by Libby Malin Sternberg
I’ve had four literary agents since I first started writing fiction seriously, a little over ten years ago. Actually, more like five. At the outset of my publishing career, a small press publisher (Bruce Bortz of Bancroft Press), who enjoyed my work but wasn’t publishing in my genres at the time, represented me for a short period, an amicable relationship.
I learned something from my dealings with each agent and have wanted to share my lessons for some time. But as my observations began to gel into something coherent, I kept coming back to these questions:
- Had I been a problem client?
- Had I been difficult to work with?
- Was that why these relationships didn’t work out?
If you survey my former agents with those questions, my guess is you’ll get variations on a “yes” answer from most of them, with, perhaps, two exceptions—that publisher I mentioned above and my last agent, a sweet, aggressive woman I’ll talk about a bit later.
As I delved deeper into the reasons why my former agents might consider me a problem child, however, a theme emerged. I was a problem because I expected my agents to deliver. Deliver contracts? Sure, that would have been nice. But I’m not stupid. I know that sometimes stuff doesn’t sell, no matter how good the project or the one pitching it is.
No, I expected my agents to deliver the following:
a) respect for me as an author and as an intelligent human being;
b) reasonable responsiveness to my questions and suggestions;
c) due diligence when handling contracts;
d) keen insight into books and the book business;
e) valuable advice on my writing career, based on informed observations of the publishing world coupled with what was best for me;
f) oh, and honesty, too, would be nice.
Too often, one or more of those items was lacking. So, instead of literary agents, I ended up with transmittal agents. The agent was good at “transmitting” the manuscripts I wrote to various editors, but little beyond that.
It’s not usually politic for writers to talk frankly about their former agents, but I’m going to share some information about mine, without using agent names, in an attempt to help other writers who might share similar situations. My overall advice to writers struggling in a so-so agent relationship – it’s probably not you that’s the problem.
I’m jumbling up the order these agents appeared in my life, too, to help obscure their identities even more. I’m not saying these are bad agents, after all. They were just bad for me.
AGENT A: She was with a prestigious agency. She had sold some blockbusters, one of which would be immediately recognizable even to those who don’t read a lot of fiction. She handled “up-market” fiction, even some literary fiction. And she liked my stuff, my serious stuff, not the lighter material I was writing to try to break into the market. She agreed to represent a serious historical mystery of mine.
She talked to me about revisions, and it was a thrill to have someone discussing “marrying theme with character development” rather than what genre markets were hot. But revisions seemed to drag on. I was a fast writer. She would take weeks to respond to my latest revision. Finally, she made one last suggestion—maybe I should consider changing who the murderer was in the story.
Changing the murderer in a murder mystery isn’t a revision. It’s a new book.
I balked; she backed down. But that suggestion started taking the air out of the relationship. Maybe she didn’t have as keen an understanding of books and the book business as I’d originally thought. I recalled an early conversation with her about a famous favorite novel. I remembered being a bit unsettled by her complete lack of understanding of a core part of this famous book. Now I began to wonder—was she good or was she just lucky?
Submissions began. Rejections came in. Her office would fax them to my husband’s office since I didn’t have a fax. This became problematic. Faxes didn’t come through. I’d wait, wanting to hear if something in the letter would provide guidance for further revision, and I’d wait some more.
But, while her office would bungle this and other clerical tasks, they were quick to bill for copying and messenger service. Too quick, in fact. They double-billed me once.
A contract did come through, though, that she negotiated. But it was for a book I’d had on submission prior to signing with her. Although she did a fair job with the contract, she muffed the announcement in Publishers Lunch, using the wrong title for the book and the wrong name for me.
After a round of submissions of the literary mystery failed to deliver a contract, it was clear she was tired of me and I was tired of her. She suggested we part ways, a relief since I’d been engaged in anguished debates with myself and my writer friends on whether I should let such a prestigious agent go. I’d been on the phone with one of those friends discussing that very topic, when Agent A called suggesting we break.
AGENT B: This agent represented a light work of mine, and I have no quarrels with her aggressiveness. She seemed to leave no stone unturned when submitting, something I respected and still appreciate. But she discouraged me from writing outside the genre she was representing, and she treated with disdain suggestions I would make.
Tension surfaced during submissions of a light women’s fiction manuscript, her specialty. My first YA, published without an agent’s help, was getting wonderful reviews. It was similar in tone to the manuscript she was trying to sell, so I asked her if perhaps dropping a note to the editors who had the manuscript, sharing some of the great reviews, might be helpful.
I’ve worked in public relations, you see. And I know that “expert endorsements” might not persuade nonbelievers, but they can affect the outlook of “leaners” and help those who like your point of view by providing them with ammunition in debates. So, while the reviews wouldn’t flip a “no” into a “yes,” they could help push a “maybe” toward a “yes,” and help a “yes” get the manuscript past an editorial committee.
But Agent B didn’t like my suggestion to send along the reviews to editors. Her attitude seemed to be: I’m the All-Knowing Agent and you’re the Know-Nothing Author, so be quiet and sit down until I pay attention to you.
She, like Agent A, didn’t always pass along rejections in a timely manner. I’d get them sometimes when they came in and other times when I happened to “rattle her cage” for news.
An aside about timely rejections: it bothered me to learn a rejection had been sitting in her office for a while before I learned of it because it made me feel foolish. Like most authors, I have a hard time suppressing hope that such-and-such editor might be reading my manuscript at this very moment and liking it. To learn that while I was hoping, the editor had been rejecting made me feel silly. I preferred bad news straight up with no delays. A small thing, perhaps, but important to me.
Back to Agent B’s refusal to send my good reviews along to editors…I later learned that she might have been sending reviews along to editors anyway. She just hadn’t been telling me.
The break came, though, when I wanted her to rep some serious fiction I was writing. She agreed but wasn’t enthusiastic and even suggested I pay for these submissions—copying and messengering—when that had not been part of the original contract. It was time to move on.
AGENT C: When I signed with Agent C, I thought I’d finally found the perfect one. Unlike Agent B, this one seemed sweet-natured and kind. Unlike Agent A, she seemed really savvy. In fact, she impressed me right away by taking on the literary mystery Agent A had not been able to sell and deciding to resubmit it to different editors at some of the same houses. She just retitled it and branded it a “revision.” A cynical move? No, a smart one, in my opinion. Some of the editors on her list might be more open to the kind of book I’d written, and she didn’t want them to be prejudiced by the previous rejection by that imprint.
Unfortunately, I came to discover that Agent C might not have been as savvy as I originally thought. She was new to agenting, and she often consulted the agency owner for advice. This all began to have a “mother, may I” feel to it, delaying actions, and I began to wonder if I’d mistaken a kind nature for a timid one.
Timidity showed up, too, in her edits of my manuscripts. She’d send them back to me with the faintest pencil marks in the margins, as if she were unsure of herself.
The break ended up being messy. Oh, at first it was fine—a simple “this isn’t working” talk. But after that, one of the projects she’d repped gained film option interest, due to my own efforts, not hers. It also sat with several editors due to my own efforts.
Since she was agent of record for the project at the time of the film interest, her agency’s film agent began negotiations. They were painful. He would communicate with me when I agreed with him, but if I had a question or a suggestion, he fobbed me back to her. And she didn’t seem to have the courage or inclination to stand up to him. It was far easier to think, I’m sure, that I was the problem with all my pesky questions and insistence on knowing what the agent’s approach would be.
One dismal afternoon, she called me to say the film people wanted to buy the book rights, too, since the book wasn’t under contract anywhere. I had to decide by close of day what to do. I asked her if that meant close of day eastern time or California time. She said eastern time because she would close up shop at five that night. So, with barely two hours to consider, I had to a) get back to book editors who were then reading the book to see if they did want to buy it, letting them know they had to tell me pronto; and b) decide if I was willing to let the book rights go if no editor bit.
She did not lift a finger to contact editors for me. She didn’t even offer. Her attitude was: all editors were used to authors telling them about film deals and they’d “roll their eyes” if she contacted them about it.
The rest of this negotiation could fill pages. But here are the highlights: the agency head – the one to whom she always deferred – tried to convince me that everyone in Hollywood was a “snake” and if the deal went south, it was no heartache (uh, it would have been to me); a friend, the small press publisher mentioned earlier in this post, ended up helping me sort through the deal and make up my mind about various contract provisions – he’s also a lawyer, and his help was invaluable; the film agent wanted me to hire a lawyer he recommended to give the contract one last look but I resisted shelling out the money for this “service” (uh, Authors Guild legal help told me this is unethical and grounds for breaking the contract with the agent); former Agent C told me she’d felt she’d earned her few hundred dollars commission on the option and didn’t want to deal with it.
So, she wasn’t nice. She wasn’t savvy. And she wasn’t aggressive. Ironically, the people who ended up being the nicest as I dealt with them in the following years were the film “snakes,” who negotiated extensions in a forthright manner even when we disagreed over some terms.
AGENT D: Okay, this is a good story. I still like this agent, even though she doesn’t represent me any longer. After breaking with Agent C, I felt burned. I wasn’t even sure I wanted another agent. Maybe I’d just use a literary lawyer to negotiate contracts.
But as I started submitting material on my own, I grew weary. I just wanted to write. I didn’t want to research editors and imprints and what they were buying. I wanted someone to do that for me. So I started querying agents again.
One of them was Holly Root of the Waxman Agency. I’d read an interview with her on a writers email group. She’d impressed me with her smart answers, not the usual cookie-cutter responses but insightful comments on the industry. She seemed refreshingly honest.
And that’s the way she was when I contacted her. She liked my stuff. She knew I’d had bad luck with other agents. She knew that my publishing success, such as it was, had come largely due to my own efforts. She frankly told me that she wanted to make sure she could give me what I wanted. I appreciated that. It told me she was wondering if she could be the kind of agent I needed.
Then I got a call from Sourcebooks wanting to buy Fire Me, the manuscript that had been optioned for film. It was free and clear of encumbrances from the previous agency now—I had pitched it to Sourcebooks on my own. So I called and asked if Holly wanted to take it on. She agreed.
And thus began a beautiful relationship. She sold that book and a second one after it. She tried to sell some others, in particular a YA. She gave me a green light to pursue a contract with a small press for a “book of my heart,” even telling me she’d take no commission on it since the contract was so simple and straightforward and the advance so small.
She had no illusions about the industry. She knew sometimes great books were published, but sometimes great books were rejected. She didn’t view editors and publishers as her superiors. She was more than just a “transmittal agent” and she treated me with respect and attention. And although she wasn’t able to snag any more film deals for me, her attitude was: you won’t get one unless you try, and she was willing to try.
We parted ways only when I couldn’t write the kind of stuff she was beginning to represent more and more. We had one heart-to-heart about it when I wanted to branch out into a field she wasn’t dealing with. We decided to keep going. Then when another manuscript didn’t quite fit with her stable, we decided it was the end of the road.
But I still exchange emails with her occasionally. And I’d recommend her to other writers.
Was I a problem client? Only if you define “problem” as expecting that a promised service be delivered.
Was I unreasonable to expect quick turnaround on manuscript revisions, on submissions, on hearing about rejections or editors’ reactions to my works?
I can only answer that by saying that I feel the passage of time acutely. I started writing later in life, when I was in my 40s. I don’t like wasting any more time now that I’ve “given myself permission” to pursue this lifelong passion.
Besides, at my current age, I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve accomplished a great deal. I refuse to be treated as if I were incapable of understanding how the business works. I refuse to accept “it’s always been done this way” as a rationale for poor or inefficient approaches. I refuse to be a “good girl,” patiently waiting up to a month to hear from an agent who sometimes acts as if she is honoring me by coming down from the mountain to deliver a tidbit of news.
Sure, I understand that agents have a whole group of writers they’re dealing with, not just l’il ole me. But if they can’t stay on top of each client’s business, they shouldn’t be representing them, or they shouldn’t balk when those authors want to handle a few things on their own.
At this point in my writing career, I don’t see myself using another agent. If I have a deal to negotiate, I’ll probably call on my former agent, Holly Root, to see if she’d want to do the deal, or use a literary attorney, paying a flat fee and no commission.
Agents aren’t bad people. They just have different priorities, different timetables, different outlooks that don’t always jibe with those of the authors they represent. Authors have to remember that they are giving agents one thing and one thing only—the right to market their books. They’re not ceding over their lives, their pride or their dignity.
LESSONS I LEARNED WORKING WITH AGENTS:
- If an agent tries to make you feel your intelligent suggestions are unwanted because she is The High and Mighty Agent and you are the Lowly Author, she might be the wrong agent for you.
- If your views on literature don’t jibe with your agent’s, don’t expect the agent to understand your work.
- Don’t mistake timidity in an agent for niceness.
- If film or other subsidiary rights are important to you, make sure the agency handles them and handles them well.
- If your agent or her agency regularly bungles small things, what makes you think they’ll get the big things right?
- If your agent doesn’t respond to you in a timely manner, ask yourself if that agent is excited about you and your work any longer.
- If an agent is suggesting you confine yourself to one genre when you want to write in others, she might be wrong for you.
- Finally, if you’re multi-published, many editors will read your work without an agent—you can always find one or a good literary attorney to negotiate any deals.