Every once in a while, I talk to a writer who is still represented by a literary agent. They are not happy in their relationship, so they are seeing, first, who else is out there, and, second, if there is potential interest in their work. Writers have approached me at conferences with this particular situation, and I occasionally get queries that outline a similar conundrum.
After just such a query this past week, it dawned on me that I’d never addressed this on the blog. First of all, this isn’t in reference to any particular writer who I’ve counseled on this issue (you know who you are). And it’s not a specific response to that one query. But here, for the record, is what I always tell writers who are struggling with what turns out to be a bad writer/agent relationship:
It is considered unethical by many agents to seek other representation while still in a relationship with your current agent. It’s like looking for a new romantic partner while still dating or married to your current one. I know there’s fear at the front of your mind that you won’t find someone new if you cut ties with your dysfunctional agent relationship and go out on “the dating scene” all over again, so you’re testing the waters. Still, this behavior is frowned upon. It is only considered correct to query after you’ve severed your existing representation relationship
There’s another option for writers who feel like they’re not getting their needs met by their agent: communicate. If you’re feeling bad, be honest in an email or phone call. Some of the time, an agent will not know that you have these issues festering. Writers are often intimidated to talk to their own agents, or they don’t want to be seen as “high-maintenance,” so they keep their problems to themselves and suffer in silence. Where’s the point in that? Tell your agent what you’re not getting and what you need to be getting in order for the relationship to function.
In some cases, the agent will say, “Wow! I never knew you felt that way. Here’s what we can do to make things better.” In other cases, the agent might be feeling their enthusiasm wane as well (this is not said to make you paranoid, but it does indeed happen in the business) and will either be honest with you about the poor fit of the relationship, or they will keep doing whatever dysfunctional behavior in order to avoid confrontation (we can be like writers in this regard). If your issue is that your agent isn’t being responsive, for example, they can own up to the past and set a better course for the future…or they can continue ignoring you.
If it’s the latter, or if they vow to change but don’t follow through, you are probably better off elsewhere. It’s scary, I know, but the situation isn’t likely to improve. If you’ve done your due diligence and voiced your concern and it’s still not getting resolved, I’m afraid you have your answer, unless there is a real reason on the agent’s side that is temporarily impacting their job performance (illness, etc.).
As daunting as it is to face the idea of being unrepresented again, to consider queries and conferences and rejection after you thought you were done with all that, you need a better fit for you, and making an agent change is a proactive thing you can do for your career. This move happens all the time.
But don’t query or court agents before you either try to fix your current relationship or leave it. It reflects poorly on you (even if we sign you, we will always wonder…are they querying others behind our backs?), and the agent you contact might, if they end up offering representation, get a reputation as a “poacher,” someone who steals clients from other agents.
As for me, I often find myself counseling writers who are in this situation, but I have to draw the line before looking at any material. My verdict is: no walking papers, no query. For our sake, for your agent’s sake, and for your own, make sure your dealings are all above board. As with any relationship, you don’t want to blur those lines.