Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Query Question: my agent is quitting but wants to keep my book

I signed with a wonderful agent and we're currently in the middle of the submission process (read: the manuscript is out with editors and we're in the excruciating waiting stage). Her plan was to send another round of pitches out in the next couple of weeks.

Then the bomb fell. Said wonderful agent just told me the agency is closing due to a retirement, and she had to make the difficult choice to leave agenting. I don't know the whole story, but it sounds to me like this was not an expected turn of events and that her decision is based more on personal circumstances than a desire to leave the business.

She will be letting many of her clients go, but wants to keep my project and continue to try to make the sale. If the project doesn't sell, severing ties will be simple and I'll go back to the query trenches. It's when I think of that hypothetical and much-dreamed of sale that I get all kinds of confused.

Is it foolish of me to let her sell this book when I already know she won't be around afterward? I'm green to the business side of publishing, but I would imagine an agent-author relationship doesn't end when a sale is made. She reassured me there would be a transition process and she would try to match me up with another agent, but would another agent really take me on immediately after someone else negotiated this first sale? They won't be the ones seeing the financial benefit, after all.

Maybe I'm over thinking this, but my career is only just beginning and I don't want to mess it up with an ignorant choice...

You're not over thinking this at all. You're asking exactly the right question and your Spidey sense is telling you Something Is Wrong.

Your agent should be thinking about what is best for you right now.  She should withdraw all  submissions, and let you start fresh with a new agent. If you start fresh, your new agent earns the commission from the sale and handles the deal. If Old Agent sells the book, your new agent gets none of the revenue (ever) and most likely is stuck with all the work.

There's absolutely no reason for her to keep the book other than she loves it and wants to sell it.  I'm sorry but that's NOT how a responsible agent makes choices. She is supposed to advising you on what's best for YOU, not what makes her happy.

In the best of all possible worlds, what makes her happy is also what's best for you, but this is not the best situation at all.  This is an abrupt retirement that leaves you without an advocate.  It's irresponsible and unethical.  You may quote me in large red letters. You are NOT going to agree to that.

Unless there's a death or illness or some other abrupt life event that precipitates a business closing, this is something that requires careful planning.

This is actually one of the questions you want to ask before you sign with an agent (blogged about here previously) but it sounds like your agent was as surprised by this turn of events as you were.

Here's what to do:

1. You thank your agent for her work and offer sympathy for this turn of events that neither of you are happy about.

2. You ask for the submission list. And I mean names as well as publishers.

3. You ask her to withdraw the submission because the agency is closing.

4. You make sure she has. (I am assuming here that your agent is responsible and will do what she's supposed to)

5. You start querying.  You mention your agent left mid-submission and you have editors who were considering the work.

6. You do not talk about this anywhere else ever again until you are happily published and it's one of your war stories.

You will survive this. It will make a good story.

The reason you do this, even though it's scary as hell to contemplate jumping back in to the query pool is that if she DOES sell it, you're now tied to a part time or non-agent for this book for the life of the book.  If she's off doing other things, she's not tending to your book.

Making the sale is almost the least important thing an agent does for a book.

The only analogy I can think of is deciding to have a child with a spouse who's already told you s/he's on the way out the door.


Kitty said...

It will make a good story.

Nora Ephron's mother Phoebe (also a writer) told Nora “everything is copy.” Even on her deathbed, she supposedly told Nora to “take notes.”

Unknown said...

I guess my question is why the agent wouldn't take a possible sale into another agency? Why would one retirement force her own? (I agree with the cat).

Colin Smith said...

I don't know how many times I've read the same advice: "What's good for you is good for the agent." In that order. It sounds nice that the agent loves your work so much s/he wants to pursue the sale even though the agency's closing. But, as Janet said, is s/he thinking about the money s/he'll make from the sale? Or having his/her name associated with the book? Whatever, your long-term career doesn't seem to be in the picture here.

Great advice from the Shark, and well done, author, for asking the right questions! :)

John "Ol' Chumbucket" Baur said...

Just goes to show, just when you think everything's finally going your way, it's not.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Here's an interminable follow-up to your 6 points.

1a. You purchase a 3pk of Kleenex Tissues and a bottle of ‘whatever’ and cry yourself to sleep that night. (You just can’t believe what is happening to you).
2a. You google each one, find out the names of their pets, the schools their kids go to and the addresses of their summer homes. Then you rent the vacation house next door to the CEO of the publisher, for the month of August. Hey, it’s worth a try.
3a. Because what you have asked your agent to do is so unthinkable, you use box 2 of the Kleenex plus gargle and swallow what is left in your bottle of ‘whatever’. (You just can’t believe what has happened to you).
4a. You are not sure how to do this so you enlist members of the your local Agent’s-in-Black-Squad to ensure that your agent has indeed retired to Quam and is sipping whiskey on the beach adjacent to the shooting range.
5a. You dust off the query which worked on your old agent, freshen it up, add your lament and start all over again. Box 3 of the Kleenex is looking good right now, but hopefulness has you NOT opening it, for a while anyway.
6a. In the Writer’s Digest Cover Story, about the unprecedented impact on publishing that your book has made, you finally tell your first-agent war-story.
6b. The movie, “Agent Games” starring Jennifer Lawrence has you accepting an Oscar for best screenplay. Your acceptance speech brings the audience to their feet, and you are clinging to your 3rd box of Kleenex, (because you never thought this could happen to you).

LynnRodz said...

This does not bode well when the head honcho of an agency doesn't let his/her agents know s/he's retiring. It doesn't say much for the agency and this may very well be a blessing in disguise in the long run for the author. (I missed your first contest of 2015. I hope this isn't a sign of things to come!)

Anonymous said...

My first thought was, "this agent really likes the book and thinks it will sell."

My second thought was, "something smells fishy."

The cat thinks so too.

Matt Adams said...

I don't know. The thing about it is that as long as the agent is willing to represent it, someone is pushing the book. Going back to query world does not guarantee that another agent will present themselves -- and explaining that it's been out and passed on (or not immediately grabbed) doesn't sound that enticing to other agents.

I'm sure Janet's correct, but I can't help but think that as long as someone is willing to try to push your book, that's a step ahead of where you might find yourself if you tell her to withdraw it and start re-querying.

Unknown said...

Also, from a practical standpoint, it seems you know you have a worthy product. If you want a long term career as a writer in traditional publishing, that book can help you find the right agent to help you reach that goal. That way, when you open a blank word document for your new baby book, you've already got somebody in the business that can give you wise feedback. Submission can be a long, lonely process. Lonelier than the querying trenches because you can talk about querying. Even though is seems painful in the now (especially after realizing the joy of signing with agent was fleeting), it means you'll be closer to your goal later.

I'm so sorry that happened to you. It WILL make your own hero's journey stronger in the end, but it really stinks in the now. Hoping the best for you!

Anonymous said...

5. You start querying. You mention your agent left mid-submission and you have editors who were considering the work.

Will this work for or against the author at this point? Assuming they were good editors for the work in question, would a potential new agent look at this list as a positive, a negative, or neutral? I know that when an author has been rejected by editors already, agents see it as a negative because they can't pitch to those editors. But these subs were pulled. Will a new agent be able to pitch to these editors again?

Unknown said...

Wowza, that is some rough writer shapoozie right there. Youch!

jessika fleck said...

First off, this blows. Big time. But at least you're getting wonderful advice from people who know the business. My gut is saying, 'Yes, what Janet said'. However, I had the same thought as sagelikethespice...

When querying, will mentioning she left her agent mid-submission (by the crazy circumstances of course) work against the author? Will the new agent see author/her project as 'damaged goods'? And will new agent be able to re-sub to the same editors? Especially since they were pulled (I assume something that is frowned upon regardless of circumstance)?

What a nightmare! I'll be watching this thread and hoping everything turns out for the best in the long run.

Lizzie said...

My heart goes out to the writer. What an unfortunate situation. I hope you get an agent who sells your book and is in the business a very long time.

Anonymous said...

I have the same issue as sagelikethespice: When your manuscript has already crossed a lot of publisher desks, is this a downcheck for a new agent? I've heard some people refer to such a manuscript as "poisoned."

A similar set of circumstances was one reason I ended up self-publishing my first book.

Unknown said...

F.Lowers...love the word, shapoozie.

Cindy C said...

It's kinda scary to learn that so many of my late-night "what-ifs" actually happen to people! Not to mention "what if" nightmares, I never even thought of. But the best thing is knowing where to get clear answers that explain why, what, when, and how.

And to the writer--good luck as you maneuver through this!

Jonathan Dalar said...

Is there any reason on God's green earth why an agent in this situation wouldn't say, "hey, if you're going to be pursuing other agents with this book, let me extend a personal recommendation for agent(s) X (and Y and Z and maybe more)?"

Shouldn't this agent know at least one or two other agents in the biz that she knows would love the book and would probably want to represent it? That would be a concern of mine if my agent were in such a position. She knows the field, she knows the players. The least she could do is offer some solid referrals.

Am I right, or is this asking too much?

AJ Blythe said...

Sage advice from QOTKU.

Good luck to the author. What a nightmarish situation to find yourself in.

Ardenwolfe said...

Outstanding advice from Ms. Reid. Listen to her.

DLM said...

The agent promised help finding a new agent once she's sold the MS. She needs to accelerate that promise.

I would think that editors see withdrawn submissions from time to time, for reasons exactly such as this, and indeed may even be aware of the circumstances. This should be no-harm/no-foul once it comes time for a new agent to resubmit. Indeed, they may not have even had time to read the MS, and there has been no rejection in this process. And that seems like the bottom line.

DLM said...

Oh, AND - many agencies are small businesses, and succession planning is something too many small businesses put off the way many people put off that checkup or the writing of a will. It's not fishy, even if it is troublesome when things go wrong.

If there has been a catastrophe of some sort leading to the first retirement, the *agency* will not be in a position to shepherd its agents into new positions, and I can easily see the difficult life choices this would lead to. I feel for the agent (clearly passionate, and not wanting to leave the business completely) and the sudden-retiree as much as for the author who's been stalled by what may well have been more profound for those immediately involved.

There probably is no bad-faith conspiracy here, just an incomplete business plan and some very great change for the principal.

All this does make me feel a lot less indulgent about having received three Rs in a single day, that's for sure. Ahh, perspective.

JeffO said...

Reading this, it almost sounds like the soon-to-be-former agent is trying to use this manuscript as a trial balloon, like she thinks "Mabye, if I make this sale, I'll go into business for myself. If not, I'll just take that old job at IHOP." OR, she believes it can sell fast for a decent advance and she can use her cut so that she DOESN't have to work at IHOP while she's lining up a better gig. Either way, it's a bad deal for the author.

Elissa M said...

Since most of an agent's work comes after the sale, Janet's answer doesn't surprise me in the least. Were I this writer, in addition to asking for the manuscript's withdrawal and a submissions list, I would inquire if the retiring agent could refer me to a colleague. Then I would be back in the trenches, unhappy but more confident. After all, the work was good enough to hook one agent, surely another will be interested.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

And here's another vote for actively asking for a strong reference to another agent. Unless the agent has positive plans to continue agenting, it's best to pull the ms.

Honestly, I think this is one of the saddest "lost an agent" stories I've heard. I need to borrow Carolynnwith2Ns' second box of tissues. My heart goes out to you, Author. I wish you luck back in the trenches.

Terri Lynn Coop said...

I would like to offer up the promise of a drink if we ever cross paths at a writers con.

I have to come down on the side of The Shark.

Agent X sells your book for eleventy-seven-jillion buckeroos.

You get your first payment on signing and agent takes her cut.

Oops, the editor who loved it suddenly moves on. Book is shuttled through three more editors until someone takes lukewarm interest in it.

Now your book is stuck in an endless turn-around loop. You sub all the edits and rewrites - over and over. Words like "rescission" and "editorial committee" are thrown around. The promised deadline for the second advance payment comes and goes.

You reach out to your agent who isn't an agent... *crickets*

Now you are in a contract that is dead-ended. That is a package I'm not sure Agent #2 will want to touch that because Agent #1's name and fingerprints are on it.

You really need someone who is going to be in the long haul for you and your work.

(And yes I knew someone who ended up in a similar situation. His agent bailed mid-disaster.)

You got this. Go with your gut.


Stephanie said...

I am at the same agency, repped by a different agent. I have no real words of wisdom, I just wish you all the luck you deserve in finding a new agent and home for your novel. If this agent loved it, I'm certain someone else will.