Agent-Writer Communication

I want to tell you about an incident at ACFW that was sort of heartbreaking for me. I guess I want you to know that we agents have a lot invested in these conferences, just like the writers do, and sometimes we have disappointments too.

I met with a writer, a lovely and sweet woman who pitched me a couple of projects. She seemed like someone whose writing was progressing toward possibly ready for publication. I particularly liked one of her projects, and didn’t see as much potential for the other, and I told her so. But I said I’d love to hear from her after the conference, would love her to send me the manuscript so I could read it, and we could discuss the possibility of representation.

Now understand, I don’t remember any more details than that. It was a 15-minute meeting; but I had 32 of them, and it’s impossible to keep them straight in my mind. I take notes about the crucial details, e.g. “asked her to send a manuscript.”

So the last morning of the conference, she was nice enough to seek me out for further conversation. She told me that after our meeting, she’d had another agent meeting, that agent had offered representation, and she’d accepted. She said that I’d been her first choice as an agent (and of course she may have been being kind) but based on the fact that I had spoken to her about a one-book contract, she had said yes to the other agent who was interested in representing all of her work.

She said (and I’m paraphrasing), “I don’t want an agent to represent just one project, I really want an agent who is interested in representing me as an author. Since you only talked about a single book, I went ahead and accepted representation from the other agent.”

So. Those of you who have known me for awhile… any guesses as to why this was heartbreaking to me?

Of course, there was an element of disappointment that I’d lost a client to my competitor. But that was maybe 20%. The big issue was that I’d lost her due to a total misunderstanding.

If you’ve read my blog for awhile, you probably know that I don’t represent books, I represent authors. Since that’s my philosophy, I have never said, and never would say, “I’m interested in representing one book of yours.” I have never uttered the words, and would never utter the words, “one book contract” with regards to a potential client. I liked one of her books more than the other; not much more was said about it.

Obviously in my meeting with this writer, I didn’t communicate clearly. And that’s what’s so disappointing. I know conferences are confusing and overwhelming to writers. There is so much information being tossed around. I know they don’t always understand everything they’re hearing, although they don’t feel comfortable asking for clarification. I know it’s my responsibility to communicate clearly, especially if I’m hoping to pick up a client.

If we had been able to talk more and clarify, I’m sure I could have explained to her that even though I was more interested in one book than the other, if she were to be my client, I would indeed represent her as an author and her entire body of work, not just one book.

So it’s the fact that I lost a potential client due to an unfortunate miscommunication that was a discouragement to me.

What can YOU get out of this?

1) Agents are people, too.

2) In a situation where you’re unclear on exactly what’s being said, do your best to clarify before the conversation ends.

3) Perhaps it’s not always the best idea to accept an offer of representation or publication on the spot, and instead spend a bit more time in conversation, asking questions, investigating the agency, determining if you are a fit with that agent… and making sure there aren’t any other offers that need considering.

What did I get out of this?

1) Humbled.

2) A determination to be more clear in my communication.

3) A peaceful acceptance that this woman has found the right fit for her, and it’s okay that it’s not me.

Have you ever lost anything or had repercussions due to miscommunication?


Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Luigi Fulk on March 25, 2012 at 12:37 PM

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  2. Steve Feldman, MD, PhD on October 3, 2008 at 8:11 PM

    >I’m also a physician and echo the comments made earlier that we see this with doctor-patient communication all the time. It was the topic of an editorial I wrote ( Bottom line: you have to give it to the patient (in your case, potential author) in writing. Maybe it would be good to have a brief brochure to hand to people at these meetings.

  3. elaine @ peace for the journey on September 24, 2008 at 5:16 PM

    >It’s a terrible tug–this back and forth that exists in the heart of our words that often breathe an intention all of their own. Saying them is one thing. Having them understood as they were intended is another. As it is with the spoken word, so it goes with the written word.

    In a perfect world, all words would punctuate in unison to weave a beautiful tapestry.

    We’re not there yet; but, thank God, we’re not far!

    This post, Rachelle, speaks to my heart this day at a deeper level. I’m not sure why, but I thank you for your vulnerability in sharing it with us.


  4. D. Gudger on September 24, 2008 at 4:40 PM

    This post couldn’t be more timely. At the conference two agents expressed interest in my work. One was a reinforcement of interest from a prior conference (he read the whole mss and wants me to expand my ending and resend) – the other I met for the first time.

    The second agent said my story was something she’d love to represent. I was freaking! Two interested agents? Not on my list of probable problems.

    In my twittering, freaking out with glee state, I sought advice from multi-pubed authors.

    All of them told me I didn’t have to decide in MN. They advised me to revise the ending, send back to agent 1. Send requested proposal to agent 2, see if she requests full. Let both know there’s another set of eyes considering my mss. Then if both want to represent, pray talk and one may stand out over the other, or one may say, “So and so has a better grasp/contact in your market.”

    Temptation to make a hasty decision because after years of unnoticed, rejected work “Somebody Wants Me!”, is consuming.

    Your post shows from the agent side, how wise waiting is always best.

  5. Amy Jo on September 24, 2008 at 4:28 PM

    >I am learning so much by following your blog posts. Thank you, VERY MUCH, for taking the time and effort to share your knowledge and experiences with us. Blessings to you, Amy in OR

  6. Zoe on September 24, 2008 at 1:58 PM

    >In the spirit of your recent post about (I’m clearly paraphrasing) authors who can’t take no for an answer, I wonder if she was reacting less to the miscommunication and more to the fact that you honestly said that one project was less promising than the other. As an editor, your recent post about what we have time for in terms of offering referrals and in-depth feedback on something that simply won’t work, really offered comfort to me. I always feel guilty in those situations— I believe in writers and want to cultivate talent and good ideas where I can, but at the end of the day, I need to focus on things that will keep my house in business. I’ve had some authors come back to me and say “I’ve self published and the book is doing well,” triumphant. I’m happy for those people— I hate turning down people with talent because they’re offering something we can’t adequately represent, but some have said it with recrimination in mind and have tried to talk my published authors out of working with us in the future. I get a whiff of that from this story. I could absolutely be projecting, but I think your informed opinion is one of the best gifts you can offer your clients, and if someone won’t hear what you have to say, it might be just as well that she went another way.

  7. Chris on September 24, 2008 at 12:55 PM

    >As a pastor, I feel so awful when this kind of thing happens with someone in my church.

    With my first book coming out, it reminds me to pray that my written words come across clearly.

    Thanks for the post.

  8. Christina Berry on September 24, 2008 at 12:31 PM

    >This has got to go down in the Halls of Miscommunication:

    Mom and I had an editor really interested in our work and reading the full manuscript. Our agent was keeping us posted. Shortly before the holidays we sent some chocolate with a “brilliant” letter to the editor saying what days would be convenient for us to hear an offer and why that day would work. Total tongue in cheek and the editor loves our sense of humor.

    Would have been hilarious if he hadn’t rejected us the month before. Our agent had thought she’d sent it on, but it’d slipped through. 🙁

    We promised to quit stalking him and apologize as soon as the restraining order expired, but we’re still friends now. 🙂

    A benefit was developing better communication with our agent and seeing that both sides are commited to keeping a GREAT working relationship.

    Nice to meet you at the conference!

  9. Jennifer L. Griffith on September 24, 2008 at 11:56 AM

    >Miscommunications happen ALL of the time, no matter how hard we try to be concise with our words. I’m starting to notice it more and more with people around me. Sometimes it involves me, and sometimes it’s between people I love. Sometimes we speak in vague words, leaving interpretation up to the receiver, instead of being straightforward. And being straightforward carries it’s own miscommunication possibilities if the person receiving it needs more sugar than spice. I think the most important thing is “truth” and “honesty,” and all else falls into the place it’s supposed to be.

    Everyone filters words and encounters through our life-experiences, distractions, disappointments and preconceived notions. Especially regarding our writing. That’s when it’s good to remember that God is sovereign. He fills in our gaps, and can make anything happen. Trust that the right people will understand you, and those who don’t realize that their assumptions of what’s said aren’t always correct.

    Blessings, Rachelle. God WILL fill in the gaps. We ALL have a lot to learn when it comes to this aspect of life.

  10. Terri Tiffany on September 24, 2008 at 10:45 AM

    >Yes, I lost a good friend a year ago but thankfully, due to better communication- we are once again friends.
    But more recently, I submitted a book proposal package to an agent and didn’t understand clearly per the directions exactly how he wanted it. I’ve yet to hear back but from his original reply, I think I lost an opportunity. So I should have asked for clearer instructions from someone!
    It happens!

  11. Jeanie W on September 24, 2008 at 10:02 AM

    >I fear for your lost author. It sounds like she made an over-hasty decision based on your lukewarm response to one of her books. Now she engaging a second choice agent. From your telling of the story, it sounds like that second agent would not have had the opportunity to read her full manuscripts before making the offer of representation. Will that agent now be providing the kind of involved career development she seeks? I’d be nervous if it were me.

  12. Inspire on September 24, 2008 at 10:00 AM

    >An old proverb says, ‘He who speaks, sows; the one that listens, reaps’. Often people hear only what they want to hear. The writer just did not pick up what you were trying to say. .

    From an author’s point of view, she may have been looking for an agent for a long time, and when this agent said yes, she took the opportunity. The two of you may not have been a good fit in the end.

    Don’t beat yourself up over this.

    My grandmother would say, ‘it all comes out in the wash’.

  13. The Bossy Church Lady on September 24, 2008 at 9:53 AM

    >It’s kind of funny how things work out… I’ve had more than one situation come up where I was disappointed that a certain door seemed to be slammed right in my face. Later though, after learning a little more about what was really behind that door, I was thankful—especially after another door that led to even better things was thrown wide open for me. I hope what I said makes sense.

  14. Kim Kasch on September 24, 2008 at 9:19 AM

    >I was singing Rock-A-Bye Baby to my son, when my husband walked into the room and snapped, “What are you saying to my son?!!”

    He was raised in Denmark and said, “Don’t sing about a baby falling out of a tree to him, he’ll have nightmares.” He’d never heard the song before – we have lots of those moments.

  15. lynnrush on September 24, 2008 at 9:12 AM

    >It seems that miscommunication happens so very frequently. Just in every day life, marriage, and with friends. But in this case, Rachelle, it seems that the writer should have sought you out again before accepting with someone else. Had you truly been her first choice, wouldn’t that seem logical?

    But you’re right, on your #3, we must pray she’s found something that fits her, and who knows, maybe by her not signing with you, God will bring someone new into your sights to represent?

  16. Pam Halter on September 24, 2008 at 9:01 AM

    >Rachelle asked: Have you ever lost anything or had repercussions due to miscommunication?

    Just this week I found out that I lost someone very dear to me because of non-commuication … on both our sides. This was 30 years ago. I don’t know what my life would have been like today, but I’m glad things got cleared up all these years later and I don’t bear the burden of it all anymore.

    For agent choices, I would never say yes without researching the agent, asking lots of questions and even contacting some clients. That’s what I’ve been told to do. I believe it’s the right thing and someday, I’ll find the agent who is right for both of us.

  17. Rachelle on September 24, 2008 at 7:23 AM

    >Timothy, thanks for bringing up the possibility that maybe I simply wasn’t the right agent in this situation. I didn’t mention that per se in my post but of course I acknowledge and accept it. Luckily I’m friends with many agents and have great respect for all the others, so I truly believe this person will be well-represented no matter who she chose, and I’m glad I’m part of a business where I can say that!

  18. Susan Helene Gottfried on September 24, 2008 at 6:53 AM

    >Aww, Rachelle, I’m sorry to hear you lost out. But on the flip side of the coin, shouldn’t the author have communicated better to you, also? If it was me, I’d have found you before saying yes to agent Two. I’d have said, “I need to be perfectly clear. Are you and I talking one book, or long-term?”

    Communication is a two-way street. While I wish great sales for this woman, I do think that you’re not entirely at fault for not reaffirming your “I take on careers, not novels” policy. (Which she should have known if she’d researched you well, anyway.)

    When one door closes, as the saying goes…

  19. Timothy Fish on September 24, 2008 at 6:49 AM

    >Miscommunication is part of doing business, but there is another possibility. It could be that you simply did not provide what she was looking for while the other agent did. Sure, she thought you were her first choice, but that may have taken a backseat to her desire to leave the conference with an agent. The wisdom of signing an agent after only a brief meeting is debatable, but she wouldn’t be the first writer who hoped to show her husband he didn’t waste $1500 by sending her to ACFW.

  20. Richard Mabry on September 24, 2008 at 6:46 AM

    In my medical practice, I had thousands of conversations with people in which I tried to communicate vital information. Despite my best efforts, there were times when the people heard what they wanted to hear, totally misinterpreted the information I was giving, or failed to retain facts. You can ask, “Do you understand?” and end with “Have I answered your questions?” but in the end there’s no foolproof answer.

    I’ve been involved in some of those agent or editor conversations and can attest that I’ve often walked away wondering if I’d understood correctly what was said. It’s a stressful time on both sides of the table. You did your best. It’s tough to lose a potential client but I’m not sure it’s your fault. Nevertheless, thanks for sharing the episode and the lessons to be learned from it.

  21. Anne L.B. on September 24, 2008 at 6:37 AM

    >I can’t find the exact quote, but I once read something like:

    “Half of the world’s problems are due to lack of communication. The other half result from communicating too much.”

    You’ve brought up a vital topic. Words matter. So does listening. Oh that all of us listened as intently as we talk!

    Praise God that “ALL things work together for good for those who love the Lord”—even miscommunication.

  22. Susan on September 24, 2008 at 3:27 AM

    >Miscommunication is horrible; what’s meant and what’s said and what’s heard can somehow be three completely different things at times.

    I must admit to wondering about the writer: if you were her first choice, why would she accept someone else without clarifying things with you first, or giving you a chance to counteroffer?

    Then I wonder, why come back to you to tell you all this–in her shoes, if I’d taken representation elsewhere, I would have sent you a thank-you card for your time and let it drop, I think. Who knows if things don’t turn out ok with that other agent, and I want to submit that book to you after all—baggage free?

    Well, sometimes two people like each other but just don’t communicate well together from both sides. If that’s the case here, it’s best for you both I suppose.

    And, it leaves a slot open for the rest of us, hurray! LOL

  23. Amy on September 24, 2008 at 3:15 AM

    >On my last hospital placement as part of my degree course, I told the tutors at the beginning of the placement that I was a theory person more than a practical person, and that my practical needed more work than my theory. They, unfortunately, interpreted this as ‘I know everything! I am a know-it-all genius!’, which wasn’t what I meant at all.

    As a result, they decided they disliked me in the first week and made the whole month hellish. Not so much with the fun and learning.