Before we get started, some of you may have noticed I haven’t been very active here for a while. The simple truth is I didn’t feel like I had anything important enough to say. I got down on myself. It took a lot of thought and soul searching for me to find my voice. You see, this all goes back to my childhood of abuse (both mentally and physically)…that “quiet” mindset – keep your head down, be quiet, and bad things won’t happen.
I’ve struggled with self worth my whole life. Most days are better than others. There are always moments when self doubt creeps in. Scratch that. It’s always there, in the back corner of my mind. Most of the time I don’t pay any attention to it. Sometimes is won’t be ignored. BUT, I’m a practical guy. Even though it took me a little longer to shake the yuck from myself, I finally did.
Okay, now on to the post.
I’m not going to get into specific dates, times, or use names. Slinging mud publicly isn’t my thing. The purpose of this post is to share some of my experiences so other writers can get an idea of both the good, and the bad, of publishing.
Have you ever wondered why authors/writers rarely talk about parting ways with a literary agent?
While I can’t speak for anyone else, it made me feel like a failure, like I did something wrong. Quite often, as growing writers, we see agents in a mystical light. When we sign with one we can’t wait to shout about it from the rooftops. That kind of enthusiasm is a good thing, but it’s often coupled with naivety.
I was lucky when I left my agent. I knew what I wanted and what I wasn’t getting from her. I also wasn’t afraid to let our relationship fail. Which is terrifying considering my career was on the line.
I also want to be clear about how I signed with my former agent. I came to her with a three book deal on the table. I queried the hell out of my book with every literary agent who repped anything remotely similar to my book. I was rejected by all of them. A few gave me constructive feedback. My former agent was one of those agents. I filed that away. After striking out with agents, I tried small presses. If anyone has submitted to small presses, you know this takes time. Months and months. If the editors are seriously considering your book it may take six months to a year before you get a final verdict. Eventually I got an acceptance from one of my top choices. Not only did they want my first book, but they wanted me to write two sequels. A trilogy! I was excited. But not excited enough to just sign on the dotted line.
It’s important to remember that through the entire query process I learned. Whether it was dealing with potential literary agents or editors or any other literary professional. As newer writers we must not get star struck. Before signing anything we must remember that our future is at stake. I think my upbringing and time in the military served me well in this regard. I got excited, sure. But I never let it cloud my judgment. I remained cautious, vigilant. I always made sure I was looking out for myself.
Now that I had a three book deal on the table, I felt like I had some leverage. So I used it. I remembered one of the agents who treated me like a human being. Because let’s face it, querying feels so cold, hollow. And not because writers don’t get what we want (representation), but because most of the time we don’t even get a response. We’re made to feel less, like we’re not worth an agent’s time. As a result I tended to notice the agents who treated me like an actual person when they had no reason to. I sent off an email stating who I was, past interaction with the agent, why I was reaching out now, and what I wanted. Looking back, I should have seen her rejecting the manuscript, but offer representation after I had a book deal, as a red flag. You live and you learn. I had to take a shot.
Another red flag came during “the call”. My agent requested that I call her. Each time we spoke, I called her. Looking back I suspect it was to save the long distance charges. Plus, during our calls, she always cut me off. There was always something more important than her newest client. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t clingy, or mental, calling and needing to talk constantly. All I wanted was a monthly chat, either by phone or email just so we could stay on the same page. From day one, communication was an issue. I filed that away.
As time passed it became clear may agent was only my agent for the guaranteed paycheck that three book deal represented. In all the time I had a literary agent, I never once received feedback on manuscript. I don’t believe she read it all the way through. Why bother when an editor already acquired it? At least that’s the feeling I got.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand publishing is a business. Literary agents need to eat too. Money is money. But we were supposed to be a team. Coming from the Air Force, I knew a thing or two about teamwork. Looking back, I never felt we were a team, let alone on the same page.
Fast forward eight months. The small press changed their business practices overnight. They gave authors who hadn’t been published yet an out. I couldn’t, in consciousness, stick with a deal I felt was unjust. Since my trilogy wasn’t scheduled to release for another couple of months, I requested a dissolution of my contract. I emailed my agent and told her what I wanted and why. She agreed, but I felt like she thought it was a mistake. She always suggested I never leave money on the table and that if a publisher wanted another book, you give them another book. Like I said, I couldn’t stick with a deal I no longer believed in. It would have been different if I knew everything before I signed. Things changed. I changed with them.
After the dissolution of my book deal, the plan was for my agent to go over my works in progress and together we would discuss our next step. Something that should have taken a couple of weeks stretched on for months. This is where I decided to step back and see if my agent really cared about me. After an email each month for two months, I waited. And waited. And waited to see if she would get back to me. After an additional couple of months, I definitively knew I had to part ways with my agent. There was no communication. There was nothing.
My next step was to voice my concerns and giver her a chance to explain things. Each time she had a reason why she didn’t have time for me. So we repeated the cycle a few more times until I said I couldn’t accept things the way they were any longer. I gave my former agent numerous chances to rectify things. I tried to behave in a professional manner and believe I did. When I requested my leave, she didn’t try to talk me out of it or anything. To me, it seemed like the guaranteed money was gone, so I didn’t matter anymore.
There I was with no three book deal and no literary agent. I went from thinking things were awesome (insert the LEGO movie song here) to absolute rock bottom.
What do you do after you part ways with your literary agent? You press on. Just because I didn’t have a book deal or an agent didn’t mean I stopped believing in myself or my work. I had two books finished and several short stories published. I had to have been doing something right.
The most important thing, at least for me, was to remain professional. I like to treat others the way I would like to be treated. As long as we can do that, it’s okay to have differences of opinion.
I’m grateful to my former literary agent. She negotiated my contract and got me the best deal. She even got it dissolved when I requested it. Her business skills were great. I learned a lot about contracts because I asked questions and stayed involved. I no longer feel lost when a publisher sends me a contract for a short story. I don’t want it to seem like my entire time with my agent was bad. It wasn’t. It just wasn’t what it should have been.
Most authors will advise up and coming writers to do their homework before signing with a literary agent. This can only take you so far. There are some things you can’t learn from an agent’s interviews or a half hour phone call. Unfortunately, you have to get in there and discover things for yourself. If you realize you’ve made a mistake by signing with an agent you’re not compatible with, be honest. Try to work things out in a way that will benefit everyone. There’s no reason to stay with an agent who you don’t feel has your back. Why would you want to?
The next time I’m ready to sign with a literary agent, I’ll know exactly what I’m looking for. I’d like her/him to communicate easily, have some common interests outside of books, and be honest. I want to know if I’m messing something up or if she/he thinks I can do better. Even though I’m creating the stories, she/he has the expert knowledge of the publishing industry. We should compliment one another and make one hell of a team.
As up and coming writers we mustn’t get caught up in the myth of instant credibility we believe having a literary agent brings. Signing with a literary agent, while exciting, is only a step on our career as published authors. Having a literary agent doesn’t make you better than anyone else. Nor does it guarantee success. We all have to put in the work. Agented writers too. As long as we can be kind to one another and keep improving, then I have to believe that we’ll all find our way eventually. And if you’re sitting there wondering if you’ll ever find a literary agent, just remember my story and know there are worse things than never signing with an agent. You could sign with the wrong one. Nobody wants that.
Keep writing. Keep improving. Stay as positive as you can. Have a little faith. You’ll get there. I know you will.