Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Question: I think my agent's dead, what to do?

Last summer, after a flurry of kind, flattering emails in which a reputable agent told me repeatedly how much she loved my novel, I signed a contract with her. I was over the moon.

In September I sent her a last revision with the changes she had suggested. I didn't hear back, so a few days later I sent her a "did you get my revision and what's the next step" email.

She responded rather tersely in comparison to the earlier emails, but I figured she's a busy, sought-after agent and now that I've signed on, she's getting down to business. She gave me the first-round list of editors she planned to submit to and said she expected to hear back from them very soon. That was on October 1.

Since then I've waited. In mid-January, I finally sent her a brief, polite followup email asking for an update. No response. A week later, I sent a second polite followup email. It's been about a week, and again, I've heard nothing back from her.

Yesterday, I left a message on her cell phone, and again, no response. I haven't yet worked up my nerve to call the agency directly, although I'm guessing this is what I have to do now.

In the meantime, I'm stuck wondering what happened to her and where does it leave me? Do I have an agent? Is my novel out there being considered? Or did she get terrible responses back from the editors and decide she hates it after all? Does she regret signing me on? Is that why she's gone AWOL on me? Is she seriously ill? Dead? Did she quit her job? If she has dropped me, shouldn't she let me know? And if so, what responsibility does the agency have to me or I to it? 

First thing to do is pour yourself a soothing beverage and realize It's NOT You.  The agent has clearly gone round the bend for some reason, and I'll bet you a pair of furry shark slippers and a full length manuscript critique that it has nothing to do with you.

Agents lose their minds with increasing frequency. I'm not sure why. I've had a few bouts of The Bends myself wherein I'm sure my clients thought (or hoped) I was dead cause at least then they could find someone to return their calls.  Generally I've picked up the pieces, apologized profusely, learned from the situation and tried not to repeat it.


Here's what you do now:

1. Check your contract. Is it with the agent or the agency?

1 A: If is is with the agent, you need to terminate NOW. You've had your career on hold for awhile  and it's not doing you any good to wait any longer.  No matter how esteemed or reputable your agent is, she's not doing you a lot of good if you can't actually talk to her.

You terminate according the the terms of the contract. You ask for a list of submissions. My guess is there aren't any. When an agent goes around the bend like this, pretty much all work has stopped. She's not submitting stuff and just not telling you about it.  People go to radio silence when they HAVEN'T done the stuff they're supposed to, not when they are.

1B: If the contract is with the agency, get in touch with them. Let the head of the agency know there's a problem.  Most likely you will be terminating with them anyway.  Chances are they're hearing this from more than one client. When agents go round the bend, it's often on all their clients, not just one.

2. When you have terminated, start querying again. You'll need to mention you parted amicablly from your first agent when she got overwhelmed and was unable to submit your work. Don't be afraid to be direct about your situation.  All of us on this side of the query letter have seen situations like this. Most of us have seen it more than once.

This is not the time to be afraid you've done something wrong, or to hesitate to act.  You're not casting blame or casting aspersions on this agent's character. You're simply acting in a business like way to get your career back on track.

3. This is going to make a good story in the years to come. It doesn't feel like it now, but it will.


Craig F said...

I do hope that what you are doing is as therapeutic for you as it is for us. It seems to be keeping you on an even keel and I know it does marvelous things for we who read your blog.

If you had not seen it as a form of therapy before I hope I have zapped it with a magic wand and you can see it now. All of us out here are very grateful to you. If you feel the Melt coming please do not hesitate to ask for help.

LynnRodz said...

Great question, great answer. The wealth of information here is incredible! Thank you once again for the work you do here.

Anonymous said...

The submission process is high anxiety time for sure. It's hard to know, since agents work differently, just what to expect, especially for first time authors. I know that I was strung out the entire time. My agent called me about three weeks into it and I almost had a heart attack b/c I thought it was THE CALL. It was only him saying - no news. That was one call I could have done without. :)

Unknown said...

I had a similar experience. Contract in May, nudge in July with a terse reply that we are “on submission” but no details where.

I waited out the fall, with a few hellos and to note publication of a short story. In January I gave two weeks’ notice. Agent responded, “Understood” and followed up in a week with a list of submissions and editor comments, all compiled July, August, September.

What! Why would the agent withhold this insight from editors with relevant tastes? So moving forward, I’m making those revisions but wondering how much hope the book has after a dozen rejections at the finishline. Beyond noting the amicable departure of ways in future queries, at what point do I let prospective agents know about this dozen rejections? Is it fair to wait until they are already interested and offering representation?

Great blog, great tweets, BTW. Thanks.


Anonymous said...

Great question, even better answer. *in love with this blog*

Colin Smith said...

One question: When are you and Barbara Poelle going to write SNARK AND SHARK'S DEFINITIVE GUIDE TO THE PUBLISHING WORLD? Seriously.

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

"I think my agent's dead. What do I do?"

Send flowers.

Stacy said...

This is terrific, and--dare I say--compassionate advice.

Anonymous said...

And this is yet further proof of how one-sided the agent hunt is. Writers' only sources of information about an agent, prior to signing with her, are

1. what she says about herself

2. what other writers blog about her, which is almost exclusively a critique of her rejection letters

3. reported sales in Publisher's Lunch, if we drop $25 a month for the subscription

And you can see how inadequate that is by the fact that this writer thought she was getting a good agent... and other writers in the future will think the same.

Janet Reid said...

Alaska, there's a VERY valuable resource for info on agents that's free: AbsoluteWrite

Scroll down to the Bewares, Recommendations and Background Checks. That's where you'll find every agency/agent in the known universe, and discussion threads about each of them.

Anonymous said...

Great Post, Janet.

I had the same thing happen to me. High profile agency, credited agent, all hype... then nothing. No word, no response.

This in itself wasn't the sad part. The worst part was that I had professionally informed the other nine agents who had requested fulls or partials that I had found an agent, thanking them for their time. When I tried to revisit these agents months later, after the silent dust had settled, they had moved on to other projects, and were no longer interested. (Although a few asked for my next project)
Even worse, I blamed myself. My manuscript must not have been good enough. Maybe she didn't like working with me. What did I do wrong?
I put my MS aside and moved on to writing another. My love, at the heart, is the writing. The publishing journey - not so much.

Denise Willson

Jane Lebak said...

I feel for this writer. I've googled my agent's name and "obituary" in the past, fearing the worst had happened and no one notified his clients.

Joelle said...

Not only will it make a good story, but once you start telling it, you'll be surprised to find out how many people have this same story with their first agent. I'm starting to think first agents are like the first boy who likes you...we fall hard and fast for the flattery without maybe doing all the research on the agent needed. Most writers I know can tell this story verbatim, myself included. The good news is, like second marriages, you'll probably be luckier the next time around!

Anonymous said...

Janet, thanks. Absolute Write is a great resource. They are great at exposing actual scammers.

But all I've ever found about specific agents on Absolute Write are comments from people who have Agent X now, and think he or she is tops, or who queried Agent X and will comment on the rejection; how long it took, whether it was personal or impersonal, whether it arrived at all.

People who have had a bad experience with an agent, like the person who asked the question above, aren't going to complain about the agent by name online. Very wisely. Publishing is such a small world.

It's possible the question asker's agent had a meltdown and is about to leave the industry. But it's also possible that five years from now, she'll still be agenting, and hopeful writers will have her on their "dream agents" list.

Of course, I'm certainly not saying the questioner should have named her agent. After all, she needs to be able to get another one. Just I wish there was some better system of evaluation that wasn't just rejection-focused or scam-focused.

Melissa said...

Wait, I'm confused based on a more recent blog post. You advised a writer they do NOT need to let potential agents know they parted with their previous agent IF their ms hadn't been submitted. So, let's say this agent never submitted this writer's ms anywhere. Why would he have to disclose this in a query letter to new agents?