The publishing industry goes through so many ebbs and flows, and the role of the literary agent is the same. There was a time when you could submit directly to publishers, but then as more and more aspiring authors worked up the gumption to submit, the flood became too much and submissions closed to all but those with agents.
I’m starting to see another sea-change (how many coastal metaphors can I fit into a blog post?!). Publishers are beginning to offer more and more open submissions, especially digital publishers. As a result, some authors question the need for an agent.
Well here I am to say to you: WE NEED AGENTS!
An agent’s role isn’t just about getting you deals. It’s also all that comes after too: the advice, the hand-holding, the potential for foreign deals. My agent Caroline Hardman is dynamite and I wouldn’t dream of not having her on my side. She’s a vital cog in the messy publishing machine, and always has my back.
So now I've convinced any authors reading this that they need an agent, what happens when you have problems with your agent? Here are five common problems and how to solve them.
1. Your agent doesn’t like your idea
This is SO tough and can be for a variety of reasons. Good agents will have their fingers on the pulse when it comes to what editors are looking for so it could be a decision based on solid commercial reasoning. Maybe they simply don’t warm to the idea. After all, they are the ones who’ll have to sell it to editors. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a novel you don’t gel with. Or maybe they feel it’s too far from your current style of writing, in which case you need to ask: have they considered subbing you under a pseudonym?
Either way, as long as you've chosen your agent based on the right reasons then as hard as it is to take when they're just not into your idea, maybe you need to consider if they're right. You can have two pots on the stove at once, so why not work on something new while keeping your other book bubbling away in the background?
Of course, if your agent is making a habit of not liking your novels then you need to ask if they’re the right agent for you. You clearly don’t have the same taste any more.
Tip: A way to get around this is to send your agent your ideas first. I don't mean long outlines with a paragraph or two summing them up.
2. Your agent takes an age to get back to you
This is a regular occurrence for authors. We come across it enough with editors but to have the double whammy of our agent not responding to emails or reading manuscripts quickly enough can be so frustrating.
If you’re finding this is a problem, the next time you send a manuscript, ask your agent in the same email when you can expect them to read it by. You can then make a note to chase some time after that ‘deadline’ has passed. Be honest and tell them you’d prefer them to read your MS sooner. If they can’t, or say they will but don’t, then you need to consider if they’re the right agent for you. Yes, publishing can be slooooooooow but at the same time, trends come and go and opportunities pass. You need someone who can read your books quickly.
Tip: As a guide, I’d say you really should expect a response to emails within 24 hours, 48 at a push. On manuscripts, my agent is super fast and will often read a manuscript within a month or two (within a week in a couple of cases!). I’ve heard of some agents taking a year which is just ridiculous! A couple of months seems average.
3. Your agent fails to sell your book
Even with an agent, there’s no guarantee of a book deal. The reason a book won’t get through the submission process can come down to a multitude of reasons, and often, it won’t be because of your agent or you! So don’t take it out on them. Instead, use your agent to get as much information as you can about why editors ultimately said no to your book, and use that to work on your next book.
However, if you agent fails to sell your next book too, then it might be time to wonder if they’re part of the problem. Do they have good relationships with editors? How long do editors take to get back to them when they submit? Are they professional and courteous? Do they have their finger on the pulse when it comes to what’s selling in the market? How are their other authors doing? In the end, this is about your career so if the time comes to look elsewhere for agent, then be brave and do it.
Tip: Ask your agent to forward the responses you got from editors. You have every right to see them.
4. Your agent leaves their agency
This is super common. Ambitious agents will leave an agency to set up a new agency, like my agent did, or will move onto another agency. Some may leave the agenting world all together, which means you’ll need to find another agent.
If you agent leaves to set up their own agency, it can be scary. I remember getting the email from my agent that she was doing that and shot off a number of questions just to assuage my fears. She answered them well and in the end, I was delighted to have moved on with her.
If your agent moves to another agency and wants you to go with her, check whether her rota of authors will change in any way. If she's going to be taking on additional authors then you might see a downturn in attention. Does the agency’s ethos make you feel comfortable? Check its website out and ask any questions.
Tip: Is your agent going on maternity leave or having a sabbatical. Make sure you’re going to be covered by someone else when they leave and arrange to meet with that person.
5. When you want to leave your agent
Authors move on from agents for a variety of reasons. I did it myself many years back. If you begin to feel this might be an option, I’d always recommend sleeping on it and giving it a few days of thought, then send a polite email voicing your concerns so it doesn’t feel like it’s coming out of nowhere. If you’re still sure you want to leave them, then make sure you tell them before you start talking to other agents. It might be tempting to sound out other agents first out of fear you might end up with no agent at all but a) no agent is better than a bad agent and b) publishing is a small world with lots of boozy parties where agents share information.
Instead, write an email so you have it writing that you wish to part ways. Be polite. Be gracious. Who knows when you might need their help in the future? Of course, if they’ve been a complete arsehole then don’t worry about the gracious bit! Treat it like a resignation letter stating the date.
Most agencies have a three month notice period but agents are often willing to waiver this when it comes to the crunch. Keep in mind though they if they brokered a deal while you were with them, and even within the three months’ notice, they continue to get their commission.
Tip: If you do end up looking for a new agent, be sure to ask any current editors and fellow authors for their recommendations.