OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
Since I live my writing journey in public these days, I need to share that my agent and I have gone our separate ways.
In this post, I explain why this isn't unusual or a bad thing.
Like any relationship, there are beginnings and endings.
I signed with Rachel Ekstrom at the Irene Goodman Agency in July 2012. I outline the reasons in detail here, but basically I was keen to try my hand at a traditional deal.
Rachel has tried very hard to sell several of my books, targeting specific editors at large publishers. She's stayed in touch by email and skype, and been positive, proactive and a cheerleader for my work. I'm grateful for her time and help with my books, and she is credited in the Acknowledgements for Desecration.
But agents get paid on selling rights and in the time we've been together, there hasn't been enough interest in my work from traditional publishers.
During that same period, I've signed my own audio rights deal with a small press, as well as two joint venture translation deals. I'm also in preliminary discussions with several contacts over foreign rights and film/TV rights. I already do so much myself and want to move fast, and alas, speed is not a word associated with traditional publishing.
Rachel and I set a deadline for Desecration, my crime novel, and agreed that once that passed, I would move on and self-publish. There was a flurry of interest towards the end but nothing came through in time, so we agreed that I would get on with my own indie life. The parting of the ways was an amicable, agreed decision between Rachel and I, and I couldn't be happier with her professionalism.
I published Desecration last week and it debuted in the US Crime Bestseller list by Michael Connelly and John Sandford, which I'm really pleased about!
I consider myself fortunate in such an amicable split, as there are stories of acrimonious break-ups that still involve money many years later. Earlier this year, Harper Lee sued her agent for depriving her of royalties. Kristine Rusch talks about auditing agents and her own experience in this article.
It's not unusual for authors to have several different agents in their career
Here's a few articles on breaking up with agents. Although it's not talked about so much, it's important to know it's a possibility if you want to sign with an agent.
- How to fire your literary agent
- How to break up with your literary agent – Galleycat
- Breaking up is hard to do – Books & Such literary agency
If you're going to go the traditional route, please make sure you read this little book on Dealbreakers in contracts by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. It may save you thousands of dollars and a lot of heartache.
Do you even need an agent anyway?
These days, many authors are un-agented by choice. You certainly don't need an agent to publish, sell and distribute your book online in ebook, print or audiobook format.
In this article, author and industry veteran Dean Wesley Smith outlines why you don't need an agent anyway.
His conclusion is that it's better to indie publish and keep writing, as well as pitching editors directly if you're interested in getting a traditional deal.
What do I want in an agent?
Despite what Dean says, I'm still interested in an agent, especially for rights that are harder to exploit myself. I see the relationship as a business partnership, in the same way I am working with my joint venture translation partners.
There are agents who are specifically looking for these types of relationships with savvy indies. Kristin Nelson has done a great job for Hugh Howey, and hopefully, this type of relationship will become more mainstream in the coming years.
My experience has been a good one, and I'm certainly open to future collaboration. But for now, I'm a (very) happy indie!
Do you have any comments on splitting up with agents or any recommendations for others? Please do leave a comment below.
[The spirit of this blog is positive and forward-looking, focusing on lessons learned, rather than dwelling on negativity, so please comment with this in mind.]
Garry Rodgers says
Interesting post. It makes me think that if an agent can’t promote your work, with the quality that it is and the platform that you’ve established, then the traditional publishers must be in real difficulty and they’re only willing to speculate on the bigger names. It must be tough for agents as well.
I’m curious if you’ve tried approaching publishers directly and what your thoughts on this are.
Joanna Penn says
Hi Gary, I haven’t approached any publishers directly – and to be honest, I am just over ‘chasing’ anyone. I’d rather people came to me, so I am focusing on doing the best I can, and we’ll see what comes!
One trad pubbed author I know said Desecration didn’t fit into a clear genre – it spans mystery, crime, thriller, horror, so was always going to be a hard sell!
Dalene Jones says
Argh! the whole genre thing drives me crazy. Which god said that a book had to fit a genre. The story is what is important.
Absolutely fantastic post! : ) Adding it to my favorites.
I had a quick look at Rusch’s article, and as an accountant I could not believe authors were giving agents permission to receive all the money and all the sales information, and then forward it to the author. Some authors would even give agents power of attorney!??? That’s absolutely insane. If that’s the rule, then I’ll self-publish. Holly schnitzel.
Joanna Penn says
It’s definitely been the business practice for most agencies – and so presumably still is. I think the traditional route has been so sewn up with these rules for so long, no one was able to question them much, as there was no other way – but now we have choices! Yeah 🙂
Ian Probert says
That’s exactly what my former agent did with me. She gave me very sparse information but in those days I was new to the business side of writing.
Heather Day Gilbert says
Great thoughts, Joanna. I will add that communication is so key with an agent. My first agent never called me and rarely contacted me–I had to initiate everything, and I knew nothing about the industry. My first proposal was laughable, and I had absolutely no clue. I think you need to know going into it if you’re looking for a more editorial agent, a salesperson-type agent, or a well-seasoned agent who knows all the ins and outs of things. So many options–and I know it’s easy for a new author to jump toward any agent that shows interest. Just keep informed on what other agents do for your author friends and, though your agent will never be exactly the same, be aware of what options are available to you. And if they don’t communicate at all…they’re not really YOUR agent.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Heather, and yes, I was really pleased with Rachel’s great communication. She was clear about what was going on and we were able to discuss things via skype. She actually offered more communication than I wanted 🙂
It’s definitely something to go on the critical list when choosing an agent.
Dalene Jones says
Thank you for this post. I’d be interested in learning more about making contacts for film and television rights.
Liz Broomfield says
A good and positive article and I’m glad that the parting was amicable.
Dominick Bosco says
Good for you! This would appear to be just the latest chapter in your ongoing saga of personal discovery and fulfillment.
I know a lot of indie writers–myself included–can’t help but sometimes consider indie publishing as a springboard to a conventional deal. But indie publishing is so much more than a farm system for conventional publishing. The process and the rewards are so different–as you describe.
Joanna, so many of us depend on you for guidance. You’re up ahead, cutting a new path–and sharing everything you learn along the way. Thank you!
And, personally, I think you’re better off. I’ve worked with many agents. They have always been among the most generous and knowledgeable people I’ve encountered in the book business. Like writers, they are in this because they love books. But indie publishing is a different animal entirely, not just a variation on conventional publishing.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Dominick, I appreciate your kind words, and I try to share everything relevant here in order to help others on the path. There’s so much going on in the industry right now, so I certainly don’t feel that being unagented is a bad thing. I LOVE being a free agent and owning all my rights – we shall see what the next year looks like 🙂
Mary Tod says
Hi Joanna … it’s been some time since I’ve commented but this post struck a chord. When I secured an agent, I thought I had died and gone to heaven only to discover that he wanted me to make various changes (18 months) before embarking on his sales efforts (another 18 months). Those efforts did not pay off so with his blessing I self-published a second novel in September. Having done that, he and I had another very amicable conversation and like you and your agent, we parted company.
So it’s the indie road for me. Lots of marketing involved and I’ve had the great fortune to have a husband willing to help with the technical aspects of publishing print books as well as e-books. Good luck with your novels. I remember being one of your early readers for Pentecost and it seems that you have carried that theme forward. Well done.
Joanna Penn says
Thanks Mary – great to see another amicable split. We all have to be pragmatic about what’s happening with our books and make the best decision we can at the time.
Shaquanda Dalton` says
You go girl. Be Indie and Be Proud.
I fired my agent of four years this past July. I found we wanted different things for my career, and I had always found communication with her difficult. These two issues pushed me to break up with her. I wish her the best, but am very happy I did it. I’m indie publishing my second book in February, 🙂
Ken Talley says
It seems that your experience gives us all even more reason to be indie writers. We can write our stories the way they come to us, without shaping them to what might be marketable. Write the story and put it out there for readers to decide. It allows us as writers to write to the story and not to the market. So many of my stories, anyway, cross genres and may not fit into a particular slot. We, as indie writers, have more freedom to write what we want, though with no guarantee of success, of course. But at least the story will be out there where the readers are.
Thanks for the post
Dalene Jones says
Right on, Ken.
Jacqueline Garlick says
I Love this post Joanna!
I love that you didn’t render your agent experience useless, although you are moving on. And that your agent supported you in your decision to move on to Indie. That says so much. I’ve had a similar experience in that I too, wrote a genre bending book that received rave NY editor reviews on submission with my agent, but in the end we were told the genre bending would be a hard sell, no clear shelf placement at B&N their major seller, so they had to regretfully pass. It was then my agent said, “Why don’t you self pub it. It’ s a great book. It deserves a readership. And I’ll continue to support you for foreign rights and such.” I couldn’t believe it, but he did. So off I went. My book comes out Dec 1 ( or sooner), and I too, am a (very!) happy Indie! Agents are changing and they can be valuable to Indies. They are savvy business people with many contacts, and if they are out actively seeking sales potential for your work, you have more time to WRITE! (smile…)
Dominick Bosco says
Yes! Jacqueline describes the future: literary agents working the middle ground in a rapidly changing environment. Note that the main rigidity in this situation comes from the giant bookstore chain. Imagine not taking on a book because they can’t find a place for it in a 25,000 square foot store that finds shelf space for stuffed animals and other dust-collectors! That’s why they are closing stores! The publishers are responding to that rigidity–but those days are numbered… or… the rigid publishers’ days are numbered. Take your pick. Either way, Jacqueline and her agent are staying flexible. The flexible thrive. Good for you and for your agent! –DB
Margaret Kazmierczak says
This year I finally took the plunge and wrote a book, something I always wanted to do but kept stumbling over when it came to putting words on a page. With the manuscript finished and many people saying wow you ought to get that published I started my venture on finding how to do this. I approached someone who was in the know and they said that they would put a word in for me to an editor of a large Christian publishing company. I sent in the manuscript and within a couple of weeks received my first refusal. It wasn’t a genre that they were interested in at present. In fact whoever I submitted my finished script to told me that it didn’t fit into their genre. The genre? Christian fiction. In the UK certainly it seems a wet fish, but of course that was not the only reason. I am an unknown housewife, a risk, probably a big risk, and yes it appears that the publishers are only going with well known, well tried and tested authors. The refusals kept coming, until my husband suggested a local publisher who was willing to give new authors a chance. She is thinking of publishing my book as an ebook as she feels that it will reach a wider audience, especially America where Christian Fiction is extremely popular. As a naive novice would you suggest that this is a good way to go ahead?
Misha Herwin says
Brilliant post. I also have had a good relationship with my agent, Becky Bagnall, which also came to an end for the same reasons. Becky tried really hard to get my kids’ book “City of Secrets” a traditional publishing deal. She did great work on editing the ms and there were a couple of near misses, but in the end we decided that there was nothing more she could do.
My next step is to self publish, do my own promotion and go from there. I don’t regret the couple of years it took to get to this stage. I’ve learned a lot one of the most important lessons being that getting an agent doesn’t get you a deal. Sometimes things don’t work out and you have to go it alone.