QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, May 7, 2014


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. 


Beth Camp said...

Stories like these make me ever so glad I'm climbing up the learning curve on self-publishing. My second novel is in the quarter-finals of ABNA this year, an affirmation that makes up for all those months of waiting for responses from agents. I'm not sure this is the reaction you wanted to this article, but I wish your writer friend well on her self-publishing journey!

Karen Duvall said...

I can relate a little to what your friend is going through, however it's a little different for me. For the past couple of months my agent has been going through a tough time in her personal life and has been having severe health issues. Has your friend tried everything she can to pin her agent down and get an answer? Maybe her agent is having problems of her own. She shouldn't give up without demanding an answer. She may regret it later.

Jane Lebak said...

They've spoken, and this is a repeating pattern, otherwise I'd agree that maybe there's something else going on.

But the other side of the question is whether you'd go to an accountant who didn't work on your taxes for three months because she was having a tough time in her personal life, or whether you'd stay with a lawn care company that didn't cut your grass for a few weeks because they just got overwhelmed. My friend would. I'm not so sure she should, but ultimately it's got to be up to the parties themselves. Compassion is one thing, but how does the writer know when she's being compassionate versus when she's being taken advantage of? (However: you never need to be ashamed of being compassionate.)

Unknown said...

This also happens with publishers and editors. They can suck your writing soul away and yet you will languish with them for years because they hold your hope in their hands. Writers need to move past the emotion of writing once they enter the publishing world and become small business owners. This means that the publisher/editor/agent is your employee and if they don't keep their work up to scratch they need to be fired.

I learned the hard way but now I'm on the way up with a publisher who knows their stuff. And I'm much more assertive for having been lost in the soul-sucking trenches. Authors have the power. They have the product that the publisher/agent/editor needs. Know the business side and be professional. But do it nicely of course.

BJ Daniels said...

I went years without an agent because I'd heard all the horror stories and just didn't want to add that level of frustration to my career.

But when I sold my first single title, I was required to have an agent. I picked one at random. Big mistake. I was like the writer blogged about. I didn't want to look for another one even though mine was bad.

Then...I went to Querytracker, I picked five agents. One turned me down (I had published 60 books with a traditional publisher by then), one didn't respond, one wanted to give me to an associate, but another terrific agent took me on.

I can't tell you what having a good agent can do for you. It's amazing. Like writing, it is a crapshoot. But staying with an agent who isn't working is just a bad career move. We all want to be loved. But this is a business.