She's not sure what to do. "I think my agent's given up on me."
I have no idea what to tell her. She's gone over this saga before, and giving advice is different from following it. So I let her talk, and I wish she could hear herself the way I hear her. "I don't expect she's going to be able to sell this one. I don't think she's really pushing. We're not getting any hits on it."
It's a good book, but it's foundering. This writer has gone through the gamut of emotions with this agent on more than one book, and I've watched the whole parade cycling around and around, like a serpent swallowing its own tail: excitement followed by joy followed by frustration followed by confrontation followed by excitement again. The agent talks a good talk, but the writer is frustrated by the lack of follow-through, and every time they do this, the circle tightens just a little. This writer's trust is a tattered thing, ready to fall apart at the slightest touch.
But she's always believed in her agent, and believed the agent believed in her.
So she sits there, hands wrapped around her coffee cup, and says, "I don't know what to do."
No shortage of individuals, non-writers and writers alike, have told her to leave. But one thing I never expected about the agent-client relationship is how much it feels like falling in love. The same way there was that girl in high school who couldn't seem to dump her bad boyfriend, some writers don't want to walk away from a bad-fit agent. "It was so hard getting this one," she says to me. "The query process is degrading and soul-sucking."
But is her agency relationship any better right now? "I don't want to write anymore," she says. "I just don't feel the joy in it."
They say a bad agent is worse than no agent at all. Maybe this is why. Maybe a bad agent not only fails to sell your work, but she gives away a part of your soul she never had any right to in the first place.
The problem here is the enmeshment of the writer's dream and the person of the agent. "Cathexis" is the unromantic word for the process of falling in love, or an academic "investing emotional energy in someone." Writers sometimes cathect their agents. For them, the agent begins to embody the dream of getting books in front of readers.
In this case, this writer's agent is also a very nice person, and this writer wants to believe good things about people, but in the middle of "good" and "good" you get this toxic brew where a bad-fit agent-client relationship can fester for years.
I'm sure the agent tells herself the client's next book will sell. But in the interim, the client falls to pieces because what she needs isn't coming. "I can't even get my own agent enthusiastic about my book," she's said in the past. "Why would anyone else want to?" And now, "Isn't my agent supposed to believe in me?"
So which is it? Is this writer unsellable? Is the agent lousy? Is the writer demanding too much of her agent? You can't tell from the outside, so it's impossible to give meaningful advice. But in the meantime, my friend has noticed something: the agent doesn't send her friendly emails or jokes anymore, and yet the writer isn't getting anxious. The agent isn't sending updates about a manuscript languishing in editors' to-be-read piles, and the writer isn't asking. Instead, the writer is beginning to poke around self-publishing sites and learning how to do her own marketing.
It's not only that her agent's given up on her. It's also that she's giving up on her agent.
"I don't know what I'm doing," she says, unable to meet my eyes.
"I know what you're doing," I say. "You're decathecting."
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or shoveling snow. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.