Thursday, July 30, 2009
Can I be represented by two literary agents?
Question: How unusual is it to have two agents? I have one novel signed with a British agent now, and they are looking at my second book. IF they decide it's not for them, I'll look elsewhere, of course. Just wondered how uncommon that would be?
The standard response would be to tell you that, in the majority of cases, literary agents will only work with an author on an exclusive basis. From an agent’s perspective, there are many (justifiable) reasons for this, including the fact that there are option and non-compete clauses built into publishing agreements, and that if another agent were to represent other works by the same author, the legalities could become infinitely complex. There are subsidiary rights issues, too. The shaping of the author’s career also becomes a problem, since agents often like to help “build” an author in a certain direction—and if another agent were involved, this could become impossible. There is also the simple financial fact that it can take years of hard work to build an author’s career, and one agent would not want to devote so much effort only to see another agent reap the benefits. And finally, the exclusive agent-author relationship is standard industry etiquette, and thus a publisher, knowing that an author is represented by one agent, would be quite surprised to receive a work by that same author submitted simultaneously by a different agent—and would probably not even know how to respond.
That said, as with everything in book publishing, this can become more complex, and the issue is not always so black and white. For me to give you a thorough response, I would have to take into account many factors. The answer will ultimately vary in each case, depending on the agent, the author, the publisher, and the work(s) in question. For example, it would be very unusual (if not impossible) for a novelist to have two different literary agents representing two different novels of his simultaneously. However, what if a novelist decides he wants to write non-fiction for his next book? And his agent only represents fiction? Will that agent be OK with his looking for a separate agent to handle his non-fiction?
There is certainly more leeway in the scenario of an author switching from fiction to non-fiction, and some agents will be fine with that, and will even recommend agents and/or give the author their blessing. Other agents, though, will not. If an agent is part of a bigger agency, he will, if possible, want to keep the author in-house at the agency, and have another agent in his company represent the non-fiction (which is usually fine). However, if his colleague doesn’t want to represent the non-fiction (as is often the case), then the agent may not want his author searching elsewhere for an agent to represent the non-fiction. Agents can be territorial, and they may become worried that if their novelist finds another agent to represent his non-fiction, then their client may end up, in the long run, switching to that other agency for his fiction, too. They also will not want their novelist devoting years to writing non-fiction, which are years which could have been spent continuing to write fiction (and vice versa with non-fiction versus fiction).
As an author, if you find yourself in a position where you are switching genres and must decide whether you want to have this conversation with your agent and look for a second (simultaneous) agent, you should take into account many factors. For example, if you are a novelist, and your agent has represented you for many years, and has landed you several deals for hundreds of thousands of dollars, is it really worth it to jeopardize the relationship in order to go out and find another agency to represent a one-time non-fiction concept? Conversely, if you are a novelist and have been with your agent for years and he has not landed you any deals, and you now want to make a true, lifelong career switch to non-fiction, then it may make more sense for you to find a non-fiction agent, whatever the price.
Just know that, whatever you decide, with most agents, the notion of your being represented simultaneously by another agency will usually strain the relationship. Whether it’s worth it is a decision only you can make.