How to Fire a Literary Agent

Nobody wants to fire a literary agent, but writers splitting with their representation happens a bit more often than many would like to think. The thing is, we all want to have a long-term relationship with a client (just like clients always strive, I should hope, to have long-term relationships with their agents), but sometimes there is turnover.

fire a literary agent, bad literary agents
No one wants to fire a literary agent, but sometimes it’s for the best.

Reasons to Fire A Literary Agent

Writers figure out that they don’t like their agent’s particular way of doing things, or their agent’s editorial suggestions, or they feel dissatisfied with how their submissions are being handled, and they move on. It’s for the best. This is your career and, if you’re feeling unhappy, you need to either try and fix things or learn how to break up with your literary agent.

I see too many writers who are intimidated by their agent. I can understand it from a stars-in-their-eyes new writer’s point of view, sure. You have a busy professional who is close to the publishing industry. They hold your dreams in their hands, supposedly. They’ve given you the time of day and they like you, they really like you! Why would you fire a literary agent who plucked you out of the slush pile?!

Agents are Just People…And Sometimes People Don’t Mesh

Many new writers are blinded by this and don’t take into account that their agent’s editorial advice doesn’t match up with their own vision. Or they sit there and take it while their agent takes forever to respond to emails or to read revisions. Or they are afraid to ask their agents questions via phone or email, so they hit the online message boards and ask the other writers the things other writers probably don’t know — but that the agent definitely would, if the writer could summon up the guts to fire off an email.

We’re just people, people. We strive to do what’s best for clients and strive to take on clients who are a true fit, but, at the end of the day, we’re human beings and sometimes all parties can make mistakes. Sometimes these mistakes are a short-term error in communication that can be fixed by coming to an understanding. Sometimes, these mistakes indicate that you have a bad literary agent on your hands, and it’s time to let them go — but it’s usually for the best. So don’t be afraid to ask your agent questions. Don’t be afraid to disagree with editorial feedback. Don’t be afraid to prod when your agent goes a while without a response you’ve been expecting.

You Have the Agency to Make a Change

Agents have a list of writers that we work with. And we have our own careers. You only have one career to worry about, and one life. There’s an old adage: “Nobody will ever care about your business as much as you do.” I believe that’s true. But it’s my job to be the person by your side who cares the next most about your writing business.

If you don’t feel that your current representation is serving you and your career — the only one you have — then it’s time to decide if you should fire your literary agent. There are lots of agents out there, so there’s really no reason to stick with a bad literary agent. There’s a good chance that someone will be more attuned to your work if you really feel neglected or misunderstood. Remember, we’re the ones with the authority and the connections, but we can’t do any work without you. So make sure the agent you take on to represent you is giving you the best that you deserve.

Did you find this practical advice useful? I am happy to be your manuscript editor and consultant for writing and publishing advice that’s specific to your work.

15 Replies to “How to Fire a Literary Agent”

  1. I’ve been lucky as I’ve been with the same agent since I started. At least once a year we have a longer phone conversation where we talk about where I think my career is going, how things this year will fit into my longer term plan, etc. We talk about the past year any expectations for the new year etc. It gives me a chance to check in and feel like we’re on the same page.

  2. Hi Mary,

    I’ve been following your blog for quite some time, although I haven’t made a ton of comments. Thank you so much for this post! I actually had a question I was hoping you could address on this blog (Sorry if you’ve already gone over this, I missed a few posts here and there). My niece is trying to write a book. I’ve heard different things from different agents concerning teen authors, and I wondered what your take is on the matter. Some publishing companies have made it big with “child prodigies.” How do you handle the legal issues of contracting with a minor, and would you be willing to do it? Or do you think that teens in general should not be published due to lack of life experience?

    Thanks again,

  3. It may benefit both agents and clients to keep in mind that there are regional/socio-economic class/cultural differences in communication styles. An agent may consider their response straightforward, but their author might well see it as an abrupt rebuff that discourages future questions. Likewise, an author’s deep concern, framed from a certain (relatively) minimizing voice, might be dismissed by the agent as merely an observation.

  4. I’m trying to imagine having an agent and making the choice to leave them. It would be really tough.

    Not that I’m anywhere near this scenario, but I’m curious. How do you handle mentioning that you’ve left an agent when you’re talking to agent number two? Do you pretend agent one never existed? I assume it wouldn’t be wise (or very nice) to talk badly about your first agent.

    Good luck with your class!

  5. I had an agent for track and field, and I see it’s not much different in the writing world. When my agent decided she wanted to leave, I was a bit hurt even though I didn’t want to stay with her. However, in the end it worked out for the best, because the stress no longer existed. In the end, I found another agent and it worked out well.

    I guess you have to remember this is a business, and you can’t take it personally.

  6. Very informative, Mary. I think yes, we do have stars in our eyes, so the reality might not live up to the dream.

    And I SO wish I could get to that class:(

  7. Great stuff as always. Wish I lived or was at least visiting in NY! Would love that class.

  8. Your post dovetails with a question I’ve had about agents. I have picture book manuscripts and a middle grade WIP. So I would need to find an agent who handles both genres, yes? Not two different agents? or two agents in the same agency? I had a critique with an agent I feel would be great for my novel, but she doesn’t handle PBs.

    Also thanks for the link to big glass cases. Age has also been a question in my mind. Do agents shy away for “more mature” novices because they may not have a 20-year career ahead of them? From the blog, I hear “no.”

  9. Great advice, Mary. You’re spot on. I think communication is so important. So many problems could be worked out before a split, but then, sometimes, it’s just better to part ways.

    Great post!

  10. Jonathan — In addition to what I’ve already said, it really depends on the teen. Some teens have tons of life experience and can distill it into meaningful fiction. Some teens should focus on writing and learning rather than getting published.

    Kate — Of course, you would tell your next potential agent that you’ve had prior representation. As agents, we know that it sometimes doesn’t work out. Some writers have their prior representation, if the split was amicable, write letters of recommendation. Other writers note that it just wasn’t a fit. When I talk to writers who’ve had previous representation, I always ask about things that didn’t work and why the writer felt it was a bad relationship — lack of communication, for example — so I can see how to possibly avoid these problems in the future.

    Mary Z — If you seriously want to pursue multiple genres, I would strive to find an agent who does both. However, if you find an agent and they love your projects but haven’t technically sold any of that type of project before, some agents will branch out to serve you better as a client. If they sell a MG for you, for example, it might not be too far to bend for them to also try and sell your PB.

    As for writers of a more advanced age, I will never say “no” because of the age. Like the Big Glass Cases agent says, it’s all about the writing. But if the usual problem with teen writing is that it shows a lack of life experience, the usual problem with mature writing is that it shows a distance from childhood that might not be relatable to modern readers. But, sure, a teen could write the most worldly book I’ve ever read or a retiree could write the most fresh, modern tale. Point is, neither youth or maturity mean automatic disqualification.

  11. Thanks for posting this link on Twitter again. I parted ways with my agent two weeks ago and it was an incredibly decision. Posts like this remind me that it was the right one.

    Of course, now comes the even tougher part: finding someone new. Back on the query train we go~

  12. Thanks for posting this link on Twitter again. I parted ways with my agent two weeks ago and it was an incredibly difficult decision to make. Posts like this remind me that it was the right one.

    Of course, now comes the even tougher part: finding someone new. Back on the query train we go~

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