Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Authors Behaving Badly

STATUS: Just finished watching the Walsh-May recent set domination in Women’s Beach volleyball.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TV is on and will probably be for the next week.

Something must be in the water but I’ve heard three stories just this week of authors behaving badly. Gee whiz.

Obviously it’s time for me to blog about this topic again. If you are an established author looking to change agents (for whatever reason), there is a professional way to do this. There is an etiquette that should be followed or you are in danger of burning some bridges and if there’s anything I’ve learned in this biz, burning bridges, in general, does not help your career.

There is a way of severing a relationship professionally and there are many authors I’m hearing about lately who should have kept this in mind.

1. An established, already agented author should not be shopping for a new agent without formally ending the current representation.

Folks, publishing is a small world and no matter how discreet you think you are being, word often filters back to the agent in one way or another.

2. If an author is planning to leave and has already made that decision but has not told the current agent, he/she should not be career planning with the agent he/she is planning to leave nor should that author be availing him/herself of the current agent’s hospitality by attending agency functions at RWA or Worldcon. That’s just bad behavior.

3. If an author is planning to leave his or her agent, expect to be held to the letter of the agency agreement the author originally signed—especially if you behave badly before severing the relationship.

Most agents I know aren’t interested in standing in the way of an author’s career. Most are reasonable and would probably come to some sort of agreement or compromise on certain points (such as projects currently on submission) if the author behaved ethically in the severing of the relationship. If you didn’t, well, what can I say. An agent is not going to be in the mind frame to be conciliatory. Nor do they have to be legally if an agency agreement is in place.

And my last point is just something I want y’all to keep in mind. Whenever an already agented author comes to me looking for new representation, I always ask the question, “Does your current agent know you are looking?” My second question is always “have you had a conversation with your agent about your desire to leave? If you haven’t, you should.”

Now I realize that sometimes an agent/author relationship has gone so far south that any communication isn’t possible and this is not an option. Fine. Then your path is clear to sever that relationship before seeking new representation.

So make that clean break. Make sure your behavior is beyond reproach. At the very least, that gives you the ability to say you held the moral high ground regardless of anybody else’s behavior.

In the end, that strikes me as the most important aspect.

31 Responses

  1. Jo said:

    I find it odd sometimes how the different blogs I read at some point end up discussing similar topics at the same time.

    Only a couple of days ago I read this post by Tess Gerritson, about authors who want to know if they should change their agents.

    Unfortunately though, I think it’s a fact of life that many people do start looking for the ‘next best thing’ while their with their ‘current best thing’,whether it’s agents, partners, jobs, or careers.

  2. JES said:

    You don’t have to be a starry-eyed romantic altruist to recognize the value of the Golden Rule. Not only does “doing unto others [etc].” make the days go by faster and more pleasantly, it’s just flat-out the only practical way to work with other people.

    Thank you so much for the reminder!

  3. Madison McGraw said:

    Someone should have told this to John Edwards. Seems to me that advice can apply to marriage as well.
    What would make an author want to switch midstream? What if the author feels the agent is not representing him/her in the best manner? Is there often a clause in the contract that states under what conditions the contract can be dissovled?

  4. Anonymous said:

    Would an agent be expected to tell his client that he’s “considering” leaving his current agency prior to actually accepting a role with another agency? I don’t think so, for many obvious reasons. Therefore, short of a conversation about the concerns the client is having to see if things can be worked out, I don’t know why an agent would expect a client to tell him that she’s “considering” leaving his representation until the decision has been made.

  5. JJ Cooper said:

    Authors have an expectation that their agent would act in a professional manner at all times. Why wouldn’t an agent have that same expectation of thier client.

    One would expect some clear communication lines between an author and their agent. Sure, things may go astray from time to time, but an author needs to communicate his/her goals and any concerns to the agent.

    Concur with the post. Be professional in what you do. You’ll likely be remembered for the wrong reasons otherwise.


  6. Anonymous said:

    I agree with you on all your points. I would imagine that some authors are afraid of not finding other representation and that fear pushes them to try and do things on the sly. They want to be sure that they will have another agent to work with before they sever their relationship. It’s not the best way to go and it is very unprofessional but I can certainly understand how some would do it.

  7. Jill Elaine Hughes said:

    I changed agents recently myself. I was very apprehensive about it at first, but I got some good advice from other authors who had done it first. And I agree you MUST sever ties with your current agent before seeking new representation. I did so by writing my agent a formal letter stating the reasons for wanting to walk away, and also thanking him for his work over the years. He already knew I was dissatisfied with him, so nothing in the letter would have been news to his ears. Still, he was sorry to see me go, but he was very professional about the whole thing and even helped me transition things over to my new agent (which I landed within two weeks of firing him). Since he only sold one book of mine (a big reason I canned him) it was easy to make that transition. He will still receive commissions on the one book he sold, as he should.

    I know some authors are scared they will never find a new agent if they fire the old one (I was) but I found I had a lot of interest from top agents almost immediately based on my one sold book, and had multiple offers of representation to choose from in short order. Indeed, everyone I know who has changed agents has similar stories. So, if you think it’s time to fire your agent, I would go ahead and take the plunge. As Kristin says, though, do it professionally.

  8. Anonymous said:

    Myabe one of the commentors can answer this?

    Why is it considered bad (as stated on the post) to attend RWA or other conferences by your agents hospitality if you are considering leaving them?

    Huh? Why is it assumed it’s your agents hospitality that got you there — did she pay the entry fees and set you up in a hotel? Do writers suddenly need their agents permission to attend a writing venue that is open to all?
    Apparently I’m not reading this correctly. Anyone?

    An aside: sometimes when breaking up with an agent, that agent has screwed you over big time — not big enough to be reported to the Preditors & Editors site, but big enough that frankly you don’t care if their feelings are a little hurt by looking elsewhere before sending the termination letter. I always try to play by the rules, and didn’t query others until I terminated my contract with a previous agent. BUT I later found out she was treating other clients in the exact same manner, and they were leaving in droves too. So it wasn’t our personalities clashing, she was just plain mean. I shouldn’t have given the agent the benefit of the doubt.

  9. WLS said:

    Am I the only one who finds it ironic that it’s unprofessional for an author to explore his/her agenting options without notifying the existing agent, yet it’s just chalked up to a ‘small world’ when agents ‘filter’ information on an author’s inquiry to one another?

    An agent’s interests are protected regardless of how many other agents an author is talking to, that’s what the agency contract is for, to ensure that they continue to reap the rewards of the work they’ve sold and rights they will sell. So who’s really the one who benefits from this so-called ‘etiquette?’ The author who can’t, in good faith, explore career options and make informed agenting decisions before deciding whether or not to leave, or the agent, who in essence gets to ensure his/her ego isn’t bruised in the process even though it has no bearing on his/her ability to continue being paid according to the contract?

    I don’t believe I’d want to be represented by someone who chose ‘filtering’ over discretion and professionalism. An agent willing to throw an author under the bus isn’t someone I’d want to have in my court. This is a business, not a sorority or fraternity, and professional standards apply to agents as well as authors. As long as the author isn’t making career plans with one agent while being represented by another, which isn’t simply unprofessional but underhanded as well.

    I guess until the balance of power shifts in favor of the author agents will continue to expect authors to live in their ‘small world’ instead of the real world, where pursuing career alternatives aren’t considered ‘furtive’ or unprofessional but simply doing business.

  10. Anonymous said:

    It’s funny because agents will tell authors “Terminate one agent before querying another”.

    Authors will tell other authors “Find another agent before you let the other one go.”

  11. Anonymous said:

    Not for posting, just a copyediting comment. In the next-to-last graf, “beyond approach” s/b “beyond reproach.” Thought you might want to correct that.

  12. Pema said:

    Every business requires professionalism: business, publishing, etc. All should be treated as seriously as the other.

  13. JulieLeto said:

    Anon 8:20, Kristen has no trouble with a client attending RWA, just with a client on their way out the door attending an agent-sponsored event. Some agents spend a lot of money on cocktail parties or dinners or sight-seeing excursions for their clients–I can see where it’s not exactly good form to make your agent spend a bunch of money on you and then walk away.

  14. Elissa M said:

    anon 8:20
    I believe the post reads: “nor should that author be availing him/herself of the current agent’s hospitality by attending agency functions at RWA or Worldcon.”
    Note the words “agency functions”. I doubt Kristen is saying authors can’t attend conferences without agency permission, only that it’s rude to attend functions sponsored by an agency the author intends to leave.

    This all comes down to the Golden Rule, Karma, Miss Manners, and any other behavior guides you adhere to.

    If your agent is not doing right by you, why in the world would you want to hang onto him until you find another? If your agent IS doing her job, why go looking for another? I can only say, anyone who thinks this would be acceptable behavior is not someone I would want to date- or do business with.

  15. Anonymous said:

    elissa m:

    So I’m assuming you’ve never started looking for a new job until you’ve told your current employer you’re quitting? If you’re not sure the grass is going to be greener, why would you say you’re leaving when you’re not even sure you want to leave? How are authors expected to choose a relationship with an agent – and know which one is right/better/improved – unless they’ve talked to a few? What about when your agent isn’t a nightmare but you’re just not sure it’s still the best fit?

    It’s not about professionalism, it’s about the tone and manner of what you’re doing. Screaming from the rooftops that you’re in the market for a new agent while your current one happily works away assuming all is well? Probably not smart, even verging on rude. Contacting a well defined and very limited number of agents you might be interested in working with because you’re curious if things would be different with someone else? Sounds fair to me.

  16. RK said:

    Just to throw in the other side of the coin:

    I recently attended a conf. where a big name, nationally best-selling author spoke about being STALKED at conferences by an agent interested in representing her, even though she already had an agent.

    Well, when she started writing in a new genre that her then agent wasn’t interested in, she gave the other agent a call and now has two agents.

    I thought that was kind of interesting.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Being wined and dined on Friday nights by agents at RWA National is a big deal. Seeing those lucky folks being escorted out to dinner at a fancy restaurant on the agent’s tab makes you feel like the “in” crowd.
    Anyone who plans to leave their agent and accepts their hospitality on the verge of doing so proves what they are.
    Not worth it.

  18. Jill Elaine Hughes said:

    “Authors will tell other authors “Find another agent before you let the other one go.””

    —THIS IS NOT TRUE. I consulted multiple well-published, well-repped authors who had changed agents before I fired my agent, and they ALL told me to fire the first agent before querying another (simply because most reputable agents will not speak to you until they know you are free of the former agent.) And since the new agent will have to take over selling unsold works from the old agent, the new agent wants that transition to go smoothly (which it won’t if the agent is pissed off about how he/she was fired unprofessionally).

    Agents get fired all the time, it’s all part of the business. Most handle it with grace and decorum, provided the author does too. And if the fired agent acts like an ass, that doesn’t give the author carte blanche to act like an ass too.

  19. Chris said:

    I want to preface this by saying I really love your blog and this is in no way meant to be smarmy, but…

    It seems to me that a lot of agents who blog consistently complain about nefarious authors who do this or that. Granted, it is your prerogatives to blog about whatever you choose and my choice to read it but I have noticed an upswing of late in a collective venting over what we as author’s do that so frustrates your lives.

    You remain the gatekeepers to this business and the ones with the power to quell a great deal of hopes and yet on so many of these blogs I read I keep seeing how agents are being wronged in some way. yes, the author(s) in question are behaving childishly and rudely but I can’t say that I have found agents to be pervasively professional or polite either. There is (my perception) a bit of an attitude out there toward the new author that, if not condescending, is often a bit aloof.

    Yes, you are all very bust people, yes, you have to deal with authors, but the lot of us trying to get published or already published are not always having the easiest time time dealing with the vagaries of the industry from our end.

    I just feel that there is too much attention being garnered on these blogs about how difficult oine aspect of the relationship is without hearing about the other end’s trials that are often made more cumbersome by those in your profession.

    I don’t know who the authors are or why they did what they did but I suggest it might be possible that after a great deal of unanswered messages and lackluster enthusiasm in selling a given author;s work said author doesn’t feel they have to be so high minded in ending a relationship.

  20. Janny said:

    “Am I the only one who finds it ironic that it’s unprofessional for an author to explore his/her agenting options without notifying the existing agent, yet it’s just chalked up to a ‘small world’ when agents ‘filter’ information on an author’s inquiry to one another?”

    Amen, and amen.

    Yes, of course it’s common courtesy to communicate with your agent first if you’re displeased or dissatisfied enough to be considering leaving. However, it also seems to me that if the agent hears “through the grapevine” that a client is thinking of leaving–and he or she is truly clueless as to why–then the onus is on the agent to make the effort to communicate with that client…not to get pissed off. Clearly, if someone who’s hired you is about to fire you, you owe it to yourself to know why, and if you can do something to repair the situation.

    But for agents to feel free to “share” that information with each other? To, in effect, engage in what could (and probably does) quickly become malicious gossip and consider that a “professional” way to do business?

    Boggles the mind, it does.


  21. Kristi said:

    Point #2 about attending agency sponsored functions when you’re planning to leave seems to be a bit touchy. In my (non-publishing) daytime career, attendance at certain social events has been expected, if not practically required. To not show without a darned good reason would make tongues wag and bosses raise their eyebrows, and gets you a reputation as not being a “team player”. So, even if you’re job hunting and are *this* close to getting an offer from another company but you don’t actually have that offer in hand, you don’t just blow off your current job, or fail to make nice with your current boss.

    Would authors know to assume differently? If their agency invites them to a party or dinner (and how far in advance do they have to respond), they should only come if they are still madly in love with their representation? And what do the agents assume if their authors don’t show?

    I know that an agent is not a writer’s “boss”, but it may feel that way as the agents have some measure of control over whether the author gets published and paid.

  22. Anonymous said:

    I think it all comes down to the kind of agent you’re trying to leave. One who offered me representation a few years ago routinely badmouths those who fire her, and she does it to anyone who will listen, including prospective clients. That was one of many reasons I decided she wasn’t the agent for me.

    We’re not talking some Barbara Bauer type here, either. This is a (supposedly) reputable agent who makes decent-sized sales, is a member of AAR, goes to RWA conferences, the whole deal.

    If I had signed with her and later found myself in a position of needing to sever the relationship, I definitely would’ve needed to look for agents outside her circle of friends.

  23. Jackie Barbosa said:

    So I’m assuming you’ve never started looking for a new job until you’ve told your current employer you’re quitting?

    You’re looking at the author/agent relationship as though the agent was the author’s employer. In reality, it’s really the opposite: the agent works for the author, not the other way around! The fact that the agent decides which authors to work for doesn’t change that equation. (You get to decide which jobs you’ll take, right? Does that mean you’re employing your employer instead of the other way around?)

    Therefore, an author looking for an agent while represented by someone else isn’t like employee looking for another job, but like the EMPLOYER looking for someone to replace an employee without firing said employee (or at least putting him/her on notice) first. And I think most of us would agree that would be a pretty underhanded think for an employer to do!

    Now, if the agent is doing a poor job of representing the author, then the author absolutely has a right to hire someone else. But he/she ought to fire the person holding the job before going out and looking for a replacement. That’s just the ETHICAL way to behave, whether it’s comfortable or not.

  24. Anonymous said:

    I have a lawyer. He does not expect me to fire him before I investigate other lawyers or interview them. Same with my accountant, and any of the other people I use for service or consultation.

    So this “client professionalism” is not a universal business professionalism, but one constructed by agents for their own benefit, I think.

    On the other hand, authors should communicate their unhappiness to their agents, and not allow things to fester to the point where they may jump ship when it may not be necessary.

    And ideally authors would not treat agents as stepping stones. I know of authors who left the agents who discovered and first sold them, for no other reason than their friends insisted they needed a “bigger” one now. The first agent did a good job, got great contracts, the relationship was excellent, but the siren song of a “bigger” name lured and they bolted.

    It is hard to enforce this non-rule rule when so many agents are more than willing to talk to authors before those authors leave their current agents. It is not a sign of whether they are reputable or not either. It is common. So common that I suspect the agents who still believe this rule exists are in the minority.

    As for agents behaving badly—- many agents do not wait for authors to come to them. They troll for lucrative contracts. If an agent goes out of her way to introduce herself to an established author, there is nothing wrong with that. The author knows the subtext without it being spoken. Again, this is typical business practice out there in the real world.

    On the other hand, there are agents who cold call and essentially say “I can do better for you.” Kristin knows who they are, many authors know who they are, and it crosses the line from networking to poaching, in my opinion.

  25. Anonymous said:

    Janny said: “But for agents to feel free to ‘share’ that information with each other? To, in effect, engage in what could (and probably does) quickly become malicious gossip and consider that a ‘professional’ way to do business?”

    Anon 9:05 here again. Yes, Janny, the badmouthing agent I mentioned definitely engages in that kind of behavior. I don’t know to what degree the rest of her agent friends are like that, but my experience with her was enough to make me reluctant to query any of them. It seemed very unprofessional, even toxic, to me.

    Kristi also made a good point that _not_ attending an agency function can be just as bad a move as going and then firing the agent not long afterward. The same agent I’ve been talking about holds grudges for _years_ if her clients don’t dance attendance on her.

    I consider the whole experience a lesson well learned, and I’m grateful I came out of it with no lasting career damage. A lucky escape, truly.

  26. Elissa M said:

    anon 1:47
    If you really care, no, I haven’t interviewed for a job without informing my employer I was leaving. I don’t accept employment I don’t want. I never wonder if “the grass is greener”. I’ve had jobs I didn’t like. I even took a job once after telling the offering employer I would only work for six months, and I left after six months exactly. Maybe my sense of honor is different from yours.

  27. Anonymous said:

    1. An established, already agented author should not be shopping for a new agent without formally ending the current representation.

    I remember when a whole bunch of actors went from CAA to William Morris. It caused a stir. It’s undeniable that these actors had NOT conferred with CAA before making the leap, and there were meetings going on all along. Their departure meant one thing: They got a better deal somewhere else. It also meant they weren’t being handled the way they wanted to be at the old agency.

    I think, at best, your expectation is QUAINT and has nothing to do with business. Believe it or not, you might do a lot for a writer, but you are never a friend. You’re a business acquaintance who happens to know a lot about the person you’re handling but as long as money and more specifically, money is being made, it’s best to understand the division that has to be in place.

    You might not like the comparison between actors and writers, I think you have to realize in this day and age of emailing, cell phone calling and DHL, I’m afraid “shopping” is inevitable.

    Better advice: If you’re an agent and you want to keep your client, act like it.

  28. Sasha White said:

    I agree with some of what you’re saying. But not the first point.

    I recently left my first agent, who I still love dearly as a person. And I did talk to other agents while I was still represented by her. Why shouldn’t I? I want to know what other agents offer. Maybe it’s just a case of “the grass is always greener on the other side” , but I won’t know that until I talk to other agents.

    As it stands, I spoke with a couple of agents before severing ties with my first one. I wasn’t offered representation by any of them, but I learned more about what is out there, and about what *I* need in an agent. I’ve left my original agent, and still have not signed with another, but thats because I’m still trying to decide what the right step is for me, and I don’t feel it’s fair to anyone to hang on to an agent when I’m unsure of my own direction for the future.

    Things change, people change, and careers change.
    I think it’s very unfair to say an author has to sever ties with one agent before shopping for another. This is a business, and in business, if your needs aren’t being met – for whatever reason- you find a way to get them met.

  29. M.L. said:

    “I think, at best, your expectation is QUAINT and has nothing to do with business.”
    Right on!!!!!!

    Thank god someone pointed this out, I was beginning to think everyone thought along the lines of those “honorable” and “professional” people who commented from some higher moral ground.

    Your comparison to actors was right on, and I’d actually googled to find out what happens in Hollywood. They got it right – it’s a career move. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Stop judging what other authors do and the choices they make and worry about yourself. In the end, it’s your career you have to look out for.

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