When An Agent Gives Up on a Project

As you know, agents aren’t able to sell every book we decide to represent. But the decision to stop trying to sell a book is always a tough one. We’ve already put a lot of work into it, we haven’t made a dime, and we may really like the client. When do we know it’s time to quit and move on?

Here are a few reasons we might give up:

1. Out of Options
We’ve exhausted our list of editor contacts and don’t know of any more viable prospects among advance-and-royalty-paying publishers.

2. Poor Response
The general feedback from editors was negative or lackluster, and the project never even made it past the editor’s desk to the editorial meeting or the pub board. (As opposed to situations where editors loved it but couldn’t get it approved.)

3. Market Concerns
The market reality turns out to be different than we expected—last month everyone was buying vampires and this month we can’t give them away. We don’t see the situation changing anytime soon.

4. We Were Wrong
We realize we were probably wrong about the project. We thought it was “saleable” but it’s not selling and in discussing it with editors, we realize they have some good points and maybe this one’s not going to cut it.

There could be other reasons, or combinations of the above, but these are the main ones.

The decision to give up on a project is related to another difficult question: If we’re done with the project…

Are we also done with the client?

Again it depends on a number of factors:

1. Does the client have a saleable body of work?
2. Are the client’s other works any better, or do they suffer from whatever weakness that kept the first one from selling?
3. Does the agent still have enthusiasm for selling this writer and do they believe they can do it?

Whatever the agent decides, this is never an easy crossroads. Being a good businessperson and a good steward of our limited time and resources sometimes requires letting something go. I wish it weren’t that way!

Q4U: Do these seem like legitimate reasons for an agent to drop a project or client? Can you think of other reasons?

© 2011 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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  4. Dianne Dykstra on March 26, 2011 at 8:01 PM

    >Attitude was the first that came to mind. Good or bad a person's attitude carries a lot of weight in this world. A negative one encourages failure. Arrogance can also bring failure. It’s more challenging to work with these attitudes compared to others. And sometimes it might not be worth it.

  5. Anonymous on March 25, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    >Anon: I think that's a smart idea. Never give up, never surrender! lol I'm still trying to salvage a first ms. and taking a different approach. If you can't beat them, join them…to use another cliche.

  6. Beth K. Vogt on March 24, 2011 at 7:14 AM

    >Coming late to the discussion.I've experienced this–having my agent recommend that we give up on a project. The way it was phrased was "Let's table this book for now." I liked the approach of "us" versus "I'm going to do this." And I also knew my agent believed in me and my project. I also knew the book was a tough sell: controversial topic and I am not a big-name, nor am I married to someone famous, so there's no riding on the coattails of someone else's fame.
    Thankfully, we're focusing on other projects.

  7. Donna Hole on March 23, 2011 at 9:00 PM

    >They seem legitimate to me. I imagine its a lot like getting fired from a job. You usually know its coming. I'd hope the author has been warned enough to have something else in the works that has been presented to the Agent.

    For myself, I think having obtained an Agent, then losing their confidence, would be worse than your MS not selling. Of course, you need one for the other . . Stuff happens sometimes.


  8. Author Rebecca Mugridge on March 23, 2011 at 7:29 PM

    >This is really interesting, its refreshing to see the agents side too.
    If these are the reasons an agent would drop a writer what would be valid reasons for a writer to drop/change an agent?
    Is it possible that some agents are better suited to or prefer to pursue a certain genre even if they cover others or doesn't it really come into it?
    And can a writer/agent relationship just go stale even if the writer is still marketable with new works?

    Great blog,

  9. Beth on March 23, 2011 at 7:04 PM

    >There are no guarantees in this business, and that's the truth. An agent will do his best, if for no other reason, because that's how he gets paid. But if it won't sell, then it just won't sell.

    A great reason to have begun work on other manuscripts immediately. Always have something cooking.

  10. Anonymous on March 23, 2011 at 6:38 PM

    >testing …

  11. Brooklyn Ann on March 23, 2011 at 6:32 PM

    >They all sound legitimate to me, but what a sad, sad time for both parties. I do take comfort in that I have other projects…and not all of them are vampires.

    And 1st Anon: I am confused as to the point of your post. If you're that steamed, rant about it on your own blog.

  12. Anonymous on March 23, 2011 at 1:55 PM

    >It seems like all the reasons the agent dropped the projects are pretty much the same–all the editors said no. They could have said no after the project went to editorial board, or it could have never left the editor's desk, or no editors even bit on the agent's pitch (which happened to the first manuscript my agent tried to shop). They could have said no because the manuscript had a fatal flaw that couldn't be fixed or was doomed to midlist or a combination of needing work and genre/topic a tough sell.

    The main reason my agent didn't fire me after the lack of interest in my first manuscript is that I have another in progress on what we both believe is a far more salable topic. I've also rewritten the first three chapters of the one that didn't sell, in the hope that there will be interest if the other one does well. I suppose the upside of no editors actually agreeing to read the manuscript is that it hasn't been read and rejected everywhere.

    What do other people think? Have I pursued a smart strategy, or am in in a fantasyland? The fact that I found an agent who says she loves my work and is really good about communicating with me while letting me make my own decisions on what to write has given me confidence to keep going. It has also given me the confidence to consider small presses if the major houses don't work out, as opposed to shoving my manuscripts in a trunk and quitting altogether.

  13. Jackie on March 23, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    >Are there some common reasons why editors decide that a novel's not going to cut it? Knowing what these are might help in the writing process.

  14. Rachelle on March 23, 2011 at 1:29 PM

    >Scooter, hopefully less than once a year. But you can't predict these things.

  15. Scooter Carlyle on March 23, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    >I'm not trying to be a butt-kisser, as Anonymous says, but I don't have a problem with anything Rachelle said on the matter.

    I am curious about how often an agent has to drop a project or a client. Does it happen on a fairly regular basis? I'm sure it depends on the agent, but I'd like to get a feel for how many times a year would be considered average.

  16. Michael Offutt on March 23, 2011 at 12:48 PM

    >It seems completely legit to me. We live in a capitalist society where money is the bottom line. People get published because they are marketable and that what they write is going to cause other people to open their wallet and purchase the product. To use a metaphor, restaurants must cater to the locals if they want to survive. Writers who seek to make a living through publishing need to cater to the audience that wants to buy their work. I think you are well within normal expectations of any reasonable person to drop something that has no money in it. Writing is not art and authors are not artists. When the two happen to coincide it's serendipitous and a wonderful thing. More often than not though, writing is so much different than the actual sale that the two almost have nothing in common with each other (maybe it was different 20 years ago but not so today). You are on the sales end and you have my sympathies on having to make difficult choices.

  17. Valerie Comer on March 23, 2011 at 11:48 AM

    >Like Katie said: "On the other hand, if a client only has one book and hasn't produced more work, and the agent was unable to sell that book…well, then. I don't see what other choice the agent has."

    Exactly. Writers shouldn't put all their eggs in one basket. You get a book written to the absolute best you (and your crit buddies) can make it, then start something else while the first is shopping.

  18. Mastering Investments on March 23, 2011 at 11:35 AM

    >I was wondering what the writer ought to do at this stage? Give up? write some more? Scout another agent? How to move on?

  19. Kristin Laughtin on March 23, 2011 at 11:25 AM

    >These do seem like legitimate considerations, and the hope would be that each agent consider these points carefully before deciding to stop trying with a book or, God forbid, a client.

    Another reason to possibly drop a client (or a writer to possibly drop an agent) would be if the two just can't get along in their working relationship, but the hope there is that conversation before signing on with each other would reveal any discrepancies in approach and attitude that would prevent the partnership from being beneficial and productive.

  20. Katie Ganshert on March 23, 2011 at 11:01 AM

    >Annon 10:58 said: (we all know that anything conducted via consensus is doomed to failure).

    Every single book that was contracted through a major publishing house was done so via consensus(Pub Board)and many of those book aren't failures. Just sayin'

  21. Marcy on March 23, 2011 at 10:54 AM

    >Thanks for sharing so openly and honestly about your process. As a writer, it's not something we often have good access to. I mean, there is a LOT of information, but sometimes its wrong information or contradicting. What you've written is helpful for us on the other side of the door! Thank you for your honesty! 🙂

  22. Andrew on March 23, 2011 at 10:27 AM

    >In these days of fast turnaround, is there less time taken for nurturing in the face of adversity?

  23. Rachelle on March 23, 2011 at 10:25 AM

    >KAWyle: Interesting! Well, I guess these days, every post I ever write could include a mention of self-pub as an option. But self pub isn't my business. And I proceed each day assuming writers are pretty well aware of all the options. The key here is that, what a writer decides to do AFTER their agent has dropped them is another question entirely and not the subject of this post.

    Hilarey Johnson: Wouldn't you? Not that I'm making across-the-board generalizations… each situation is unique. But anyone, in any industry, is smart to put energy and time into projects (people) that have long-term potential.

  24. Hilarey Johnson on March 23, 2011 at 10:15 AM

    >Rachelle, is it safe to assume then that agents prefer a writer with more than one book in the works?

  25. KAWyle on March 23, 2011 at 10:08 AM

    >Rachelle: I was asking a hypothetical question, rather than seeking individual advice. I hadn't noticed any mention of self-publishing in this particular comment thread and wondered whether its absence was itself a comment on that option.

  26. Anonymous on March 23, 2011 at 9:58 AM

    >What about an agent who drops a client BEFORE even trying to place his novel? The agent took on the client because she loved the project. The author worked assiduously, making all requested revisions that the agent believed were necessary. Then the agent dumps the author, saying she "lost enthusiasm." Is that right? Is that immoral? Or is it just business? I think something that needs to be discussed is whether or not other agents in an agency can weigh in on projects…if the agent wants to take on a new client, they all have to agree (we all know that anything conducted via consensus is doomed to failure). If the agent wants to try to place the work now, they all have to agree that it's worthwhile. This is not fair to authors, is it? Too many butt kissers commenting that they "feel" for agents. Sure, they take risks! So do authors. All the time.

  27. Sharla Scroggs on March 23, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    >I agree that this subject is one that strikes terror in every agented writer out on sub. I wake up every morning thinking "today's the day I'll get that deal" and go to bed every night thinking "tomorrow's another day." LOL.

    It's more stressful now than before I was agented. Then it was just about me. Now it's about someone else's success too, and I worry every day. All I can do is keep up my end of the deal, though. Keep working, show I'm not a one-hit wonder, and be open to anything. I know my agent is working her tail off for me, so as in any team, I have to work equally as hard.

  28. Rachelle on March 23, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    >KAWyle: Most of the blogging agents have addressed self-publishing. We all recognize it as a legitimate option. But we all warn, again and again, of how much work it is. It's not the easy route to a bestseller. It's not even an easy route to a mediocre seller. Bottom line, we could never advise you in a public forum like a blog. Your situation is unique, your project is unique. It can't be generalized.
    Read all my posts on Self Publishing.

  29. KAWyle on March 23, 2011 at 9:44 AM

    >In this brave new world of self-publishing and particularly self-e-publishing: if you weren't persuaded by the editors' lukewarm reception of the book, would any of the agents here consider recommending that the client take that route?

  30. Valerie Norris on March 23, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    >This happened to me several years ago. She'd run out of options for my mid-list book. Now her agency is focusing on something I don't write, so I'm in the hunt for an agent again, for a different manuscript. It was a very sad day for Valerie!

  31. Rachelle on March 23, 2011 at 9:36 AM

    >Vienne: You asked, "Is a writer ever such a headache that, saleable work or not, you simply say, "Enough!" and move away, not from the book, but from the writer?"

    Yes, of course it can happen. But from what I've seen, the writer being difficult is combined with another factor, such as they're not selling; they're not able to take editorial direction to improve; or they're unwilling/unable to do what's required to build a platform and promote their books.

    If a person is an amazing writer and they're selling well, most agents would have no choice but to put up with a certain amount of difficulty. It's a business, after all. What business doesn't have their share of difficult clients?

    I've been an agent for a much shorter time than many other agents out there, and luckily I've never had to drop a client for being a headache.

  32. Chris Shaughness on March 23, 2011 at 9:11 AM

    >All of these reasons are certainly legitimate from an agent's perspective given that she/he has put forth the genuine effort. One other reason is that the author gave up on the project. I know of someone who secured an agent based on an outline and several chapters of a non-fiction book but then she claimed that she "didn't have time to complete the book." When I heard this, I was ready to throttle her because I was in the midst of searching for an agent for my book! That is simply unthinkable.

  33. Marla Taviano on March 23, 2011 at 8:49 AM

    >p.s. I had a dream about you last night. 🙂 You asked me to fly my 10yo daughter out to Colorado to go to a dance w/your 14yo and her friends. I was going to ask you if they'd be going to a hotel afterward, but I woke up. 🙂

  34. Marla Taviano on March 23, 2011 at 8:47 AM

    >You are a shining example of an agent who doesn't give up on clients easily.

    Thank you. Bless you. Praying.

  35. Rosemary Gemmell on March 23, 2011 at 8:40 AM

    >Thank you for these points, Rachelle. As an author, it's good for us to be aware of the things that can go wrong as well as enjoying the advantages of having an agent, should we be so lucky.

  36. Sarah Thomas on March 23, 2011 at 8:27 AM

    >These all sound like very good reasons. But how often does this happen? Not too, I hope. Rachelle, you strike me as someone who's very discerning. Now I better understand why you have to be!

  37. Christie on March 23, 2011 at 8:26 AM

    >These reasons make sense, though I can imagine how difficult this decision must be for the agent to make and the author to accept. Not fun for anyone involved, I imagine!

  38. Rachelle on March 23, 2011 at 8:23 AM

    >Ishta Mercurio: Richard Mabry already partly answered your question in his comment above. But beyond the question of whether the editors would look at it again, there is the reality that not all manuscripts can be fixed. Simple truth. The manuscript could have a fatal flaw, or the writer could simply be one who's not improving enough with successive drafts for the agent to believe it's going to be worth their while to coach the author through another round.

    Many writers seem to have NO idea of the significant amount of time it takes to "go back to the author with feedback." It can take hours and hours and hours to deconstruct what's wrong with a manuscript and try to explain how to fix it. If an agent has already put many hours into an author with no positive results or compensation, the question of whether to spend even more hours has to be weighed carefully.

  39. Maril Hazlett on March 23, 2011 at 8:04 AM

    >To echo what others have said – these reasons make perfect sense to me. Just like any relationship, sales and marketing require a certain alchemy, as well as a lot of hard work. If the package turns out not to be the right package, for whatever reasons, then at some point the professional solution is for both parties to let that project go. Or at least let it take a nice rest for a while. Hopefully this can happen in such a way that the author-agent relationship can remain strong and healthy.

    As a writer, though, I definitely understand how hard it is to let a project go. However, I also firmly believe that no piece of writing is ever wasted. It might not sell (and you won't make much money if you spend a lot of time on dead ends), but one way or another it helped you move the dial. Hey, you WROTE it. You got it done, you found it representation. Those are all big accomplishments. Next time, you can do even better.

  40. Kelly Combs on March 23, 2011 at 7:41 AM

    >I would have to guess personalities can play a part too in the dissolving of an agent/client relationship. Although if Charlie Sheen is an indicator, you can get away with a lot if you are a money maker.

  41. Richard Mabry on March 23, 2011 at 6:24 AM

    >The reasons you give are good ones, but one needs a bit of explanation. One comment asks "Why not (consider) another round of revisions?" This is something I was slow to learn.

    When an editor says "no" to a manuscript, only rarely does he/she say, "If you want to revise it, I'll look at it again." The only chance at an editor, at least most of the time, is the original submission. This is yet another reason to take our time with our manuscripts and make sure they're the very best they can be before sending them in.

    So when you say an agent has run out of places to submit, this includes closed doors for revised manuscripts.

  42. Cynthia Herron on March 23, 2011 at 6:12 AM

    >I think, perhaps, all of these would be valid reasons. And I would pray that the agent/client relationship would still remain intact despite the devastating news.

    That is why partnering with a fellow believer would be of utmost importance to me. Being a Christian doesn't mean we are perfect; it would, I hope, hold us to a higher standard and encourage us to behave with dignity and grace when facing great disappointment.

  43. Katie Ganshert on March 23, 2011 at 5:18 AM

    >I think this is a very real fear that many agented authors without a contract have. I know I did! I know agents aren't in this for the money, but still….I think most of us feel bad when we see our agents working so hard on our behalf with no compensation!

    I can't even begin to put myself in the shoes of an agent. I can only spin so many plates at one time. BUT I do think there is something to be said for the client who continues to persevere through the rejections. The client who continues to write books, is willing to learn, grow, listen to advice/feedback, and work hard.

    On the other hand, if a client only has one book and hasn't produced more work, and the agent was unable to sell that book…well, then. I don't see what other choice the agent has.

  44. Vienne on March 23, 2011 at 1:15 AM

    >Question for you: Is a writer ever such a headache that, saleable work or not, you simply say, "Enough!" and move away, not from the book, but from the writer? And if so, what can the rest of us avoid? (Assume we are reasonably socialized, and suffer from no wish to mortally offend.)

  45. Tara Lindsay Hall on March 23, 2011 at 1:02 AM

    >I think these are perfectly legitimate reasons. Besides if later down the road you find an editor looking for that work, you could always get back in touch with the author.

    It is really saddening though. So many authors get so excited when they sign an agent, like the uphill battle is over. When really it is just beginning, and could just as easily splat!


  46. Ishta Mercurio on March 23, 2011 at 12:45 AM

    >I think most of these reasons seem like exactly the right reasons to drop a project, but I have a question about the reason of having received editorial feedback that indicates that maybe this project just isn't going to cut it.

    In that case: why not just go back to the author with the feedback and have him or her go through another round of revision? Why drop the project, rather than fix it? Just wondering.

  47. Loree Huebner on March 23, 2011 at 12:28 AM

    >This is a topic not often brought up. The situation would be extremely difficult for both agent and author.

    After reading blogs of some of your clients, I believe that if for some reason you could not sell their project, every single one of them would still be happy that you were the one that tried.

  48. Melissa on March 23, 2011 at 12:10 AM

    >From a freelancer's perspective, I'd say that an agent might drop a client who was noncompliant with requests for revisions or who was ersthwhile too difficult to deal with (read: ego not checked by the laptop). I see this happen in my little neck of the writing world all of the time. Playing well with others is 50 percent of the writer's job.