Traditional Publishing

Agents Do Drop You

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Monday November 4, 2019

When they stop communicating with you, you know you’re toast.

So should you negotiate without an agent?

Writers are often eager to have time-limited contracts with their agents—as well they might be (you want to get out when you’re ready to go)—but some agents have time-limited contracts for their own protection. One popular authors’ representative gives a contract for a six-month period and says if he can’t sell your book within that time, you’re free to go.

Other agents may be a bit more subtle and will stop answering your emails or calls, though that’s not a sure sign, since they may really, really just be busy or waiting to hear on a submission or two. 

Moreover, your agent might believe in you, and believe in your books, so that rejections will be an unpleasant jolt, but they won’t spell doom. She might ask you to write another book and try with that one, and keep trying, even if that one doesn’t do the job.

Certainly many agents may lose interest in you if you don’t sell within five or six submissions. Those agents don’t want to spend any more time, effort, or even money for phone calls, postage, and such on a proposition that doesn’t pay off quickly. That’s how they operate. You can tell what’s going on by whether your agent is still being encouraging, promising to send to other houses, or asking you to write another with certain other elements, and so on. Or not.

Contract With No Agent
If your agent dumps you or you drop her, life goes on, and so might a publishing career. Yes, nearly everyone says you need an agent to negotiate a contract. Nearly everyone, but not everyone. Some say you need an attorney, but not just any attorney, a literary one. A few others pooh-pooh all this fuss over a few pages of fancy language and say do it yourself.

In one case, an editor suggested to an author that she shuck her agent in order to save the 15 percent. No, said her friends, the editor is just trying to pull a fast one on you and trying to cut a better deal for the publishing house since the author wouldn’t catch all the nasty details. Moreover, the publisher will be up to date on the (legal) scams being pulled on authors and will stick those clauses in the contract. While an agent might recognize the attempt for what it is, the author probably won’t.

Agents, too, may well have other clients with the house and certainly know a bunch of fellow agents with clients there. If the publisher tries to pressure the author into a dubious agreement, the agent thus has a bit of clout to counter with in protecting her client’s interest.

Often, though, editors will suggest to an author who doesn’t have an agent, that the author find one to negotiate the contract. One editor actually told an author that he would definitely try to lowball her if she didn’t have representation.

Moreover, some authors don’t want to talk to editors about money or contracts. They want to talk about the book and how to produce the best book possible. These authors don’t want to muddy a relationship with an editor by having to discuss money and other messy contract details. The editor is responsible for obtaining the best deal for her company in order to warrant her own promotions and periodic salary raises. The agent is a good buffer in the effort to cut a better deal.

Although dumping the agent and not looking for a replacement in order to save on the 15 percent might be tempting, and even if the contract is truly nonnegotiable—which it may be—you might also consider the ethical question involved. I understand that the ethical question is mitigated by the fact that the agent may hinder your work with the editor rather than help, but the question should still be looked at squarely, so you at least know how you feel about it. You will also have to face the fact that you'll be badmouthed evermore by the agent and those she gossips with. If you, yourself, leave the agent in the middle of the series, etc. to save 15 percent and don't take on another agent, she will add you to her list of author horror stories. Maybe you don't care. Inevitably, people will say bad things about all of us.

Over the years, I've heard of more pitfalls of going without an agent than benefits. The letter "s" making "work" read "works" in one case gave a publisher the first option on everything an author ever wrote. Elsewhere, the author’s successful pseudonyms were sold. In another contract, secondary rights carried lower percentages to the author than usual or were forfeited. Elsewhere still, paperback rights were "accidentally" conveyed to a third-party publisher without payment. You name it, and it's happened.

If your agent dumps you or you quit him, start looking for a substitute. You found one agent; hopefully you can find another.

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is a short story Edgar winner. She teaches a mystery writing and a thriller writing and other writing classes at Writer's Digest online university. The third edition of her Writing the Mystery is available through Amazon and other good bookshops. She is also the author of The Naked Writer, a comprehensive, easy-to-read style and composition guide for all levels of writers.