Wednesday, October 7, 2009

“If my agent doesn’t like my next book, should I fire him?”

“If you submit something to your agent and he/she doesn’t like it, do you believe him/her that it’s not up to par, or do you spring free and find another agent who does like it?”

--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

To be thorough, one cannot give a blanket answer for this question, as each case will vary, depending on a number of factors. This really must be answered on a case by case basis. That said, here are a few general issues to consider:

If your agent has represented you for a number of years, sold many books for you, made you a lot of money, and has always been right in the past, and one day you come to him with a new manuscript and he doesn’t like it, then chances are that he knows what he’s talking about. You should respect his opinion, put it aside and write something new. Having representation with a good agent is very valuable in and of itself, and it may be worth setting aside a particular book to continue that relationship, particularly if you trust your agent’s opinion. You always need your agent to be excited about what he’s selling: if he’s not, then you don’t want him to be out there selling it. (Keep in mind that I say “chances are,” because this business is not a science, and there is always a remote possibility that your agent, who had always been right in the past, makes a mistake in this case, and steers you away from writing the next Da Vinci Code. One never knows.)

On the other hand, if your agent has never landed you any book deals, and if you come to him with a new manuscript which you feel strongly about and he rejects it, then it may be time to look elsewhere—particularly if he is unwilling to give you good reasons for his rejection, or to help brainstorm with you to come up with something more marketable.

In either case, before making the decision to terminate the relationship, get some objective feedback: share your manuscript with several trusted readers. If they all have issues with it, too, then it may help you realize that your agent is in the right.

More importantly, there are steps you can take to make sure you don’t end up in this situation to begin with. First, you can—and should—bring your agent in at the very beginning of the process: share your concept with him before you begin writing. If he doesn’t like it, ask him why. There may be a good reason: perhaps he knows of competitive proposals, or recalls similar proposals that weren’t able to find a publisher or that performed poorly as published books. Perhaps he can help you fine-tune the concept, or brainstorm to help you come up with a new concept altogether.

If you are writing fiction, you can share pages with him as you go: for example, before spending years writing 500 pages, stop at page 50 and show him the pages and a detailed synopsis for the rest. If he’s a good agent, he should be able to make an evaluation based on this. If he doesn’t like it, it can save you years of writing.

Agents will appreciate that you respect them enough to bring them in early, and it will make them feel more invested in the project. If you don’t trust your agent’s opinion enough to do this, then he probably shouldn’t be your agent to begin with. And if you are the type of author who writes whatever he feels like writing, regardless of what others think, then you need to realize that a long term career in publishing needs to be collaborative.

That said, there is always the human factor: agents have been wrong about many famous books in the past, and they will be wrong many times in the future. In this industry, one can only make an educated guess. If you have a burning passion for a particular manuscript you’ve written, and your gut screams that you should go elsewhere, then sometimes you will need to listen to that. Just don’t make the decision hastily: in my book, How to Land (and Keep) a Literary Agent, I discuss the six reasons to drop an agent, and all the factors you must consider carefully before doing so. If you terminate the relationship over a particular manuscript, you may find yourself in a position where you cannot sell the new manuscript and cannot find a new agent.


  1. Dear Noah,

    On page 24 of your book The First Five Pages, which you wrote in the year 2000, you state: "Instead of feeling you have to query twenty or thirty agents, narrow your list to two or three." Lately, however, in your recent blog posts as well as in your newest book, How To Land And Keep A Literary Agent, you seem to advocate a different approach, one of submitting to 50-100 agents simultaneously. Could you share with us the sorts of factors that have inspired you to evolve your thinking in that regard? Thanks in advance.

    -Eric Vincent
    Studio Curve Dominant

  2. This post is hugely helpful. I'm in precisely this place I've got a couple novels published, one in a big deal (that didn't earn out). I respect my agent very, very much--but he's also of a different generation, which makes me (unfairly, as he's more in touch with pop culture than I) wonder, sometimes.

    I should've brought him in earlier. I -despise- any interruption to my work, which is why I wrote the whole thing. But still.

  3. I wrote recently about the protocol of having two agents. (My first book is signed, the second has no commitment from them yet.) You suggested it was never a perfect solution, but now my agent seems to be hinting that they could decide NOT to take it and would have no objection to my approaching other agents. In this case, how do you feel? Also, I get no feedback from this agent at all. I have emailed them once to see what was happening, three months after signing with them. They do not communicate with me. Is this normal? Have I drawn duds? I picture New York agents blythely firing off little notes saying that the MS is with such and such editors, etc., and to be patient, etc. (My agent is British.) Am I living in a naive world?

  4. Hi! Loved your ebook but find your website frustrating - You represent so many great people (well, Fran Dressler is NOT exactly the Dali Lama but whatever) but won't take queries. What a tease.

    Anyway, my question is: If you are rejected by one agent at an agency, can you query some other agent at that same agency?

    Merci beaucoup -


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.