Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Agent protocol question: missed deadlines

Recently, I've noticed quite a few writers talking about the long wait times they encounter with agents they've signed with. I am including myself in this bunch as I am with my second agent (the first one left the industry and we parted on very amicable terms). I like my current agent, but just like the first, she'd say something like, "I'll have notes on your latest MS by the end of the week!" and then a few more weeks will pass by before I actually see the notes. I see a lot of this being reported on AW and on other writing sites.

I get that agents are busy as hell. I myself have a really hectic job, but when we promise our clients a project by "the end of the week", we damn well better have it in the client's inbox by the end of the week, not the end of three weeks. And if we encounter an unforeseen delay, we send the client an e-mail with apologies and a heads-up to let them know we need a new deadline.

Is it ever acceptable to talk to your agent about it and be honest about how you feel with regards to their timing? Is there an okay way of saying, "You don't have to promise to get it to me within the week. You can take all the time you need, but please have it ready when you say it will be ready"? Or should I and my fellow writers just gnaw on our fingers in silence, wondering if this would actually be the week that we get our notes?

Yes, it's entirely acceptable to be straightforward with your agent about what working style suits you. You say it just like you said it to me: "It will help me tremendously if you only tell me something is coming when you know it is. I appreciate that priorities can shift in a day and a week, particularly with things that are important not urgent, but expecting something on Friday then not getting it, or an email saying it's delayed, is very difficult."

You and your agent are on the same team. One of the best ways to have effective communication is to tell the other person what works best for you.

I have had to learn this several times.  It's particularly useful for my minions to know how to act when I am in a towering rage.  Telling them what to do saves a LOT of misunderstanding.  Telling your agent what works for you will do that too.

I think one of the reasons that agents often say nothing rather than check in with "yea, I'm not getting this done" is first they feel guilty for NOT getting it done or they don't like to explain (baldly) that something was more important than your project (my skin crawls just writing that.)

One way you can help build trust is by never saying "well when WILL you get this done; I feel neglected." That can shut down communication really quickly.  I know it shouldn't but lets all realize how things actually work, not how you want them to work.

I know a lot about this problem because it afflicts me even as I write this.  I wish I had a better solution, but I don't...yet.


Anonymous said...

Janet? In a towering rage? I don't believe it. Couldn't happen. She's like a teddy bear!

Great insight for life as well as for dealing with agents. Treat people like people. That means treat them like they will make mistakes occasionally, that those mistakes can be respectfully addressed, and that how you address it matters.

Janet Reid said...


InkStainedWench said...

I sympathize with the letter writer, because I come from a journalism and publishing background where a deadline is an actual, you know, Deadline. If you know your project involves uncertainties, you build those into the deadline from the beginning.

Perhaps agents overpromise. It's tempting to make someone happy by saying, "You'll have it by Friday," when it might be better to add some wiggle room.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Brian: teddybear!?

Ink Stained Wench: and I wonder if that isn't the crux of it...wanting to make someone happy.

The reality is--good intentions get derailed even for little tasks. A bill arrives--email or snailmail. I have enough time and money to pay it online or check, and then--all of a sudden, it's due and I'm scrambling.

Hm. Good intentions? The same goes for my writing goals some days too. (and I seem to be an m-dash person today).

Colin Smith said...

I don't have an agent (yet), so what I say is theoretical (i.e., useless so move along...), but I imagine a good way to overcome the "should I say something?" nerves is to remember: the agent will be paid 15% of what your novel earns. Aside from good communication and building a trusting relationship, this alone should give you the "right" to say something. Politely, of course. :)

I don't like to think about the money aspect of things when it comes to any business relationship, simply because I like to deal with people based on the fact they are fellow human beings, not people we are paying to do stuff for us. But if it helps broach the topic and get things moving...

Anonymous said...

I couldn't help it Lisa. :) It was just set up too perfectly. :)

Colin nailed it again - fellow human beings.

Keep nailing it Colin and you might get rescued from Carkoon... and then what will everyone do? You'll be free to terrorize the world! :)

Also - I sent a gift basket to the address you provided:

15 Carkoon Rd, Carkoon.

Hope it arrives safely!

S.D.King said...

This is all so upside down and backwards.(please read this not as a rant, but a quiet observation)

Writers treat agents like a cross between the stern headmaster and George Clooney. (Can I speak up? Will I get yelled at? Will he/she think I am stupid and cut off all communication?)

The author HIRES the agent in theory, but really the agent picks the author.

The agent is paid by the author and like all businesses, should seek to please the customer (I wonder if agents sit around thinking that a misplaced email will cause all communication to be shut off.)

When asked about my progress in finding representation, I tell people I am in the process of hiring an agent. NOT that I am wringing my hands, waiting to be picked last for dodge ball, wondering if I will ever find an agent so good they have the right to ignore me.

Janet, hope this doesn't sound like a slap to agents, since authors enable this as much as some agents allow it. I hope to someday hire an agent with whom I can have at least as respectful a relationship as I have with my plumber (a great guy whom I also hire to do work for me).

As I said, upside down and backwards.

Colin Smith said...

brian: As long as I keep running my mouth in these comments, there will always be a good chance one of two things (and possibly both things) will happen:

1) I'll say something worthy of the WiR
2) I'll say something worthy of my place here on Carkoon

That's statistics for you. :)

Susan Bonifant said...

Another perplexing problem I am looking forward to having.

No, not really.


Honestly, not only would it be humane to dash off a quick "I'm sorry (excuse here)" email, I can't think of a more understanding recipient than a writer who has been trying to deal with no response at all.

Dena Pawling said...

Colin – your comment pretty much sums up the writer's mentality. We'll either (1) write something that someone else [hopefully a LOT of someone elses] will like/buy, or we'll (2) write something that will cause us to be banished, banned, and publicly scorned. This mentality applies to our relationships with agents as well as the book-buying public. Woodland creatures, we all are.

I think one thing that's not mentioned by this questioner, is whether or not there's a HARD deadline somewhere in the future. For example, if the publisher wants the completed manuscript by June 1, and the agent is then late on getting her notes to the author, does that reduce the author's time to complete the revisions before the publisher's deadline? Or is there no looming deadline? The answer to that question I think is relevant.

If there's no hard deadline, the best thing for the author to do [besides reminding the agent every so often so that you're not forgotten] is keep writing your next book. That way, you're not obsessing over the fact that the agent just missed a soft deadline.

Colin Smith said...

I wonder if this might be a red flag to the agent that s/he might have taken on too many clients, or at least s/he might have hit her limit? That leads me to wonder...

Janet: Does such a point exist? Is there a point when an agent says, "OK, I have as many clients as I can handle. I'm closed to queries, referrals, everything until one of my current clients retires, finds another agent, or shuffles off this mortal coil..."? I'm sure this must be a consideration when you consider taking on new clients. Have you ever reached that point, at least for a season? We've all heard of agents closing to queries so they can get caught up with current clients and the slush pile. But I don't often hear of agents closing to queries because they have all the clients they can handle for now.

Anonymous said...


I see what you're saying and I think there's some valid points in there... but I do think a differentiation needs to be made between the local plumber and the agent.

Although most of my knowledge of plumbing stems from Super Mario Brothers, I do know when I call my plumber, I have a list of 500 possible plumbers who would all be happy to take me on as a client as long as I pay them money. This is not the same for an agent. To ignore this fact is to not really take in the whole picture.

Yes, basic economics would deem that the agent is paid for the service they provide, but this is not a service that is open to the public (and for that matter, what an agent actually 'provides' is not an equal service among all agents. Some are better than others.). This is a service revolving around a partnership between two parties, a partnership predicated on a mutual interest where you are the product (and you're not the only product out there).

It's similar to a producer in a record studio. Sure, I'm the artist. I pay the producer and he adds his artistic touch to make my CD better... but if I fight him on every change, I'm going to end up with a garbage CD (assuming the producer is good) and I just paid a lot of money for a guy to hit the red record button.

It's an important distinction and it changes the relationship a lot. If my plumber only offered to service my toilet after i signed an agreement to only use him for his services, and via this contract I could also earn money for referring my wonderful plumber to other people, I'd certainly not view that relationship as simply as 'money in, money out'... especially if my referrals (books) were earning me a fair amount of cash.

Partnerships are not necessary for successful businesses, but they are also not viewed as customer and company.

Amanda Capper said...

Colin, during a workshop I recently put the question of 'how many clients are too many' to an agent I'm stalking...er...seeking, and she replied that it depends on if the agent works alone or has minions. If she is one in a house full of agents they can take on more clients because they share the workload, as opposed to an agent that has to do everything. Makes sense.

So, the answer, as it is so often, is...it depends.

The more I investigate snaring an agent, the more clear it becomes that it must be someone with whom you can clearly and respectfully communicate. And really loves your writing.

Eileen said...

On the one hand it seems that many agents are holding the sticky end of the lollipop when it comes down to the time available vs. work required equation. I can sympathize. I’ve had several jobs where meals come from a desk drawer between phone calls, bathroom breaks have to be scheduled, and your personal life happens in the spaces between the assignments that you’ve brought home. On the other hand, in the business world, you can’t miss multiple deadlines without warning or apology or ignore numerous phone calls/emails if you want to keep a professional working relationship with your client/partner.

So, what’s the answer? Janet, in a perfect world, is there a better way?

Donnaeve said...

I recall when working in the corporate environment how we initially contacted one another back in the eighties (yeah, the EIGHTIES). Call the person. No answer? Keep calling. Then they installed answering machines - at EVERY desk, and it became, call the person. No answer? Leave a message. Then we started using something called COKUS, or COCOS, I'm not really sure, but it was like a very early version of email, (I think it was in DOS) Now we could not only call the person, leave a message, we could also COKUS/COCOS them. Then, came the first clunky LARGE cell phones - with a bag. Now we could not only call the desk phone, leave a message, or "email," them, we could also contact them remotely. Eventually Voice Mail replaced the answering machines, and then came Instant Messaging, and now the latest productivity interrupter - text messages.

This isn't to excuse anyone who's committed themselves to a deadline, but I think deadlines tend to slip (more easily) because of the way we work today. We are so reactive to emails/voicemails/text messaging where people can connect in an instant and before you know it, (or they know it) the entire day's schedule is shot to hell b/c of an unexpected "fire" that has to be put out. And, an agent has to juggle and prioritize the fires as they come in. Ms. Janet's addressed this in the past, I think.

Of course it doesn't hurt to place the friendly reminder phone call/or send an email to ask and based on my own experience, this always, always helps.

Colin Smith said...

Eileen: I think Janet's answer is to officially declare her QOTKU. Then synopses at the query stage will be outlawed and punishable by exile to Carkoon (have you seen the Synopsis Summer Camp here?), all agents will be required to respond to all queries, and any agent that doesn't respond to a client within 48 hours will be required to do penance to the mighty QOTKU with gifts of whiskey. :)

Eileen said...

Colin: sign me up for Synopsis Summer Camp. Do you also offer a Pitch Slam Survival Course? I will bring the whiskey.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Just be honest. If someone else has to come first, so what. Someday I may be the one who makes someone else wait. No problem, just be realistic and let me know. Don't tell me what I want to hear, tell me the truth. I'd rather cry over the truth rather than a line of BS.

Colin Smith said...

Eileen: Here on Carkoon, we have a different take on these things. The "instructor" for the Synopsis Summer Camp, Ms. Paige Turner, gathers her "students" into a room, and makes them write 1, 3, and 5 page synopses for eight hour stretches. Among the books used are MOBY DICK, WAR AND PEACE, and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY (one of her personal favorites, I understand). That's the first month. The second month involves writing synopses for flash fiction. Yes, you have to write synopses that are longer than the stories themselves. The object of the course is not to make you better at writing synopses. There is no instruction. Ms. Turner just enjoys watching people suffer. But you may have gathered that already. :)

As for Pitch Slam sessions. Need I say more than it involves lots of sticky black goo and brick walls. Survival? What's that?

This is Carkoon, after all... :)

Karen McCoy said...

I'd like to ditto Dena's question: "For example, if the publisher wants the completed manuscript by June 1, and the agent is then late on getting her notes to the author, does that reduce the author's time to complete the revisions before the publisher's deadline? Or is there no looming deadline?"

*perks up woodland creature ears, waits for Sunday's WIR*

Anonymous said...

I think Janet's answer was perfect - share your work style with the agent. As someone earlier mentioned, this is a partnership more than a client relationship, and partners need to work together.

I've seen a number of agents closed to new clients. They're usually the senior agents in their agency, and the less senior agents will often still be looking for clients.

That said, I understand that some agents who are quite 'burdened' with a list of successful authors won't actually close themselves to new clients, simply because they want to be open if the right project came along.

I had a lovely chat with one such agent at a conference last October. He explained that his slate was quite full, so he had to be very selective when choosing new clients. I can understand that.

An analogy: You have three dogs. You *might* be able to take a fourth. You really don't need a fourth dog, but you love your dogs, and the right dog might be the perfect fit. But there are so many lovely pups to choose from!

Karen McCoy said...

bjmuntain wins the internet! Such a great analogy.

I'm getting a small taste of this in judging a pitch contest--there are so many great entries to choose from, and it's difficult to narrow down to just a few.

But this is why the pup analogy works--when it's the one you want, you just know. Like how I saw my kitten in a pet store--I knew, instantly, that she was mine, even before she was.

REJourneys said...

Welcome to Woodland Worry, I'm your host, Worry Wart the Groundhog. Today our topics include niceties, Is it ok to nudge your agent? and Synopsis Training - It really isn't for the weak of heart. And with us is a special guest, phoning in from Carkoon - but we'll get to that later.

I'm with you emailer/questioner. When someone tells me they'll be somewhere and have something for me, on a certain day, I'll be there waiting. Unless a message comes saying otherwise.

That's really the one thing I ask, if you can't keep a promised deadline, just let me know. I don't even need a reason. Just say "sorry, something came up, I'll have to postpone," and give me an estimated timeline if there is one.

"You and your agent are on the same team." - The phrase I love the most. It's a grueling battle to go it alone, so it's nice to have someone on your side. Being on the same team means teamwork, and teamwork can't happen without...audience?


Colin Smith said...

Just remember, there's no "I" in team! But there is "tea"--so the key to teamwork, or life, is plenty of tea. OK, and communication. :D

REJourneys said...

Also, if you rearrange the letters in team, it spells meat. "Team"s seem really useful when you're looking for a bite(meat + tea). :)

Colin Smith said...

RE: But I'm vegetarian. Does that mean I'm not a team-player? Or am I okay because I drink lots of tea? Would biscuits suffice? Hobnobs, chocolate covered Digestives, Custard Creams, Jammie Dodgers... mmm! Things I miss about the UK... *sigh*... what were we talking about?

REJourneys said...

Colin: I'm not sure. I wouldn't want to have just meat and tea for a meal, though if I was hungry and that was my only option... Of course, you can also get "eat" and "ate" out of teams.

I'm beginning to think teams are all about the food.

I believe I have seen Hobnobs, chocolate covered Digestives, and Jammie Dodgers at a local grocery store. They have an "international" food section. I know I've seen at least one of these foods recently.

Anonymous said...

... now I'm hungry...

Anonymous said...

I'm not. Anything called Hobnobs, chocolate covered Digestives, or Jammie Dodgers makes me crinkle my brow and wish for the ingredient list.

Not that I'm picky, or what not. Okay. I am.

Colin Smith said...

Donna: Google and drool, my friend. Google and drool. :)

Anonymous said...

Well, yeah. I have to read the ingredient list, too, but that's because I probably can't eat any of those things. But I'm currently nuking some meat...

Have you ever noticed there's no 'us' or 'we' in 'team', either? What's up with that?

Colin Smith said...

bj: I wouldn't worry about it. We've established there's tea, and that's all you need. With some decent biscuits if possible. :)

Colin Smith said...

And while we're talking about tea (that is the topic today, isn't it?), here's an interesting thought.

"Tea and biscuits" means--
In the UK: A hot cup of PG Tips and some Digestives (or Rich Tea, or Hobnobs, etc.)

In the US: Icy Lipton's and a scone.

Anonymous said...

As long as there's cookies, count me in...

JulieWeathers said...

This reminds me of the conversation between the man and the woman.

"I saw Bob today and he said to say hello."

"Dang it. Bob told me last week to bring her car in and get her tires changed, they're getting dangerously thin."

Oh no, he's frowning. He knows I used to date Bob and he thinks something's going on.

Why is she crying? Rats. Bob told her I was supposed to get her tires changed and she's upset because she thinks I don't care. "I'm taking the car to the tire store."

Great, he's going to the tire store to confront Bob.

Communication is so wonderful.

Back in my former life when I had two agents my childrens' agent checked in with me periodically to let me know the status on submissions and made suggestions on revisions. She was very professional.

Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum talked to me all the time, but were very vague about who was being submitted to and what was happening. When I finally pinned them down I found out it wasn't being submitted at all. Lots of contact, but no communication.

If I ever get an agent again, I want to be sure and have an understanding about communication. I don't need my hand held, but I want a professional relationship.

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

Monte Carlo's and penguins, mmmmmm.

AJ Blythe said...

Thanks to you all I'm now off to make a brew and raid the cupboard.. I think we have scotch finger bikkies hidden behind the vegemite.

Sam Hawke said...

Oh, all this tea talk!

As AJ would know, it suddenly and randomly got cold here in the last two days, and I'm currently trying to decide between getting up for tea and biscuits (Aus/UK style, obviously :) ) or sitting still with my laptop on lap, not facing the chill of the kitchen. Someone decide for me!

AJ Blythe said...

Keep the warm laptop (or better still, get someone else to make the tea for you *grin*).

I'm not ready for winter!