Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Truth about the Author/Agent Relationship

I know you've seen the posts on twitter:

Author423: OMG I just love my agent @AgentAwesome! She rocks. Not only did she sell my book, but she bakes me brownies, and bathes my dog every Saturday night!!!
Okay, so maybe the tweets don't go exactly like that, but you get the idea. All over the web you'll find tweets and blog posts where authors profess their undying affection for their on-the-surface perfect agent. As unagented authors, we yearn for that perfect relationship. As agented authors, we question the relationship we have with our agent and wonder if the grass is really greener.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that good agents and bad agents don't exist -because they do. And there are plenty of posts out there to let you know when you should fire your agent and look for another one. That's not what my post is about. My post is about whether the problem you think you have is really an agent problem or an expectation problem.

That's why I'm here to dispel the myths. Despite the gushing posts and tweets that would lead you to believe otherwise, as writers, we need the reality check: there is no perfect agent. That mega agent whose blog you follow? Not perfect. The super agent who just made the seven-figure deal? Not perfect. And by not perfect, what I mean is this; There is no agent who will love every single thing you write, never disagree with you, and whose response times are always immediate.

Shock, right? Allow me to continue.

Myth #1: An agent works for you, so they should never disagree with you. And if they do, fire them.

Fact: If you sign with an agent - any agent - at some point in your relationship, you will have a disagreement. This doesn't mean you have an agent problem, though. This could just be a relationship problem.

But, Cole! How can this be? How come we never see the tweets like this:
Author243: @AgentAwesome wants me to shelve my new novel idea. :( :(
Author243: @AgentAwesome won't sub to @superpublisher because she doesn't think it's a good fit. But I do!!! >:(
Author24: I sent @AgentAwesome an email this morning and they never emailed me back. WTF!!

Well, you don't see those tweets because they would be unprofessional, but not because they don't happen. Because they do, to EVERYONE. And it's not because AgentAwesome is a "bad" agent. Maybe she knew that Author243's latest novel was not the strongest follow up to her first. Maybe AgentAwesome had lunch with SuperPublisher and they expressed how tired they were of certain plot twists - the same plot twist that Author243 used in her novel. Maybe AgentAwesome didn't immediately email Author243 back because she was in meetings all day and didn't feel like checking her email. Hey, we've all been there, right?

Now, I'll admit, the first time my agent and I disagreed on something, it scared the tar out of me. I thought, "Wait! This isn't supposed to happen. My agent is supposed to love everything I do. That's in the code, right? Because if they don't love this idea, then they don't love my writing, which means they don't like me!!! Wah!!" (Did I mention I can be a bit dramatic?) And this brings me to my next point.

Myth #2: The agent is the publishing professional. Therefor, it would be unwise to disagree with whatever they tell you to do.

Fact: True, a good agent knows the business inside and out. It's their job to make decisions that are in your best interest. But guess what? Like you, an agent is only human. And, like you, they make mistakes.
In the two years that I've been with my agent, I have to give it to him, he really knows what he's doing (but don't tell him I said so, I like to keep him on his toes.) So, more often than not, when we have a disagreement, I relent because, he explains his reasoning and it's something I understand. However, there have been times when I don't agree. I've had this feeling in the pit of my gut telling me, "Cole, you can't give in here. This is something you believe."

So, when you come to a stalemate, what do you do? If you can't see eye-to-eye then is it time to fire your agent?

Not necessarily and I'll tell you why. Besides acquiring new authors, besides selling books, do you know what else agents do? They negotiate. Sounds silly, but this is something I realized just last year. And I don't think I'm the only author to overlook this. When an agent tells an author "no" the urge to jump ship is immediate. And I'm not saying that in certain cases it wouldn't be warranted, but what I am saying is, before you do, talk to your agent. Discuss their reasons for disagreeing with you and your reasons for disagreeing with them. And if you still don't agree, try negotiating. You're agent already knows how to do it, after all.

So, how does this negotiating work, you ask? Well, if your agent doesn't like your WIP maybe you can agree to shelve it until after you sell something else. If your agent doesn't like the ending of your book write two endings and then decide which one is better.

My point is this, just because an agent disagrees with you, that doesn't make them a bad agent. Likewise, you don't have to (and probably won't) agree with everything they say, either. This doesn't mean that the two of you can't work together - because you can as long as you keep the lines of communication (and possibly negotiation) open.

All it means is that you have the same relationship that everyone else has with their agent. I know, gasp, right?


  1. Fabulous post Cole! Your words are so true!

  2. I do so enjoy a dose of realism in the writerly blogosphere. Well said, good lady!

    Like any relationship, you gotta work at the author-agent one. Unless you sell like Stephen King. In which case your agent should damn well be baking you brownies daily.

  3. Great post - definitely gives me something to think about.

    I'm in the stage with my agent where she's submitted my manuscript to a "few" editors and now is suggesting a rewrite based on feedback.

    I was tempted to say "submit to a few more first" - to see if someone likes the original.

    But I'm guessing she knows better than I.

    Thanks for the perspective - always need more of that...

  4. Great post! Like any relationship, it's about give and take. Negotiation sounds wise to me. :)

  5. Simon - Ha!

    Shawntelle, Janet, and Bori - Thanks so much! :)

    Julie - That's exactly the way my agent sold my first book. We'd receive editorial feedback, rewrite, submit, rinse and repeat.In the long run, while the wait and work was frustrating, it sure was worth it. It took a year but, by golly, we sold the book!

  6. You hit the nail here, Cole. It's so true. There is no such thing as "perfect" and everyone has disagreements now and then. Your agent is just like you: human. It's always good to remember that.

  7. Chris doesn't wash your dog? I'm shocked.

    Seriously though? I was thinking about this lately. I was sort of "online friends" with Nathan Bransford, still am I guess, and I was so excited to query him one day, until he quit agenting. I was all upset for a little while until I realized I was being stupid.

    I don't need to be best friends with my agent. Hell we don't even need to be friends at all. As long as they're professional and share my vision, evra ting gwan be irie!

    Chris does seem pretty cool though. You sure you guys don't hang out, smoke cloves and listen to Lou Reed together?

  8. I love this - and I think it is spot on. Like everything involving people, it is about understanding relationships.

  9. This is completely spot on. I adore my agent and get along with her, but this is also business. We're not always going to see eye-to-eye and it's important to remember that it's not personal. I think the warning sign that maybe an agent isn't the right one is when they disagree about everything or you're clearly moving in opposite directions for what a writer wants for his/her career. But that's a very different post from this one.

    Fantastic post!

  10. Nice post! Human relationships, no matter what form, are made up of humans. Great things and not so great things are to be expected, LOL! It's how conflicts get resolved that shows the strength of a working relationship.