Breaking Up With a Literary Agent

Every once in a while, I talk to a writer who is still represented but is considering breaking up with 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.

breaking up with a literary agent, making a living as a writer
Thinking about breaking up with a literary agent? Cut ties with them before querying new agents.

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.

The Etiquette For Breaking Up With A Literary Agent

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 that you won’t be able to make a living as a writer if you break up with your literary agent, so you’re testing the waters. Still, this behavior is frowned upon. It is only considered correct to start finding another literary agent after you’ve severed your existing representation relationship.

Try These Tips Before Severing Ties

There’s another option for writers who are considering breaking up with a literary 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. Making a living as a writer is difficult, and you need your agent solidly in your corner in order to make it work.

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.

Sometimes You Need To Make A Change

If it’s the latter, or if they vow to change but don’t follow through, you are probably better off breaking up with your literary agent. It’s scary, I know, because an agent is an important part of being able to make a living as a writer. Still, 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.).

It’s daunting to face the idea of being unrepresented again and possibly jeopardizing your ability to make a living as a writer. But 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.

Keep It Above Board

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. Your reputation is currency in the publishing world, and you’ll find it that much harder to make a living as a writer if it’s tarnished.

As for me, I often find myself counseling writers who are thinking about breaking up with a literary agent, 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.

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.

20 Replies to “Breaking Up With a Literary Agent”

  1. Great post, Mary! I wish I’d had something like this awhile ago for a friend who was having problems with her agent. (It’s since worked out in her favor, thankfully.)

    Before anyone leaves their agent, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to feel out some of the agent’s other clients and see if they’re having similar issues.

  2. Yet another reason why querying is like dating. Wise advice, Mary. Thanks for this.

  3. I think discussing your issues with your agent and communication is 100% the thing you have to do. BUT if like you said you discuss the problems, the agent vows to change, and DOESN’T I’m not sure if it really is fair to the author to stay in that business relationship without looking for another agent.

    This is not after all a monogamous relationship like you said as the agent has plenty of other clients. Does the agent tell the author when they pick up new clients, or that they are constantly looking for new clients. This is business, if you are unhappy with the company you work for and your job there, you get a lead on a new job opportunity before you tender your resignation.

    A single author is not an agents soul source of income, but an agent is that authors only connection and voice through to the publishers.

  4. Alex, but if you’re unhappy with the agent relationship anyway, why would you want to stick around? Better to halt the process (wherever you might be in it) immediately and take a step back. ‘Cause if the agent you want to leave gets that book out on sub, it’s going to potentially ruin any chances you have of a new agent subbing it.

  5. I find myself hesitant at times to ask my agent questions because I assume she knows all there is to know about the business and I worry that I’m being presumptuous by making suggestions or offering ideas, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about this business, it’s that you have to be willing to speak up! Especially since authors now have to do so much of their own marketing.

  6. Kelley, you’re absolutely right on that point, that would be a dishonest waste of your agents time.

    I am thinking more along the lines of the period when drafting your second or third novel POST unhappiness discussion.

    I’m not saying this is the way to do it, and certainly not the best option. But I do feel that in a working relationship the author should at least have this as an option.

    Ideally you would leave amicably with mutual respect and a reference from your agent.

    I just don’t think an author should ever feel that they have to leave an agent without the security of having had conversations of potential representation with other agents.

  7. If your relationship is making you miserable, it’s time to talk. If it still makes you miserable, it’s time to leave. And then, only once you’ve boosted yourself back up to feeling good again, is it time to seek another relationship. That’s how I see both kinds of relationships.

  8. Dianna Winget says:

    I faced the very situation that’s being discussed here. My former agent took on my middle grade novel with enthusiasm, but later shifted her focus to chick lit which was just starting to become popular. I could tell that my story wasn’t getting the attention it deserved and the agent and I agreed to part ways. It was scary and disappointing, yes. But it was the right decision for both of us. Sometimes you just have to take the plunge and hope things turn out well in the end.

  9. Talking is the right thing to do, that’s for sure. I just don’t know how to address a similar situation but with a twist. The agent in question reps my German manuscripts and I’m quite happy with her — she is lovely, keeps me up to date and answers my questions. She can’t and won’t however rep my English manuscripts. She lacks the expertise, but she’s willing to let me go should an international agent be interested in taking me on.

    Now, how do I explain that in a query to an agent in the US or UK? There isn’t much room in a query and most should focus on the story I’m trying to sell. OTOH, not mentioning my German author seems unfair to all sides concerned, and she’s part of my writing credentials.

    Ideas anyone?

  10. Katharina, so if you were to find another agent, your German agent wouldn’t keep you on just for the German manuscripts? There are people who have two agents for the purpose of the agents repping different type of books.

  11. If the English manuscripts are translations of the German ones then the German publishers will likely own world/foreign rights to them. At least that’s the norm, I believe. So that would be something your German agent would have to oversee or at least liaise with the publishers to find out what rights they do own.

    But if they’re completely different manuscripts, then you could, in theory, have two agents – one for the German MS, and the other for English MS – as long as both agencies knew about each other. Trouble with that is, again, that most publishers want foreign rights because they can make some cash by selling your MS to foreign publishers (and so you can you!).

  12. The English manuscripts are not connected in any way to the German agent. They are not translations of anything I wrote before. I do understand the rights of the German novels have to be negotiated. My problem is that I don’t know how to phrase that in a query. Should I keep it secret that I’m already agented? Or would it be better to put it in? Should I mention that my agent is willing to let me go if the English agent requires? I don’t want to ruin my chances.

  13. Ugh, we’re not DATING our agents. This is – as agents love to remind us – a business relationship. It’s completely accepted that people look for other jobs or business opportunities while they’re employed. Agents are perfectly able to ignore you or put you on the back burner while they hedge their bets by signing up new writers, but writers aren’t allowed to hedge their bets – and salvage their careers – by looking for other interest while repped by agents. Guess whom this solely benefits? Not the writer, that’s for sure.

    1. Mary Kole says:

      I completely agree with you about what happens behind the scenes with agents. However, I still don’t believe that it’s ethical to look around behind their back. This is a SMALL market and if a prospective agent realizes that you’re still represented by one of their colleagues, it will reflect poorly on your and they may not want to engage. Why? Because they wonder if you’ll be looking around while they’re working with you.

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