Most authors who aim to traditionally publish only wish they had an agent, however, what if you were stuck with one who wasn’t “the one” for you? While writers often review a contract with a literary agent for items about commissions, fees, royalties, and other financial matters – what does one’s contract say about ending the contract? Our guest contributor today explains his experience breaking up with his literary agent, which serves as a great reminder for all of us to review termination clauses, polite efforts to prevent burning bridges, and all of those rosy romantic details.
Lovers and Literary Agents: Who Knew They Had So Much in Common?
By Joel Fishbane
In 2009, I had the misfortune of being both single and unpublished. For a year, I had been trying to generate interest in both myself and my novel, Breakfast for Therapy. The response on both fronts had been the same: after some mild interest, they ultimately decided to pass.
One should never try to date and sell a novel at the same time; one bleeds into the other. Stood up on Friday night, I spent the weekend rewriting Chapter One. When an agent finally offered to represent me, I had to fight to urge to take her to meet my mother.
My writing teachers had plenty of advice about semicolons, but not one warned that the agent-author relationship is just marriage without the hassle of a ring. After all, both are exclusive relationships – and both cost you a certain percentage of your paycheck. No two marriages are the same and the same can be said about authors and agents. John Irving married his agent but Leonard Cohen had to take his to court; with agents, as with lovers, you never know what you’re going to get.
I had hoped my agent and I would be more like Irving than Cohen, but this was not to be. In 2010, I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts to write a novel about the Nova Scotia giantess Anna Swan. By then, I had been with my agent for almost a year and there had been no movement on Breakfast for Therapy. (Looking over the book today, I’m not particularly surprised.) My agent was not excited by the Anna Swan book and seemed disinterested in submitting it to publishers. By then I was living with someone, but the bleeding of the personal and the professional hadn’t stopped. After reading my agent’s email, I half-expected to find my girlfriend packing a bag.
Discussing the incident with my girlfriend, we agreed that I had a choice. It was book versus agent and the universe was asking me to pick a side. I called my agent and said those four words that have preceded every break-up since the dawn of time: “We need to talk.”
As with any relationship, breaking up takes diplomacy, especially when it may be fraught with legal consequence. My contract was straight-forward, but other authors may have a harder time. If the agent has already sold work on the author’s behalf, then the issue of future royalties needs to be addressed. There could also be less tangible consequences: the literary world is small and everyone wants to ensure their reputations remain intact.
During the break-up, I made sure to demonstrate gratitude to my agent for the chance she had taken with me. I explained that I still believed in my new book and she wished me luck. Back I went into the wilderness to write my queries and accept the rejections that came my way.
As with dating, it was a frustrating time. Dan Savage, the great advice columnist, has said that the only common factor in your failed relationships is you; similarly, the only common factor in my rejections was the novel I was submitting. But I remained certain that my book was a good one and that I deserved an agent who believed in it as much as I did. At last, I found a new agent who championed by book. In 2015, the book, now called The Thunder of Giants, was published by St. Martin’s Press.
Not every writer needs an agent to get published but it always helps to have one on your side. An agent is not a guarantee of success any more than a spouse is a guarantee of eternal bliss. But if a spouse is not giving you what you need, you should never be afraid to walk away; when it comes to an agent, you should do exactly the same.
Joel Fishbane is the author of The Thunder of Giants, as well as numerous works of fiction, non-fiction, and theatre. He is the creator and host of Shakespeare Unbard (iTunes at prior link, also on Soundcloud), a podcast that explores Shakespeare’s plays. Visit www.joelfishbane.net to learn more about his work. Find him on Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter @joelfishbane.