How to Kill Your Agent Relationship without Really Trying

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

When an author and an agent agree to work together as a team, neither party envisions the relationship ever ending. But sometimes the dynamic just isn’t working for either or both individuals.

Here are a few of the ways a client can jeopardize the relationship–without meaning to.

  • Don’t listen. Writers generally are pretty excited about adding someone to their publishing team who knows which editors are looking for a certain type of project, what’s happening at publishing houses, when a proposal is ready to be sent and if a manuscript needs more cleanup work. Not to mention brings significant skills in planning a writing career and negotiating those ever more complicated contracts. But sometimes a writer comes to the relationship with a strong opinion about several of these tasks. Rather than talking out what is the best route to take, often this writer will simply ignore the agent’s advice and move forward in the way she wanted to go in the first place–usually to her career’s detriment. Eventually both the agent and the author will grow weary of contending with each other and end the relationship.
  • Expect lots of attention. An agent asks to represent an author because the agent likes the writer as well as the writing, but never mistake this relationship as a friendship; it’s a business relationship. That means the agent has to juggle a significant list of clients, deciding which ones need special attention. If you have a new proposal you’ve just submitted to your agent, if a publisher made an offer, or if your relationship with your publisher just went on the skids, you can expect to be high on the agent’s “pay attention” list. But sometimes clients assume that experiencing a twinge of panic is a reason to call their agent. Other clients believe that each thought that enters their heads is worthy of dashing off an email to their agent. Wait. Before you pick up the phone or write your tenth email today to your agent, ask yourself, “How much money did my agent make from working with me last year?” If that number is miniscule, you might pause, gather your wits about you, and ask a second question, “Could I save all my concerns as they occur in a draft email and send just one? Do I really need to call my agent about this, or would an email do?”
  • Come up with your own idea of what your project is worth. Your agent has a sense of the size of advances publishers are paying, and what the possibilities are for your manuscript. Agents have a significant context to draw from, as we place several projects every month with a variety of publishers. We know which publishers won’t budge on the advance but will move on the royalties. Which ones tend to low-ball the offer expecting the agent to come back and ask for more; which ones pretty much won’t move on any of the offer details. But if you determine, say, that your project should bring $50,000 while your agent is thinking $15,000, it would be a good idea to adjust your expectations. If you don’t, you’ll always think that the agent isn’t enthusiastic enough about you and your work, or that the agentĀ  isn’t pressing hard enough to get what you deserve. And that disappointment will eat away at the author-agent relationship. I’ve chosen not to offer representation to some authors who are unrealistic about what kind of advance they might receive because I know our relationship is doomed from the start.

Ultimately, I could sum up this list by saying that false expectations kill author-agent relationships. If the writer believes the agent is like a magic wand that can make a career unfurl in splendor, disappointment is already knocking at the door. Agents aren’t magic wands; they’re people who are knowledgeable about publishing and writing who have chosen to use those skills on behalf of writers. That’s all.

Now, let’s talk. What about my comments makes sense? What seems just plain wrong? Did anything surprise you?

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60 Comments

  • Nothing surprised me too much about your post — which I loved by the way. That’s only because I make an effort to read as much about agents and publishing as I can. As lovely as it would be to see writing as an amazing creative process that should always involve high tea, desks overlooking the sea and groups where writers discuss how much they love each other’s manuscripts that isn’t the case.

    I especially like you asking authors to take note of how much money they make for their agent. It’s a good point to take note of — if an author expects an agent to give them substantial amounts of time, are they being fair? Is it worth it?

    Thanks, Janet.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      One of the tricky things about being an agent is figuring out how to spend my time. There’s always more to do in a day than can be accomplished. While a client needs to realize that an agent can’t devote tons of time when no money has been made, the agent *has* made a commitment to work with each client. That means that my heart often overtakes my brain, and I’ll devote weeks to working with a client on a project even though that client has earned no money. And I don’t give up easily on a project either. I’ve been known to spend years presenting a project to editors. In this way an agent is like a writer–we do what we do because we passionately believe in our clients. But I can become weary when the client doesn’t seem to recognize I’ve invested a lot, too.

  • Janet, Everything you’ve said makes good sense. I’ve said for years that unrealistic expectations are a killer. When I was practicing medicine, one of the questions I always asked a patient before scheduling a procedure or embarking on a treatment program was, “What are your indicators of success?” Writers and agents alike generally have the same indicator of success–a great published work that sells like Gang Busters–so the question here should be, “What do you expect to get out of this relationship, and what are you prepared to put into it?”
    Communication is the key. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Richard, you’re so right. A wise physician (and agent) will talk about the present situation with the “patient” to help him or her have realistic expectations. Is this offer a fair one? Will this project be likely to sell? Can you meet the deadline? Without that kind of give-and-take, there’s all kinds of room for false expectations and disappointments.

  • Kate says:

    Janet,

    Thanks for the reminders of author-agent etiquette.

    Your second point and idea about writing our “concerns” in a draft email hit home with me. This week I dashed off an email to two writer friends, and by the time they responded (they are dear, dear friends), I realized I had over-reacted…if only I’d saved my first response as a draft, I wouldn’t have had to apologize for taking up their valuable time!

    Have a tea-riffic rest of the weekend!

  • It’s a tricky thing to say agents can’t be your friends. I realize that it’s a business relationship, but if that nugget of genuine interest in your work and your life isn’t there, the agent isn’t going to know how to help you. I think God can put you with the very best agent, whose personality is exactly what YOU need as an author. I also feel a certain natural affinity for anyone who sees the value in the books I write and is willing to champion them for me.

    I’ve had two agents, and I know that communication is key. Yes, there is a balance and a restraint involved, not chit-chatting about what I made for supper tonight or how my kid got called to the principal’s office, etc. But a great agent stays aware of what’s going on in your life (there was a post on this over at Steve Laube’s blog recently), and realizes the stresses an author is under at any given time (ie: moving).

    Great post and thanks for the tips on how to be a better client for our agents! Tweeting for sure!

    • I agree with you, Heather. I wouldn’t want an agent I didn’t consider a friend on some level, but to always remember it’s a business relationship first.

      Excellent advice, Janet. I especially like drafting an email w/ all the little things instead of numerous ones.

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Heather and Melissa, thanks for getting what I was driving at. Of course I care deeply for my clients, and over the years, friendships naturally develop. When a client goes through a crisis (death in the family, loss of a house, severe illness), I want to know not just because that crisis affects the author’s productivity but even more because I care deeply for those I represent. One of my clients died several years ago, and I still mourn her death and feel that loss. These relationships go deep. The problem comes when the client presumes on that friendship. It’s a tricky balance.

  • Beth K. Vogt says:

    Nothing surprised me … and all your points were good reminders.
    I’m here to learn from my agent — not tell her what to do. Can I tell her my concerns? Absolutely — but not every one of them, and not on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis. I have other writer-relationships for that.

  • Sarah Thomas says:

    I’m so glad you put it out there that this is a business relationship, not a friendship. As a supervisor I’ve had to learn that there’s a big difference between being friends with your staff and being friendly with your staff. A good friend was job-hunting and another friend asked if I could hire her. I said I valued the friendship way too much to do that!

  • Dale Rogers says:

    Thank you for your sound advice. I hope to use
    it with an agent someday.

  • Charise says:

    I thought your post was “spot on”. I did laugh a bit at us not being friends. Whaaaat? But I think Richard Mabry comment alludes to something good too. I really like my doctor. We laugh and chat…when I am there for my APPOINTMENT.

    I think another broad point is understanding writing is the art and publishing is the business (and the agent is your advocate in the business). It is easy to get the two confused.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Charise, I think most writers want to feel comfortable with their agent and enjoy spending time together. But friendship isn’t the goal, even though it’s often a natural outcome.

  • What you’ve said makes complete sense and can be used in all relationships in life.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Good point, Nancy. These pointers would stand us in good stead in all relationships. My husband would especially stress the “listen” point. I’m always interrupting him when I figure I know where he’s headed. Why waste time listening when I have my response ready, right?

  • No shockers, but I feel the second point is very subjective. What one might consider nagging would be another person just addressing an area of concern–especially in the case of a newly signed author who has never worked with an agent before.

    Thanks for a great post, Janet. This is such helpful information.

  • Wendy Lawton Wendy Lawton says:

    Great post, as always, Janet. But your point that your agent is not your friend gave me pause.

    Until, that is, I realized that you were talking about expectations. When you sign on with your agent, it should be for all the wise business reasons not because you are picking a new best friend.

    What happens is that friendship often grows– apart from the business alliance. I deeply respect my clients (or I wouldn’t have sought them out). But as the years go on many have become friends and some, deep friends.

    Since you were my agent long before we became colleagues, I know this is true of you as well. We became friends/ sisters before we decided to work together. You are friends with many of your clients but I understand the distinction you are making. Friendship may develop but as with all professional relationships it should not be assumed and it must not be the motivating issue.

    As with all relationships, “it’s complicated.” :-)

    • Thank you, Janet, for your excellent post. Your point about expectations is essential not only in the author-agent relationship, but alos in life in general. So often we encounter relationship challenges in life because of false or unrealistic expectations.

      I am so thankful to have an agent who has been as clear from the get-go about his expectations as I have been about mine. This clear and open communication has been key in the development of a strong business relationship.

      Blessings,

      MaryAnn
      ________________________
      MaryAnn Diorio, PhD, MFA
      http://www.maryanndiorio.com

    • So glad you chimed in, Wendy! I understood the point Janet was getting across, but I do consider my fabulous, beautiful, funny agent my friend and I’m so glad you’re on my side. However, I considered you my friend BEFORE I became your client. Remember how many conferences we spent getting to know each other? Okay, okay, I always did have an agent crush on you, but that’s the best way for relationships to grow, right?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Thank you, as always, Wendy, for mitigating my communication and for clarifying what I was saying in a clumsy and one-sided way. Of course friendships evolve from what starts out as a business relationship. What could be better than to have both benefits?

  • The first thing that popped in my head was the great line from Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”.

    “All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up”.

    The character was completely out of touch with reality, the business of film-making, and her own worth as a performer. Her expectations greatly exceeded her current demand. Thinking that one is the greatest thing since paper and ink will de-rail all relationships, not just the one between the agent and writer. The agent is the guide,and if the writer is smart, then he or she will follow the well worn path already set out by the agent’s own hard work and experience.

  • Janet, this was a fabulous post! So much meat here! And I liked the points that Wendy made, too. First, I love my agent as my sister in Christ. Second, I respect her for her business expertise and sound judgment. Third, I believe that a well-working agent/client relationship can often lead to a beautiful & long-lasting friendship.

    Does that mean that I have the right to be a needy, whiny client at times? Nope. At the end of the day, writing is MY JOB, and my agent makes sure the job’s getting done.

    (But please, Janet… Can’t I still believe in the fairy dust just a little? My nickname isn’t Cinderella for nothing. ;) )

  • Great post, Janet. I suspect the agent/writer relationship will always start on a business level. I pray when I finally meet the agent the Lord has in mind for me, that we will develop a friendship. But I understand that isn’t necessarily the case.

    I will probably always be worried that I’m bothering my agent–that’s my personality. I suspect it will be a difficult thing for me to juggle.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Jeanne says:

      Robin, I tend to worry that I am bothering people too. :)

      • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

        Neither of you are likely to be bothersome then! You both sound like the type of client I have to nudge and check in with to make sure she’s doing okay because she never communicates with me. Balance is the key!

  • Jenny Leo says:

    I think your post makes a lot of sense. A lot of it comes down to plain good manners.
    I’m curious if agents ever experience the opposite situation–that is, working with an author that is so hands-off that he or she is hard to get a hold of, wants to leave every last detail up to you, etc. Do you ever have to light a fire under an author to show a little enthusiasm?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      I do have one client who is hard to get a hold of. He operates out of an overflowing voice mail box (I can’t leave messages) and an overflowing email box (how will he ever find my message?). Eventually we connect, but I’ve learned never to promise a quick response to the publisher because it will take several days to connect with my client. I find this sort of distancing odd, but when the author dips into a project, the words are golden. Then I get all passionate about his writing again. As in any relationship, certain things are a little crazy-making; other things, winsome.

  • Susan Mires says:

    Listening – It’s not just good manners, it’s good business sense.

  • Jeanne says:

    Janet, I so appreciate your post. I’ve learned from friends who are further along this journey than I am some of what to expect when (being optimistic here) I have an agent to work with. Everything you shared made a lot of sense. Watching expectations in any relationship is important, especially in a business relationship.

    I especially liked the idea of putting concerns into a draft e-mail. And waiting to send it. I’m learning that some of my questions and worries tend to work themselves out if I give it a little time. It’s important in a business relationship, and in any relationship, to respect the other person–in terms of their time, abilities and who they are as people.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Jeanne, it’s so true, that if we start a draft email, by the end of the day, we’re likely to remove some of the items because we’ve figured out the answer, or an issue doesn’t seem as burning as it did initially.

  • Tessa Afshar says:

    Fascinating observations, Janet. Every time I visit this blog, I get a little more educated, which is a good thing for the safety of those who know me. But what I REALLY want to know is what do you consider a “minuscule” number?

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Tessa, what I’m saying isn’t, “Don’t call me if you didn’t get a contract last year.” I’m saying, be aware that if your agent is spending tons of time with you, that agent doesn’t have as much time to work at selling other clients’ projects.
      I’m not sitting at my desk keeping a tally of which client brought in money this week. I’m suggesting that we each have an instinctive sense that we might be expecting a lot of our agent’s time, and we ought to weigh whether we really *need* that time, or do we *want* the time. There’s a big difference.

  • Very good advice, Janet. All your comments make perfect sense. :) Great reminders!

  • This is a great post, Janet. I most definitely think that it’s possible for writers to have some of these expectations without realizing it. But it’s important to remember especially that your agent doesn’t need to hear you whining at all hours of the day. When you take up his/her time like that, you’re making the presumption that you and your needs come first; I think it’s good to remember that your agent has many clients and their job is not to ONLY serve you and cater to your every need. While there are legitimate concerns, it’s a great idea to “filter” those before contacting your agent about them.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Lindsay, yes, employing a filter is important. Of course, I wouldn’t want any Books & Such clients to read my post and to think, “Wow, I guess I better just quietly paddle my boat and not bother my agent.” If the waves are swelling and your paddling is ineffectual, by all means, contact your agent.
      And be aware of when your agent wants to be involved. I get testy when the first time I see a cover is the day the printed book shows up at my office. Or when a title is changed but no one tells me. Or the publisher moves the release date.

  • Janet, Thanks for putting out this reminder. As I read through your points, I thought these are tips we should use in all our relationships, professional and personal. They are simply common sense approaches to dealing with other human beings with respect and remembering it’s not always about “me.”

  • Tiana Smith says:

    I could definitely see people expecting too much one-on-one time with their agent. They want a friend and not a business associate. I think the thought is “I spend so much time doing this, that they should spend that much time with my project too”. Which is false.

  • Ann Bracken says:

    Change the arrangement of letters in the word listen and you get silent. Sometimes we’re so worried about being heard we don’t realize we were and are being answered.

    If we’re a true friend to our agent, wouldn’t we want them to be successful? That would mean giving them the time to work with other clients as well. Fifteen percent really isn’t that much, especially with a new author who isn’t earning yet.

    I’ve been told I’m worth millions, but I’m postive my mother is biased. I’m willing to believe an agent. ;-)

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      Ann, your statement about your worth made me smile. Yup, mothers are a tad biased. And thanks for pointing out the relationship between “listen” and “silent.”

  • Lori says:

    Good post Janet. Your comments make perfect sense. With reading your blog along with other agents’ blogs (Rachelle being one) for the pas year, nothing you said suprised me.

    • Janet Grant Janet Grant says:

      You’re being wise to tune in to a variety of agents’ blogs. We’re spending time writing them because we want to help; thanks for taking my blog in that spirit.

  • Sarah Sundin says:

    Thank you for an honest post. My lovely agent does not get paid to deal with histrionics, nor did I see anything about “hand-holding” in the contract. Just as the agent tries to protect the publisher-author relationship from unpleasantness, the author needs to protect the agent-author relationship.

    We authors need angst filters in our lives. Prayer first and foremost. My husband is a rock-solid source of balance and strength for me. My Christian friends deal with general life angst. And my writer friends help me deal with writer angst. (And it’s mutual). Any concerns that pass those filters will go to my agent, prayed over and already talked through.

    I’m blessed to call Rachel my friend – but that’s the result of our business relationship – not the reason for it.

  • Sue Ferguson says:

    Janet, I love this post and the comment interaction. With these guidelines, should a writer “shop” for the right agent fit? When I met you I knew I’d love to work with you. Recently, at a writer’s conference I met another agent, who wants to work with me. How do you know? Especially if both are respected in their field and one “can’t wait to get this proposal before editors.” I’m preparing as though I’m going with one but my heart keeps looking back.

  • Anju Gattani says:

    Wonderful post, Janet!
    Professionalism, being realistic as a writer, and taking the time to understand precisely what it is agents do will go a long way in striking the balance. Lots of great advice and a look into the other side of publishing. Thanks for this and for reminding us, once again, manners and patience are some of the keys to success!
    Regards
    Anju

  • Diane Stortz says:

    When Etta Wilson retired and Janet kept me on as a client, I realized from the start that compared to some of her other clients, I am a “small potato.” But that’s all right with me … I’m happy to be in the potato patch! I have treasured the interactions and direction I’ve received from Janet even more because I know how busy she is. And one of these days, who knows? This potato just might grow a bit larger and thank her more concretely.

  • J.Perrino says:

    As with dieting, the agent/writer relationship can be frought with unhealthy expectations. A writer can also “use” an agent to pin all their hopes to (similar to a diet which is going to “cure” every bad thing in someone’s life.)

    That’s why I don’t diet–but why I do hope to find an agent to form a partnership (key word) with. Not an unhealthy, hand holding, please-tell-me-you-think-I’m-the-greatest-writer-ever type relationship, but one based on mutual respect and professionalism.

    Thanks for the post, Janet.

  • I just recently signed a contract with an agent in hopes to make some blog to book magic a reality.

    Patience has never been my strong suit and this has been a great read to keep me in check while I begin my first steps in this both exciting and uncertain relationship. Reminds me of my first school dance, but that was much more terrifying.

    It’s easy to roll up our sleeves, slap on our horse blinders and want to plow ahead with our own projects without putting everything else into perspective. These tips are going to be essential to surviving the road ahead.

    Thanks for sharing Janet

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