Is the Grass Really Greener?

I got an email last week from a guy who turned down my offer of representation a year ago in favor of another agent. He said he thought he’d made a mistake, was pretty unhappy with the agent, and wanted to talk to me again. The agent had submitted his non-fiction proposal to a round of editors, received 100% rejections, and told the author he was “all out of ideas” and suggested the author move on.

I agreed to talk with the writer, but I don’t know if I’m going to be able to help him. The hard part for me is, I know there’s a good chance that if I’d been repping him, he could be in the exact same place—unhappy and looking for a change. His project was a difficult sell to begin with, and the market has been challenging. I might not have been able to do any better. Agents have to know when to throw in the towel. It’s bad business to keep spending time and effort on something that seems pretty clear isn’t going to work. I might have had to make the same decision.

The author also mentioned he felt the other agent was uncommunicative and not very enthusiastic about his project. The author had spoken with one of my clients who raved about her working relationship with me, and so he felt his agent didn’t measure up in comparison. But here’s the problem with that: Not all my clients would rave about me the way that client did. I really do my best for each client, but some projects are more difficult than others, and I usually have so much on my plate that communication occasionally falls through the cracks. Do I try to keep this from happening? Of course. But I’m sure I let people down once in awhile. We all do.

If your project isn’t selling, it’s not always the fault of the agent. While sometimes an author gets hooked up with an agent who doesn’t really have time for them, sometimes the agent took the author on in good faith but publishers just aren’t interested. In this case, the agent and author may lose interest in working together. The bad news is that the author is left looking for an agent all over again. The good news, however, is that if you can find another agent who knows the whole history and is still interested in repping you, it’s possible the new infusion of energy and a fresh eye on your work can get you back in the game.

As agents, we’re used to authors agent-hopping, sometimes after a brief stint with an agent, sometimes after many years. I haven’t been an agent for very long, but I’ve already had clients leave, and I’m also working with writers who were previously repped by other agents (my friends). If you’re unhappy with your agent, you should definitely try and have a conversation with them, and see if things can be worked out. If not, it’s not the end of the world and you’ll have to find someone else.

Bottom line, I don’t think the grass will necessarily be greener. Just different.

Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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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  5. iheartya on May 30, 2010 at 4:38 PM

    >Hmm… I imagine it would be hard as the writer to ask for a new agent. I hope that this particular writer did so in a way that was graceful and professional, but I know that is not always the case.

    Recently, I was in a car accident. As I was shopping for new cars, a salesman didn't have what I was looking for, so he sent me to one of his friend's car dealerships a few miles down the road. Unfortunately, his friend didn't listen to me when I told him several times that I prefered a USED car and not a brand NEW car. In the end, I didn't purchase my car from either dealership. It's very helpful when car salesmen (read: agents) listen to their clients and give them what they want. Also, it's very helpful when the person buying the car (read: me) communicates my wants and needs as clearly as possible, even if that means changing agents.

    –Sarah Joy–

  6. Gospel Girly on May 26, 2010 at 9:05 AM

    >You guys are lucky on that side of the pond. I'm yet to find an agent here in the UK who will look at Christian fiction and take you seriously…. 🙁
    Bottom line Christian fiction has a very small market here and so people aren't too keen …oh how I long for America … the land full of opportunity (milk and honey)…where dreams come true…

  7. Rachelle on May 25, 2010 at 7:59 AM

    >Some agents typically work book-by-book, some agents have an "overall career" approach. But the lines can be fuzzy. Even with agents who look at the author's career, not just one book, with brand-new writers there is often a "let's give this a try and see how it goes" feeling to it. Once you start seeing the marketplace reaction to their work, there is more information on which to decide whether to move forward or not. Also, if the first book didn't sell and you look at the second book and it doesn't appear it will sell either, it's a good time to cut things off.

    Bottom line, there are so many variables and no guarantees. If an agent loses their enthusiasm for your work, it really doesn't matter why. They're no longer the best agent for you.

  8. Leigh D'Ansey on May 24, 2010 at 11:45 PM

    >I know it's cliche, but I guess it's a classic case of not being able to please all of the people all of the time – something most of us probably wish we could do.

  9. Ronda Laveen on May 24, 2010 at 11:29 PM

    >All we can all do is try our best. He may be starting over but at least he's in the game.

  10. Beth on May 24, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    >Great post, Rachelle. Having an agent isn't a guarantee of publication. It just means that someone else is working to get your material published who has more expertise and contacts, plus (hopefully) a better knowledge of the houses that would be interested. As in other business arrangements, sometimes you will find it easier to work with one person than another, but that doesn't mean everything will work out as you would like.

  11. Reena Jacobs on May 24, 2010 at 4:13 PM

    >Wonderful post. I can imagine it's tough to get so far, hope, and still hit a brick wall. It's too bad the rejects seemed to damage his perspective of the relationship, especially since he said his agent shopped the book for him.

    I do wonder if he expects you to submit to the same publishing houses. I'd think if a publishing house already said no, they're not going to want to look at it again.

    Hopefully he has something new on the table.

  12. Kelly Wittmann on May 24, 2010 at 4:08 PM

    >Oh, boy, did this post resonate with me. I've been there. And been there and been there and been there.

  13. Heather Sunseri on May 24, 2010 at 3:58 PM

    >Question, Rachelle: My question deals with what else the author is working on… If I found an agent to work with, and that agent was unable to find a publishing home for a particular novel, wouldn't there still be hope for future novels I might write? Or would an agent "suggest the author move on" without considering the next novel?
    In other words, is there more to this, or is it common to ask an author to move on based on one novel not selling? (I just realized that this particular writer submitted a non-fiction proposal, so maybe that makes a difference, but I'm still curious.) Thanks!

  14. Susan on May 24, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    >Rachelle, I think this is true regarding most relationships in life; the grass is not always greener on the other side.

  15. Terri Tiffany on May 24, 2010 at 1:32 PM

    >I don't have a comment to this post except to say I've enjoyed reading all the responses and learning. My first expectation with any agent is that we get along well and can communicate–the good and the bad. Hopefully more good:)

  16. Anonymous on May 24, 2010 at 1:25 PM

    >If TWO agents wanted this writer, how bad can the idea be? Maybe all it needs is a fresh eye and a few tweaks to go out on submission again and sell. The economy IS picking up, slowly but surely…

  17. Amanda Sablan on May 24, 2010 at 1:05 PM

    >Thanks for sharing your insight. With all the agent blogs I've visited, my work has really improved.

  18. Daniel F. Case on May 24, 2010 at 11:24 AM

    >Forgive me if this has already been said and I missed it, but:

    The grass may look greener, but you still have to mow it.

    I think of the agent/author relationship as somewhat of a marriage. Marriages have problems sometimes. People get busy, things happen, communication breaks down. Before divorcing your agent, make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.

    If you leave your agent because you've had problems, it won't be at all helpful if you take the problem with you when you jump the fence.


  19. Anonymous on May 24, 2010 at 11:11 AM

    >To me, it was just great to hear that you were willing to CONSIDER chatting with the author about the possibility of taking him on. Even if you opted to take a pass, you took a second to mull it over. I'm in exactly that scenario (I'm not nec. blaming the agent, but I know that I am not the only client who had concerns about his lackluster efforts). After he had disappeared for the tenth time (with no progress), I decided to part ways with him, and begin the hunt again.

    I find myself with two dilemmas:

    a) I am upfront with every new agent I query, stating that this work has been repped (read: pitched to just a few houses, and not followed up on), and nearly immediately, I am usually told that it is now "used goods", and they are not interested, even if they were before they heard that bit of info.

    b) I have indeed begun working on other projects, but this particular work was ghosted for someone else (a celeb in a taboo industry – a tricky sell already!), and I feel I owe it to him to continue trying to get it sold, and feel bad that this project may simply be dumped in the trash because we went with a weak agent.

    So, though this is not a typical project, it does lead me to wonder (regardless of genre, etc) both how many writers manage to convince a second agent to take them on when a first is "done" (for whatever reason) with a manu, and how many have to simply set the work aside, never never knowing what it may have done…?

    Rachelle, thanks for your mullings on the subject, your clients are lucky to have you!

  20. Erika Marks on May 24, 2010 at 10:51 AM

    >Indeed, some agents want to rep a project and some want to represent a writer's career.

    My first agent experience was with the first (it was perfectly lovely even though it didn't yield a sale) so I had an early (and incorrect) belief that most agents worked on a book-by-book basis, but I certainly hoped for an agent to help me build a career.

    Which is why I feel so fortunate for the agent I have now. Her commitment to me as a writer, and not just to the one book I approached her with, has made all the difference.

    I think one thing we writers sometimes forget, is that while we feel the pain of our work being rejected upon submission, our agents feel those blows too. Having an agent who is in it with you for the long haul takes a great deal of the sting out…

  21. Anonymous on May 24, 2010 at 10:32 AM

    >I left my agent not because s/he couldn't sell my work (as far as I know, nothing ever went out on submission), but b/c s/he was uncommunicative to the point of never returning a call or getting back with me and b/c s/he failed to send a proposal in that an editor had REQUESTED.

    Agents are human. They screw up. They can't sell everything. They are not Midas. I understand that.

    If they have a plan, though, if they have a long view of a writer's career, and if they try to communicate that with the writer, then I think the writer should give them every chance.

    If your MS is not selling, write something else. If some behavioral tic is bothering you, talk it out.

    But when should writers throw in the towel? When you can't get your agent on the phone to even TALK about the problem.

    Know, however, that it is going to be twice or thrice as hard to get a second agent after that first one.

  22. sue harrison on May 24, 2010 at 10:24 AM

    >I had the great good fortune to be the client of a wonderful agent. However, even wonderful agents retire, and sometimes the new agent who buys out the business is not a good fit for the authors who "go with the deal". My eventual choice to "jump ship" and leave my new agent came after several years of very careful contemplation.

    These are some of the facts I considered in making my very difficult decision. 1) Does the agent keep a current online presence? 2) Does the agent seem excited about your career? 3) Do you hear (via industry publications or online sources) about deals your agent has made or is currently making?

    It is so hard to make the break, especially if you like your agent (and I did and I do!), but the decision has to be about your career.

    Rachelle, this is another wonderful and wise post. Thank you.

  23. Cliff Graham on May 24, 2010 at 9:30 AM


    It depends on whether the agent want to rep that single work or want to commit to repping your whole career. Sometimes they take a wait-and-see approach, where they rep your first book and have an eye on your career, other times they see enough up front that they want to commit to you long-term. They're all different, which is why Rachelle's guidance about not just jumping into bed with the first one you encounter is so important.

  24. Rachelle on May 24, 2010 at 9:25 AM

    >Sharon, it's not a coincidence. It's harder to sell books now than it ever has been. Agents continue to take on books & clients they believe in, but far more frequently cannot sell them. I can't give you a percentage or an average because I think it varies widely between agents. Some of the biggest agents take on very few new clients, only the ones they are 100% sure they can sell for lots and lots of money. On the other end of the spectrum are agents who take on many projects they believe in, and give 'em the old college try, even though they might be long shots. The more long shots an agent takes on, the higher their percentage of unsold projects.

  25. Cliff Graham on May 24, 2010 at 9:23 AM

    >I think that an unwritten rule here is that authors can be difficult to work with. Creative minds do not necessarily make good business minds. It can take quite an effort to convince a moody, irritable creative person that regardless of how good their writing is, their book will not sell. Authors should spend time studying the market and not just writing.

  26. sharonbially on May 24, 2010 at 9:07 AM

    >Question for you Rachelle: about how frequently are agents simply not able to sell their clients' work? That happened to me once, and I'd never heard of anyone else with a similar experience until recently. Is this becoming more frequent, or is it just coincidental that I'm hearing about it more these days?

  27. Andrea on May 24, 2010 at 9:00 AM

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  28. Jessica Nelson on May 24, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    >Totally agree. As much as I'd like to stay with the same agent my entire career, I've heard way too many stories of authors who've had more than one agent. And it's not always that the agent doesn't sell the author's work or that they have a bad relationship. Sometimes (from what I've heard) the agent and author just start moving in different directions.

  29. Danielle La Paglia on May 24, 2010 at 8:54 AM

    >Thanks for this post. I love getting a glimpse into the world of agents. It helps us understand where you are coming from and gives us a new perspective on situations. Thank you for sharing with us.

  30. lynnrush on May 24, 2010 at 8:42 AM

    >So true! If you're unhappy, you got to talk to your agent. Most things are just misunderstanding. It's kind of like a marriage–gotta communicate or things fester!

    Thanks for this post.

  31. Catherine West on May 24, 2010 at 7:20 AM

    >I wonder if part of the problem is because there might be a bit of a fantasmagorical rumor out there that has new authors believing getting an agent means publication. I've heard it myself. "Get an agent and you're golden." Uh. Really?
    Maybe some authors are just that brilliant and an agent is able to sell their work within weeks of offering representation, and that's great for everyone. But it doesn't work that way for most people I know or for me. It's still a lot of hard work and the proverbial blood sweat and tears. A lot of tears. I do find it odd that this agent severed the relationship on the basis of not being able to sell one book though. (At least that's what it sounds like). To me that says he/she saw no future potential in the writer, so why take them on in the first place?

  32. Jason on May 24, 2010 at 7:12 AM

    >This shows my ignorance, but I'm curious…if an agent can't sell that first book, is that the end of the relationship. Or is it time to write another work for that same agent to sell?

  33. Krista Phillips on May 24, 2010 at 6:41 AM

    >What a not fun position to be in, for both you and the author.

    I guess in my naivety I find myself thinking, "If Rachelle ever offered ME representation, I can't imagine turning it down for anybody!" And I definitely can't imagine breaking off with an agent… I guess except if what they were doing was truly egregious. I think that's why I'm highly selective about the agents I query… I don't want just anybody, I want a good fit, for both of us.

    I thinking too, would it be hard to shop a book that has already been shopped to most every publisher? They've already said no… what are the chances they will change their mind?

  34. Kathryn Magendie on May 24, 2010 at 6:26 AM

    >That must have been hard for him to come to you like that! At any rate, I hope if you rep him, or someone else does, he has success – not knowing who he is or what his project is but knowing how hard we work and how difficult this business is: good luck to him!

  35. Lisa Jordan on May 24, 2010 at 6:10 AM

    >My friend had a quote on her Facebook wall that said something like if the grass is greener on the other side, does that mean their water bill is higher?

    Unrealistic expectations and lack of communications are key factors in why some agent/author relationships fizzle. Keep those lines of communication open.

    Thanks for this post.

  36. Adventures in Children's Publishing on May 24, 2010 at 6:04 AM

    >Open communication is truly the key here, as is a reality check. You never know what will happen with the market, publishers, and so forth. I think if we work with an agent as writers and stay open-minded, then you can't be disappointed. But I also agree that if things aren't working out, it's a "free market" and we can explore other options. Thanks for a great post!


  37. T. Anne on May 24, 2010 at 2:08 AM

    >I can relate to the writer in question. Having experienced the frustration of not having a great business relationship with a previous agent I empathize with him. It's important to ask all the questions up front before committing to representation, and laying out what both parties idea's of communication are is one of them.

    *Rachelle you're featured on my blog today!

  38. Aimee LS on May 24, 2010 at 1:27 AM

    >That is a very wise reality check. (And in principle, true in many, many ways throughout our lives, I think).

    Thank you!