Sunday, October 07, 2012

What to do when your agent quits

I get query letters from formerly-represented authors enough so that it's not rare. Not common but not rare.  Up until ten years ago, the main reason the authors were agentless was either death, retirement or illness of their former agent.

Now I'm seeing a whole new, very disturbing, category: my agent quit.

So the first thing to remind everyone is that when you receive an offer of representation, you'll want to make sure your agent is in it for the long haul.  How to do that?  My experience tells me that all these agents who are quitting have been in the business for five years or fewer, and their sales are not very high. In other words, people who found out being an agent was a whole lot harder than it looked on Twitter.

But, if you find yourself without an agent here's what to do:

1. Get out your author/agency agreement.  Are you represented by the company, or the specific agent?

If you are represented by the company, get in touch.  Email first, then phone.  A very short email like this:

Hello, I was represented by Agent Houdini.  My project SHARK TANK NOIR is on submission.  Can you tell me which agent will be handling my work now?  Thanks for your time and consideration.

Even though this feels like a total disaster to you, try to keep the screeching and moaning to a minimum.  Trust me, it's pretty hard on this side of the aisle too.

If you don't hear back in five days, you phone. Politely.

If you don't get a reply in five days, you terminate your representation.

Certified mail.

Just an aside: this is why it's CRUCIAL that you keep the submission list of where your work is.  It's absolutely ok to ask for the list of where your work is when the submission process starts, and to ask for updates on a regular, scheduled basis.  (Once a month, once every two weeks; NOT daily; NOT hourly!)

2. If you're represented by the agent, not the agency, get in touch with the head of the agency. Short email:

Hello, I was represented by Agent Houdini.  My project SHARK TANK NOIR is on submission. Is another agent there interested in representing me?  Thanks for your time and consideration.

Again, you give them five days.
If no reply, telephone.
If no reply, terminate.

3. If the agency does not continue to represent you, you'll need a new agent.

1. Check the author/agency agreement for the clause that covers how long after you've terminated representation you have to pay a commission.  In our agreement it's six months. That means if you fire me, and I've sent your work out, you can't sell it to a publisher I've sent it to without paying me a commission unless six months have elapsed between the termination and the sale.

If this isn't spelled out in your author/agency contract, you spell it out in the termination letter you send via certified mail.  Of course, you'll insert language that says you can sell your project tomorrow and not owe a commission, not six months.

2. Draft an email query about your project, not about your situation.  You need an agent for your work, not your woes.

DO include a paragraph about your situation though. Be brief. Be clear. Try not to wring your hands.

My agent, Henry Houdini, is no longer agenting. My project was on submission with 12,204 editors as of 1/1/11.  In my termination letter to Houdini, Hoffa, and Crater, I included a paragraph that says they are not entitled to commission as of 2/1/11. The author/agency agreement does not have a clause covering this situation.

And then you interview agents.  And you look for the ones who are in it for the long haul. Here's what you ask:

1. WHAT HAVE YOU SOLD?  An agent who hasn't sold a lot is more likely to hang up her spurs than one who is doing ok. Don't rely on Publishers' Marketplace for this data. ASK the agent.

2. Do you love your job? An agent who is looking to switch careers is an unhappy agent.  Trust your senses on this one.

3. What happens if you do decide to leave agenting?  Most of us have given careful thought to what I call the "crosstown bus" scenario.  Not all leaving is voluntary.  If I get hit by a bus, my clients are covered. I wouldn't sign with an agent or agency who hadn't made the same provisions.

And remember, this is not the end of the world.  It feels like epic disaster right now, but you'll recover. And bounce back. AND have a great story:  "Remember when I found out my agent left the biz cause she changed her Facebook status?"  You need good stories for your book tour. Think of this one as the first.


Anonymous said...

I would totally read Shark Tank Noir. Can we get a mini synopsis of this undoubtedly gory, yet hilarious marine detective thriller?

Joyce Tremel said...

What Janet said. I went through this very thing this year. It's no fun, but it does happen. One of the first questions I asked before I signed with my new agent was: Do you plan on staying an agent? Thank God she said yes!

Michael Seese said...

May I ask for a clarification? You said,

"3. If the agency does not continue to represent you, you'll need a new agent.

1. Check the author/agency agreement for the clause that covers how long after you've terminated representation you have to pay a commission."

But if he / she has stopped representing you, wouldn't any "termination of representation" language no longer apply?

Just curious.

Unknown said...

Lol. I popped over to post Michaels question. So...errr...oh heck I'll put it up anyway.

I'm not a lawyer, and I don't play one on TV. But if the contract is with the agent and they stop being an agent, then they, by their actions have terminated the agreement. Right?

If not, it seems a savvy author would request a line in the contract to read something like: "In the event that Agent, Hodini quites his career as an agent, his rights to a six month grace period are null and void."


Unknown said...

Oh, Janet will never rep me! **bangs head on desk.**

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

Thanks for this great info!

I guess so many of us will be freakin happy that we'll just drop our pants and not ask these nitty-gritty questions. If you say it's fair, as the shark of all agents, can we quote you when/if negotiating a contract. I wish gallery owners had this take.

Colin Smith said...

This is such good information, Janet--you need to have a permanent page for articles like this. Or just be sure to include it in a book on the subject of agents--how to get one, and how to be one. You are writing that book, aren't you? Please? :)

On a side note, I read early on in my research about the industry to be careful of agents who are themselves budding authors, or are pursuing some other side-work. On the one hand, it seems unreasonable to expect an agent to do nothing but agent, but the reasoning is that an agent for whom agenting is their passion and life's fulfillment is more likely to stick with you through thick and thin. They aren't going to be leaning on the back-up job when times get tough. Probably a broad generalization, but an interesting thought.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

When my agent and I parted ways, I was not on submission. Therefore, I didn't have those issues. (Thank goodness.) I am currently looking for a new agent and I will do as much research as possible before I sign again.

"Do you love your job?" is a great question, which I will ask and listen closely to the answer. You have to trust your instincts on this, because I can't imagine there is any agent who would admit they weren't intending to be in it for the long haul.

Mark Koopmans said...


Thanks so much for posting this.

I did an "Insecure Writers Support Group" post on a similar subject last week and it is *great* to see someone in the mainstream talk about life post-agent.

Donna L Martin said...

Thanks, Janet, for supplying new and established writers with a concise list of how to handle what could be a confusing situation. I'm sure having this information will prevent some authors from making costly and time consuming mistakes should they ever find themselves in this situation in the future.

Thanks for all you do for the writing community!

Donna L Martin

Charlie N. Holmberg said...

I've seen a lot of writers around the Web losing their agents, so this post comes at a great time. Very informative. Thank you!

Cassandra said...

It may not be the end of the world for the writer, but is it the end of the world for the book? "Everybody" says--and some agents say explicitly--that agents will not consider representing a work that has been previously submitted anywhere, regardless of the reason for the loss of representation. The writer, "they" say, must shelve that book and query with a new one. Is this not so?

Thanks, as always, for your amazing generosity.

Michael Seese said...

@ J.M.

I, like you, am neither a lawyer nor a faux lawyer. But it seems to me as though if neither the agent, nor his former agency, said, "Yes, we want to keep working with you," they'd be hard pressed to come back later and sue me for jumping ship.

Not that I expect this will actually ever happen to me.

Heidi Willis said...

Although I'm thankful I have no present use for this, this is fantastically helpful and detailed. Thank you.

jjdebenedictis said...

*bookmarks blog post*

Just in case. :)