Monday, September 27, 2010

Do some agents give up if a manuscript doesn't sell in the first round of submissions?

"Do most agents stay with a book until it finds a home, no matter how low the advances might be? I honestly don't care about the advance. I just want to get published. But I've heard some agents bow out if the book doesn't sell to someone in the first round of submissions. Is this true?

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California

This is another good question, and one which demands a thorough response.

To begin with, one cannot offer a blanket answer on behalf of every agent in the industry: some agents will indeed give up after a few submissions, while others will work tirelessly for months or even years. It is very much agent specific, and manuscript specific.

It is also genre specific: certain genres allow for a higher number of submissions. For example, if your work is narrative non-fiction, there may be 30 or 40 (or more) potential editor submissions, while if your work is commercial fiction, that number may shrink to the vicinity of 20. There tend to be more imprints setup to acquire non-fiction than fiction (particularly commercial fiction). But if your work is prescriptive non-fiction (such as popular psychology), there may be fewer potential imprints than for narrative non-fiction, and thus fewer potential submissions. If your work will be a trade paperback original, that, too, can limit the number of potential submissions, as fewer imprints publish trade paperback originals as do hardcovers and paperbacks. If your work is destined to be a mass market original, that will limit potential submissions even further. If your work is academic, that, too, will limit the playing field.

Thus a well-intentioned and hard-working agent may simply be unable to submit beyond a certain number of editors and may exhaust a submission quickly, depending on the genre. There are only a finite number of publishers, and if they all reject your work, then the agent cannot create options where there are none. So lack of success is not always the agent’s fault: if the agent has exhausted all submissions methodically, he has still done his job well (assuming, of course, he has chosen the most appropriate editors within each publisher).

That said, the converse may be true: an agent might give up after only submitting your work to 5 or 10 editors, when he could have submitted to 40. Such an agent’s motivation may be financial: it may be that he chooses his “A List,” the 5 or 10 publishers he thinks might pay the biggest advance, and when they all pass, he assumes that the B or C Lists won’t pay as much, and thus gives up. Or it may be that the agent is just easily discouraged, and that when 10 trusted colleagues tell him a book won’t sell, he believes them and sees no point in trying further. Or it could be that the first 10 rejections all tell him of a directly competing project of which he was unaware, and as a result he decides submitting further would be a waste of time. It may be that the agent is not as knowledgeable of the industry as he should be, and only knows 10 publishers, or only has contacts in those houses. Or it may be that the agent becomes unhappy with the author during the first round of submissions (if, for example, the author is pestering him) and uses the first round of rejections as an excuse to end the relationship. Or the agent may simply be lazy.

No matter what the reason or motivation, there is no excuse for an agent to give up and not exhaust a submission, submitting to every last possible player. If an agent commits to a manuscript, then he should see it through, should stay with it whether it’s been rejected by 5 editors or by 45. He should stay with it whether it takes a week or a year, whether it sells for an advance of one million dollars or one thousand.

The majority of legitimate agents will indeed exhaust a submission. Sometimes a termination of a submission is initiated by an author: an agent may work in good faith for months while the author, impatient, may fire the agent. As a rule of thumb, most proposals on submission (if submitted thoroughly by a legitimate agent) will sell within a matter of 4 months. But there are always exceptions. I’ve sold one book in a submission that lasted two hours, and I’ve sold another after a submission that lasted 14 years.

Unfortunately, once you sign with an agent, you cannot control his methodology. What you can control is who you decide to sign with. As I’ve said many times, you must spend months researching potential agents before deciding who to approach and sign with. If you choose a legitimate agent who represents great authors and who has a track record of recent sales to major houses, then you will have little to worry about. If you choose an agent who you know little about, or whose record is not as reliable, then you may have more cause for concern; in that case, make sure (as I’ve discussed before) that you have an out clause in your agency agreement, so that you can fire him if you are unsatisfied.

But even if you fire a bad agent, once he has already submitted your manuscript, it will be tarnished in the eyes of most new agents, who will likely not want to take it on. So while it’s good that you’ll at least be able to get free of the old agent, the damage (for that manuscript) is already done. You will likely have to give your new agent a new work and/or wait a few years until the editors who’ve rejected your first work have left the industry. So, again, choose carefully. Spending more time upfront on research will save you from worrying throughout the process.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Is my agent (even if fired) entitled to commission my option book?

Hi Noah,

Great blog. I have a question unrelated to this post - after firing an agent, can she use the options clause in your publishing contract between you and your publisher to claim a commission on future works?

Thank you.


This is a sophisticated question, and one which is rarely addressed.

For those of you who may not know, a standard publishing agreement contains an “option clause,” which gives your publisher the first and exclusive right to acquire the next book you write. The standard publishing agreement also contains an “agency clause” (for authors represented by agents) which assures your agent that he will receive his commission. The issue at hand is not the option clause itself: it would be quite unusual for an option clause to contain any language referencing the agent. The real issue is the agency clause: it is quite common for an agency clause to reference the author’s option book. This language usually states that if the publisher buys the author’s next book (the option book), then the agent will be entitled to commission that, too.

From the agent’s perspective, the agent is the one that introduced the author to the publisher, and thus if the author continues the relationship with that publisher for a subsequent book, the agent should be entitled to commission that, too. This is relatively standard, and in many scenarios, this is justified: an agent can work for years to finally land an author a deal, and in some cases, once the author is all setup, the author will fire the agent in order to not have to pay him a commission on future works. Alternately, the author may fire the agent in order to switch to another agent. In such a scenario, the original agent may feel burned, and feel entitled to commission at least one more book between the author and the publisher. This language exists to enforce that.

But there are a number of reasons an author-agent relationship can fall apart during the months or years it takes to complete a book, and it’s not always due to greed or a lack of loyalty on the author’s part. In some cases, the author may be working in good faith with the agent, while the agent may, along the way, become unresponsive or unsupportive. Thus the author may very well feel entitled to fire the agent, and may feel that the agent should not be entitled to a commission on an option book.

In most cases, this is not an issue, since authors who are setup with a publisher are usually happy, especially if they continue this relationship for subsequent books, and they’ll usually be grateful and want to continue have their agent represent them. And in most cases, agents, for their part, will continue to work hard, and continue to be eager to represent the author.

But if things do fall apart, and if it does become an issue, then legally, if the agency clause contains this language, then the agent does have a legal basis to receive that commission. In order to ensure he receives this commission, an agent may sue the author and/or publisher. It can get very messy. This is why a few publishers, who don’t want to get caught up in spats between authors and agents, will refuse to allow this language in agency clauses. Most publishers do, though, and it remains fairly standard.

Keep in mind that this language is fairly limited: it only entitles your agent to a commission if you sell your next book to the same publisher, and it only entitles them to commission that next option book (not subsequent books). Thus there are ways around it. For example, if your publisher rejects your next book and you sell it to a different publisher, then the agent cannot claim a commission. Or if your publisher rejects your option book, but then you write a different book and sell it to that same publisher, your agent cannot claim a commission on that either, since technically, it’s not your option book (even though you remain with the same publisher).

Finally, keep in mind that you may also have signed a separate agency agreement directly with your agent, and that, too, may contain pertinent language. You need to check both to make sure you are completely free and clear. (Also read my post, “Can I fire my agent mid-submission?”)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Ask a Literary Agent (Year One) (free e-book)

This blog has now reached its one year mark, and I thought it would be convenient for readers to have all the information from year one easily at their fingertips. I have thus assembled all of the questions and answers from year one into a PDF file, so you can conveniently have all of this information in one place, and can read it at your leisure, whether it's on your computer, or on your favorite e-reader. To download, visit:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

“Should my agent let me know which publishers/editors have read my work, and provide me with copies of the rejection letters?”

“Is any agent, by the rules of the profession, obliged to inform you specifically of where your work has been submitted and give you copies of responses?”


This is an excellent question, and one which speaks to many issues.

First of all, you must realize that there are no firm and solid “rules” that all agents unanimously adhere to; every agent operates differently. Some agents will provide their authors a detailed rundown of the name of every editor and publisher that he’s submitting their work to, along with copies of rejection letters, while other agents will not provide any such information to an author, at any point.

For those authors who are kept in the dark, it can certainly be quite frustrating. After years of working hard on your manuscript, after finally landing an agent, after knowing your work is being actively submitted, suddenly, you receive nothing but silence. As months pass, this silence can become ever more frustrating. If your agent is not letting you know how many publisher he’s sent it to, which publishers he’s targeted, when he’s sent it out, or how many rejections have come in, you may naturally wonder how hard the agent is working on your book (or if at all), or if the agent is even doing his job effectively. It can also be frustrating for authors to only hear back from their agent that X number of publishers have passed, without being provided with copies of the rejection letters, or hearing any of the reasons why, or without having any idea of how many publishers still have it, or what the strategy is.

From an agent’s perspective, however, providing an author with this information is not always such a simple matter. Some authors, if provided with this information upfront, can try to micromanage the agent, and tell him where to submit (or not to submit). Some authors can monitor the list too carefully, asking for too-frequent updates regarding who has rejected their work. Some authors, if kept in the loop and updated as rejections come in, may become extremely anxious when they hear about the rejections, and thus cause the agent anxiety (which the agent must be free of if he is to stay positive and do his job well). Some authors may, as a result of hearing of the rejections, second guess the agent’s submission choices; others may insist on revising their work mid submission based on a particular rejection letter. Some authors may even try to bypass the agent and contact the editor directly, either to try to desperately convince the editor, or to attempt to cut out the agent (this can be of particular concern if the author and agent have a falling out along the way). Other authors can become so upset at being rejected that, if they have a list of who has rejected their work, they may send vindictive letters to the editors (and/or call them), which in turn reflects poorly on the agent. Thus, agents have some cause to be wary in doling out too much information (at least upfront).

That said, this is still no excuse for an agent to keep an author in the dark. While a book is actively on submission, authors have the right to at least know when the agent is initiating the submission, how many publishers he will be submitting to, whether he plans additional rounds of submissions if the first round fails, approximately when that will take place, what is the ultimate number of publishers he will approach, and how long he estimates the entire submission will take. Authors also have a right to know whether their agent is approaching large or small publishers, and how many of each. Agents can provide all of this without releasing the names of the particular editors upfront , and there is no reason they should not.

Ultimately, if every publisher has passed, then when the submission is over, you absolutely have a right to ask the agent to supply you with the submission list, which should include the names of the publishers and the particular editors. This is crucial for you to have, since it will both allow you to evaluate if your agent did a thorough job, and, if you need to switch agents, it will allow your future agent to evaluate whether there are any stones left unturned that he can submit to. Your agent should also provide you with copies of the rejection letters from editors. It will be especially helpful for a future agent to know if you have any editor fans out there that should be included in your next submission.

In the big picture, this problem can be averted if you spend more time thoroughly researching potential agents upfront. If your research demonstrates that an agent has recently sold many books by high profile authors to major houses, then there is not as much to worry about, even if he’s not as in touch with you as you would hope. On the other hand, if research shows that he represents few authors, and has made few sales and to only smaller houses (and a long time ago), then there is more cause for concern. So (as I discuss at length in my books) be very thorough in your research, and choose carefully. If you make the right choice, then issues like submission lists will not be a major cause for concern.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

“I am just starting out and have never been published. What should I put in my bio?”

"First of all, thank you so much for all of your posts and your free e-book. I have learned a lot and I greatly appreciate it.

Anyway, I recently read your HOW TO WRITE A GREAT QUERY LETTER and I had one question. You mention that a writer should not mention his smaller accomplishments, because it makes him seem like an amateur. I was wondering then, if a writer is just starting out, has never had anything published, and doesn't have a lot of notable things to put in a bio section of a query letter, then what should he put? What can a beginning writer add into the section that will both attract the agent and not make him doubt the writing abilities of the writer? Basically I am young and I have written one novel (which I have tossed) and I am half way through my second one (which I hope to publish one day). Unfortunately I don't have a lot of writing experience that would make an agent interested in reading my manuscript. I don't feel this takes away from the quality of my work but I understand that it may be harder to get someone to look at it in the first place. So anything that you could tell me would be of great help.

Thanks again for all of your work. It helps immensely!"


This is a good question, and one which gets asked frequently.

Aspiring authors who don’t have any writing credentials, writing-specific education and/or publication credits (or who only have minor credits), wonder if there exists some magic language that they can add to their query letters to make up for this fact—unfortunately, there is not. No matter how eloquently you phrase your bio, if you do not have the credentials, an agent will know right away; no fancy language will be able to hide this fact, or make up for it.

Thus it’s best to just say it like it is, and state that you have no credentials and that this is your first work (this is not necessarily a strike against you, as there always remains the thrill of discovery). Even better, you can keep the query letter short and not mention anything at all, ending the letter abruptly after your synopsis and concluding sentence. This at least demonstrates self-awareness and word economy.

The alternative (and unfortunately, more common) approach, is for writers to use up several sentences to either list very minor credentials and/or to dance around the fact that they have no credentials, which can end up comprising a good deal of the letter—and, ironically, serves to emphasize a fact you’d prefer to avoid. It also demonstrates lack of word economy, and wastes the agent’s time. The only time it might make sense to elaborate on non-writing related experience is you have had unique life-experience which is directly related to the subject matter of your book (for example, if you have written a crime thriller and spent 30 years working for the FBI).

So, again, if you don’t have credentials substantial enough to impress an agent, then simply don’t say anything, and allow yourself a shorter query letter.

That said, in the big picture, ultimately the solution is for you to make a sustained effort towards gaining those very credentials which will indeed impress an agent. Just because you’ve never been published in a major literary magazine, or attended a prestigious writing program, or hold endorsements from famous authors, doesn’t mean that you can never attain those things on your own: indeed, many authors who land agents have already managed to attain these things on their own.

This points to a greater issue, which is that many first-time authors approach agents with no credentials whatsoever, expecting agents to build their career from scratch. More seasoned authors understand that a successful publishing career is more often a collaboration between agent and author, with the author already bringing much to the table (and continuing to all throughout his career), with the agent there to take him that final step and land him the book deal. Most agents can’t, for example, be expected to devote years to building your resume for you by sending out your short stories to magazines, or applying to writing programs on your behalf, or networking on your behalf for endorsements; there is a certain amount the author must take into his own hands. This proactive, go-getting mentality tends to be present in many successful authors, whereas it tends to be absent in many unsuccessful authors, particularly those who approach agents for the first time (without any credentials).

You can attain major credentials on your own, but first you must prepare for a sustained effort. Instead of a three or six month plan to attain all the credentials you need, why not give yourself a three or six year plan? With that kind of time, you can attend writing programs, workshops, conferences, colonies; spend extensive time networking and build an endorsement list; get stories published in magazines and online; begin to build a platform; and most importantly, hone your craft extensively. This doesn’t mean you need to refrain from approaching agents before you accomplish all of this; on the contrary, as I said, there is nothing wrong with approaching agents with no credentials whatsoever, and you can work to achieve all of this concurrently with your approaching the industry. But you should always be working to this end, regardless. There are many specific, concrete steps you can take to help get you there (which I explain at length in my book How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent), but perhaps the most important step of all is your willingness to devote a sustained, multi-year effort to building your bio on your own.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

“My agent is unwilling to sell world rights to my book. What should I do?”

"I think my book's topic resonates with people from other cultures. I know it does--several readers from other countries have contacted me. I used that fact to buttress my request in asking my agent to please try to sell foreign rights. (They never came up initially.) My agent doesn't seem to think it would sell well in other countries and won't try. My publisher says it's not their job. I'm disappointed and aggravated. Your thoughts, please?"

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California

Whenever an agent negotiates a book deal with a publisher, a few major issues are negotiated immediately (usually, verbally), such as the advance, royalties, delivery schedule and payout, and major subsidiary rights, like translation and UK rights. (Dozens of smaller issues will also be negotiated later, during the contractual process.) Thus before the contract is even issued and the deal signed, your agent will know whether he or the publisher will be controlling the world rights to your book.

Publishers will often want to control world rights, because it is to their advantage to do so. If a publisher sells world rights, they will make a commission off of each sale and more importantly, any foreign income will be lumped into your royalty account and never paid to you unless you first earn back your royalties—thus giving a publisher security should your book not sell in the U.S. But agents will also want to control world rights on your behalf. It is a negotiation. In some cases, publishers will end up controlling them; in others, agents. For example, a publisher might offer a major six or seven figure advance, but insist that such a high advance is predicated on their controlling world rights. In other cases, the advance offer may be low, and the agent may insist that the publisher can only acquire the book for such a low advance if the agent can control world rights. In some cases, three publishers might offer matching or similar advances, but one of them may be willing to give up world rights, and that may be what makes the difference. In some cases, the world rights may be very valuable (for example, with a book about European history), while in other cases, world rights may be unlikely to sell at all (for example, a book about American history), and this will affect the publisher’s or agent’s fervor in fighting for them.

If an agent ends up controlling world rights, then it is the agent’s responsibility to shop them around the world. Most U.S. literary agents engage co-agents based in the major bookbuying countries of the world; once they sell a book for which they have retained world rights, they will contact all of their agents, let them know of the sale, and ask them if they would like to represent the book in their territory. If particular co-agents in particular countries don’t feel that the book would be successful in their country, then there is not much the primary agent can do; but the primary agent must at least query these co-agents and try.

In your case, you should ask your agent if he has done this. If he says no, and if he refuses to even query his co-agents, then you should ask him to write you a letter which formally reverts the foreign rights back to you and which absolves his agency of any commission for foreign sales. (Your publisher is correct in saying that it is not their job if your agent controls the rights.)

Once you have the rights back, there is not much you can do on your own; international co-agents will rarely want to do deal directly with authors on individual books, as they prefer to deal with established literary agents with whom they have dozens of deals. But if you ever switch literary agents down the road, then at least you will have the legal right to allow a new agent to shop the foreign rights to this book. Agents will rarely want to represent someone merely for the sake of representing foreign rights for a particular book, but if you write a second book, and a new agent wants to represent that in the U.S., then he might also want to represent the foreign rights to your previous book.

Perhaps most importantly, all of this points to the fact that your current agent is not doing his job if he will not at least ask his co-agents to represent your book overseas. If that is the case, consider switching agents for your next book. Keep in mind, though, that foreign rights are not always easy to sell (it varies greatly, depending on the genre), and it may be that your agent ran it by his co-agents and they rejected it. Don’t make assumptions until you’ve gathered all the facts.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

How does one land a job as a literary agent?

"My daughter will be graduating from high school in June and will be pursuing a degree in journalism in the fall. Her goal is to become a literary agent. Although I trust she will receive good advice at the university she plans to attend, she has many questions now about coursework and internships that I can't answer. Can you help me to advise her?"


Your daughter is very wise to plan so far in advance, and this alone will give her a great advantage. Indeed, one of the best ways to land a job in the publishing industry is to simply allow yourself enough time to do so—in her case, with 4 years of planning, her chances will be very strong.

You should not assume that her university will prepare her: most universities do not, in fact, teach students much practical information about the publishing industry, or prepare them for a job in it. When I attended Brandeis, for example, I was a double major in English and Creative Writing, and yet there wasn’t a single course offered about the publishing industry. So unless she is attending a college which specifically boasts a publishing program (like Emerson), then you can assume there will be no instruction or guidance. Some schools will host guest publishing speakers from time to time (Harvard, for example, has a “Writers in the Parlor” series, where I spoke last Fall)—but this is still not the same as having a full-fledged publishing program.

As far as her coursework, the best thing she can do is to major in English and/or Creative Writing. This is by no means a prerequisite for working in publishing, but it is certainly the most relevant major. Having a legal background (particularly entertainment law) is also good preparation for becoming an agent, since a good portion of what agents do involves deal-making and lengthy contracts.

Much more important, though, will be internships. She must intern in the publishing industry before she graduates (for example, during the summer months). Internships are probably, in fact, the single most important thing one could do to lay the groundwork for a job, since they provide practical (and resume) experience, allow her to see if she really likes the profession, provide knowledge about the industry, and perhaps most importantly, give one personal connections. These contacts (and the resume experience) will be all-important when it comes time for the job search. If two candidates compete for a job, and one has publishing internship experience and the other does not, it is nearly certain that the former will land the position. But she mustn’t assume that, because she has a dozen contacts, she will be assured a job upon graduation; publishing is all about timing, and if there are no openings when she graduates, her contacts may be useless. Thus she mustn’t become complacent. If she can’t find any internships with a literary agency, then she should be open to finding one in a publishing house. And it should be in New York if at all possible.

Although it is still a bit early for her, at some point before graduation she should start reading the industry trades on a weekly basis ( and are good places to start). She will absorb much industry information, and she will start to learn the names of companies and of people in the industry. As a starting point, it will be crucial that she has the names of all the major publishers and imprints memorized—it is a crucial foundation for becoming an agent, and it will be necessary, too, for her to know which publishers to apply to.

Finally, when she graduates and it is time for her to actually search for a job, she should 1) move to New York City (if she doesn’t already live here); 2) submit her resume as widely as possible to literary agencies; 3) give herself at least 6 months of searching (the biggest mistake candidates make is giving up after a few weeks or months); 4) not settle for a job which is not to her liking, or work for a boss who is unpleasant; and 5) apply for assistant jobs at book publishers if she cannot find one on the agency side. Working for a major book publisher is also great for the resume, and will help her land an eventual agency job. She should also remain open to the idea of working for the Subsidiary Rights departments of major publishers. This is something that few candidates consider, but which can end up being the most effective technique: it can be a much easier job to land, and literary agencies like to hire employees with Sub Rights experience, because many of the job duties overlap.

In the ideal world, she will land a job at a literary agency as an assistant literary agent, work for an agent who is encouraging and supportive, and within a year or two will be promoted, handling a list of her own authors. Some agents (and agencies) are more supportive of promoting their assistants than others, though; if she finds herself in an environment where assistants are not promoted after several years (or at all), or where her boss is not supportive, she may need to eventually switch agencies in order to become a full-fledged agent.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Should I revise my work for a prospective agent?

"I'm a little manuscript has been back and forth to my agent now for almost a year and a half with only positive and encouraging verbal feedback, but no written reports. I have now sent the second book after the agent says he wanted to see it, but feedback is still having to be prompted. The agent only reads exclusively, so I just don't know what to do. Is it normal to take this long? Should I expect more feedback? Would it be okay for me to maybe send it to a few other agencies?

You are really asking three questions here: 1) How long should you wait to hear back from an agent about your manuscript? 2) Should you grant an agent exclusive reading time? and 3) If a prospective agent asks you to revise your manuscript (with no guarantee that he will represent you), should you do so?

I already answered the first two questions on this blog. Please see the September 22, 2009 posting titled, “How long should I wait to hear back about my manuscript?” The only point I might add to that is that if you do indeed grant an agent exclusive reading time, then you should not give him more than 3 months exclusive reading time for a finished manuscript, or more than 2 months for a proposal. In your case, given that it has been over a year, you should certainly not grant this agent any more exclusive reading time. You should start querying other agents simultaneously.

In general, if you are debating revising your manuscript for a prospective agent, keep in mind the following: if an agent asks to see a revision of your work, and his comments are specific for what he’d like to see revised, and you agree with those comments, then go for it. However, don’t assume a nice or long rejection letter detailing problems is an invitation to revise and resubmit—only assume so if the agent specifically requests to see another version. In most cases, if an agent rejects a work and does not specifically ask to see a revision, then the agent does not truly want to see it again, even if it is revised. You don’t want to fall into the trap of following false leads and revising a manuscript endlessly.

Additionally, if your gut tells you that the agent’s comments are wrong, or that he doesn’t get your work or share your vision, then don’t revise. At the end of the day, you are the one that needs to live with your work.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Can I fire my agent mid-submission?

"My agent did a first round of submissions for my book, all of which resulted in passes. I'm starting to get a bad feeling about my agent. We don't click. Honestly, I don't think he likes me very much, and the feeling is mutual at this point. Is it possible to change agents at this point? The book has only been submitted to about seven or so publishers. There are still many left...."

--question asked by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett on behalf of The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Barbara is host of “Writers on Writing,” a weekly radio show airing on KUCI-FM (88.9) in California

Legally, you may not have the option to fire your agent--it will depend on the agency agreement you signed (if any). If you did not sign an agreement, then you can legally fire him at any time. If the agreement you signed does not have a clause which specifically states that you have the right to terminate, then you are not allowed to terminate, and that agent has the legal right to represent (or at least be entitled to commission on) your book in perpetuity, whether you like it or not. If the agreement you signed has a clause which states that you have the right to terminate if you follow certain procedures (for example, giving 30 days notice in writing), then if you follow those procedures, the agreement will be terminated on the effective date, and you will be free to do as you like. Some agents work without agreements, some use agreements with no termination clauses, and others will use different language in their termination clauses, so it can be complex, and is case specific.

Furthermore, terminating mid-submission can be particularly complex. Some agency termination clauses anticipate this scenario and offer language which states that if you terminate mid submission, then the agreement will terminate—BUT if one of the publishers still considering should make an offer at some point in the future, then the agency will be entitled to the commission.

If you don’t have a legal basis to terminate, all is not necessarily lost. Practically speaking, many agents are often willing to just terminate an agreement if an author is unhappy with them (and vice versa); some agents, though, will insist on holding an author to the language. Sometimes simply asking nicely will get you released from the agreement, whereas if an author is demanding and threatening, it may backfire, and an agent may insist on his commission. In any case, it will be vital that you obtain a copy of the submission list from the agent (a new agent can’t submit without it), so it is best not to alienate him.

The best way to avoid such a legal mess to begin with is to spend more time doing research upfront, and to choose your agent very carefully. As I often say, if there’s anything worse than not landing an agent, it’s landing an agent who is ineffective, and who keeps you bound to an agreement.

The other issue you must consider is that, just because an agent exhausted a first round of submissions and received seven passes, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s doing a bad job. Many books can take 30 or more rejections until they find a publisher, so one needs patience, and mustn’t leap to conclusions. Whether your agent is doing a good job depends not on the number of initial rejections, but rather on 1) which publishers he submitted to; 2) how appropriate they are for your work; 3) which particular editors he submitted to; 4) how he timed the submission; and 5) how much time it took to complete the first round. If, for example, it took him an entire year to submit to just 7 editors, and they are the wrong 7 editors, then he’s doing a bad job and you should fire him. But if he’s received 7 responses in just 2 weeks, and they are all from excellent editors at excellent houses who read your book carefully, then you don’t have cause to fire him. I actually discuss this very issue at length in my book, How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent. In the chapter “How to Keep Your Agent (and When to Let Him Go),” I discuss what it’s like to work with an agent on a daily basis, what you should expect from him, and what he should expect from you. Too often, author-agent relationships fall apart simply because of mutual misunderstandings and lack of clear communication. If an author has a better idea of what to actually expect from an agent (and vice versa), then it can be much easer to maintain a happy, working relationship.