How do I break up with my agent
March 14, 2006 10:32 AM   Subscribe

I've decided my book agent isn't helping me. When is it OK to dump him?

So I feel I've wasted a lot of time with this agent, whom I will call Nick, rewriting a book proposal with his input. Nick's at a big agency, but his rewrite requests haven't helped, and I'm worried he has a poor grasp of the market that has led me way out to sea. It's a bad sign when the interested buyers come to me, not to him.

Nick doesn't have any background in the subject, he's rude to me on the phone and (without getting into specifics) I feel he's blown major opportunities, owing to lack of understanding of the genre. I'm worried about being yoked to someone who may have no idea what he's doing.

Now an editor at a real company has approached me about my writing. He really seemed to get it and wants to have a look. But since I had an agent, I had him go through Nick. So far Nick hasn't contributed much to our negotiations, however, other than asking me to change my Word font size and remove the parts of the story that I like.

It feels like it would be so wrong to axe my agent and tell this editor, "Hi, me again. Nick is gone. I'm representing myself from now on." But it also sounds so right. Since I got him involved, am I obligated to keep him around until talks with this editor are over with? (We haven't entered into any serious agreements.) I'm getting increasingly interested in just going to a small publisher here in town, doing a DIY thing on the Web, anything but spend any more of my life, or 10% of any sales, answering to Nick.
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (11 answers total)
It depends on your contract, legally.

Morally/ethically, you have no need to maintain a business relationship that is not working for you if a better opportunity comes along.
posted by By The Grace of God at 10:43 AM on March 14, 2006

If Nick doesn't have a background in the subject, why is he asking you to rewrite? That's a bad idea. He should be spending his time shopping your book, not editing it.

As for axing him and then going back to the editor, that doesn't seem like a problem as long as you don't have any trouble getting out of your agent contract. As a book editor at a publishing house, this happened a couple of times and I continued working with the author both times.
posted by meerkatty at 11:10 AM on March 14, 2006

You are always free to fire your agent. It is the very essence of the agenting business that you get fired if your client doesn't like you personally, or you can't sell your client's work, to say the least of both.

There are two practical concerns:

First, you might end up having to pay his agency a commission if you sell the project, even after firing him. Well-drafted agency representation agreements have a "tail" that works that way with projects the agent tried to shop, even unsuccessfully. You should know that's a price most people are willing to pay when representation isn't working out: 80% of something (assuming you have to commission old agent and new agent) is better than 90% of nothing.

Second, as for that 80%, I'd hesitate to fire "Nick" before having a new agent lined up. You might think you can just start working with publishers directly, but most publishers are exceptionally averse to working with unrepresented authors. The vast majority of fabulously successful writers maintain agents, and the few who do without always substitute other representation (having their lawyer directly deal with their publishers, most often).
posted by MattD at 11:12 AM on March 14, 2006

Not working out? Dump him ASAP. It's your career. Short, sweet, and firm, that's the ticket.

"Hi Nick. I called because I have some bad news. I'm sorry, but I've decided to end our agreement, effective immediately. I just don't think it's working out. Thanks for all you've done."

One five-minute awkward call, which will be less awkward than you fear, and you'll be free of the sense of impending doom which is currently gripping you.

Read your contract with him.
posted by jellicle at 11:19 AM on March 14, 2006

What MattD said. You can fire your agent out of a cannon any time you like, but you will probably have to bite the commission on any projects which cropped up while he was still your agent.

Don't bother trying to sell your own work. There are lots of reasons, one of which you want your own relationship with the publisher to be purely creative and leave the yelling and screaming about deal points to the agent (or lawyer or manager).

And yes, *always* line up a new agent before blowing out the old one, if only because other agents get all excited about poaching clients, so you will have a better choice.

Is Nick a principal at the agency? If not, why not contact one of the partners and tell them that you are thinking of quitting the agency and do not want to work with Nick any longer. You may get a very good offer out of this. If you can trade up from Nick to an agent with more clout this could help you a lot. Agencies really *hate* to lose clients (especially ones who are negotiating deals) and this kind of thing can make them raise their game.

I did the same thing by talking about hiring a manager, which scared my agents out of their wits.
posted by unSane at 11:23 AM on March 14, 2006

Most agents are notoriously bad at knowing what material is good or bad, and are even worse at giving actual notes that help. That's what editors are for. An agent's job is to get your stuff into the right hands and make you sound like a genius.

Sometimes, a good/great agent can suss out great material, and has incredible instincts about what's good and what's not. Very rarely, they can advise changes that make a big difference. But, that is not what an agent is for.

Nick is not doing his job. Fire him. Fire him today. Go to the company, start talking, but at the same time, start looking for a new agent. You need an agent. They are worth their money. But you need a good agent. A good agent makes the 10% you pay them seem paltry. I have never resented spending 10% for an agent, since, before I got an agent, I didn' t even earn 10% of my current salary. Twice in my career I have had to fire agents, and both times, it re-invigorated my career.

Do not engage in any phone calls or meeting with this company until you have fired the agent, or he is rightfully entitled to his 10%.
posted by generic230 at 11:27 AM on March 14, 2006

John Scalzi has written about agents at his blog and the issues of having one who Gets your stuff and is a good match for the market you want to sell into.
posted by phearlez at 11:46 AM on March 14, 2006

I interned for a literarcy agency while trying to decide if I wanted to be poor in publishing or poor in library science and an author did what unSane suggested, basically going over their agent's head to the director and saying "I don't think So-and-So is doing right by me. Here's why..."

There was a big fooferaw and the author got a new agent at the firm while the agent was transitioned into nonfiction. Then again, the agent in question was more a lawyer than a pitchman (this agency was part of a larger law firm).
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:47 AM on March 14, 2006

Morally, you are free to bag your agent at any time if you feel he isn't up to the job.

Legally, you'll have to read your contract.
posted by tkolar at 12:06 PM on March 14, 2006

Miss Snark is the most excellent resource about literary agents I've ever found. Plenty of posts deal with that exact topic, just have a look...
posted by Spanner Nic at 12:07 PM on March 14, 2006

Ditto on Miss Snark.
posted by kensanway at 3:03 PM on March 14, 2006

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