(This question is part of a larger subseries called Perpetual WIPs: Literary Agents. For the remaining questions, see here.)
Under what circumstances have or would you initiate(d) a split from a client? How do you advise a client to seek new representation after a split?
Almost every agent I know has gone through this, and it’s like severing a limb. In my case, I had read multiple projects from an author multiple times each, and they just weren’t coming together in a way I could sell. It went on for months, and it wasn’t fair to either of us. At that point, there was no other option but to let that client find an agent who might be able to do what I couldn’t.
I would part ways with a client if he or she insisted I submit a project I felt wasn’t ready. Both of our reputations are on the line when we go on submission and I won’t risk that. I’d also part ways with a client if our visions for his or her project turned out to be too dissimilar. Every author deserves an agent who shares his or her goals and vision. When querying post-split, it’s good to be upfront about previous representation and whether or not your current project has been submitted to editors.
If we have very different visions or goals, it is silly to stay tied together in a partnership. If, for random made-up example, I think your YA voice is completely phenomenal but you are not so hot at picture books… but you ONLY want to write picture books from now on… well, probably you should find a different agent.
When querying again, I would just advise simple honesty. It is no big deal to split from an agent, it happens, and it doesn’t mean either of you is a “bad guy” or you are tainted in any way. No need to be secretive or weird.
I haven’t had to do this yet, but I’ve signed a couple of post split authors. They only mentioned a split, not who initiated it or why. They were very respectful to the former agent.
I have initiated a split with a client when over time it became clear that we did not work well editorially and together could not bring their manuscripts to a point where they were ready for submission. This was over many years and three manuscripts, and in their emails it was becoming clear that the client wanted an out. I suggested that we might not be the best fit, and they readily agreed. That is always the circumstance in which I would initiate a split, where it is clear our business relationship is not working.
Post-split, I feel it is important to mention in a paragraph at the end of your query that you previously had an agent. You do not need to go into the details, but a short line about why you decided to go elsewhere is good.
DO NOT badmouth your previous agent. If they’re bad at their job, the agents you’re querying now will probably know that, and they’ll admire your tact. Definitely mention whether or not the previous agent saw the manuscript you’re currently querying and if so, whether or not they submitted it anywhere.
To be frank, if a split is going to happen, I prefer the author to initiate it. I tend to feel like –and this may seem silly—I took vows. I made a commitment and I wouldn’t change my mind about it lightly…if the author feels differently, they feel differently. I am almost always inclined to keep trying to find away to maintain our partnership. Things get hard sometimes and just because it gets hard doesn’t mean I want to terminate the relationship. I will say that when I do sign a client, it is based (usually) on me reading 1 or 2 pieces of the author’s work and having a single conversation. It is hard to know what it is like to work with someone until you are actually working with that person and either party could certainly make the wrong call on that. And things can change within any relationship…like the author could decide that they want to pursue a publishing path that I don’t feel is in the author’s best interests or a path that I don’t feel is marketable. We can terminally disagree and at that point a split makes sense. All that said, I HAVE initiated a split with a client before.
When querying again, make sure your ties have been completely severed with your previous agent before you start submitting. I wouldn’t wear the reason for your split with your previous agent on your sleeve, either. Like if you say in your query letter I LEFT MY LAST AGENT BECAUSE SHE WAS AN ASSHOLE WHO SCREWED ME OVER 6 WAYS FROM SUNDAY, I will probably be really leery of engaging with you. Just state that you parted ways with your previous agent (amicably if it was amicable. Don’t add any qualifiers if it was a bitter split). Once I decide I like the work and you, if I am thinking of offering rep I will probably ask about the split. I’d be truthful but try to also be politic. As an agent, I want to find out whether whatever went wrong before would happen again. If, when I ask you directly, you tell me you split with the agent because she stole all your money and went to Rio, I am pretty sure I can steer clear of that marshy ground.
I haven’t broken up with a client in years, but when I did it was because I was getting busy with other project and the writer and I hadn’t been able to–hadn’t even come close to– selling a project and I was falling less and less in love with her work. (It was one of my first projects and I think I probably wouldn’t have signed her today, but I didn’t know better yet.) I just didn’t want to read her manuscripts anymore and therefore I wasn’t doing either of us any favors.
All the clients I’ve taken on post-split from another agent were super upfront about it and told me exactly why the left and who they departed from. That said, I’d suggest only trying to find a new agent with a brand new project the previous agent hasn’t seen or submitted. I’d be very very unlikely to take on a project another agent has sent anywhere before.
They’ve made money without me or behaved badly.
I think the word “split” is a bit too euphemistic, you’re talking about getting fired. Agents sometimes get fired and so do clients. What necessitates it is the sort of thing you would expect. If I can’t help you as an agent, then there’s no use in wasting either of our time. If you write a bunch of projects I don’t think I can sell, and you don’t agree with any of my comments or advice, there’s just no use in us continuing to work together. It doesn’t mean I’m a bad agent, or you’re a bad writer, it just means circumstances may have changed, and where we used to agree on most things and now we don’t. I don’t go firing clients willy-nilly, however. If your project doesn’t sell, that doesn’t mean I’m going to fire you for not selling. So long as we agree on strategy, and so long as I continue to think your works are sellable, then we’ll keep trying. It’s as simple as that. If my client is willing to work hard, then so am I. However, not every business relationship is destined to become a success and some things don’t end up working out. The important thing is to not be bitter about it. When you get fired it’s not a judgment about you as an artist or a human being. That’s why when I get fired, I don’t take it personally. I recognize that it comes with the territory.
As for re-querying post split, this is a tricky thing to give advice on, because it does depend on the situation. If you’re trying to get back on the horse after getting bruised up with your previous agent, it’s best not to re-query with the exact same project you failed to get published with your last agent. Even if you don’t feel like your book was submitted widely enough by your last agent, you may not be the best person to judge that. An agent’s worst nightmare is signing up a client for a project that was previously submitted, and looking like a fool when all the editors write back to let them know the book was already on submission last year, and they already rejected it. There are only a few circumstances in which it would be okay to resubmit a project that was previously represented by someone else. They are as follows:
1. Your prior agent didn’t ever end up submitting the book, you nonetheless think it is still a saleable project, and you’re willing to work on it if necessary.
2. Your prior agent submitted the book to only a few editors (or exclusively to one editor), and you have all the supporting documentation about who rejected the book and why, and you want to see if any other agents would be willing to take the project on and make a wider submission. Keep in mind you’d have to mention this in your query, and the inclusion of this information would certainly complicate matters for any agent considering.
3. After being roundly rejected by many editors after a multiple submission, you’ve dramatically revised your work according to comments you’ve received, and you have all the supporting documentation about who considered, who rejected, what they said, and how you improved the manuscript according to their comments. As with situation 2, you would have to mention this in the query letter.
Now, if you are re-querying post split for a new project that wasn’t previously represented, the best thing to do is not to mention that you were previously represented. It’s just not pertinent, and you should save your breath for selling me on the new project. Later, if I call to offer you representation, we can talk about your prior representation and any pertinent matters pertaining to it. If you have prior publications that your previous agent negotiated, feel free to list them, but you don’t have to tell me who previously represented you, and why you fired them/got fired. Just like in a job interview you wouldn’t volunteer information to your potential employer about why you were fired or quit your last job, you’d only focus on the work you performed at your last job and why it makes you a valuable candidate.