Help! An Agent Relationship Gone Bad!
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?
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!