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“Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart”

Continuing my posts of my previous Agent Anonymous articles from the SFWA Bulletin, I present to you:

“Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart” (June-July 2009 issue)

For some reason while writing this the song “Good-Night, Sweatheart” by the Spaniels keeps running through my head.  And no, I didn’t know the name of the band off the top of my head; I had to go look it up.  They were somewhat before my time.  (That was a hint about my super (ha) secret identity for anyone keeping score out there.)

“I hate to leave you, but I really must say….”  The time comes in many relationships for a parting of the ways, whether it’s time to start a relationship with a new publisher or a new agent.  Is there an etiquette?  Well, of course, isn’t there always?  Text or phone?  Can we still be friends?  How do I behave when I see her with another author? 

Most importantly, what are the top four signs it’s time to move on:

-your agent or editor isn’t returning your calls or e-mails without being chased several times

-when he/she does respond, the return communication is singularly unhelpful

-you and your agent don’t share similar thoughts on your strengths and weaknesses and/or the direction of your work

-You’re not getting what you need out of the relationship, either editorially or support-wise

Now, all that said, you have to ask yourself: have I communicated my needs to my agent?  Have I started frank and open discussions about the reason for the communications breakdown to try to improve matters?  Is the grass really greener? Are my expectations out of line?

Good questions, all.  Here’s the thing: the squeaky wheel sometimes does get the oil.  If you’re very patient and don’t want to bother your agent, chances are he or she doesn’t know you have issues.  And what we don’t know we can’t fix.  Also, communications can break down from the side of the author as well as the agent.  Did you send us the manuscript you just turned in so that we can not only read it, but mark the date down on our calendars for following up on editorial notes and payments?  Are you cc-ing us on correspondence with your editor?  Oh, not every word, but the important stuff?  I’m asking a lot of questions here, so let me modify: you should keep us in the loop every bit as much as you expect to be kept in the loop.  The greener grass questions…well, sometimes the grass really is greener.  And sometimes the shiny new agent has just spread a load of manure.  You wouldn’t buy a car without checking the tires or a horse without checking the teeth, why would you sign on with an agent without doing your research, talking with current clients, the whole nine yards.  I’m not just talking about the authors at the top of the food chain who the agents are anxious to keep happy (though, of course, those big authors are so often the reason that jumps are made, because another author wants and expects the agent to take them along the same career path), but those newer writers still getting established. 

When you’re asking around about agents, you may also want to talk to other writers who you know will tell it like it is to find out if your expectations are in line with the realities of the market and fall within the scope of an agent’s job.  For example, while many agencies now employ publicity and promotions people to help their clients along, with one publicity person and potentially hundreds of clients, there’s still going to be a limit to what can be done.  Also, promotions and publicity have traditionally fallen to the publishers or the authors themselves, so anything the agency provides along those lines is more a bonus than a PTB-given right.

So let’s say it is time to part ways.  You and your agent aren’t a good fit.  What do you do?  In the best of all possible worlds, you don’t talk with another agent before you’ve broken with your current agent, but that doesn’t always happen.  It’s understandable that authors sometimes don’t want to take the leap without a safety net. To a certain extent, what you can do might be laid out in your agent/author agreement.  If you don’t have one (many agencies don’t), here’s the industry standard:

-You write your agent (or call and then follow up with a note) to say that you’re going to be seeking other representation.  It’s polite to say something about why.  For example, “I didn’t feel that our goals for my future were compatible.” Or “My past few projects haven’t seemed to meet with your enthusiasm.” 

-You give the agent time to wrap up any outstanding submissions.

-Your agent will continue as the agent of record and receive commissions on any contracts negotiated while he or she represented you.

-Your agent will continue to handle subsidiary rights (film, television, audio, translation, etc. to books that he/she sold for the life of the domestic contract).

Please note: this last is NOT a perpetual rights clause.  You should not sign a contract that grants an agent a financial interest in your work even after the contracts that he/she has negotiated have expired.  In other words, if your first fantasy novel, sold by Agency X, has reverted from the publisher, your new agent, Y, should be able to resell the books under a new contract that has nothing to do with Agency X. 

In some cases, if you want your new agent to represent subsidiary rights to books handled by the former agent, an arrangement can be worked out, but it should be discussed and agreed to by all parties.

Now, if you have an agency agreement, chances are all of this is spelled out, probably in so many (or more) words.  Remember, above all, that ours is a very small world, and it always pays, when possible, to part amiably and to be above-board and gracious in your dealings.

Okay, the demented little DJ in my head has just switched over to Paul Simon’s “There Must be Fifty Ways to Leave your Lover,” but that’s a discussion for another day, probably in a Worldcon bar somewhere.  I’m going to modify this to “There Must be Fifty Ways to Leave your Publisher.”  Again, not something that’s comfortable to contemplate, but how it’s handled largely depends on the reason.  Maybe you’re not leaving entirely.  Maybe you write too quickly for one line to publish and so you’re starting a new series or working in a different genre somewhere else.  Maybe your current publisher wants to pigeonhole you or declines your next book or….  You know, this may be a new article all its own.  Why don’t we call it Part II and save it for next month’s Bulletin? 

See you then.

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( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 18th, 2010 04:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks for posting this ;o) I think so many of us are worried about getting an agent in the first place that we don't always think about what happens after that...
Aug. 18th, 2010 05:18 pm (UTC)
Good post. Sometimes things don't work out, and that may not be the agent's OR the author's fault. Kinda like roomates. Even if I don't even have one (yet!) tips on how to say goodbye the right way if needed are appreciated.
Aug. 18th, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you for posting these articles. They are informative and timely. (And just as entertaining as you are!)
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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