How do I Know if My Agent is the Problem?
A Real Talk Edition
I’m making this usually paid subscriber-only edition of Agents & Books free for everyone because it’s such an important topic and I don’t want to wait until next week to write about it. If you’re so inclined, please share it.
This question came in a few weeks ago as a Q&A, and I tucked it away because I knew it would be hard to answer. And then all that stuff went down last weekend and it felt more pressing to address. So here it goes.
The question is: how do I know if my agent is the problem? What problem is that? Could be anything: editors not getting back to your submission, no book deals, low advances, slow career trajectory. It will vary. How many different ways can a relationship, a book, a deal go south? Lots of ways.
Don’t panic. You and your book are not on the edge of some cliff, with a distracted agent tweeting when they’re supposed to be holding the rope. Agents are professionals, but also humans, so no one and nothing is going to be perfect. Just like you and your book and your editor and publisher and everyone else in the whole entire world.
Caveats aside, the question still stands. How do you know? If it’s your first agent (and it’s ok if you will have or have had more than one in your career!), how do you know what’s normal? How do you know what’s a red flag? How do you deal with it when you’re so nervous about the whole situation, when so much is at stake?
I know. I got you. This is how you know.
What’s normal? isn’t the right question.
There isn’t one normal. There is no rule that says agents must answer every email in 48 hours and every submission in 2 weeks. There is no rule that if your agent says they will get you notes on Friday and it’s now the next Thursday, they are horrible at their job and hate your book and you should fire them. [Sorry, N.A. Notes coming asap.] Some weeks they will answer all their emails quickly. Some weeks they will be deep in reading/edit mode and spend less time in their inbox. Sometimes there’s a fire with another client’s book and that puts yours on the back burner. (And when your book is on fire, you’ll be glad to be prioritized.) It’s a balance. It’s spinning plates. It’s putting out fires. What is normal is an agent’s willingness to do their best by your book and your schedule, while also expecting the same from you. Rigidity and demands on both sides is NOT normal. Flexibility and communication is. Assessing what you reasonably need and what your agent can reasonably give is what’s normal. Figuring out what that means for you is normal.
That you have a problem might not be A Problem.
There’s only so much an agent can control. I can control who I send a book to. But I can’t control when they read it, if they read it with an open mind, if they can buy it, what they bought last week, what their boss says, what the P&L/money looks like, or if they’ll ask for changes we’ll love or hate. Once it’s in the editor’s inbox, it’s out of my hands beyond friendly, consistent nudging and facilitating whatever information they want/need. I can’t make anyone buy anything. If I could, you’d all have book deals (me included).
The fact that you are experiencing things you do not want or like may not be a problem you can solve, regardless of who your agent is. I don’t know how you could tell what single thing lead to whatever adverse experience you’re having, because, like, how would you know why editors turned down your book or why it didn’t hit the list or why Kirkus didn’t review it? **I** don’t know those things for certain. There are no tests for this. I cannot say oh if we’d have sent it to X, we’d have sold it. I would have sent it to X if I knew that! Sometimes there are no definitive answers to the questions we have.
Still, you don’t just have to take it on the chin. You can take action in response to these things any number of ways, and one of those ways could be finding a new agent. That may or may not make a difference in the future. No one knows that either! Publishing is a subjective business and it’s never just one thing. When you are experiencing a problem and you don’t feel supported, heard, or understood by your agent, then yeah, that might mean your agent is a/the problem! But I don’t know how you tell in hindsight if your agent was the single reason your book didn’t sell, or whatever the issue might be. Maybe this is letting agents off the hook, but I don’t mean it to.
This doesn’t let agents off the hook!!
Agents can be bad at their jobs! Agents can have good intentions and mess up! Some people are jerks! This isn’t to let bad behavior or ineffective strategies slide. This also doesn’t answer the question of how do you know.
So, how do you tell if the agent is the problem? The same way you research and assess anything else. If you need a plumber, you go online, ask some friends, talk to your neighbors, and hope for the best. Are agents plumbers? Yes and no! We are someone you work with. We are someone you trust. And we are someone you can fire if we flood your bathroom.
I don’t mean to be blithe. I don’t mean to throw the burden into your lap and say should done more research if your proverbial bathroom gets flooded. Agents need to be as transparent as possible. We need to be honest and forthright with our current clients and to give potential clients access to the information they need.1 No agent should give you guff for wanting to speak to their other clients or pressure you to make a decision before you’re ready. Those are red flags, btw.
If you’re worried your current agent is the problem, it’s the same thing. Assess what’s going on. Talk to the people you need to talk to—your agent (yes it might be weird and hard! that’s ok!), friends, your editor—and figure out if what’s going on is ok with YOU. It is not necessarily a problem if your agent answers your emails in 4 days just because your friend’s agent answers them in 2, UNLESS you NEED that answer right away! It is not necessarily a problem that your friend got $15k for their romance and you only got $10k because your book is not their book and vice versa. Your problem is not a problem in a vacuum. It is a problem or not in your context of YOUR book and career and needs.
There are big problems and little problems.
It may be a problem for you that your agent doesn’t do editorial work on your proposal, because that’s what you need. That agent is ok for another writer who doesn’t need this. Neither thing makes the agent “bad.” On the other hand, it is not great for an agency to lie about sending things out when they haven’t or take a buckshot approach to submissions. (These are not specific examples, just general shitty things.) There are big problems and little problems. You can choose to leave your agent over either. That is your choice. Little problems are often solved, or at least addressed, by a few conversations. Big problems are not.
How do you know? You get to decide.
There is no one way to write or sell a book. There is no one right way to be an agent or a client. There is no one way to craft a query or perfect time to send it. There are no absolutes in publishing. There is no one perfect agent for your book. There is no way to know if you had gone with that other guy you would have a book deal, or if your agent sent it to that other imprint you’d be a best seller. There’s no way to know!!!! But you CAN decide that you want something you’re not getting from this business relationship, ask for it, and then take it from there. You can say I need to know more about X and keep asking questions until you understand. A good agent will keep answering your questions, even if you do not like the answer. A bad agent will just tell you what you want to hear or ignore the questions entirely.
Do you have to advocate for yourself? Yes. When do you not? Is it all on you? No. That’s what your agent, and/or your community, is for. It’s not clear cut. It’s not all or nothing.
If you have questions or concerns about what’s going on with your agent relationship TALK TO YOUR AGENT. If you do not feel safe talking to your agent, that is a big red flag, and you should ask for help from a fellow writer or your editor or someone you trust. If your agent fires you for asking questions they are a shitty agent and you are better off without them. Don’t forget, like I said on Tuesday, you’re in the driver’s seat more than you realize. I know it’s scary to think that you get to decide for yourself what is a problem or not. But it’s also empowering.
Like, lol, I’m not going to tell you how much money all my clients make but I can and should be upfront about query timelines and submission guidelines and such.