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.


  1. Sounds like a communication problem to me. I read How to Land (and keep)a Literary Agent and found the dynamics very interesting.

  2. Love this blog -- off to buy the book. Thank you so much for this helpful information. Here is my question: in June I queried a junior agent at a very good agency. He replied, requesting 50 additional pages. I was delighted, of course -- but I didn't hear anything. I waited until September, sent a brief email, heard nothing. In October I called and emailed again in November, heard nothing. I guess he's just not that in to me! Last month I found him at another agency, where his bio describes his recent move, and says that he took all his queries with him from the old job and will respond "soon." I don't much like the sound of this -- isn't it stealing? Is this someone I would want to work with? Perhaps this is done all the time. Advice, please?

  3. cherryberry- I think it's common practice to take your correspondence with you. Something addressed to a particular agent is his property, in other words. It sounds like a reason to give him a little more time since moving an office is a lot of work. But what do I know?

  4. Seems to me this would be a bad idea all around. Legal problems would certainly be one spin-off headache, plus bad karma/bad relations and who knows what else.


  5. Thanks for the question Barbara. That was an interesting topic. I was lucky enough with the first Literary Agency I signed with to have an expiration date in the contract.

    They did not take forever to submit queryies to publishing houses, but submitted inappropriately. As it was my first experience with an agent, I didn't really know what to expect, and it was only after the first about 4 months with them that I understood that when they said they hire out people to read and edit the work, they meant exactly that. They "shop" the novel while you pay their recommended professions to ensure it's ready for publication.

    After eight months of dissappointment, I had learned enough about the query and publication process to know all I could do was sit out the next four months and start over again. I can say from experience that a bad agent (though the agency hardly qualified as an "Agent") is worse than no agent.

    I'm sure you'll find a way out of your delimma Barbara.

    Thanks Noah for your helpful advice.


  6. Noah,

    Thanks for keeping up this blog-I've been following it for months. Also, your book, The First Five Pages, has been my craft-of-writing bible for a couple of years.

    I have a question for you that I have not been able to find an answer for on the internet. I am an unpublished author seeking an agent and I am currently working on a speculative fiction trilogy. I am doing last edits on the 1st novel and worked on plotting for the second and third. What should I have completed before querying agents? Just the 1st novel? Or opening chapter and synopsis of 2nd as well?

    Thanks for your time...

  7. Noah,
    By the time I chop down the query to your recommended size including: opening sentence, three sentence plot and short bio, I will be down to about 1/3 of a page. Is my math correct or am I missing some crucial detail? Everything otherwise makes brilliant sense.

    Steve F

  8. Mr. Lukeman:
    There has been a question floating around on various forums that no one seems to have a definite answer to. When firing an agent who has negotiated a sale, do they have any right to commission on the option book? Presuming that the book is not yet submitted, and is in fact unwritten at this point. Some say the option book is part of the contract the former agent negotiated, others disagree. It would be awkward to return to an old agent say, four years later, for one book, and I'm sure it would annoy the new agent. (If the publisher doesn't buy the book and it gets sold elsewhere, I assume there would be no problem.)

    Thank you for your help.

  9. Dear Mr Lukeman, During the 90 days notice period my agent blanket submitted my manuscript that is still a work in progress to hundreds of publishers around the world. She now claims (through her lawyer) that she is entitled to any contract with any of those publishers, even if she gets a decline now, and another agent resubmits the manuscript in the future. I find this completely unreasonable and am taking legal advice.

  10. When firing an agent who has negotiated a sale, do they have any right to commission on the option book
    PPC Advertising India

  11. What a great blog - I just discovered it. I have a question: When terminating a contract with a literary agent (on a contract that specifies a termination agreement) does that agent still hold the rights to the publishing houses that rejected the proposal? Or can the new agent re-submit to those houses? Thank you!

  12. hi
    i have produced a photo book. i have signed a contract with a publisher who is suppose to print the book at his own expencess but now after 6 months after the contract is signed the publisher tells me to arrange for 50% of funds and says he is unable to print the book for the lack of funds.
    i am given a better proposal by another publisher who can print the book with his expenses. so i want to terminate the first contract. how do i do this. can u please guide me on this.

  13. What if an agent offers to represent verbally, 3 months lapse by and they haven't contacted you or replied to your e-mails?

  14. I'm just stumped. My agent (she signed me to represent a proposal that didn't sell. I was a published author when I signed with her four years ago). Since that time, I have a second book coming out which I sold on my own after I signed a contract w/her (she passed on the project and I went forward w/her blessing...very niche book). I queried her with an idea for a third book. She never responded to my query until I prompted her. An editor that liked my 2nd book proposal wanted to see a full proposal. I sent the third book proposal to her for feedback and she responded "be back with you shortly" and that she was passing it onto a colleague who did more non fiction. That was over a month ago. I think this is so odd, especially since an editor at a publisher they work with asked for a full. Am I pestering her to ping her again? Part of me thinks I need somebody who is a bit more enthusiastic about my work (gee d'yah think?). I hate conflict and bugging people!

  15. I have terminated my agent's contract per the 30 day clause. The certified mail containing this letter was returned by the USPS undeliverable.
    Can I proceed under the assumption that after 30 days I am clear of the contract?

  16. I have terminated my agent's contract per the 30 day clause. The certified mail containing this letter was returned by the USPS undeliverable.
    Can I proceed under the assumption that after 30 days I am clear of the contract?


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