Monday, February 02, 2009

Sloppy Seconds

Question of the day: My agent hasn't been able to sell my manuscript, and I'm getting less than positive vibes from her now. Is it possible to take the manuscript to a new agent, or do I have to give up on this book? Should I find someone new regardless?

This is always a tough situation, and having been there, done that, I'm not just saying that to be sympathetic. Writers view having an agent as some sort of safety net, as if being able to say, "I have an agent," they are somehow ensured more success or offered more legitimacy. And certainly, to some extent, this is true. However, I've said this before: having an unenthusiastic agent can be more detrimental than having no agent at all. If your agent isn't going to be your advocate or doesn't love your work/writing, what's the point of having her represent you? Consider that word: represent. She is your representation. As in, she is supposed to stand up and speak for all who you are as a writer, and well, if she can't (or won't), honestly, what's the point?

In your case, I can't speak specifically to your manuscript because it's all contingent on how many editors your agent shopped it to and if she shopped it to the right ones. If indeed she went out wide with it (and got it in the right hands), your book is likely DOA for now. Another agent simply won't be willing to take it out to the same editors...because she'll likely be met with the same result. Certainly some agents are able to get material read faster or maybe even a little closer, but at the end of the day, if an editor doesn't respond to material with one agent, she's not going to respond to it simply because it's repped by someone else.

If your agent hasn't gone out wide, and in fact, only took it to a handful of editors, you might be in a better situation. That said, you'd have to disclose the situation to a perspective agent so he/she could make up his/her mind as to whether or not it's doable. I don't think you have to get into the nitty-gritty in your query letter, but yeah, as things get closer - like if he/she calls you to discuss representation - you need to come clean. Because your new agent WILL NOT be pleased if she submits it to an editor only to be told, "Oh hey, yeah, I've seen this and already passed."

In the end, you have to go with your gut. It's a very scary (and brave) thing to walk away from an agent. But if you feel like you're moored in a boat with no paddles with her, I don't see what you really have to lose.

Anyone else agree? (Or not?) Anyone successfully switched agent and had the new agent sell an old manuscript? Because, truth told, I think this is pretty rare. I'm curious to hear.

6 comments:

sarah pekkanen said...

I think your advice is right on target. I've never had this particular circumstance, but if an agent is losing interest, it's probably best to sever ties -- but politely and professionally!
A novelist friend of mine found out his agent was dropping him when his agent refused to take his calls. The assistant would put my friend on hold, and the agent would never pick up. Nice, huh? But he has a good agent now and has sold five books in the past five years.
I think the key point Allison made is to come clean with a potential new agent very soon in the process -- like, right after he/she has expressed interest in you. And never bad-mouth the old agent. You could be dissing your new agent's best friend.
Sarah

J. M. Strother said...

It seems the key here is to determine if the original agent really went to bat on the manuscript. If not, then a change seems in order. If so, then the manuscript may not be attractive to potential buyers.

So my question is, how is the poor author supposed to determine if she had a poor agent or a poor manuscript? Somehow I can't see a poor agent admitting that they hadn't really tried.
~jon

Jael said...

This is a really tough situation, and the reason I always get up in arms when unrepresented writers say "Oh, I'll just take any agent -- any agent is better than none, right?" No.

It's impossible to tell from this letter what the real circumstances are. It could be a great book that just hasn't found the right editor yet; it could be a flawed book that isn't quite good enough; or, yes, maybe the agent isn't trying hard enough to sell. But I don't advocate rushing to drop the agent. Have a super-honest conversation about why he/she thinks it hasn't sold yet.

It is very very hard to get an agent with a book that has already been shopped. This is almost definitely not the news you want to hear, but regardless of what you decide to do, you should get started on another book pronto.

Anonymous said...

It totally sucks rotten eggs when an agent, who's initially very enthusiastic, decides she's "just isn't that into you."

I had an excellent agent--very experienced with a big-name agency--for my mystery novel. After about ten editors rejected the ms, she stopped communicating with me, despite my attempts to contact her about the project's status. (I've since heard that this is her MO with some clients.) I was forced to terminate the contract, put the ms away, and started something fresh. It would have been impossible to attract another agent at that point because mine had hit all the major houses and imprints.

As Jael said, the best cure for this frustrating and discouraging situation is to work on a new book. That's something you CAN control.

Amie Stuart said...

I agree w/Jael....a new manuscript might be a way to gauge the agent's level of interest. If she still doesn't respond or seems lukewarm, then it might be time to move on.

Kimberley Griffiths Little said...

This scenario actually happened to me.

I was with an agent for 10 years, she sold 3 novels for me, then nothing for the last 5-6 years of our time together. Turned out she was moving out of the children's/ YA marketplace and only sent my stuff to a handful of places - and not what I considered to be the right editors for the projects. I was very loyal to her, but finally realized that I was wasting my life and time and my career was going nowhere so I switched agents (got a much more high-powered and connected agent, too, although it took me 18 months to find her)and my new agent sold two novels that had already been seen and rejected!

Within 6 weeks of signing with the new agent, she got me a THREE-BOOK DEAL with Scholastic in November for both those novels and an unwritten one based on a synopsis. She knew the right editors and we had tons of interest and a fabulous offer.

So it can happen. BUT - I also kept revising and polishing those two novels so they were in great shape when the agent and my new editor took me on.

A story with a very happy ending, but I went through a ton of rejection and perseverance to get my happy ending.