Let Your Agent Be the Bad Guy

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

One of the primary advantages of having an agent is that you have an advocate who can handle all the negotiations with the publisher and navigate difficult territory, allowing you to maintain a positive working relationship with everyone at your publishing house.

This positive relationship can have huge implications when it comes time for a publisher to decide whether they want to work with you again. It can also affect how you’re treated— whether it’s with respect, with kid gloves, or with dread. Most importantly, it can determine whether your publishing experience is mostly pleasant and rewarding… or not.

Bad guyWhen I say the agent can handle your negotiations, I don’t mean just the contract. I mean every point of discussion or disagreement that comes up between you and your publisher through the entire publishing process. Unfortunately, things can get stressful behind the scenes. You may feel unsupported by your publisher for a variety of reasons, especially when they don’t communicate with you very frequently. You may not like the cover or title they’ve chosen, you may not think they’re doing enough marketing. This journey isn’t always a smooth one. That’s one of the reasons you have an agent. So here are some thoughts:

? Don’t be impulsive.

If you have an agent, it’s crucial that you avoid dashing off angry or panicked emails to your editor. Send those to your agent! Things can happen that appear inconsiderate, and while there may be no deliberate insensitivity on the publisher’s end, it can be difficult for an author not to lose it, emotionally, when you get hit with something unexpected that seems disastrous. ONE honest email from you to your publisher, that the publisher interprets as “angry” or “emotional,” can sour the whole relationship, which if you think about it, is true with any relationship. You can’t take back what you’ve already said. It can be difficult (or impossible) to recover from saying things you didn’t mean… or simply saying things you did mean but with a tone that can be easily misunderstood in writing.

Your agent needs to be included, and this isn’t a power play to make your agent feel important. It’s for your protection… and it’s also to help the agent protect the work they’ve already done to help you get where you are. If you try to engage in difficult conversations with your publisher without your agent’s knowledge, they can’t protect you from the backlash or unfair judgment, they can’t help advance your career, they can’t negotiate for what you want. You’re emotional about these things, your agent is not. They will find the most tactful and effective way to help you get what you need.

? This is a partnership.

And the nature of the partnership is this: The agent gets the business side, the unpleasant parts, dealing with the sticky stuff, being the ogre when necessary. You get to WRITE. And be nice. And be the kind of writer that publishers want to keep on their lists.

You can and should tell your agent when you are so upset that you’re about to blow. I’m not trying to shut you up, I’m trying to get you to vent to the right person.

If you don’t think your agent is doing enough, tell them your thoughts. Give them the chance to explain their approach and/or change it to better meet your needs. If you tell your agent how upset you are, and the agent doesn’t get it or gives an offhand answer, then get very, very clear with the agent and work towards an acceptable solution. You should NEVER think: “Well, my agent doesn’t get it, so I guess the only person I have left to talk to is my editor.” Talking to your dog would be preferable!

? Publishers are human.

And that means they may read an email from you, which you didn’t intend to be rude, and interpret it wrong—because they don’t know you. Most of the people who touch your work at the publishing house know one another very well and have tight friendships, but the author is an unknown quantity. Don’t give them a chance to think negatively about you.

Bottom line:

? If you have an agent… use him or her to your advantage!

As agent Steve Laube says in his 10 Commandments for Working With Your Agent, “Thou shalt vent only to thine agent and never directly to thy publisher or editor.”


Do you think it would be hard for you to step back and let the agent handle it if things aren’t going to your liking? Have you ever been in a situation like this? 



“Let your agent be the bad guy,” says @RachelleGardner. Here’s how. Click to Tweet

Your agent handles the sticky stuff, and you get to WRITE. Not a bad deal! Click to Tweet

Vent to your agent, not your editor! @RachelleGardner saves your relationship with your publisher. Click to Tweet

48 Responses

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  1. I’m not big on negative confrontation, so the knowledge that my agent will go to battle on my behalf makes me feel very relieved. In the few short months I’ve been working with my agent, I’m amazed at how much she does behind the scenes on my behalf. It’s been refreshing to know she’s already on the front line working in areas I’d never have access. She’s tending to relationships I will benefit from later on. I love knowing that she has my best interests at heart and that when it comes time to work with a publisher, she’s already paving the path. I will continue to trust her to do the “dirty work” if there is any. I’d hate to be the one to put a damper on a relationship she’s worked so hard to develop, not to mention ruin my chances at working with a publisher in the future. Thanks for your post, Rachelle. It’s yet another reminder of why it’s so important to partner with an agent.

  2. “And the nature of the partnership is this: The agent gets the business side, the unpleasant parts, dealing with the sticky stuff, being the ogre when necessary. You get to WRITE. And be nice. And be the kind of writer that publishers want to keep on their lists.”


    It stands to reason and is perfectly logical that I would let the one who knows what she is doing, do what she knows to do.
    If I had a legal problem, I would consult a lawyer. A medical problem? A doctor.
    So if I’m going to navigate the world of publishing, why wouldn’t I do my best to let my agent do her job?

    >>AND<< keep her in a good supply of (insert name of caloric weakness here) in order to let her dwell in her happy place while I go and hurt fake people and write epic kissing scenes. Hey, SOMEBODY has to, right?

  3. Dan Erickson says:

    Great points. We often misread electronic communication. I always lean to the side of tact, no matter what I think the message is communicating to me.

    This is good advice and useful. Maybe I’ll work with an agent and/or a publisher one day. For now I just keep writing, blogging, and self-publishing. But there will still be communication that needs to be well-thought and tactful.

    • Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

      “We often misread electronic communication.”

      So true. Something valuable I’ve learned over the years is to let emails of a sensitive nature sit in a draft file overnight instead of automatically hitting send. Reading with fresh eyes in the morning has saved me from so much grief.

    • Good point, Dan. This message can apply to non-agented folks as a reminder to make sure they are protecting their own business relationships.

  4. I love the idea of agent as partner, not just that person you need to sell your book. Sounds like a huge luxury to me. Thanks for doing the heavy lifting Rochelle!

  5. I love the idea of leaving the difficult stuff to an agent. Life is full of tough situations already. I don’t want to bring more on willingly. I’ll save the conflict for my novel.

  6. Jan Cline says:

    You nailed it with the word partnership. In any business relationship/partnership each participant has their special place to use their expertise for the best outcome. I suppose it would be easy for some to cross over the line into the other’s job, but personally, I will gladly give my future agent the business end of the deal! Kudos to all the agents out there who go to bat for us.

  7. Suzanne Warr says:

    Wow, great advise and put in a way I can readily wrap my head around. Also, makes me sooo grateful I have my agent! Kudos to all the agents out there watching their writer’s backs!

  8. Micky Wolf says:

    Great post, Rachelle. Being in partnership resonates with me as well. You, as an agent, bring knowledge and expertise to the process that only someone with your background and experience can contribute to our working relationship. I’d be more than content to step back and let you handle things!

  9. Camille Eide says:

    If your agent knows what she’s doing, she not only doesn’t let you look bad, she can make you look pretty dang good.

    All the more proof that your job is harder than anyone realizes, Rachelle. Thank you. 🙂

  10. Roxanne Sherwood Gray says:

    Thanks for sharing your insight. I’d never want to be navigate the publishing waters without an agent.

  11. I love it 🙂
    What a great post. I love being reminded without a shadow of doubt that we can trust agents with both good and evil.
    Thanks again 🙂

  12. Taking a look at it from a business perspective–why would I pay an agent to work on my behalf and then do the dirty work myself? Perhaps that’s too harsh a way to look at it because agents aren’t making money without selling anything, but the author needs to step back and allow each partner to bring her expertise to the table and not try to control everything.

  13. This post makes me feel safe!

    And gotta love the gangster photo

  14. rachel says:

    there is such a moment of relief when you sign with an agent. it is such a weight off. because you ultimately have someone going to bat for you. and someone who will challenge you in areas of trust and belief. you have to hand over something that is such an integral part of you to someone and believe implicitly that it is safe in their capable hands. this trust is further proven in allowing them to work as your intermediary —as your guide —-as the way that you are leveraged in the big, wide publishing world. i think that this post and its insight into the necessity of giving your agent full control should inspire and encourage those who have not yet signed with an agency a.) to realize the benefit of having someone completely on your team with your best interests b.) the importance of solidifying the personal relationship with your agent so that you are able with full confidence to hand something so important to you into their care c.) to do you research and be sure that you are matching yourself with an agent you trust to act as your cheerleader, your representation, an extension of your name, your book and your brand.

  15. Lori says:

    I never like being the bad guy so I am more than happy to let someone else be.

  16. LMB says:

    When the teaser for this blog popped up in my inbox I thought it was going to be a completely different angle. This is great advice but I also think or at least, what I want, is the agent to be the bad guy with ME. I had an agent. He was beautiful and lovely and smart and he thought my writing was exceptional. He had no advice to offer on my completed manuscripts because they were so wonderful. We didn’t sell a single thing. In talking to author friends I realized what I need is an advocate agent who finds fault with my manuscripts before they get sent out. While it’s a huge boost to my ego to have someone fall in love with everything I send them and never find a problem, I KNEW there were problems..plot holes…anemic character development etc. but I didn’t know exactly the problem at the time. I want my next agent to be the ‘bad guy’ (which would actually make him the good guy :)) for me before we send anything out…

    • That’s a good point, and something we deal with all the time. There are many harsh realities in publishing, and it’s our job to communicate them to our authors without seeming overly negative. Balancing “cheerleader” with “coach” and “editor” is tricky sometimes!

  17. That’s exactly the kind of relationship I wish I had with my agent.

    Well, if I had one.

    I’ve known a lot of writers, and they tend to want to think “outside the box”, and cut across lines of communication and command. It’s a combination of arrogance and innocence – odd how the two so often go together.

    But it’s lethal. I’ve seen family members torpedo their own debut book deals, by ignoring their agents and deciding that “the personal touch” was needed. It wasn’t only the impulsive action – it was the very act of cutting the agent out of the loop that made them look unprofessional, and made the publishers think twice about working with them. It fatally undermined their credibility.

    Reputation is precious, and I suspect that getting one for being difficult is hard to shake.

    • You’re right, Andrew, reputation is everything (in almost every area of life). Once you develop a negative one, it’s difficult to overcome.

      • Seraph Stein says:

        That is very wise advice. I try to remember this when I have to enter into a “difficult conversation” with one of my staff or even with one of my non-compliant patients.

        When I am “cool, calm, and collected”, I am always, always more effective and let’s face it, more human.

        And I get to keep my reputation as honest, kind, and true patient advocate.
        Regards and this was a great conversation topic,,
        Seraph Stein (Ob/GYN and agent-seeking author)

  18. I love this line, “You get to WRITE. And be nice. And be the kind of writer that publishers want to keep on their lists.” Sigh. A buffer, a sounding board, a counselor, a consultant, the mediator – you all wear a lot of hats. And we are grateful!

  19. Kiersti says:

    While I’m not at the point of dealing with a publisher yet, this post makes me so grateful to have an agent! Really, you are wonderful inventions–we appreciate all of you!

  20. The names Spade. Sam Spade.

    They call me a “big city” wheelin’ and dealin’ lit. agent which is just a fancy way of saying, don’t you even think about messin’ around with my clients or my writer friends. Kapish?

    Even though my artistic with the word friends – might not be able to handle them selves in a back alley literary fight – let me just say, I was born in the back alley ways of Brooklyns East side, not far from the publishin’ capital of the world. and I know my way around editors, publishers and dem’ book binding folks.

    Yes, I can schmooze with them if I have to, and buy em’ drinks, but I can also break a few, book bindings,mark up a fe front pages, if you get my drift, so just you publishers, especially you in the big gang of five, you better watch how you’re treating’ my people. They is good people. As far as I know, all writers are good people, They live a hard life, it ain’t easy stringing some words along and makin’ sentences that people want to read.

    Listen – writers got dreams just like we all got dreams and I don’t want to hear any words comin’ outta’ the side of your mouth that might discourage my people from doing what they wants to do.

    Have a good day.No make that, have a great day or else, I’ll come lookin’ for you.

    • Hey! I’m sorry if I scared any of you folks. I does got a soft side, just as my fifth wife. She adores me, but then it don’t hurt that I’m rich from all them 15 to 25% commissions.

      Oh by the way, how do you like my picture at the top of the page – pretty slick lookin’ guy huh? Guess thats why Rachelle used it.

      Me and her, we are pretty tight. We goes way back, when to the same school. PS 93. She was the smart one, got all the A’s, I was the tough kid, got all the kids lunch money. Oh well, we still get along, as long as I don’t steal her lunch.

    • Donnie, you made me laugh and made my day!

  21. Andrea Cox says:

    I would gladly welcome a middle man to deal with the icky stuff. 🙂 Rachelle, thanks for another wonderful and informative article. I’ll have to keep these tips in mind when I get to the publishing stage of my writing career.


  22. Thank you for clearing this up for me, Rachelle. Like some of the others who’ve commented, I’m not big on confrontation. Being new to the getting-published game, I’m not sure I’d know if my objections are justified or not. The last thing I want to do is alienate an editor.

  23. Lynn Johnston says:

    Thanks for the great advice Rachelle. I will know exactly what to do once I finally land an agent.

  24. Peter DeHaan says:

    For me it would be easy to step back and let an agent do his or her job. I await that day with eager expectation!

  25. What if my agent never responds to any of my emails? Never answers my questions? The only way I have been able to get any communication out of her is to make an interview appointment with her at a writer’s conference. This is very frustrating, NOT TO MENTION EXPENSIVE! One example: Last year, she emailed me in September asking me to do revision #2 and gave me several suggestions about what to change. I reexamined my manuscript and then emailed her a question or two a week later. No response. So I followed her previous suggestions as best I could and did the rewrite. I e-submitted the revision to her in February of this year (2013). No response – to even tell me she got the material. I waited three months and emailed her asking if she needed anything more from me. No response. So at the conference in June, I made an appointment with her on the first day of the conference. We talked. She acted surprised that I hadn’t heard from her. She made more suggestions for changes. I took notes. She asked me to get an editor. (I am still waiting for the Lord to provide that enormous amount of cash for said editor.) In the meantime, I emailed my agent several questions. No response. It’s been over a month. What should I do now? Any suggestions? Although I like this lady very much and I view her as very capable, I feel as if this agent and I don’t have a working relationship. I am at a loss on how to fix it. I thought I was acting responsibly with my end of our communication. So I don’t understand what gives.

  26. Agent Gatsby had one rule for all of his authors: never phone him before one o’clock in the afternoon. He claimed that he sold his writers’ works by socializing in the evenings. For at least eight nights a week, he went to parties, threw parties, went to dinner, or just went drinking with individuals who would either provide him with the best writing of the day or who would publish that writing in the best markets for the most money. I went with my agent to two parties, and attended one party that he threw. His gala was in an incredible two-floor, ocean-facing suite of the Miami Beach Fontainebleau hotel. Like The Great Gatsby, he was wealthy, powerful, and mysterious. — For the rest of the story of Literary Agent Gatsby, see http://www.f1reth0rns.blogspot.com/2013/08/literary-agent-gatsby.html