Hard Conversations with your Agent

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

One of the hardest parts of being an agent is when we need to have a difficult conversation with an author. What are some of these difficult conversations, and what can you expect if you find yourself involved in one?


#1: “This book isn’t going to work.”

You’ve written your “next” book—your third or your fifth or your eighth—and sent it to your agent, or perhaps to the publisher. The agent or editor reads the manuscript and… things aren’t going well. Could be the subject matter is all wrong, or the tone is off, or the plot isn’t well constructed, or the characters aren’t jumping off the page, or you’ve simply strayed too far from the brand you’ve established.

A serious internal wrestling sets in, as the agent or editor thinks about options. Maybe it just needs a good edit. Maybe it’s not a lost cause. Maybe we can tweak a few things… maybe… maybe…

But we realize we simply can’t sell this, and it’s unlikely an edit will help. Now we stress about telling you. You’ve agonized for months over this manuscript. How can I tell you it’s not going to work?

This is hard on both you and your agent (and/or editor). It doesn’t mean the manuscript will never get published. But it’s the agent’s job to help you not only get published, but get well-published. It’s my job to keep my eye on your long-term writing career. I can’t be afraid to tell you the truth. Neither of us wants anything except your best work out there.

So if this happens to you, the only way to respond is, “Okay, so what do I need to do?” Take a couple days to cry/rage/decide to quit writing forever… then dig in and get back to work. You’re a professional—you can handle this!


#2: “I shopped it till I dropped… but nobody’s buying.”

I only take on projects I believe I can sell, so it’s disappointing when there’s little publisher interest. It’s tough to have this conversation with an author, because their inevitable response is, “Aren’t there more publishers you can send it to?” Usually by the time we need to have this conversation, the answer is no. So what do we do now?

→ If the manuscript got to the pub committee at some houses, then we were close. We probably got some feedback, so we’ll move forward based on that. Maybe it’s a rewrite; with nonfiction, maybe it’s spending a year or so building a platform.

→ If the manuscript never got past an editor, then we know we weren’t close. We’ll have to honestly assess if the project is salvageable.

→ Your agent might tell you she feels you should set this one aside, and work on a different project.

If your agent decides to let this project go altogether, it’s probably because the process of shopping it, getting feedback, etc., has convinced her that it’s not viable for any of the traditional publishers she knows. At this point, you’ll want to discuss how you can best spend your time. Move on to something new? Try to self-publish this one? Some combination of both? Regardless of what you end up doing, this is not a fun place to be, and your agent doesn’t like it any more than you do.


#3: “Don’t take this personally… but it’s personal.”

Oddly enough, I dread this difficult conversation more than any of the others. It goes something like this:

I hate to bring this up but:
…your headshot doesn’t look friendly or inviting
…your website needs an overhaul
…your blog content could use improvement
…your Facebook page needs work

This stuff IS personal, and difficult to talk about. But I’m helping the author build and maintain a successful career, and everything counts! You want your public image to be inviting, so people will want to buy and read your books.

Years ago, I had to talk to an author about hairstyle and clothing choices. Ugh, I would’ve rather done anything but that! What an awkward thing to talk about. I pulled it off by coming at it from the side, saying, hey, I have this stylist that I think you should talk to – she’s really great at helping authors refine their image. In the end she accepted it okay and I was probably more uncomfortable than she was. But I’ve never forgotten how much I hated having to do it.

If you’re ever in this situation and your editor or agent speaks to you about something personal, please understand: She didn’t want to have this conversation! But she believes it’s important for you, so she took the leap. Try not to be offended and instead, be grateful that someone cared enough to have this difficult conversation with you.

What are some difficult publishing-related conversations you’ve had? If you haven’t had any yet, what are the ones you dread the most?

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30 Responses

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  1. Well, I haven’t shaved for about a year (Duck Dynasty is HIP), my hair looks like it was cut with a Weed Whacker, and my wardrobe is defined by “well, THAT isn’t too big a hole!”…so, I guess the conversation I fear is…
    * Actually, I don’t fear any conversation. If I ever have an agent, she will be one from Books and Such, and I have grown to know and trust y’all completely. If my putative agent says something won’t work, or something needs to be changed, or I personally need a seriously surgical makeover…I know y’all well enough to realize that it’s the absolute truth, and it simply needs to be done. You’re publishing-industry professionals. I’m not.

  2. I devised my reply before I read Andrew’s…
    he stole it.
    I wouldn’t mind any conversation with you ladies.

    If my Agency was Books & Such.

    I’ve had some already… three down, 3 to go…
    yet, you do rejections nicely.
    (Website under Re-construction)

  3. This is helpful information for writers to hear in advance. Kind of like Lamaze class prepares one to breathe through the pain of childbirth. Thank you.

  4. Rachelle, those of us who spend our days writing felt, at one time, that once we got the book completed our work was done. No more!
    I sympathize with your point #2, especially since so many publishers have closed down their fiction line or otherwise hit a snag that severely limits the options open to the agent.
    Scenarios #1 and #3 are tough, and #2 leaves many authors either looking at self-publication or quitting their writing (neither of which are good for agents). As the King, in The King And I, said: “Tis a puzzlement.”

  5. Katie Powner says:

    I think I would most prefer a conversation from the #3 category because if it’s a personal issue I can actually do something about it. I can schedule new photos. That’s easy. But I can’t convince a publisher to take my book.

  6. CJ Myerly says:

    I think #1 would be the hardest for me. I get so invested in my book that I can imagine it would be a difficult suggestion. But as an aspiring author, I’m just learning the market whereas agents and publishers already know the market–so I think it’s wise to trust you all.

    In my opinion, joining critique groups helps to teach you how to handle difficult conversations that may occur in the future. I feel so much more prepared for this than I would’ve six months ago.

  7. I would rather have any and all of these discussions with my agent prior to her being put on the spot by someone from a pub house, someone who told to have them with me.
    If anyone saw me right now, they’d sit me down for #3. Let’s just say allergies make one care very little for anything other than getting through a pollen bloom. (Yes, my husband IS an expert on pollen…oh the irony! Hahaha!)

    • Ha ha! That is funny. Does he have any good advice for pollen survival? Oh, have you tried that thing where you massage your sinuses and all those pesky lymph nodes in your neck and face. Or is that sinuses in your face and lymph nodes in your neck … . It is very relaxing and seems to help with colds. I was told it helps with allergies, too.

  8. Carol Ashby says:

    Rachelle, your comment about having to discuss hair and clothing choices resonated. A male manager asked me once to talk with one of his summer interns about why wearing tops that exposed her midriff and shorts that exposed too much leg were not appropriate professional attire. I was old enough to be her mother, so it wasn’t that hard, but still…that was above and beyond my normal job responsibilities!

  9. Some pieces just don’t make sense to take the risk in traditional publishing. I’d rather know, do we can move on yo other things. What I don’t like is when things are changed in my manuscript without consulting me, or I’m expected to do endless uncontracted revisions
    on contradictory notes, from “advisors” to the agent. Either you believe in my work & think you can sell it & we partner to make it its best, or don’t sign me. But don’t feign enthusiasm and then waffle.

  10. Those do sound like awful conversations. Perhaps all the years that writers spend getting rejection slips will help prepare us to endure something like this. Maybe the rejection slips are good as they fortify us for the difficulties ahead???

  11. It’s always good to get an agent’s perspective on these kinds of issues. The thing that kept coming to mind as I read your post, Rachelle, is the reminder that agents and editors are FOR their clients. They want to see their clients succeed. It can be humbling to hear some of these things, but if a client can listen with the mindset that his/agent is looking out for what’s best, then hopefully, this mindset will make it a little easier to hear hard words.
    *i think the hardest thing to hear would be that the MS I’ve spent months on won’t work for whatever reason. But, like you said, this isn’t the end of the world (or career, as the case may be). Hopefullly, if I hear this, I can have that teachable spirit that’s needed to accept the message and move forward.
    *Sorry for any typos….working from my phone. 😉

  12. While these conversations would be difficult with your agent, they would be much more painstaking without one.

    What if you publish a book, invest all that time and money into it, and it’s a total flop. You get review after review that calls out all its flaws.

    Or you land a look from your dream editor, but then they get on your website and you look like an idiot.

    There is tremendous value in a person that is willing to tell you the truth…even if it hurts. I need friends like this. I need a pastor like this. I need a mentor like this. I need an editor like this. I would need an agent like this too. That’s one element that (to me at least) makes Books and Such stand out and one of the main reasons I love following this blog.

    Thanks for looking out for us. We’ll work on developing rhino skin. 🙂

  13. Yup – I’m with everyone else on this – PLEASE tell me regarding any of the items mentioned in this post. “My people perish for lack of knowledge.” I’d rather know, weep, and recover than perish.

  14. Because I’ve always tried to maintain a teachable attitude, conversations that could have been difficult have turned out okay. The most recent one was about my author photo, which my agent hated. And she was right. I hadn’t given it enough planning and was just using what was available. So I had a professional do a new photo and we’re all happy again.

  15. Gayla Grace says:

    This is a great post on a difficult subject. I’m sure it’s as hard to have the conversation for the agent as it is for the author to accept it. But I love your perspective on “it’s the agent’s job to help you not only get published, but get well-published. It’s my job to keep my eye on your long-term writing career.”

    Great input!

  16. Interestingly enough, Rachelle, the one conversation you dread the most strikes me as the easiest for me to have. Fixing a head shot, or a web site is easy. Rewriting a manuscript … that’s a nightmare!
    The most difficult conversation I have had with an agent (actually two agents) was when I was told I need to rewrite my manuscript at an 8th grade level.
    That’s not my target audience at all. I knew at that point that the relationship was over. I can accept a significant amount of criticism, and have done so – I invite it from my beta readers – but to be told that was a huge red flag. Clearly the agent did not read the proposal, because it is clearly stated exactly who my target audience is, and it is not middle-school kids.

    • Mardon says:

      You weren’t told to rewrite at an 8th grade level because the agents thought your manuscript was for middle-schoolers. You were told this because the average adult reads at a 7-8th grade level. This is why you heard the advice twice — and may hear it again. It’s not a red flag.

      • I’m aware of that, Mardon, and thank you for the kind reply. However, perhaps my target audience is not “the average adult.” I am specifically targeting a collegiate & post-graduate, Christian audience, primarily Western (North America & Europe, Australia/New Zealand). If others, outside that target, find the work appealing, that is wonderful, but I know who my target reader is, and it is for that reader that I write.

    • Rachelle Gardner says:

      Damon, besides the fact that most people read below an 8th grade level (which is correct), consider the age of your characters. Are they middle-school age? If so, that’s your problem. Unless the manuscript clearly is written for adults and would appeal to them, then main characters who are children will always seem like a YA or middle-grade book.
      *Look further than “they didn’t read my proposal.” You can say 100 times that your book is for adults, but if the story doesn’t seem like an adult-appeal story, then anyone who picks it up is going to assume it’s for kids.
      *Of course, if you don’t have any 8th grade characters in your book, then obviously there are other things about the manuscript that are making the agents think it’s a YA book. Rather than jump straight to “the relationship is over,” I suggest sincerely trying to understand what led them to that response.

      • Thank you for the kind reply as well, Rachelle.
        >> I suggest sincerely trying to understand what led them to that response.
        I know what drew that response. The conversations we had were fairly involved and lengthy. I am not writing fiction, but rather, Christian non-fiction, borderline theological, very similar to the concepts I presented as one of your Leverage group members. So, there are no characters at all in the work. My beta readers are carefully selected members of my target audience, and I take their feedback very seriously. I make it clear to them that I want the manuscript covered with red ink when it comes back from them, and I am particularly interested in those comments that match what other beta readers are saying.
        I also get valuable feedback from my critique group with Inspire Christian Writers. Robynne (my group leader) is very good about gently encouraging me to “warm up” my writing tone, because it can come off as professorial at times. I get what she is saying, and it is something with which I wrestle.

  17. Emma Fox says:

    It’s great to hear about these issues from the agent’s perspective. I love the graceful, intentional way in which you handle each of these challenges!

  18. Terence Park says:

    I’m expecting to see things like alpha readers beta readers restructure and probably know your subject. Have no objection to looking cool… okay cooler.
    Does my agent or publisher want to talk finance? Yep I’m interested.

    • Terence Park says:

      oh, go on then…
      Many writers are blithely unaware of self-promotion. They face a learning curve whether they venture into traditional publishing or self-publishing. I’ve met writers bemoaning the rigours of formulaic product (they signed a deal and that’s what has to be delivered), fed up with reading their own stuff, griping about carrying copies of product to an event – never mind it’s what they’re there for -and what the punter expects. Writers fail to read their work in a God given opportunity for self-promotion.
      It’s a disconnect so what’s the flip side?
      On the flip side, agents may not always get this but the median income for most authors is a band between 6k and 14k; neither figure is a liveable wage… really… honestly. What do writers live off? On those figure, chewing pencil / pen tops could be a form of additional nutrition, and far as shabby clothes go, maybe they’ve been driven to boiling them for the sake of additional roughage – oh I get it, the authors complained of are the hypothetical big earners, hidden but JK Rowlingesque in their earnings… the kind of writer that exists solely in the minds of publishers.
      Agent Reality Check? Naah – agents know their client earnings so they oughtta know the reality..

  19. Cynthia Godwin says:

    Actually, I would welcome such honesty from someone I consider to be a professional and in touch with the industry. Hard conversations, maybe but why stay stuck when you can move on?

    • Terence Park says:

      Business relationships are formal to trim the deal to product delivery and payment. Most writers need hand holding outside of ‘the deal’. There’s stuff we are all crap at.
      An excellent poet shuns publicity – an innovative children’s storyteller feels the strain of .the deal zinc can’t step up, – people I know. Are we fit to be published? Something to test the art & industry of the agent. I know you have to be tough 🙂