It’s Not Me, It’s You: How and When to Change Agents
As the saying goes, life is just one damn thing after another. There are plenty of moments in our personal and professional lives that we might wish we could “lock in” and prevent from changing. No one knows this better than writers—you work for years and finally achieve a certain level of professional success, you might be forgiven for wishing that you could just take a breath and coast for a while.
For example, landing a literary agent. You put in potentially years of work leading up to the magical moment when a real, live agent offers you representation, so it’s natural that you’d want to kick back and relax for a bit. But working with an agent is like everything else, your relationship with and expectations of your agent can change. And sometimes they don’t change for the better, and it’s time to break up and find new representation.
Changing literary agents shouldn’t be done lightly, but sometimes it’s necessary. Knowing the signs that new representation might be a good idea is key—as is knowing what to do if you reach the conclusion that it’s a necessary move.
Signs You Might Need a New Agent
It would be easy if the signs you need a change of representation were clear and obvious—like seeing your agent on television being led away by FBI agents, or discovering they’ve got a drawer of royalty checks they forgot to send you. Those kinds of overt offenses are ideal in a weird way because they make your decision to find a new agent clear and obvious.
Unfortunately, the signs that you should consider changing agents are often much more subtle. In fact, there’s often not a single, clear sign that you need to reassess your representation—it’s usually the combination of a lot of subtle things:
A lack of communication
Communication styles vary. Some authors want to hear from their agents all the time, others are happy if they only hear from them when there’s something worth hearing. But what links all happy authors together is knowing what’s going on. A good agent is keeping you abreast of developments—where your book is, what the comments have been like, etc.
If you have to regularly work pretty hard to get a response from your agent, or their answers to specific questions are sketchy at best, it’s probably time to consider a change.
A lack of strategy
Being a literary agent isn’t just a glorified paper-pushing position. Anyone can send out a bunch of submissions, then take a nap (that’s generally my approach). A good literary agent should have a plan for your work, one that involves editors chosen for very specific reasons, plenty of research into the market and comparable titles, and a thoughtful approach to presenting the book in terms of genre and publishing trends. If you have no idea what your agent’s strategy is, ask. If you don’t get an answer—or don’t like the one you get—it might be time to switch.
A lack of sales
Nothing in this world is guaranteed. Even the greatest agents in the world can fail to sell a manuscript to a publisher. But if you’ve been with your agent for a while and there hasn’t been a single sale logged, that could indicate that you have the wrong person on your team. Or it could simply indicate that you need a fresh pair of eyes on things and some new ideas on how to get that book sold. Either way, it’s a sign that something isn’t working here.
A lack of accounting
You should be perfectly clear about what you’re owed and where that money is. If your agent has sold material on your behalf, you should be receiving royalty statements (even if you haven’t “earned out” your advance). If you’re due royalties, you should be getting those as well. The publisher will pay out to the agency of record on your contract, and then it’s up to them to take their 15 percent and then pay you the balance.
This can get a little complicated, especially if your agent has changed agencies or if your book has changed publishers or has been orphaned because your editor left for a new job or something like that. But your agent should always be able to explain to you what the situation is. If you’re not sure where you stand financially on a deal, or your agent is being cagey about those subjects, it’s definitely time to consider changing representation.
Some writers take years and years to research, plan, and compose a book. Some writers produce several books a year. But agents have their own speed and bandwidth too—some want you to send them everything you have, others want to focus on a single project at a time. When there’s a disconnect between your speed and your agent’s speed, you’ll either be frustrated because you have several projects that your agent hasn’t even read yet, or your agent will get fed up with you sending them a new book before they’ve even processed the prospects of your other books. Which means your relationship will eventually end in tears.
Pushing you onto others
Your agent should always be your main contact, the person you deal with. There’s nothing wrong with your agent tagging in someone to provide feedback, fresh eyes, or professional advice outside their sphere of expertise—in fact, that can be refreshing and encouraging. But if that isn’t the case, and you find yourself dealing instead with assistants, junior agents, or third-party readers, it’s time for a conversation.
It’s important to note that just because you detect one of these signs, that doesn’t mean you must immediately compose a termination letter (well, finding anything funky with your royalties probably does mean that, to be fair). These signs are just that—signals that something’s not quite right. Maybe all it takes is a heart-to-heart conversation to right the ship, or maybe you don’t have all the information.
But if you investigate these signs and conclude that the time has come to part ways, you may find yourself wondering how, exactly, does one do that?
How to Change Agents
The key to changing agents is professionalism. No matter how chummy you are (or were) with your agent, or how much you like them personally, the decision to find new representation is a business decision and you should approach it like that. Keep in mind that authors change agents all the time—it is totally not uncommon and it is often a bloodless, unexciting decision that doesn’t involve embezzled funds or public shouting matches. Chances are your agent has had clients leave before and they won’t get too emotional about it—and neither should you.
While it’s not required, you should consider calling your agent or setting up a meeting, depending on the nature and length of your relationship. You need to sever your relationship in writing (see below), but giving your agent a head’s up—if you feel they deserve it—is a decent move. Of course, if you’re firing your agent because they did embezzle from you (or otherwise mistreated you) you can just ignore this and go straight to the firing.
Your relationship with your agent isn’t just two crazy kids taking on the world of big publishing together—there are numerous legal aspects to it. A few things to do:
- Read your contract. Most agents have pretty clear language about how to give notice, and it usually involves sending a letter (sometimes an email) 30 or 60 days in advance. Don’t imagine you can pull a Michael Scott and just shout “I declare you’re fired!” and that’s it. In the letter you send, ask the agent to stop all work on your behalf and clearly state that you are terminating your relationship.
- Ask for a final statement regarding where your manuscript is and how long it’s been there. This information will be crucial—you’ll need it if you seek a new agent for the same book because you don’t want to submit it to an editor who has already passed.
- If your agent has a book out on submission when you terminate them and that proposal results in a sale, they may be able to claim the agent’s percentage even if you’ve fired them. This should also be spelled out pretty clearly in your contract.
- Keep in mind if your agent sold anything for you—they remain the agent of record on the contract and so all royalties will flow to them, so you’ll still be dealing with them (or their agency) on some level. Avoid any temptation to have a “mic drop” moment and dress them down for perceived sins, because you might be on the phone with them a week later politely asking for your check.
One thing that’s confusing to a lot of writers is how to handle the transition. Part of what makes writers hesitate about firing their agent is the (perfectly natural) fear that they won’t find a new one. Many of us have Impostor Syndrome and feel like we were lucky to land an agent in the first place. Surely lightning won’t strike twice!
This leads some authors to put out feelers for new agents before they let their current representation know what’s going on. I get it—this feels safe. If it takes you 2 years to find a new agent, you’ve still got the original plodding away on your behalf! And if your original agent suddenly sells your book at auction for six figures plus an accompanying film deal, well you can just delete all those emails and never say a word about them, right?
Well, no. First of all, it’s unethical to leave your agent toiling away on your behalf when you’ve already decided to fire them. And the publishing world is a pretty gossipy one—any time I find myself sitting with a few agents at some events, believe me—they know everything that’s happening in the literary world. If you think you can start freely querying agents without your current one hearing about it eventually, you are wrong. And other agents won’t exactly be thrilled to discover you’re still legally represented by one of their peers. Best advice: Follow the termination procedure in your contract and don’t launch the search for a new agent until it’s done.
What to Do When the Tables Turn
Something that many authors seem to forget is worth noting here: Agents can fire you, too.
Yes, it’s true—sometimes the agent is the one doing the dumping and the legal separation bit. Your literary agent isn’t ensnared in a magical trap when they sign you as a client—just like you, they can decide for many reasons both professional and personal that they no longer wish to work with you. Here are a few examples of when and how that might happen:
You were orphaned
If your agent is part of an agency, you should know what happens if they leave said agency. Will they want you to follow them? Will someone else at the agency take you on—and do you want that? If it’s the latter, you might find that other agents aren’t excited to have you on their lists, and they might release you from your contract after a suitable period of time.
If your agent is leaving an agency but wants to keep you as a client (and you want to remain one), you’ll probably have to terminate your contract with the agency first—the procedure for that, yes, will be outlined in your agency agreement. Make sure you’re certain that your current agent still wants you before you make any moves—and that you still want to be their client.
You went rogue
If your agent isn’t moving as fast as you like, you might think it’s a smart idea to start submitting your book—or another project—to editors and publishers on your own. If this is something your agent knows about and has blessed, that’s fine—at least there can be coordination. But if you’re just slinging your book into editors’ offices the chances that you’re messing up your agent’s strategy are very high, and the chances they will find out and fire you are probably higher.
Your agent quit
As in, quit the business. Being a literary agent is hard work, with no guarantee of huge success and just like everyone else your agent might decide to pursue a different line of work. If your agent was part of an agency, refer back to the first bullet here.
You were a bad partner
If you fought your agent at every turn, or didn’t play well with editors or other professionals, if you were rude or angry or sloppy, if you missed deadlines and did nothing but complain, that might be a small hint as to why your agent might decide to send you packing.
So, yes, agents do sometimes release (i.e., fire) their clients. If it happens, you’ll want to do two things right away:
- Review your contract. Make sure you understand what is supposed to happen now and keep up your end of things. You’ll also want to ensure that your agent is doing everything they’re contractually obligated to do in this scenario.
- Get a list of places/
editors where your work has been or is currently being read. It’s the same situation as if you’re doing the firing—you want to make sure you don’t double-submit a project, and you want to make sure you’re not wasting your time.
Once the process of separating from your agent is done, you can start looking for a new one, if that’s what you want. When communicating with new agents, don’t be cagey about your old agent—there’s no need to get dramatic, and complaining or insulting them is counter-productive, but don’t try to pretend you’ve never had an agent before. These things happen, and it won’t be an impediment to finding a new agent. In fact, imagining how you would react to being fired by your agent could be a useful mental exercise to imagine how you would want to be treated in that scenario and follow those guidelines when and if you ever decide to be the one doing the firing.
Authors and agents can form a remarkably effective team, and many agent relationships last for decades. That being said, not every marriage or partnership is built to last and sometimes the smartest thing you can do is decide to move on. As a writer, you deserve an agent that admires your work and has a plan to get it out into the world, an agent that communicates openly and honestly, and an agent that actually sells your work.
No one wants to fire their agent, but sometimes it is your best option for moving forward with your career. If you’ve realized that’s where you are, be happy, because making the decision is the difficult part—and now you can start moving forward again.