you don’t have an interest in other genres. I write mostly Fantasy, for instance. I can do Sci-Fi, too, which I also enjoy. But if SF&F took a nose-dive and nobody would read it anymore, and let’s say Westerns made a huge comeback and everybody was reading Westerns… I think I’d rather close up shop entirely than make a switch to Westerns. I can tolerate the occassional Western flick. I can tolerate some Western in my SF&F. But I can’t really tolerate pure-bread Westerns (I’ve tried).

    That’s just an example, but my question is… what do you do when you’re true love really is in the genre that’s atrophied, and you really can’t stand what’s the new, big thing, now? Do you swallow your pride and write something that’s aesthetically offensive to you? Or go indie and continue to serve a shrinking market? Or think about new, non-writing careers?

  • Faith,
    great advice. Like you and David I’ve had to reinvent myself a couple of times, most drastically when the thriller market took a big hit a few years ago. I’m still working in that area (as with the Macbeth audio project, though that’s not a standard thriller) but I haven’t released a conventional book in that genre for a few years. I have the Will books (adult fantasy, though they could be considered YA, I guess), but my energies now are going into my middle grades series. This was incredibly hard for me to do (and probably worth a post of its own) but has given me a new enthusiasm for what I write and may, paradoxically, have been the best thing that ever happened to me as a novelist. I guess we’ll see in October… So yes: grieve, then redirect, refashion yourself and get back to work.

    And to answer Stephen, I would say that the point is not to try and jump on a bandwagon (all kinds of reasons not to do that) and certainly not to write something you aren’t interested in, but writers have to adjust to what the market wants unless you really are just writing for yourself and a few pals. Fantasy and scif-fi aren’t going away, but subsets within them fluctuate in popularity. You can’t force people to read what you want to write, so–as in anything in life–you adjust your strategy or your fail out.

  • This is a wonderful post, Faith, because it’s not just about writing–not really. Life in general is full of all sorts of curveballs and chaos, and if you’re going to survive and even thrive, you have to be willing and able to reinvent yourself from time to time. It’s a lot easier to say than to do, but that doesn’t make it any less true.

  • Stephen, you asked several good questions, which AJ did a great job of answering. I want to add my own thoughts to them.
    >>what do you do when you’re true love really is in the genre that’s atrophied, and you really can’t stand what’s the new, big thing, now?>>

    No. As AJ said, you can’t ride the crest of a wave that is already breaking. You have to take a chance on something new. You reach inside yourself and pull out another love, which may be a subgenre of something that is selling now or perhaps once sold, and you add your own personal twists to it. You make it yours and write it with love and passion.

    >>Do you swallow your pride and write something that’s aesthetically offensive to you?>>

    No. Your writing will show that you don’t like it.

    >>Or go indie and continue to serve a shrinking market? Or think about new, non-writing careers?>>

    Both of these are always an option, and may be something some writers need to do eventually. However I think of them as last ditch choices — when there is nothing else and for whatever reason, the writer needs to give up on the New York market.

  • AJ, (slaps head) I should have included you in this segment too! Yes, you have done perhaps the biggest change-around in genre and reinventing yourself than any of us. I can’t wait to see what happens with the new direction.

    Edmund, I’ve written about changing direction and reinventing one’s self, here at MW, several times. In fact people are probably tired of hearing about it. 🙂 And yes, you are so right. All of life is about adapting to a changing environment. Animal species die off all the time as the environment changes, climate changes, and as man changes the environment. People who are incapable of adapting to a changing market fall out of the evolutionary curve of the publishing business and their careers go extinct.

  • Or even business that simply don’t adapt fats enough. I just got done reading an article about Border’s declaring final bankruptcy, and it appears the single largest contributing factor to their demise was that they didn’t adapt FAST ENOUGH to the emerging e-book trends.

    For anyone who’s interested in reading the full article for themselves:

  • I’ve followed other writers who have had to reinvent themselves in order to continue to be published. But downtrends don’t last forever.

    For most of my life I hated change. Resisted it. But it’s exhausting. Once you wrap your head around the idea, you can deal with changes. The thing is, if you are the type of writer who can’t not write, I imagine you’ll find something to love in a new genre or subgenre. You just have to *decide* it’s what you want/need to do. As Faith and the others have shown.

  • Faith, I agree with most of what you wrote, but thought it important to add a different perspective. You wrote:

    **I think of them as last ditch choices — when there is nothing else and for whatever reason, the writer needs to give up on the New York market.**

    Now, obviously I’ve chosen to do some indie-publishing and I’m also exploring small press options, so I’m biased. But as I’ve been trying to get a new agent, I’ve discovered a frightening new tone to rejections. To paraphrase several I received — We like what you’ve written and would gladly have represented you not too long ago, but in today’s ever-tightening field, we just can’t do it.

    Clearly, we all should strive to take our shot at the big presses, but the number of available slots has dwindled to such an extent, that to term small press and e-press as “last ditch” seems a bit harsh. Especially when numerous mid-listers who have been squeezed out are revitalizing their careers through these methods. In fact, they are doing just what you’ve said to do — rather than quit, they have found a new angle with which to have a career.

    I don’t want to encourage newcomers to the field to jump into indie-publishing right away nor do I want to sound like an indie cheerleader. Too many writers are going this route without learning the business ropes and taking a shot at the big presses. But “last ditch”? Not for me and many like me. It’s just become another phase of my career — one I hadn’t expected, but then, fifteen years ago, you didn’t really expect to be writing fantasy novels, did you? We all gotta roll with the punches! 🙂

  • In my day job (computers), I’ve worked on a number of projects that have ultimately been cancelled. Recently, I worked on one of those, but I knew the risks so I wrote each piece of the project so that it could be applicable to other projects. And that paid off.

    I wonder if this could be done in writing. Could you, in fact, revise a story into another genre and find satisfaction in that.

    There’s only a handful of plots, and they show up in most genres, so maybe there’s some hope there.
    And for me, characters are a huge part of the story. To make people believable, readers need to understand them, so you can’t make them too alien.

    Even setting might be useful.

    I could totally see redoing the Lord of the Rings as arthurian historical fantasy. Replace every instance of ‘ring’ with ‘grail’, every instance of ‘Gandalf’ with ‘Merlin’, tone down the magic, and you’re half way there.

    Heck, replace ‘ring’ with ‘enigma encryption machine’ and you might have an interesting WWII story.

    I know it sounds ‘dirty,’ but maybe a small adjustment in genre may keep the story in the game, yet keep one happy as a writer.

  • Faith> This is helpful, and I’ve got a tangentially related question: Sarah and I have some interest in our Co-written book. No yesses, but it is in the hands of a couple agents. Now, I want to start shopping my book (and Sarah wants to shop her book). These are not co-written, etc. Is it a problem for me to start shopping my book to other agents? Do I need to offer it to the agents who are reading my current stuff first? (I’m planning on it, actually, with the “if you like that then how about this?!” ploy.) I don’t want to step on toes or do something inappropriate, but I also want to try to get my book out there since is a game of “hurry up and wait.”

  • Edmund, Great link. Thanks.

    Stuart — you are right. And to top off your comment, I just had a conversation with a small press publisher who made the statment that, “Even now, New York (meaning the pub houses) can’t adapt fast enough to the market. Soon writing will be just like the music industry — a few big companies with a very few huge clients and thousands of writers publishing on their own or with small presses.” He also added, “Agents will now become small press houses, e-pubbing clients. And Amazon will take over the market in five years.”

    This made creepie-crawlies up and down my spine. Because all the signs to this are there. Do I hope it isn’t so? Yes. But I fear it is a prediction I can’t ignore.

    So, I’ll back away from the *last ditch* comment. Probably forever. And I’ll go back up and ammend my post to reflect that. See changes above in Brackets.

  • Roxanne, I did just that with my Jane Yellowrock, Skinwalker series. I went back to my mystery solving roots. I loved the blending of the two genres, mystery / thriller and fantasy. So, yes taking old themes and blending them with new is a great idea as long as you get far enough away that it isn’t plagerism.

    Pea Emily, I’d first try the *ploy* — except that it isn’t a ploy. It’s good business sense, ethical, and fair. I would never send something new off to another agent while in this stage. You don’t want to tick off an agent by moving away before they have seen every product you have to offer. They will want first choice, first opportunity, to rep the entire writer. Of course, this may mean they will take you and not Sarah or vice versa. So don’t let that spoil your relationshitp. Talk now about how you will handle that if/when it happens.

  • EK — Don’t ask how I missed your comment, but I did. (face palm) Sorry! Yes, you are so right — down trends don’t usually last. But the smart writer plans for them to. The writers who held off finding a new niche when Gothic Romance went down the tubes were out of work for a long time — until Paranormal Romance came along, in act. Adapting is the key.

  • Razziecat

    Roxanne, I think you are on the right track–reworking a story to fit it into a different genre is at least possible. I’ve actually toyed with re-doing my space opera characters/stories into fantasy; it would be a lot of work, but if I had to, I could do it. This might not work for every writer and/or every story, but it’s something to keep in mind.

  • I listend to a great podcast interview with John Scalzi, where he recommended adopting a cockroach mentality for survival in the changing market. (It’s worth a listen, but I think it gets at the point of this post.) We must adapt. 😉

  • Thanks for the replies and takes on my question. I ask, of course, because I know for myself that my love of writing is two-fold: I love to write, but specifically I love to write Speculative Fiction. There’s lots of room for maneuvering in the spec fic market, generally, but I know that if not for these genres I love, there’s little chance I’d be interested in writing anything else. So yeah, I want to make a career of it, if possible, but my first allegiance is to my love of it. Seeing the different ideas on how to manage those kinds of market changes was helpful.

    Regarding the future where the big publishers atrophy to supporting only a few big-name mega clients and agents become small-press e-publishers… Yeah… that gives me the heebie jeebies, too. In particular, I don’t think I’m kosher with the idea of Agents becoming small-press or e-publishers. It’s rather a bit of a conflict of interest, it seems to me – and I don’t think that fact will be lost on a lot of writers…

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