Help! An Agent Relationship Gone Bad!

Anonymous wrote:

I recently fired my book agent for a number of valid reasons and her response was to say that I OWE HER thousands of dollars because she spent time on my project (never submitted it to publishers because we kept rewriting the book proposal because she kept changing her mind about what she thought it needed to look like in order for her to submit it), and she now sent me a bill!! We never had a written agreement, and our verbal agreement was very clear that I could terminate her at any time. There was never any mention of an hourly fee if I terminated, nor can I imagine that she would still be entitled to her agency fee if we go and get another agent and get the book published. Can somebody please confirm I’m not crazy and this is not normal?

My answer:

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when I hear things like this, but I have to admit it’s a bit shocking. Let’s look at this situation.

First, you’re correct, if there was never any mention of terms and there is no written agreement, then the agent seems to have no grounds for charging you. There is nothing saying you have to pay her, but of course, if she chooses, she could make life very difficult for you if she decides to take you to court or something like that. Obviously, it’s your word against hers. Ethically, and according to the way most agents do business, she absolutely shouldn’t be charging you. We do not charge for our editorial work, which is sometimes significant and literally worth thousands of dollars; we do it with the expectation that we will get paid down the road when we sell the book.

But let’s look at a couple of other things you mentioned.

“I OWE HER thousands of dollars because she spent time on my project.” The fact is, the agent probably did spend countless hours on your project. There is nothing more frustrating in agenting then spending valuable time trying to help a writer get their project to a saleable level, working and reworking proposals and chapters, only to be threatened with being fired before there’s even a chance to make one thin dime from it.

Regardless of whether the agent has the right to charge you, did you take into account exactly how much work that agent has put into your project, and how much that would have cost you if you’d hired an independent editor to do it? You may have been right to fire her – I don’t know. But there’s also a chance that you undervalued the work she was doing and got impatient that she hadn’t submitted it yet, when what she was really doing was making sure your project was saleable.

In her eyes, it’s possible that you’re the one who was unethical here. You allowed her to work with you for months, without getting paid but instead with the hope of someday getting paid. Then you pulled the project, ensuring she could never recoup what she has put into you.

“We kept rewriting the book proposal because she kept changing her mind about what she thought it needed…” The part that raises my eyebrows is where you said “she kept changing her mind.” You could be right – I wasn’t there, I don’t know. But there’s a good chance she wasn’t changing her mind, but rather, she was asking for revisions, then getting them back from you and finding the proposal still wasn’t quite good enough, so she asked for more revisions. The editorial process is an art, not a science. Sometimes there is trial and error involved, where revisions are suggested, then it turns out they don’t quite fix the problem, so more revisions are suggested. It’s a back and forth, a give and take. With some stubborn projects (or with writers who just can’t deliver) it can take months. It’s not usually about an agent or editor “changing their mind,” although I suppose it’s possible.

So the bottom line here is that I think this agent made some big mistakes. She didn’t communicate her process well, she didn’t spell out the terms of your agreement, and now she’s going outside of accepted agent practice by trying to charge you.

But there was probably a lack of good communication on both sides of the author-agent relationship. And I think you both probably made some errors in judgment and behavior. Before firing the agent, did you have an honest talk with her about your concerns and your sense of urgency to get this project submitted? There’s a good chance this conversation never happened. If it did, the agent should have had a chance to explain her process and exactly why things were taking so long.

I notice there is often a high level of impatience in writers – get that project out there as quickly as possible! But agents and editors see the bigger picture. We see that it’s fruitless to put a project out on submission before it’s ready. Of course, it’s not our project so we don’t have the urgency you do, and that can be a source of tension.

Your question was, “Can somebody please confirm I’m not crazy and this is not normal?” I can confirm this is not normal for legitimate agents, especially if there was never any discussion of editing fees. But whether you’re crazy… I can’t confirm one way or the other, sorry!

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!


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  2. Anonymous on September 19, 2009 at 6:08 PM

    >Habitual lurker stepping in for a moment…

    While I can't comment on any specific case as I don't have proprietary knowledge, I'd like to add a bit about the legal validity of verbal contracts: consulting an attorney before you make ANY agreement, while written OR verbal is a good idea. Leaving aside statutory laws defining which contracts must be written to be valid, generally a verbal contract can be just as binding as a written contract; an offer made verbally and acceptance granted verbally can be a prima facie contract. Either party breaking the terms of a verbal contract can lead to a breach of contract action in the way that breaking a written contract can. Forming a verbal contract does not, in itself, mean you have no legal recourse or no possible remedies available to you.


  3. R. Luedke on September 19, 2009 at 9:13 AM

    >The Biggest Lesson learned by this is…always get your agreements in writing. It's one of the first mistakes people make in business (including writing and publishing). Yes we want to take people at their word, but their words can change and be influenced by emotion and/or faulty memory, but the written contract (with dating and signatures) always holds people accountable… and it doesn't have to be drafted by an attorney, just a simple page of paper with the terms of the agreement spelled out.

    R.J. Luedke

  4. Amber J. Gardner on September 18, 2009 at 9:08 AM

    >Ah. I didn't see it that way. True, we do still have our manuscript to sell. The situation is different.

    I do love how you look at things on both sides. I always believed that's the best way to solve a problem.

  5. Doug Spurling on September 17, 2009 at 6:03 PM


    I don't know a lot about the writing business although, you're doing an awesome job teaching. But I do know that you answered that with unflinching honesty. That is something to be proud of. (in a good way)
    Good job.

  6. Anonymous on September 17, 2009 at 4:11 PM

    >I'm wondering what the "valid reasons" were that caused the writer to break ties with the agent. Those reasons might help provide a clearer picture of the original situation.

    I agree with the previous poster who said this bill was angry posturing. If I were the writer, I wouldn't respond.

  7. Amy on September 17, 2009 at 3:19 PM

    >This post gives me hope. Not because of the topic at hand but because of the way that you addressed it.

    It is refreshing to read such a balanced review of a situation where both sides are respected and looked at with an open heart.

    You have a rare and precious gift. Thank you for sharing it.

    Amy Robbins-Wilson

  8. Anonymous on September 17, 2009 at 8:18 AM

    >@ Literature Crazy

    Excellent point! I'd been following this whole comment trail, and I never even noticed that the writer said it was a PROPOSAL. Sheesh. You're right. It IS apples and oranges.

  9. Literature Crazy on September 17, 2009 at 6:29 AM

    >I guess my primary concern is that those who are saying this scenario where the agent was making multiple edits to the book proposal is the same as when agents freely invest their time in editing the book because they saw potential.

    To me, it's apples and oranges.

  10. Jessica Scott on September 17, 2009 at 12:48 AM

    >The lack of a contract didn't bother me. What bothered me was the writer's inability to step back and look at her own work.
    Jenny Bent summed it up nicely when she said: But if you look at big picture, getting your work out before its ready can lead to no income at all.

    In this case, I think Rachel is right. We as writers have a hard time seeing that more work can be done to make it better. Ultimately, patience in this industry pays off, not impatience.

    it's too bad that the author freaked out (and didn't have anyone to talk her down from the ledge) but its even worse that it sounds like she made a major decision in the midst of said freak out. Now, she's ruined her relationship with her agent and forgot how incredibly lucky she was to have an agent at all. While I agree that the agent is wrong for charging her, I think both folks are probably pretty angry right now and need to take a deep breath.

    Ultimately, the agent saw a reason for not submitting the work and the author did not. It was, ultimately, a failure to communicate but more so on the author's part because she became unable to see what the agent saw, which meant that she was no longer able to see her story objectively.
    All in all, its a shame the relationship ended like it did.

  11. Sandy at God Speaks Today on September 16, 2009 at 8:34 PM

    >I always learn something new when I visit here. Thanks for a great blog.


  12. Andrew on September 16, 2009 at 5:54 PM

    >Hey, this may be a dumb question, but…

    What are the normal time limits set in a typical contract? In real estate your agent usually has 3-6 months to sell your house. Contract's done after that, you can renew or not, but firing the agent partway through is usually a problem.

    Does it work this way in publishing? If not – would this help?

  13. Andrew on September 16, 2009 at 4:59 PM

    >As a writer (still in search of an agent) I appreciate Rachelle's comment that a client can fire her at any time. However…

    1) If the agent materially contributes, during the course of a business relationship, to a book which is subsequently sold to a publisher, she probably does have grounds for a lawsuit. There are some similar precedents in patent law.

    2) The argument is strengthened if the agent worked in good faith; that is, if she kept records of the edits as suggested and incorporated by the author, and they are both consistent and generally supportive of the book's development.

    I don't want to be gadfly on the agent's behalf, but this issue treads some legal quicksand, and a bright lawyer could probably at least get it heard – and nothing turns off a jury faster than the 'writers are crazy and fickle' argument.

    And that may one day set a precedent which we will have to address in every writer-agent relationship.

    Who wants THAT?

  14. Sharon A. Lavy on September 16, 2009 at 3:45 PM

    >Very interesting thought provoking post.

  15. Jenny Bent on September 16, 2009 at 2:10 PM

    >"So to me, if you want to prove that you're above-board, you offer a contract."

    Here's the thing about that, and I'm going to have to blog about this: many of the agent-author agreements–a great many–that I see, in my opinion, are unfair to the author. So what does it mean if you offer a contract that does the author no favors? Does that mean you are above-board? I have this to say: always have a lawyer look at a contract an agent gives you. In some circumstances, if you sign it unchanged you are putting yourself at risk of owing the agent commission whether or not that agent actually sells your work.

    And that's just ONE of the ways that agency agreements can be unfair.

  16. emilymurdoch on September 16, 2009 at 2:05 PM

    >I'm not excusing the agent's behavior, but sending the bill (that the agent herself, most likely, knows is nothing more than angry posturing) is probably the agent's way of saying touche`, as she obviously feels slighted by the author pulling the project after she invested so much time/work into it.

    I see two angry people here, and each, in their own minds, with valid gripes.

    When we get angry as human beings, not only are we more prone to lash out/retaliate, but we operate (on a physiological level)from a part of our brains that, in the heat of the moment, precludes logical thought.

    Anger is a divider. That said, I think the writer and agent need to have a conference call and let it all hang out — anger, emotions, concerns, reservations, all of it — and see if the project can be salvaged. Putting the project in a drawer doesn't help the writer, and pulling the project, obviously, felt unfair/insulting to the agent.

    The level of anger, here, suggests both parties had a serious investment in the outcome. We don't get that angry, otherwise. As women, many of us are prone to avoid confrontation and anger, but, in this case, something good could still come out of talking things through.

  17. Nicole O'Dell on September 16, 2009 at 1:57 PM

    >Very interesting post! Thanks for your take on this. I especially loved your last line. Hee hee.

  18. DebraLSchubert on September 16, 2009 at 1:32 PM

    >Fascinating scenario, Rachelle. Thanks for bringing it to the table. I hope the author has her original ms in tact. She might be better off starting over again with what is clearly completely her own work. Just a thought.

  19. Kathleen MacIver on September 16, 2009 at 1:18 PM


    Thank you for clarifying for me that it's not considered unethical to not have a contract. I know that verbal agreements used to be okay…but in today's world, it's just ASKING to get screwed. So to me, if you want to prove that you're above-board, you offer a contract.

    But that aside…doesn't my point still apply? That if the agent proved herself/himself unethical (or clueless) enough to bill like she did, that there's a decent chance her edits were worthless?

    Or do you think there are agents out there who know their business AND know editing… AND will honestly do their best for a client…yet still would do this?

    To me, this concept just seems like this would be out-of-character. If I wrote a story where an agent was honest, knew her business, was a good editor, and went to all that work…and then proceeded to do what this agent did, I'd get huge red flags for "this is out of character!" On the other hand, if the agent had been trying to force his/her own agenda on the client, or if the agent really had no idea what she was doing, then the whole billing issue would be considered "in character."

    That's my point. The billing (if this is a true story you've received) indicates his/her character and method of doing business, and as such, it casts serious doubt on the value of those edits, because that had to have been influenced by the same character.

    At least, in my mind it does.

  20. Anonymous on September 16, 2009 at 1:06 PM

    >I was in a similar situation to this writer. The agent was wonderfully sweet and patient, offering numerous editorial suggestions. Since our relationship was shiny and new, I wanted to please her and so I kept tweaking the manuscript over a period of a year, hoping to please her, even though her suggestions didn't always resonate with me.

    Long story short, we simply didn't have a meeting of minds when it came to the editorial process and I reluctantly had to bow out of the relationship. I felt AWFUL because she'd read the durn thing three or four times.

    Sometimes that sort of thing just happened, and it's really nobody's fault. I felt so bad I would have liked to write her a check, but, of course, she would have never accepted it.

    I finally finished the revisions (following my own counsel) and when the book finally sells I'd love to do something nice for her. Definitely she'll be in my acknowledgements. Anyway, I guess this sort of thing does happen occasionally and I'm sure most writers feel very torn about it.

  21. Rachelle on September 16, 2009 at 12:50 PM

    >To everyone who keeps talking about a contract… Jenny Bent is right. There is no way any reputable agent (particularly one who holds to the ethical guidelines of the AAR) would have an author/agent agreement that specifies payment to the agent for revisions if the client walks away. That contract simply doesn't exist, and if it did, YOU SHOULDN'T SIGN IT.

    This isn't about contracts. It's about communication and ethical business practices.

    In addition, for all of you who are so concerned about agents who don't offer contracts… what Jenny said is true, the contract is largely for the agent's protection, it doesn't offer you much that a verbal agreement wouldn't cover. There is no reason to be so concerned. (Things are different once there is a publisher offer on the table, and at this point, most agents will make sure they have a written agreement that spells out their terms with the author.)

    The way I work is this: with or without an author/agent agreement, a client can fire me at any time. This is the way many agents work.

  22. JoAnne on September 16, 2009 at 12:44 PM

    >I took away a valuable lesson from both the writer's perspective and how the agent might be feeling from this unfortunate experience. It shows the importance of a written contract, regardless if you love the agent or not. To me, it just seems more professional and I would be leery of any agent who didn't have the specifics spelled out in writing. But I would have a hard time walking away from the hours this agent obviously put into helping this writer, without paying her/him a fair price for his services.

    As a writer, I've found that it can be a tight community when it comes to agents & editors and that you don't want to burn any bridges. Ethics and high expectations should be equally as important for the agent and editors as well as yourself.

  23. Jenny Bent on September 16, 2009 at 12:32 PM

    >"I notice there is often a high level of impatience in writers – get that project out there as quickly as possible!"

    As an agent, I notice this myself and it can be frustrating. I understand that it is a financial imperative to sell your work. But if you look at big picture, getting your work out before its ready can lead to no income at all.

    Additionally, I don't ask that clients sign an agency agreement. For the most part, agency agreements protect the agent but not the author. I want the author to be able to fire me without any repercussions. The fact is that the agent charging money has NO LEG TO STAND ON because there is no kind of written agreement that specifies that she can do this. If an author very much wants an agency agreement with me I will give them one and work with them to make sure it is fair for both of us.

  24. Jennifer Hatch on September 16, 2009 at 12:30 PM

    >I'd like to think that no matter how seasoned we become as writers, there is always more to learn. An agent willing to share their vast experience for my betterment is a blessing indeed.

  25. Elizabeth Lynd on September 16, 2009 at 12:29 PM

    >That is a really interesting post. Reading it at first, I was absolutely aghast and totally on the side of the writer. But your response made me realize there could very well be two sides to this story, and the agent might well be in the right. I just hope I am never in that position–another argument for choosing wisely, both the author choosing the agent, and the agent choosing the author.

    Rachelle, just wanted to let you know I linked a post of yours to my blog today. And I had a good giggle when I came to read this, with the word OWE in caps, as mine is all about what agents "owe" writers querying them (or not).

  26. Timothy Fish on September 16, 2009 at 12:27 PM

    >The lack of a written contract doesn’t particularly bother me in this case. The way literary agents operate is pretty much standardized. There are a few variations here and there, but the standard is well enough known that it would likely become the rule if it came down to a he said, she said situation.

    Amber makes a very good point, but the standard is that no one gets paid until the publisher releases the money. Yeah, that’s frustrating. And yeah, that requires both the agent and the author to take some amount of risk. The author takes on more risk than the agent, but the author receives the greater reward. In any contracting business, there is always some work that is done without charge in hopes that it will help persuade someone to pay for future work. The key to profitability is to make sure we get paid enough for the other work to offset the free stuff.

    It’s results that should be rewarded, not effort. Even if you work by the hour at McDonalds, you won’t get paid if people aren’t buying burgers. An agent may be an excellent writing teacher and spend countless hours helping the writer improve, but if she isn’t producing results in her real responsibility, which is selling the author’s work to publishers, she ought not get paid. An not getting an acceptable proposal from the author is no excuse. Yeah, it’s in the author’s best interest to be actively involved with the proposal, but it is the agent’s responsibility to communicate with the publisher, no matter what the author does or does not do.

  27. Patrick Hester on September 16, 2009 at 12:21 PM

    >I'm reminded of a staple in the customer service world – you only hear the bad stories.

    For every story like the one above, there are probably hundreds of stories with satisfied authors and agents that we never hear about. Because they're happy. Happy people don't feel the need to write emails or post things on their blogs or pull people aside at conventions and meetings and whisper furiously about such n such.

    It's only when things go a little south that we complain, loudly, to anyone who will listen and then the story spreads.

    I've a friend who had an agent and a possible deal on the table. All she needed to do was 'tweak her story a little'. Then tweak it again. Then tweak it again. (At one point they asked if she could add a teenage looking vampire to the story – silly, no?) Being the frustrated, underappreciated artist that we all are, she began to take offense at 'these people' tampering with her epic artistic vision.

    She told the agent she was done and let the deal die too, to which I said, "ARE YOU NUTS?!"

    She had an agent who really saw something in her work and thought he could sell it AND EVEN had a publisher who was interested – and she walked away? (She saw the light and returned to him – a little communication and they are back on track and doing revisions – without the teenage vampire, thank God.)

    It's a relationtship – just like any other – it takes work. You have to find someone that you can work with and who can work with you. You have to be able to communicate with each other. Doesn't mean you have to be the best of friends. It probably won't ever be a 'match made in heaven', but it should be a match made of mutual respect. The agent has already shown a measure of respect in you because they want to represent you and sell your book. Show a little respect in them and understand that they know what they're doing.

    It isn't personal when they ask for changes. It's them trying to bring out the best from us and balance that with what they know will be a marketable manuscript that a publisher will purchase and publish.

    In the end, we have that same goal.


  28. Anonymous on September 16, 2009 at 12:18 PM

    >Anonymous 8:01 here again.

    First off, hats off to agents like Rachelle Gardener. Editorial agents are a rare breed, and should be celebrated.

    I would not take REASONABLE offers of revision as an insult. I'm a pubbed author for a major house who once gutted a book TWICE based on pre-publication editorial interest and advice — and I was proud of the offers of revision in both cases. The book went on to become my first sale.

    My comment was simply that we didn't know how long the revisions cycle was. UNENDING is the word I used when I compared such requests to the requests for boob jobs and other fix-ups.

    People can stand most anything if they can see the end in sight. But the bearable becomes unbearable if the sufferer imagines it stretching on for eternity.

    Now should said author shop the book to another agent? No. Of course not. Stick the book in a drawer, and write another.

    Should said agent bill for time? No, again. She took the risk when she took on a client who needed intensive work.

    Expectations minus reality equals disappointment. Establish those expectations — and the reality — from the get-go, and life will be a lot less drama-free.

  29. heath on September 16, 2009 at 12:08 PM

    >I wonder if the agent is new to the role of agent. It reads as if there's some over-confidence regarding editing, with unsureness or unawareness of standard industry practices, all unshepherded by a manager or previous experience. It could be that there was fairness in the technical aspect of the editing process, but a fail on business / client management efforts. An editor-turned-agent? It sounds like inexperience on both sides, with no intent for unethical behavior from either. Mistakes have a way of spiraling out of control, though. Patience isn't always a virtue. A great post, and comments thread. I won't forget this lesson.

    On another note, I've been reading a few agents' blogs for a couple of years. I'm impressed with their dedication, insight, generosity, compassion, and awesome work ethics. I'm convinced there's a good deal of saintliness-in-training hiding behind their toothy masks. (Don't tell anyone I said that!)

    Thank you.

  30. yarnbuck on September 16, 2009 at 12:05 PM

    >"– when an author makes great leaps in their writing ability and when they finally do sell that manuscript — it's a beautiful thing. Not just for the money but for the love of what we do."

    Good Stuff.

    The fans can celebrate the game others play, but a coach shares deep enough to have his own heartbeat. Technically, an agent probably can't play the part of the macro instructor. But to take on and lean into a specific project of the heart has to be rewarding. Done well – it can't help but make the writing and the Writer better.

    Contract? Yeah, from my experience, even with Eagle Scouts. I've had memory miseries that were absent malice. The best neighbors have the best fences.

  31. heath on September 16, 2009 at 11:42 AM

    >Writers are generally crazy, I think, and agents, too — such enormous effort from all, for a very high risk of no reward. Your points are fair and compassionate for both the authors' and the agents' sides, and show a bigger picture than many writers can see unless they've been at it for a long time. Very helpful.

  32. Amber Argyle-Smith on September 16, 2009 at 11:38 AM

    >The only piece of advice I can give is somewhat after the fact:

    Try everything in your power to fix what's wrong before moving on to someone new (assuming you have a legit agent, of course).

    Tell your agent, I am unhappy with "fill in the blank(s)" and see if the situation can't be resolved.

  33. Gina Black on September 16, 2009 at 11:34 AM

    >"we kept rewriting the book proposal because she kept changing her mind about what she thought it needed to look like in order for her to submit it"

    My sense is that the writer didn't fully agree with–or perhaps understand–the agent's requests. This is a problem large enough to ruin any professional relationship.

    For the agent to send a bill . . . well, quite frankly that's a major red flag.

    It's not easy to tell from the letter where the true liability lies in this mess. Additionally, it's unclear as to whether the agent has a stake in the book if it goes on to be sold by someone else even if it's substantially different. This is a good argument as to why a written contract is a very good thing.

  34. Andrew on September 16, 2009 at 11:33 AM

    >What if the writer gets another agent, and the book is published, incorporating the changes suggested by the first agent?

    Wow. That would be WAY unethical on the part of the writer.

    My first thought was to side with the writer (I was biased, having had a bad experience with a 'reading fee' agent). But…

    1) No agent who is remotely sane will suggest revisions for fun. It takes time, and effort.

    2) When the writer pulled the book she still had a marketable product, one that was likely improved through the suggestions of Agent #1 (even if the revisions were not directly used). Agent #1 had NOTHING.

    The writer was wrong. She hung the agent out to dry. And to say the writer never had an agent, no way. The writer had an agent who spent a lot of hours on the project. And got shafted.

    Everyone takes a risk in this business, but I'd rather make it with honor intact. And that darn well includes a handshake.

  35. Richard Mabry on September 16, 2009 at 11:31 AM

    >This story and the comments it has generated make me feel fortunate to have such a helpful, ethical agent. And I daresay most agented writers feel the same way. Just as there are doctors whose methods of practice give the profession a bad name, there are undoubtedly agents who do the same. There's blame on both sides here and lessons to be learned. Thanks for having the courage to post the story (and sit through the firestorm afterward).

  36. Nikki Hootman on September 16, 2009 at 11:25 AM

    >No written contract = no agent.

    To suggest it may be okay to do things "on a handshake" because we should trust each other is naive and simply not good business practice. A written contract is not saying "we don't trust each other." It's saying "We respect each other enough to avoid future misunderstandings by outlining our relationship right now."

    Even a marriage – the greatest act of trust a single person can make – is a contract. We vow to support one another under certain conditions (in sickness and in health, etc.) and then we sign our names. Do we do that because we don't trust each other? No, we do it so we're both clear on what we're agreeing to. I mean, what would you think of someone who asked to marry you but then said they didn't want to sign the license? After all, you trust each other, right?

    As far as I'm concerned, this author never had an agent.

  37. Rebecca Knight on September 16, 2009 at 11:24 AM

    >I'd have to agree w/ your last comment, Rachelle. I'd be thrilled if an agent saw enough potential in me to invest in editing my novel.

    We all try to be at 100%, but we all may fall short. To have someone believe in you enough to help for free is a pretty major gift.

  38. Rachelle on September 16, 2009 at 10:04 AM

    >Anonymous 8:01–I am currently working with a number of clients whose books are not quite ready for prime time, but I'm trying to help them get there. I see the potential, I believe in them, and I want to work with them to help them succeed, and be their partner along the way. Many agents do this.

    I am not asking someone to get a boob job or a nose job. I'm lending my years of experience to help them become the best writer they can. If they don't want my input, they're free to go somewhere else. Most authors are smart enough to know a good deal when they see it, and trust me, an agent willing to put their time and effort into helping prepare an author for publication is a really good deal. It doesn't cost the writer a DIME, just some time and effort. I fail to see how this is a bad deal for the author.

    As you can see from this post, the agent is taking a lot of risk (although the writer risks something too – their time). The agent can put in all this work, only for the project to fail to sell, or the author might walk away. Some of us are willing to take this risk, because when it pays off — when an author makes great leaps in their writing ability and when they finally do sell that manuscript — it's a beautiful thing. Not just for the money but for the love of what we do.

  39. Lea Ann McCombs on September 16, 2009 at 9:57 AM

    >Annonymous, I love the comparison to the "boob job, nose job…" new husband! Yep, that's about what it feels like.

    However, in all fairness, a closer illustration might be the new husband who is invited to a Presidential dinner and his wife doesn't have the right dress for the occassion. He'd say, "Honey, it's black tie and evening gown. You'll be the prettiest one there when you get the right outfit, get your hair and nails done…"

    I think that's probably more in line with the way agents see it.

  40. Rachelle on September 16, 2009 at 9:42 AM

    >Kathleen MacIver–While it's certainly best to do business with a written agreement, the lack of one is not a sign of an unethical businessperson. In the past, it was the way many agents (particularly in Christian publishing) did business on a regular basis. Sometimes we still do. It is unfortunate that we live in a world where we can't trust someone's word; but that simple fact doesn't make someone unethical simply because they don't insist on a written agreement. Unwise maybe, but not unethical.

  41. Lynnda - Passionate for the Glory of God on September 16, 2009 at 9:08 AM

    >Good morning, Rachelle.

    Prov. 8:11 says, "For wisdom is better than precious stones." Thank you for the opportunity to gain wisdom about our potential relationships with agents and publishers.

    Be blessed!


  42. Anonymous on September 16, 2009 at 9:01 AM

    >I think we're still missing some context here: how long did these rounds of revisions last? Because time is money, people, for both agent and writer.

    Mistake Number 1: Dumb Bunny Agent took on a client without a saleable book — which, according to local web lore, is not the way things are usually done. An EDITORIAL-minded agent can take a book from say 80% ready to 90% ready, at which point the publishing house editor takes it from there.

    Mistake Number 2: Dumb Bunny Writer didn't get a written contract. That's been very well covered in the comments above, so I will refrain from re-hashing.

    And yes, writers ARE impatient once they get an agent — because GETTING AN AGENT IS SO HARD. Writers have to be at the tippy-top of their game to even get an agent, and they're told over and over, if an agent can't think of six or seven editors he wants to send it to NOW, then your writing is not ready.

    Plus, industry conditions can and will change. Think if you will about chick lit — what if an agent was dragging her feet about sending something out, and the market died in the meantime? Same thing can happen with any genre.

    I had a friend of mine with a cozy project that her agent said needed NO editing. Took said agent five months to get around to sending it out — in which timespan the entire cozy market imploded. This was a Big-Gun Agent, one Who Knew Her Stuff, and Who Had Made Big, Big, Big Sales.

    The expectation we as writers are given is, "Agents won't take it unless it's pretty much ready to go out."

    So when an agent takes you, and then drags you through the agony of unending revisions, it's kind of like your husband marrying you and saying, "Oh, by the way, honey, I've scheduled you for a boob job, a nose job and some liposuction. After that, I really think I could bear to go out with you in public ."

  43. Anonymous on September 16, 2009 at 8:57 AM

    >Sounds like the agent is a nit-picky perfectionist who has trouble letting go. If the proposal is this much trouble, can you imagine the book??

    If all else fails, you can get a mediator to work things out.
    I wouldn't trust this agent after pulling a stunt like this–she seems like the crazy one.

  44. Pam Halter on September 16, 2009 at 8:17 AM

    >I learned a long time ago to never, never, never work without a written contract. Verbal contracts are nothing … unless you've recorded it. It does come down to to "he said, she said" and how does a person prove it?

    I've had experiences with an agent and and editor where I wrote and rewrote. The agent took a whole year to say no. We even met face-to-face at a conference. We were both disappointed it didn't work out because we enjoyed each other's company.

    The editor took three rewrites to say no. And this happened twice. She contacts me now and then with writing projects, but there hasn't been anything that worked out for us yet. But I don't think I lost anything because I proved I'm willing to work and I understand the process. Sure, I was disappointed, but really, I learned A LOT.

    My time for an agent will come and I'll be glad I didn't go with someone who was wrong for me and my work.

  45. Kathleen MacIver on September 16, 2009 at 8:11 AM

    >Uh… *your* answer. ::sigh:: How come you still miss things, even when you proof your own comments? Oh well…

  46. Kathleen MacIver on September 16, 2009 at 8:09 AM

    >I think you answer is very good, Rachelle…except I, as an unagented and unpublished writer (meaning I have no credentials), wonder why you didn't attach more weight to the lack of contract, back before the editing even began.

    To me, this lack is a serious, serious signal that this agent should never have been signed with, even verbally. The unethical billing is the "proof in the pudding." This makes me more inclined to think that the author only recently realized what she should have realized in the beginning.

    Sure, I know she was frustrated…that's understandable. But the fact that she lets frustration cause her to do unethical things is a major signal, isn't it?

    I know that sometimes revision requests and so forth happen before you sign with an agent… but according to this person, this was more than the "revise and I'll consider representing you." Both of them understood that she had taken the author on as a client…and still no contract outlining the relationship was offered.

    I guess I'm wondering why you think an agent who is unethical enough to not offer a contract, and unethical enough to bill afterward, would have been completely ethical in all those rounds of editing. To me, it seems rather likely that she wasn't being ethical there, either, and it just took this author (who obviously isn't aware of the business standards) this long to figure it out. And frankly, if I was this author, I'd seriously doubt the validity of ANY of the edits this agent advised her to do. The agent's business practices have advertised that she's either totally ignorant, or unethical…and neither would give me any confidence whatsoever in her edits.

  47. Lisa on September 16, 2009 at 7:51 AM

    >Yikes. That's scary. But I certainly understand being impatient to get your project out there. I have to keep reminding myself that it takes time and putting it out there before it's ready is just going to add even more miles to the get-my-story-published road.

    And not all agents will edit. I'm very grateful that mine is willing to work with me and help improve my story first. That takes a lot of faith and time and effort.

  48. Marla Taviano on September 16, 2009 at 7:48 AM

    >I know there was no written agreement, but I don't think it's fair to take a project that an agent has invested tons of hours in and hand it off to another agent for them to capitalize on.

    It's like working for 15 minutes to get a pickle jar lid off, and then someone comes along and asks you to hand it over. She gets it off in 5 seconds–but only because you've been loosening it for 15 minutes!

    Wow, where did that come from?

    I had an agent for a couple years. We amicably parted ways. I have a lovely new agent now. And I'm happy to say that I didn't leave my old agent high and dry. There wasn't a single project he worked hard on that I'm now passing off to the new gal. (good thing, because that's in my written contract with Agent #1)

  49. Rachelle on September 16, 2009 at 7:45 AM

    >Levi S–EXACTLY. When I am in a situation where I'm operating on a verbal contract, I understand exactly what risk I'm taking. Both parties have the right to walk away without owing the other anything. Thank you for pointing that out. This is why the agent in this scenario is fundamentally wrong in her demands.

  50. Rachelle on September 16, 2009 at 7:38 AM

    >Mike–good point about whether the agent is a member of the AAR. That would be a great place to go to settle the dispute. Somehow I doubt the agent is a member, though, since the AAR's ethical guidelines prohibit charging clients for reading or editing.

    Amber J. Gardner–that's an interesting thought, and I agree, we all can and will get frustrated at things that happen. But I'm afraid I don't agree with your example; these two situations are not at all analogous. Agents ask for partials and fulls as a way of assessing whether they want to represent a project, and they only end up saying yes to a fraction of the projects they read, so many authors will find themselves disappointed. It's the standard way of doing business. If the agent ends up saying no, then the writer might be frustrated, but they still have their project to sell, they have the chance to do what they intended which is get it published and make some money. It's totally different from the situation I presented, in which the agent has spent valuable time to net absolutely nothing.

  51. Levi S on September 16, 2009 at 7:34 AM

    >Bottom line is she may have a right to be upset, based on exactly what happened. No one outside the relationship really knows for sure. But she has no right to send you a bill if you never discussed payment for editorial services.

    If an agent is afraid that he/she is going to get burned, then they should offer their terms IN WRITING.

    But it's unwise and a bit hypocritical if you're going to bask in the freedom of a no-contract relationship, then complain when you get burned by that same freedom.

    As in any relationship, the freedom to walk away goes both ways. If you're going to reserve the right to walk away, then don't get mad if the other party beats you to the punch.

  52. Kelly Combs on September 16, 2009 at 6:53 AM

    >Gosh, I hope not being crazy doesn't start being in the guidelines for getting an agent. I'll never get one! Well, maybe. I'm only a little crazy. 😉

  53. lynnrush on September 16, 2009 at 6:47 AM

    >Thank you for this. I'm sorry the author is going through this, but thank you for sharing this situation so the rest of us can learn from it.

    Communication is key. I look at the agent-author relationship kind of like a marriage . You must talk because otherwise the other will assume something that is most likely incorrect and that can lead to big problems down the line.

  54. Mike on September 16, 2009 at 6:05 AM

    >I'm curious whether the agent in question is a member of the AAR. If so, perhaps they could be of help in resolving the dispute.

  55. Lisa Jordan on September 16, 2009 at 5:52 AM

    >Upon reading this, I wondered why there was no written agreement. Rachelle, I know you talked in the past about having a verbal agreement at first with some clients, but to me, a written agreement would carry more weight in situations like this. Now it's a case of she said vs she said. At what point do writers and agents move from a verbal agreement to a written one? I'll have to dig through the archives for that post.

  56. Amber J. Gardner on September 16, 2009 at 4:41 AM

    >I agree with your answer to the writer's problem, but something did occur to me.

    If it's fair for the agent to get frustrated for having worked that long on a project and have it suddenly pulled on her by the writer, then we writers have the right to get frustrated when we work years on our projects and have agents ask for partials or fulls just to pull out at the end.

    Of course, it's not exactly the same thing, but I think the amount of frustration would be the same.

  57. writer jim on September 16, 2009 at 2:47 AM

    >IF the agent is one of good established reputation; I think the writer should try to discuss everything with the agent; and work things out for mutual fairness and benifit. From what I've learned; I'll bet the writer is lucky to have an agent involved as much as it seems. I suggest the writer admit you got upset, and things happened…that you both should try once more to resolve. If you do your part, you and agent might both have success, and even become good friends. Think of all the worry you might avoid by just writng the agent a note. Now, of course if the agent has been charging you reading fees, or other ways truly wronging you …it is a different situation.

  58. Ann Victor on September 16, 2009 at 2:21 AM

    >A good balanced assessment of a difficult situation.

  59. Kim Kasch on September 16, 2009 at 1:21 AM

    >Communication is the key to most relationships. Well that, and not being crazy 😉