Dough-see-dough: Is it time to change literary dance partners?

Chatting with a few author friends this weekend, it came up in conversation that several of us had changed agents in the last six months. The very notion of "hopping" strikes fear into every writers heart. Obtaining literary representation is tremendously difficult to begin with. It's hard for newbies to imagine you could ever get disgruntled enough to guillotine this person who was supposed to be your savior, and certainly, we don't do it lightly. Authors are beyond loathe to fire the agent we have until his or her conduct becomes so egregious or the relationship so strained that the situation is unbearable, and by that time, a huge chunk of our most precious commodity -- time -- has been lost.

"In addition to several authors changing out representation, Agents are also in the process of purging their stables and seeking out new clients. Rumors...but anyone on the list serves has probably heard actual names," says Cindy Cruciger. "My theory is that publisher buying slows after October and doesn’t pick up until after the Holidays, publishers and agents start assessing the trends, looking at what writers they have who are writing what against what they believe is going to be the next hot trend and the ones they feel will adjust and sell, get more attention. It’s a dance. Everyone seems to change partners."

So what finally pushes us over the buffalo jump? When is it right to work on the relationship and when is it time for the Dear John?

"I felt like the balance of power was off," said one well-established author pal. "She had it all and I had none. Questions seemed to irritate her. I was always walking on eggshells, afraid to offend. I came away from our interactions upset."

I saw a lot of heads nodding at that, and many authors assume that it's going to be that way. The agent can have as many clients as he can sign, but the author can only have one agent. If he puts you on the back burner, you are screwed. The imbalance of power casts the author as the agent's needy sharecropper, and well, that does not make for a happy, productive exchange of creative ideas.

“What made my situation particularly painful was that my agent never did anything wrong," says another well-published friend. "She was responsive and generous with her time, a fabulous hand holder and cheerleader. She was a delight and [my first novel] would have never happened without her. I genuinely like her as a person and would continue to refer people to her. The problem for me was I didn't believe that her agenting style and my career goals were in sync anymore. It broke my heart to part ways with her--still makes my eyes tear up just thinking about it.”

"It really boils down to different working styles, so it’s the publishing version of irreconcilable differences," says Jackie Kessler. "When you don’t agree with the person who’s supposed to represent you in the business, there’s little choice other than to either be resigned to a miserable business partnership or to find someone else."

Judy Larsen adds to that, "I can tell you that when it's the right match you'll know it. Not to sound too goofy, but it's kind of like marriage. When my first marriage ended, I knew it hadn't been good, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it (well, other than the whole infidelity thing). Over the next twelve years I dated some and had come to think maybe it wasn't in the cards for me. Maybe I was too picky. But then, when I met the right guy, everything clicked. Even when things were tricky. So when I hear some of you talk about the things that went wrong with agents, and how it feels all hot and cold with some of them, I think, man, that's not how it should be. You deserve an agent who wants to help you build your career, who's in it for the long haul, kind of like having a spouse who loves you even when you're tired and cranky."

I agree, but we all know, there aren't enough of those to go around. Marriage is also about compromise, about accepting our partner for who s/he is, and forging a stronger relationship through patient communication. Sometimes.

"You all spend too much time obsessing over the personal relationship," my editor bluntly told me a while back. "It's about sales. Is she selling your work? That's her job. If she's not doing it fire her. If she is doing it, shut up and be grateful."

And Cindy comes up with yet another entirely different take.

"I’m not certain I want another agent," she says. "I would rather just keep a retainer on a good contract lawyer and work at my own pace since I have a day job as well. I’ve had several excellent agents recommended to me but it is not easy to find out what they are looking to represent right now and the process of finding a right fit is painful to say the least."


Amie Stuart said…
I'm on my third agent and I have to say the wedding analogy fits to a tee. IMO it's not just about whether they're selling your work or not, though my second one didn't. Like any relationship going south, when it comes to agents, it's wise to listen to your gut.
Amie Stuart said…
Funny enough, I'd still recommend my second agent. We were just a bad fit.
I've also made an agent change within the past few months. It was painfully difficult, since I adore the agent personally, but in the end, it's always a business rather than a personal decision.

When I look at agents, I'm careful to talk to both current and former clients to get an idea of working style, pros and cons, etc. One author's dream is another author's nightmare.

And I'm sure agents would say one agent's dream client is another's nightmare. Authors tend to be insecure because of the nature of the biz, and I'm sure agents deal with a lot of melt downs. This can't be fun.
Joni Rodgers said…
I also say good things about the first two agents I left behind. Maybe it's like a circumstantial friendship -- two people connect when each of them is at a certain place in their life/career, but as you both move on, you're not necessarily going to stay on the same page.

When my kids were small, my friends were mostly the moms of my kids’ friends. Now that my kids are in college, I don’t have much in common with the ones who still have elementary school children at home. We’re on a different time frame with different priorities.

I'm on my fourth literary agent now, but I've been with the same speaking agent for fourteen years. I would love to forge that same kind of long-lasting, deeply trusting, creatively dynamic, and mutually profitable relationship on the book side of my career.

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