Well, that’s basically a nightmare phrase, isn’t it? Signing with an agent is supposed to be the thing that hoists you out of query letter hell forever. It’s a safe zone, a guarantee, a lifetime plan!
For others, it’s a really great thing that happens but isn’t meant to be the start of a lasting relationship. There are about a billion reasons for an agent-author partnership to end, and some of them are far worse than others.
I’m an “other”; my first agent and I split in June, just shy of a year together. I didn’t announce it, because how do you announce it? Instead, I shifted things around on my website and blog (rather than removed, because she’s still the agent on the contract for BEHIND THE SCENES) and deleted her from my Twitter profile and PM page. I told people I speak to in non-public forums, and answered anyone who asked on Twitter. In reality, what more can you do?
At the same time, I was also really lucky, because here’s the thing about my first agent: I still think she’s awesome. I have no regrets. Ask me what I would’ve done differently, and I have no answer for you. Ask me what I think she should’ve done differently with the book she offered on, and I definitely have no answer for you.
Here, though, is where that offer part is so tricky: it’s on one book. You query one book. You get an offer based on one book. And sure, an agent can ask what else you’re working on, but A) a lot of them don’t, and B) what can sound great in premise isn’t necessarily something they’ll love in execution. It’s one reason it’s so important for an agent to love your voice; it’s their best insurance they’ll love the rest of your work. If your first book isn’t necessarily a reflection of your later work (which, due to its highly commercial nature, mine wasn’t), then it may turn out the expectations just weren’t quite on track, and you’re not meant to be after all.
So, let’s say you hit an impasse on a book, or communication style, or pitching plans. Then what?
Dear readers, I’m not gonna lie – it is terrifying. Leaving your agent, even when it’s mutual, even when it’s amicable… it is like setting your security blanket on fire and then rolling around in the ashes. And when I see it continuing to be a great partnership for my former agent-sisters, it feels sort of like watching my ex-boyfriend in a great new relationship and wondering why we couldn’t make it work. No matter how neat, and how much you adore and respect everyone involved, it sucks. And boy, will it screw with your confidence.
Plus, for me, it wasn’t just as a writer – I was fully prepared for a “If you can’t even keep your agent, why the hell should we listen to your pub advice?” from someone who follows my blog. (This did not happen even once. I love you guys.)
If you read The Daily Dahlia, you already know that I have a lot to say about querying. I give a lot of advice, discuss etiquette and best practices… I have four queries posted up top that have all gotten requests.
And yet, when I started querying again, I felt like I knew nothing. Like, I could not figure out how to do a thing. I’d read someone else’s post on querying for the second time and it was basically “I got a new agent in five minutes, after getting a hundred referrals!” and I was all “WHY ISN’T EVERYONE AND HER MOTHER REFERRING ME AND NINJA-ING ME AND WHY DO I FAIL AT LIFE?!”
Then there was everyone else’s raging confidence that everything would be fine. I got a ton of, “Oh, you’ll get a new agent again in five seconds. You’re so networked.” Never mind that the extent of my “network” is Twitter friends, same as everybody else. Never mind that sure, I’ve got agent friends, but people liking you doesn’t mean they like your work, or take your genre. The votes of confidence were sweet, but at times, it felt like I’d have to be an idiot to screw this up, and I was pretty sure I was going to. So I ran to my CPs and trusted friends, and I posted on OneFourKidLit, and I scoured AbsoluteWrite, but ultimately, what it comes down to is this:
If your current agent relationship isn’t right for you, but you know you want an agent, you just have to push yourself to do it eventually. You will come up with a thousand reasons why it’s risky or scary or crazy. But if you can’t get out of your own way and push past them, you’re never going to get what you want.
So, let’s do this! Round 2! Kinda awkward, right? Especially if people know you had an agent before? Or if you have a book deal? I mean, like, what kind of reject are you?
THE KIND OF “REJECT” THAT HAPPENS ALLLL THE TIME.
Guys, for real, this is a thing that happens. Hi, I’m Dahlia! Now you know someone it happened to. Also? I had three friends going through the same thing at the same time and all three have great new agents. The point is, this happens, you’re not a freak, and agents do not take one look at your query and go, “Ew, why would I want her now?”
So, now that that’s out of the way, how do you actually do this thing?
First things first, make sure you understand your agency contract’s termination clause before you and your agent actually part. (And yes, you should understand it before you ever sign it.) Termination clauses vary by agency, and can be anything from “Either party can terminate whenever” to much stricter options that will keep you from subbing for months. The wrong move can mean breach of contract or even that you’re obligated for 15% to both your old agent and your new one.
In some cases, what you can do is ask for a waiver of the termination period. If your agent doesn’t want to sub your manuscript anyway, (s)he may be willing to just give it up and free you completely. If this is your situation, and you’re parting on good terms, it may be worth asking. (Can you tell I did this? I did this.)
As for actually writing a query letter? Well, it’s… a whole lot like you did it the first time. A query letter is a query letter. The only differences are that you might add something like this:
“After an amicable split with my previous agent, I am currently seeking new representation.” If you mention the split, you should also mention whether or not the manuscript you’re querying has previously been submitted. Mine had not, which was admittedly a good place to be in. If yours has been submitted, make sure you have a list of every single editor it’s gone to. (If it’s been submitted to a lot of places – say, more than 5-10 – it may not be the best ms to query with, and you might have better luck if you queried with something else and saved it to use as your option.)
For me, one thing that came up a few times was the fact that I had a three-book deal. Now, obviously that’s a pretty specific situation, but the point is a general one: Be prepared to answer any and all questions about how your previous representation affects this one. Terminating your agency contract isn’t terminating your publishing contract. The agent on that contract is still entitled to his or her 15% of every book (s)he signed for you.
Again, for me, this was an easy situation – the three books in my contract have already been decided, so there was no obligation to submit the manuscript I was querying for it, which means there was total freedom for new agents to sub it anywhere they liked. This isn’t always the situation. If you’re in a multi-book contract in which not all the books have been determined, or you have an option clause, this is something you need to be aware of. If the manuscript you’re querying isn’t freely available for multiple submission, agents need to know.
Now, in case you haven’t noticed the common theme here, I’ll state it plainly: I was in a great situation to do this. I had a wonderful first agent who made it as easy as possible and wanted me to find an agent who was truly the right fit. I had a manuscript (two, actually) that had never been submitted to editors. I had a multi-book contract that had no claim on any manuscript I was pitching. This was very neat. Not all splits are. Unfortunately, I can only speak to what I know.
If your split isn’t quite as neat, remember the following two things:
1) Never badmouth your former agent. There is literally not a single good thing in the world this can do for you. If your split wasn’t amicable, just don’t say it was amicable. “I recently parted ways with my agent and am seeking new representation” is just fine. But if you trash your agent, you’re only going to hurt yourself.
2) If you’ve been subbed, the list of where you’ve been subbed is key. If you don’t have this, and your agent won’t provide it, query another manuscript. I know this sucks. Withholding that list is one of the worst things an agent can do. I’m so sorry I don’t have a better answer for this. It just is.
Finally, let’s talk specifics, and what you really “need” when you’re querying the second time:
Connections? Nope. Among the agents I queried are several I consider myself friendly with. Some requested, some did not. I will concede that not one rejected with a true form rejection, but at least one rejected at the query level. Because she’s an agent, and it’s her job to reject manuscripts she doesn’t connect with. If you’re going to take that personally, either don’t query your agent-friends, or don’t befriend agents. And the one I ultimately signed with? Never spoke to her before in my life before sending that query.
Referrals? Nope. I had three friends really, really kindly offer referrals to their agents. Because I didn’t think any of their agents were the right fit, I didn’t use any of them. I asked one friend to use her name, and she allowed it, but her agent turned out to be closed to queries. And that’s the glorious history of me and referrals.
Pub credits? Obviously, now that I have a book deal, I can’t speak to whether or not this matters, but as far as I know, every single agent I queried is happily open to taking on debuts. Honestly, the whole multi-book contract thing seemed to hinder more than help, if we’re playing with sides of that line.
The point of all this is, you did it once, and you can do it again. You’re not damaged goods. You are experienced, you are proven, and you’re probably pretty damn good at what you do. So step out of your own way, dive back in, and give yourself the second chance you deserve.
On a personal note, I want to give massive thanks to everyone who was utterly awesome to me during this time when even I found me utterly unbearable. If you guys knew how much crap and freaking out some of my friends have had to listen to in the past few weeks, you’d be amazed that any of us even function. If you’re not sure who you are, check your IMs, DMs, e-mails, and texts from the past few weeks. If more than 50 of them are from me, I probably mean you ❤
So, that’s the story of why you saw me in pitch contests, why I haven’t been blogging, and why you might’ve noticed changes in my bios in various places. I split with my agent, and now I have a new one, and her name is Lana, and yelling it in Archer’s voice is really fun, and all is well. And if you’re reading this because you read all my posts, thank you, you’re awesome. 😉 If you’re reading this because it applies to you, please remember you’re not alone, and plenty of these stories have happy endings – there’s no reason in the world to think yours won’t too!
And, of course, if you want to know how some agents feel about it, you can always check this out 😉