Thursday, February 18, 2021

Dear O'Abby on what you should expect from your agent

There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter this week about badly behaved agents, so I thought it would be useful to discuss what writers should and shouldn't expect from their agents.

The first thing to remember is that the author-agent relationship is a professional partnership.  The agent only gets paid when they sell the author's work, so in that respect, the agent works for the author.  At no time should an author feel that they can't speak to their agent about anything career related that may be bothering them.

Too often I hear writers saying they feel like they'd be bothering their agents if they email to ask them something.  You should never be afraid to contact your agent.  If you are worried about something to do with your writing career or have questions, you should be able to reach out.

You should also expect a reply.  Maybe not immediately, but certainly within a reasonable timeframe.  Even if it is just a quick note to let you know your email was received, and that the agent has back-to-back appointments for the next three days, but will get back to you after that.

We're all busy.  Most writers are juggling a day job with their writing careers and probably a family on top of that.  Being busy is not a good enough excuse not to communicate.  If your agent doesn't get back to you in a reasonable timeframe, or keeps promising answers to questions that are never forthcoming, it is not acceptable.

Neither is withholding information about what is happening with your book on submission.  Before your agent takes your book out on submission it's important to discuss with her how much feedback you want from the editors she's pitching.  Some writers just want to know if it was a pass or not, while others want to see exactly what each agent said about the book.  Whatever it is you want, your agent should supply.  It's critical you know where your book has been pitched and to who.

Communication - or lack of it - seems to be the biggest issue writers have with their agents, so I believe it's something that should be discussed before signing the agency agreement.  If you're not great on the phone, or on Zoom, make sure your prospective agent is aware of this and is willing to communicate primarily via email or text. It may also be worthwhile to discuss how often you want to be in touch.  Obviously when you have a book on submission you will probably need to communicate far more often than you would while you're revising or editing or writing something new.

When I had an agent, we decided monthly check-ins were fine when we weren't on submission or in the midst of an edit to get the project submission- ready and that worked really well for us.  We also agreed that most communication would be by email because of the time difference between New York and New Zealand.

If your agent isn't communicating with you the way you want to be communicated with, or you feel that they are withholding information or not being transparent with you, then it may be time to consider ending the relationship.  There is nothing to be ashamed of in this scenario.  It is better to have no agent than to have an agent you don't trust or who is not being proactive in providing you with information about what is happening to your book.  

Many writers end up having multiple agents through their careers, and this is not necessarily a sign that they are demanding or difficult to work with.  Agents leave the profession, and sometimes this leaves the author high and dry if there is no one else at the agency willing or able to take them on.  The relationship that seemed so perfect at the start may not run as smoothly as both parties hoped.  Or the writer may just want to move in a direction the agent does not feel qualified to support.

Your agent is your advocate and her role is to champion your work to editors and to help you make the best possible decisions about your career.  If she isn't fulfilling those roles, it doesn't matter how much you like her, or how good she looks on paper, or how much you enjoy being able to say "X is my agent."

I've already said it, but I'll repeat myself:  having a bad agent is worse than having no agent.

So don't be afraid to speak up and ask for what you need.  And if you don't get it, don't be afraid to terminate the relationship before it destroys you..

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