[Note: This Q&A originally appeared on Jane Friedman’s website on November 28, 2018.]
Earlier this year, the book publishing world was rocked by stories of unethical behavior by literary agents. On the one hand, this news was disheartening to hear. On the other hand, it opened up a candid discussion on social media about how different agents communicate with their clients and approach the submissions process. This led to a bigger discussion about how to distinguish between an agent who is unfit for the job—and an agent who is fit for the job but a mismatch for a particular client, and vice versa.
These stories made me think about writers who are represented by reputable, successful agents but are quietly contemplating change. If you’re a writer, how do you know if it’s worth the risk of leaving your current agent? Does past representation impede your ability to find a new agent? I asked literary agents John Cusick and Holly Root. As with all my agent Q&As, neither knew the other’s identity until after they submitted their answers to my questions below.
Sangeeta Mehta: When should a writer who’s been previously represented give you this information? During the query letter stage, or once you’ve requested pages? Would it be appropriate for a writer to mention this during an in-person pitch event?
John Cusick: I definitely want to know at the query stage that the author has been represented before—but not because it’s necessarily a bad thing. People part ways with their agents all the time, and when I learn an author has been represented before, my usual takeaway is “this person’s had experience working with representation, and probably knows what they need and like, and what they don’t,” rather than, “Oh their agent must have fired them.”
I think it’s important to be forthcoming with your publishing history, but that doesn’t mean you need to spill the whole saga in your query letter. I appreciate the author letting me know, “I have been represented before, and I’m happy to discuss the details if you’d like.” That way, precious query-letter space isn’t taken up with long explanations, but I still know the author is happy to answer my questions if I have them.
During an in-person pitch, however, I’d say past representation isn’t the most important detail to convey, especially where time is limited. If, during an in-person pitch, there’s space to talk about your old agent, that’s fine, but not necessary to my thinking. Writers should remember, though, if a project has been shopped widely before (in other words, if an agent has sent it to several editors already), that does affect what I might be able to do with the manuscript. That’s information I need before I can offer representation.
Holly Root: I think it’s fine to say up-front at the query stage, though I don’t view previously represented authors more or less favorably, so there’s no strategic advantage. The writer doesn’t have to go into details about the whys of the split at the query stage unless they’re pretty straightforward (like an agent who left the business). Just a quick line in the query that also identifies the status of the manuscript suffices: “I was previously represented by Agent XYZ. This manuscript hasn’t been on submission.”
If you’re talking with an agent in-person, ideally that will be more of a free-form conversation than a strict pitch. In that situation, there will be room for more nuance and context so it should be pretty straightforward to bring up the prior representation, since you’ll be able to answer any follow-up questions about how far down the road you’ve been with a prior agent.
“We’ve amicably parted ways” has become the standard wording regarding a writer’s split from a former agent. If the parting wasn’t particularly amicable—perhaps the writer was frustrated by the agent’s dimming enthusiasm, or the agent wasn’t happy with the writer’s revisions—would you still be open to representing the writer?
JC: Of course! Again, agents and writers split for many reasons, and sometimes an agent-author pairing just isn’t the right fit. A great writer can have a great agent and still experience great differences of opinion. Sometimes it’s just not the right meeting of minds, and no one is really at “fault.”
Also, an “amicable” parting could just as easily mean that the agent (politely) fired the author for not delivering publishable material, just as much as it might mean anything else. So whether or not an author characterizes their split as “amicable” usually doesn’t affect my desire to represent them.
HR: At this point I assume “amicable” just means no one wishes the other party active bodily harm—there’s always some reason underlying the change, or there wouldn’t have been a change! But I do think it speaks well of a writer if they are presenting the parting professionally, particularly in writing. If it wasn’t amicable, you shouldn’t lie. It is still entirely professional to say only, “I was previously represented by Agent X; we parted ways earlier this year.”
Would you be willing to take on a previously represented project that has gone out to a handful of acquiring editors, or would you consider only a new project from a writer with past representation? If the latter is the case, would the manuscript need to be finished, or would a partial be sufficient?
JC: Whether or not I’d take on a project that’s been submitted previously depends on a lot of factors. There are risks in taking on such a project. If multiple editors have rejected it already, that means the pool of editors I can now submit to is smaller. Also, if the project has already received a large number of rejections, that doesn’t bode well for its chances of ultimately selling (though certainly a book can get many rejections and still find a great publisher). Moreover, editors talk to each other. If I submit to a new editor at the same house, and they bring the project forward to acquisitions, I have to assume their colleague who read and rejected it would say, “Oh yeah, this book. I read and rejected that.”
But that’s not to say I don’t take on projects that have been previously submitted, especially if enough time has passed and if the author has done some major revisions. It just means I have to be that much more passionate and certain of success, given the potential risks.
As to considering partials from an established author, I’m open to it, especially if the author has a solid track record, and/or if I’ve read and enjoyed their previous books. I’ve also taken on previously published authors without a new manuscript in hand, or who were still under contract for several more books, simply because I love their work and I know they’ll still have great stories to tell two years down the road.
HR: It’s always easier for a new agent to shop a fresh manuscript, versus picking one up that’s been out before, but you can never say never. I would have to really love a book and author, and/or the submission list from the prior round would have to have been really different from who I would target (like a manuscript that had been shopped as a YA, but I saw it as adult, or vice versa). Sometimes this might happen if an agent was trying to work outside of their area of expertise as a favor to a client, before the agent and client agreed to part—then there might be an opportunity for me to resubmit with full disclosure about why, and use the change of agent to reshape the narrative. But again, that’s a much heavier lift, so it’s the exception, not the rule.
As for full vs. partial, a full manuscript will always be easier to sell than a partial (and usually goes for more money), but a lot of that depends on the author’s sales track record and reputation, so there’s no one hard rule.
If the writer and agent never signed a formal agreement, and the writer has repeatedly tried to communicate with her agent but to no avail, can she in good conscience put out feelers to other agents by chatting with them at conferences? Participate in contests or pitch events that other agents are taking part in?
JC: There’s nothing wrong with giving an uncommunicative agent the boot, but my suggestion would be to send that agent something in writing saying you are now going to pursue other representation before you actively pitch your material to someone else. That way, your parting with them is official, and no one can say you’ve done anything untoward. And this is really more for the author’s benefit than the absentee agent’s. But still, it’s important to split up before you hit the dating pool again.
Also, as a general note, agents talk to each other. If you query other agents before firing your old one, you can bet your old agent will find out about it.
HR: I would recommend mailing a letter to the agent officially severing—then you’re free and clear to do pitches, query, or whatever else you’d like. It’s hard when the relationship is nebulous like that, but insofar as you can make it clear, I suspect that will let you sleep better. And other agents will be much more willing to talk if you’re free and clear.
In addition to being the right thing to do, officially parting also makes it much easier to get a new agent. When people reach out before severing, really all I can say is “I can’t really talk while you’re represented,” which comes with the awkward potential for the author to walk away with the impression that I am totally planning to sign them once they part. Meanwhile, I might not at all be right for that author. Or have thought about their work in depth at all, frankly! I’m just trying to stay on the good side by not having conversations with other people’s clients that I wouldn’t want my clients having with other agents. I have a sense that this “swing to one vine before letting the other go” approach is more common in other forms of entertainment representation, but in general in the book world, parting before shopping is a good practice to work by.
If an agent leaves one agency for another but doesn’t take all her clients with her, or if she leaves the industry altogether, can the client who’s left behind expect that someone else at the original agency will still represent her? Is the agency head responsible for sending out the writer’s work or helping the writer find a new agent, or does this depend entirely on the agency agreement, assuming there is one?
JC: I think this is going to vary from agency to agency. Any agency can terminate their relationship with an author, so I’m not sure writers should expect their agency head will definitely take them on as a client if their original agent leaves the business. In any event, the agency isn’t bound to continue representing the author, and definitely isn’t responsible for helping the writer find a new agent. But the originating agency can and should continue to manage whatever books they’ve sold on behalf of that author, just as they would for any other client.
However, in my experience, agencies will make an effort to keep working with authors when their original agent can no longer represent them. That doesn’t mean staying with the original agency is always the best move—sometimes seeking a new agent elsewhere is preferable to becoming someone’s inherited client (though not always). Styles and expertise always vary from agent to agent, even within the same agency, which the author should keep in mind when seeking new representation.
HR: This sounds like a tricky internal situation that would differ from agency to agency. If the agent didn’t take her clients with her, I would reach out to whoever your contact is in the wake of the departure and ask—politely and directly—for clarity on your representation status with the agency. Also, if you’re not certain that whatever arrangement they have for coverage is right for you, you should also always feel empowered to part ways and seek a fit you choose, who also chooses you.
What is the number one reason you’ve seen an author-agent relationship dissolve? Unrealistic expectations? Lack of patience on the part of the writer? Lack of effort on the part of the agent? A change in the trajectory of one party’s career but not the other’s? Is there a way to prevent these differences from terminating the partnership altogether?
JC: I think that agents fire authors when they become too difficult to work with, or, despite best efforts by all parties, nothing seems to be selling. In the latter scenario, a split is good for both parties, because clearly the agent doesn’t have the vision to help the author’s career move forward, and clearly the author isn’t providing the agent with something she thinks she can sell.
It’s the “become difficult to work with” part where things get tricky. I’ve seen agent-author relationships deteriorate simply because the author became so anxious and distressed that things weren’t going the way they expected with their career, that they began to see their agent as A) the only person who could solve all their problems, and B) solely responsible for their lack of multi-million-dollar success. This is where trust becomes such an important factor. Agent-author relationships fall apart when the author doesn’t trust the agent’s judgment, and/or the agent doesn’t trust the author’s ability to respond constructively to bad news.
The other common reason authors fire their agents is for lack of attention: their agent either can’t or won’t give the author’s career the time and focus it needs. If you feel like your agent isn’t as focused as he used to be, set up a call to discuss it. Sometimes there’s just a miscommunication, or both parties merely need to reconnect and refocus. And if your agent doesn’t have time for a heart to heart? Well, then you’ve got your answer.
HR: Different visions is probably the biggest one, and that you can’t really know until you’re in it, but talking it out if you’re feeling out of sync is always the right call. Communication is hard—I mean, for humans in general—but also in this context specifically because it’s easy to have a mismatch of expectations, especially if there aren’t clear boundaries. I do think many challenges can be worked through if writers are willing to express their needs clearly and the agent is able to take that feedback onboard without defensiveness and be honest about what’s realistic for them, too. From the writer side, it’s challenging for agents when an author can’t or won’t stay current with the expectations of the genre they’re working in. A book that was a slam-dunk for the 2010 market might be unsellable today, and that’s a hard reality. But ideally we’re all going to keep leveling up together, communicating well and clearly along the way.
Do you think that changing agents once—or multiple times—carries the same stigma it has in the past? After all, some writers must change editors multiple times because editors often move from house to house. Should writers assume that they might eventually need to adjust to a new agent? Or can they go into author-agent partnership trusting that it will last throughout the course of both their careers?
JC: I don’t think it carries the same stigma it once did. A third of my list is comprised of authors who had agents before me; I love helping writers launch the second act of their careers.
But I wouldn’t suggest going into an agent relationship assuming it will end one day any more than I’d suggest that of a marriage. Ideally, you want to build a long-lasting career with your agent. But, like any kind of relationship, some don’t last, and that’s okay.
HR: I don’t think anyone cares about how many agents so much as about why you left. I always ask why someone is making a change—what worked for them and what didn’t in their prior relationship. (It’s easy to focus on the bad, but knowing what was good is also really informative.) In part that’s me trying to check for fit. And in part that’s me seeing if someone knows themselves well enough to know what they need in an agent, and knows what is within the scope of an agent’s role. I have many clients who were represented elsewhere before we started working together, but I have a good number who’ve only ever worked with me, too, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope for a partnership that lasts.
Do you have any other advice for writers who are considering leaving their current agent, especially those who are apprehensive due to the time and energy they’ve already invested, or obligation to the agent who jumpstarted their career? Are there any advantages to staying put in a less-than-ideal agent-author relationship, especially if it began on a positive note?
JC: No agent is better than a bad agent, or an agent who isn’t helping you grow your career. But my first piece of advice would be to talk to your agent. If there’s a conflict or a concern, let your agent know you need to have a conversation. Express your concerns exhaustively, but with the understanding that you might not have the whole picture. Give your agent a chance to respond and address the issues—how they respond will tell you everything you need to know about whether they’re worth sticking with.
There are many agents out there, and I think most all of us are more than happy to work with an author who’s been previously represented. You just don’t want to blow up a good thing—or a fixable thing—without first communicating your needs, expectations, and concerns (if any). This goes for the author and agent both.
HR: I would always recommend that an author who is on the fence about their current situation reach out to their current agent to let them know they’re not happy and need a little help righting the relationship. Agents can easily assume that if you’re quiet, you’re just off writing, when in fact you’re freaking out. And you’re a writer, so you are very highly skilled at creating fictional dialogues, which will often be much scarier and more dramatic than the actual conversation will be! (A huge plus on the page; a minus IRL.) So it’s always better to have that discussion for real with your agent, not with your own inner critic.
Also, agents often feel like we can’t or shouldn’t have personal challenges of our own or tough seasons at work. So clients might not have all the relevant information from the agent’s side if the challenge that was causing the issue (a medical issue, a staffing problem, etc.) is something that the agent is actively addressing and will resolve relatively soon. You shouldn’t stay with an agent who isn’t meeting your needs out of obligation, but I do think most agents genuinely want to do right by the authors they’ve represented. Even if that conversation ends up with you guys mutually agreeing it’s time for a change, you’ll both feel so much better about it if it’s out in the open. If that conversation doesn’t result in changes that make you feel confident you’re back on the upswing and you ultimately still need to make a change, then you can part knowing you did everything you could to make the parting as amicable as you will say it was in your next, sure-to-be-successful query letter.
John Cusick (@johnmcusick) is a VP and literary agent with Folio Jr. / Folio Literary Management. He represents a diverse list of bestselling and award-winning creators of picture books, middle-grade, and young adult novels. He is also the author of Girl Parts and Cherry Money Baby (Candlewick Press), and a regular speaker at writers’ conferences.