Let me try to explain my problem without being overspecific (just in case my agent lurks hereabouts).
About a year ago I acquired an agent (I had more than one offer of representation) with a decent sales record. The agent was enthusiastic about my book, which she viewed as a major commercial proposition. I made the revisions the agent suggested, without any whining or footdragging, and the agent sent it out to a few editors high up the food chain. They came back with compliments on the writing, story, and pacing, but shied from the subject matter.
We talked, and the early enthusiasm already seemed to be flagging. Suddenly my ‘terrific’ book with its ‘terrific’ characters didn’t seem so terrific. The agent sent it to five more houses. We haven’t heard from all of them, but what we’ve had back so far have been more of the same—praise for the writing, and no thanks (though some have been kind enough to say that they are probably making a decision they will regret).
When I ask what the plan is from here, my agent replies that there aren’t really any other 'top markets' (which isn't really a direct answer, is it?). When I ask about other publishers or options—and I would never bring those up if the agent seemed to have a plan—I receive rather curt notes explaining that those really aren’t reasonable possibilities.
I have the feeling that I am being dropped as a client without being formally dropped. One novelist friend (who has been publishing for over thirty years) tells me that this is becoming a fairly common agenting style when representing unpublished novelists—throw it high a few times, see if it is sticks, and if not, neglect the author until they go away.
I’m reluctant to simply walk away from the book. It’s not immortal literature, but it’s a good novel. Heck, even my agent thought so, once upon a time.
What does this look like from the other side of the fence? Thanks for whatever light you can shed.
Ouch. Well, it depends on how many houses your agent sent it to. If your first round was 20, then she sent it to 5 more, 25 no's is a pretty good indication that it's not going to sell (And yes, those of you who sold your book after 376 submission, please post a comment here and prove me wrong). If she only sent it to 10 total, there's probably a few more places she can try, but her confidence is obviously flagging.
I've had plenty of "terrific" manuscripts hit the ground running, only to slowly lurch toward their unpublished death. Agents are pretty good at hunting out the good stuff, but that doesn't mean publishers will always or ever agree with us.
I suggest asking your agent bluntly if she thinks this book has run its course. She may give you a blunt answer back, so be prepared. You are probably not being dropped as a client, but your agent may not think spending all her efforts on this particular book is a good use of anyone's time.
If you're not happy with your agent, if this is a deal-breaker for you, then find another one. If you don't want to leave, then move on to the next book. I don't know about your friend, but I certainly don't throw 15 billion projects on the wall to see what sticks. Does your friend also complain about those young wippersnappers who drive too fast and listen to the rap music?
Working with clients who'll be in it for the long haul pays off better for everyone in the end.