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.