Q5: Second Project Pass

(This question is part of a larger subseries called Perpetual WIPs: Literary Agents. For the remaining questions, see here.)

Of course you love your client’s first project enough to have offered rep on it, but what happens when you’re not crazy about the follow-up project? How do you proceed – or suggest they proceed – when you don’t want to represent it?

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Sometimes a client will write a project that I don’t think I can faithfully represent.  That doesn’t mean the project is necessarily bad, or unsellable, or even that I necessarily dislike it, it just means I don’t think I can sell it. When a situation like that arises it doesn’t have to mean an end to our professional arrangement. Typically what happens is that I will release that project to the author, and encourage them to find other representation for it.  Sometimes authors, who may have the bulk of their work represented by one agent, have a separate agent for side-projects their main agent didn’t think they could sell.  Because this is a subjective business, and because sometimes a sale relies more on who you know than what you know, sometimes there are different agents for different projects.  It’s uncommon, but it’s not unnatural, and it doesn’t have to be uncomfortable.

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I tell them. I don’t rep books I don’t like. [How we proceed] depends. Sometimes it’s self pub, sometimes it’s part company. Or they can shelve the project.

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I fortunately haven’t had this problem yet. *knocks on all the wood available* At least not to an absolute degree. There have been projects that had promise but needed lots of editing, and projects I suggested weren’t quite up to publisher standards, but none of that has created much of a problem. I also like to talk to my authors about what they are working on, so if they start on a project I wouldn’t want to represent, we can talk that over earlier. That is the most important thing, to talk things over with your agent. Sometimes it’ll simply be that they don’t represent that genre. In that case, talk to them about potentially finding a different agent to represent that part of your writing. If your agent feels the manuscript isn’t good enough to go on submission, that can be a crossroads. If you feel that the manuscript is good enough, and you are passionate enough about it, then you and your agent clearly have different visions for your career and you might want to part ways.

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That depends on the situation. If I didn’t think it was up to snuff, I’d try to express my qualms and get a revision underway. If I still didn’t think it was good enough or saleable after that, I’d try to (gently) convince them to shelve it and work on the next project. However, if I thought the manuscript was quality but I disliked it for personal reasons, I’d see whether this was a one-off or a shift in direction. If the author’s vision of their career and mine had diverged, I’d try to find another agent I respected to refer them to instead.

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This is a case by case. What usually happens is, I give them edit notes and hope we could work on it together, and they edit, and I love the revision, and we carry on. IF it is just… way way way off-base for me and I am never going to like it no matter how much they edit… well. I’d probably talk to them frankly and see how important this manuscript is to them, and go from there.

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If I really don’t want to rep a client’s next project,– assuming the writer hasn’t decided to totally jump genres to something I don’t rep– something has gone terribly wrong. Clearly we haven’t been communicating well enough before the author got far enough down the road that he/she was in love with and had completed something I hate!  If I can’t get them to revise the manuscript into something I think I can sell and I can’t talk them out of a project I think is either inferior or the absolutely wrong next step for their career, the we are on different pages and it is time to part ways. I need my clients to trust me that I have their best interest at heart and if I can’t convince them of that (and get them to dump the terrible project), this isn’t a relationship worth saving for either of us.

(That said, “not crazy about” is way different than “don’t want to represent.” If it is just a topic I don’t love but I can see value in the work,it isn’t poorly written, and I think there may be a market/editor for it,  I’d still try and sell it. I may not personally love reading YA books featuring girls with eating disorders, but that doesn’t mean they are bad!)

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I haven’t had to go through that yet. Also I’m very hands on so the author usually pitches projects to me before they begin writing. We agree based on market and our interests.

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This is the #1 reason I ask what else a potential client is working on before I offer rep. If they plan on making the rest of their career about mass market romance, but queried me with an upmarket contemporary YA, that will be a problem because mass market romance is a very distinct category that I have no experience selling, nor want to sell. If a client sends me a new project that falls in line with the types of book I’d represent, but I still don’t like it for some reason, then I need to explore why I wouldn’t be able to sell it, and then discuss it with my author. There’s rarely a flat-out “no way!” but I have had to talk to my clients about why I think their next project won’t necessarily be their next published book. Sometimes we need to shelf it; other times we can work through a revision. It all depends.

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I like to talk to my clients about what they’re writing from the most basic, conceptual stages. If a client pitched me an idea or showed me sample pages that I thought weren’t quite salable, I’d share my concerns with them at that time. We’d either brainstorm ways to address those issues within that specific project or come up with other ideas for new projects. I’ve never had a client who wasn’t interested in working together to make passion meet marketability.

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It happens, but for me it isn’t really a case of me saying I don’t like it and don’t want to handle it.  It won’t ever come down to pure taste because that is subjective and we all know it.  If I do think that a project should not be pitched, I will have reasons for it… like it could actually be detrimental to the author’s career or there is a significant timing/genre issue.  If I am pitching a romance and there is a very small pool of traditional print imprints for that romance and every one of those imprints has told me that they absolutely can’t take genre subgenre X at the moment, it is probably not the right time to pitch that ms.  It might be better suited for digital.  It might be better off getting repurposed into something more marketable.  It may be best to table it until the market is more favorable.  Or, yes, maybe the book just doesn’t really work at all.  I would discuss my concerns with the author and we’d make a plan that we were both satisfied with.  Could we just flat out not agree?  Is it possible that I think a work is fundamentally and fatally flawed and the author thinks it is the most beautiful baby ever born?  Sure.  The author could trust my judgment—even if we don’t agree—or she might think I have my head up my ass.  In any case there has to be trust, agreement and compromise in the author-agent relationship and if the divide is just too big, it isn’t really working and a split may make sense.

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