Should I Fire My Sweet Old Agent?

Dear Miss Snark:

M. and I have been agent/client for 7 years. I've written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 13 books, seven of which have been sold during that time. Reasonably successful, prize-winning (or at least nominated, and hell, that's an honour, isn't it?), grant-receiving, and otherwise lauded (and occasionally panned and eviscerated) adult, juvenile and YA novels. I've been published in German! Russian! Croatian!

It's all good. And I should be happy about it.


Or should I?

When I look back, I realize that I sold the first two myself (she signed me with pending deals and I was so completely out of my depth that I jumped on to the first ship that invited me aboard) -- subsequent novels went to the same publishers (mostly) who said they would have worked with me anyway. There was one exception, which she actually did sell (and we did sequels to, at the publishers request).

M. calls me an "easy client" because I make virtually no demands. I don't push her, I don't call her and natter, I don't whine, I don't make unreasonable demands, I don't ask her to do anything if I can do it myself. I don't expect her to get me reviewed in the New York Times, I don't expect her to sell rights to Hollywood for a million dollars, I don't expect that everything I write will win the Pulitzer and blame her when it doesn't.

However, I think that it's possible that by being the "easy client", she's relegated me entirely to the back burner. Case in point, a very big impressive (to me) publisher has shown interest in a series that I have completed. It's a complicated deal -- two of the books are owned by another publisher and require the rights reverting -- and the last book needs a re-write, which I'd be delighted to do (in Pig Latin, if necessary, to work with this publisher). In this instance, I tugged M.'s sleeve about ten times, reminding her to call the publisher back, asking her for details of what they need, etc. Her responses were to simply forward notes from the publisher (who is extremely keen and all but promised a contract) with little tag lines ("will call later! must run!" and "talk next week!") And then, yesterday, I found out that M. actually forgot that the publisher had made a specific request. She did not pass it on to me until yesterday with an "Oops! Missed this!" pre-amble to the forward of the publisher's e-mail to her. Apparently, tired of waiting, the publisher called her and twigged her memory. I suppose I'm lucky that the publisher was interested enough to bother.

This all made me pretty vexed, I must say. It smacked an awful lot of dropping the ball, or at least forgetting that the ball was even in the air. So I took a look through my e-mail history with M. (I tend to do everything via e-mail and not over the phone because I like to have a record) and in retrospect, I can see several different instances of publishers being extremely interested, M. forgetting to follow up (or just accepting "we would take it, but it needs this that and the other" as rejection), and the whole deal falling apart or never getting off the ground in the first place.

God's teeth!

I'm very frustrated. Yesterday I wrote her a note saying that perhaps she ought to drop me if I was so easily overlooked (I was pretty angry) and I haven't heard back from her.

Am I out of line here? Isn't it her job to not forget any detail of any potential deal? Her "on my way out the door! will call later!" technique of answering almost every single one of my questions (and I've sent her specific, unanswered questions about particular deals that she's fumbled) is starting to lead me to believe two things: 1. That I'm an idiot. 2. That she just doesn't care.

Then she does something nice, like knits my kid a sweater and I think, "She likes me! She really really likes me!"

She's as nice person. At least, I think she is. But that doesn't change the fact that my bank account is hardly bulging and potential income is being lost.

I hate to admit it but I'm starting to feel like a person in a stupid awful relationship, whose friends are all sitting around saying, "Christ on a bike! She should leave that asshole!" Meanwhile, back at the farm, I'm just being an "easy client" and writing book after book after book while deals fade away in the distance.

Tell me what to do. Do I fire my sweet old agent who likes me and helped get me where I am today?

One does not have to be a jackal to be a competent and effective agent. One needs to be organized, and have enthusiasm for the actual work. Actual work is not lunches and award ceremony dinners. Actual work is following up on the endless details and keeping track of what needs to be done AND pressing ahead with foot dragging publishers.

Your agent is not doing this, and no amount of sweaters, hand knitted or otherwise, is going to pay the mortgage, and keep you published.

You need to have a frank discussion with her. Make an appointment to speak with her by phone or go there in person. If she blows you off with "rushing out the door", you give her one more shot. If she does it again, then you say we're done.

Agents don't get a pass on working hard for you even if you've had past success. The long standing relationship is why you don't fire her without notice, and why you give her a couple chances to discuss things, but its NOT a reason to stay with her unless you both agree that things have not been handled with the degree of enthusing you expect, AND that she plans to make some changes.

She may be overworked or over her head, or just doesn't like you much. None of that matters or should affect your decision This is your creative life and your income. You need someone to whip you up some deals, not a sweater.


Dave Kuzminski said...

Or simply point out to her that following up on those details will result in a larger payout for both of you. Sounds to me like she's become too complacent and comfortable with the status quo.

Bella Stander said...

Seems to me that one shouldn't have to remind an agent that following up on details would bring in more money. After all, following up on details is a major part of the job, and she isn't doing it for whatever reason (adult onset ADD?).

McKoala said...

What a sad situation. I'm thinking that it might be time to give another agent a go - and I don't think that it would be hard for you to find one. At the end of the day, it is a business relationship, and maybe it's time to change your perspective and see it that way, rather than as verging on a friendship (sweaters notwithstanding).

Stick your courage to the sticking place and sharpen that pen!

Anonymous said...

It takes a long time to knit a sweater. Now I love the fiber arts just as much as the next craft store junkie, but when I owe someone pages I don't offer up an alpaca shrug instead. Your agent's priorities seem out of wack.