How I parted ways with my agent
This is a long one, and a very personal one. I’ve tried to provide action points and comfort, but sometimes life is just messy and hard. I hope that showing you some of my mess is helpful.
I want to tell the truth about this, because I’ve gotten fed up of not doing so. This lack of authenticity is grating on me. It’s making me feel like what I’m going through is shameful and should be hidden, when in fact I think it’s incredibly common but we feel we shouldn’t talk about it.
In April, I parted ways with my agent.
There. I’ve said it. Saying it doesn’t make me feel good, in fact it still feels massively shit.
Friends, very rightly, advised me not to speak about this openly when it first happened. I was completely devastated, reeling in shock for months. I spent a whole weekend crying, and weeks afterwards unable to write anything new. I clung to my writing friends (who are the most beautiful individuals in the world), who kept gently telling me to take my time, that my writing would come back to me, and sent me gifts that made me cry all over again.
They weren’t ashamed of what had happened to me, they didn’t want me to hide, but they knew that working through this would take time. Sharing what had happened immediately would have been brutal. I couldn’t have coped with people’s kindness, or with their censure. I couldn’t have held hands with anyone else that was experiencing the same.
I needed to huddle into myself, hold myself tight. I had to grasp onto the things that remained – my love of books, my wonderful friends and family, long walks and even longer cries.
And I guess that’s the first thing I want you, if you’re going through a similar experience, to hold onto – it’s okay to not talk about it for a while. It’s okay to comfort yourself however you need to. BUT, that doesn’t mean you need to stay silent forever, and you don’t need to be ashamed.
There is so much secret pain in the realm of submitting books, either to agents or publishers. This secrecy breeds shame. I know I’m not the first person to speak about this, and I really hope that I’m not the last. There is no need to bear these wounds to the world if you’re not ready, and some of us may never be, but telling your story, letting others know that what’s happening is common and normal and no reflection at all on their talent – that’s incredibly powerful and validating.
So I’m going to tell you my story.
A disclaimer first though. At no point am I going to name my agent. I’m rather hopeful that most of you will have forgotten who they were. And this is because I really don’t feel like what’s happened was their fault. They had their part to play, but so did I. There were things I should have spotted along the way, and there were things we both should have been more honest about. They are also a genuinely lovely person and I wouldn’t want my experience to put anyone off submitting to them – they are a champion for their authors (and continue to be for me), and our parting was a painful but necessary eventuality.
I’m not telling their story. I’m telling my story. This is the tale of someone who thought they had got their happy ending, but was having to ignore a whole lot of flashing red lights to keep up the illusion.
I submitted my first book to agents and got over 100 rejections. I submitted my second and got around 40 rejections. Didn’t have quite the same stamina for that one. I didn’t submit my third book at all, didn’t feel like it was query ready, but I did book an agent one-to-one.
That agent fell in love with my book. They asked for the full and offered representation. I met with them in their offices in London and talked through our vision for this project. We signed the papers, and started editing.
And that’s where it started to go wrong, at least on my end. I asked all the right questions before I signed so felt like I was clear about where this book was headed, but I didn’t have a detailed edit report from my agent about the things they felt needed changing. I got that a little while later, after we signed, and it was gutting. There were some concerns raised that were incredibly valid and helpful, but there was also a gap that had formed between my vision for this novel and theirs.
My novel was a VERY quiet YA story about two boys who fell in love against the backdrop of the end of the world. Despite that setting, it was never going to have explosions or moments of intense peril. It was about two boys finding the best in themselves and each other, and delved into the difficulties of loss and trauma.
It became clear, in that edit report, that this was not what my agent wanted my book to be. Instead of challenging their ideas, pushing forward my vision and being clear about the limitations of where I felt this story could go, I kept quiet. I thought that perhaps I could keep both of us happy.
The pandemic saved me, in a way. When COVID hit, I felt incredibly uneasy about writing a story based after most of the human population had been wiped out by an infectious disease. So we parked it, and moved onto other projects. Over the next year, I produced two more stories for my agent to read. Both of them were too quiet, too strange, too sad.
So many big red warning lights. So much blackout fabric needed to keep them from interrupting my desperate attempts to please my agent and somehow keep my integrity in my writing.
I came up with a new way to end the world (in my story!), so early this year we returned to the original novel they had signed me for. I reworked it as best I could, added more drama (as much as I was comfortable with, but more than I wanted), and polished up the voice.
I want to pause here to chat about two things before I go on to talk about breaking with my agent, as that is a whole horrible thing all on its own and I don’t want it to distract from a couple of things that I could have done differently and perhaps gotten a different outcome. That outcome might have been that I didn’t sign with my agent in the first place, but I genuinely feel that would have been less painful than losing one.
- I asked all the right questions, but I could have been more patient – I had read all the blogs, I knew what I had to ask. What will happen if this book doesn’t sell? Do you want to represent me for all my stories or just this one? How do you see us working together? Where do you see this book going? Who are you thinking of submitting to? And they gave all the right answers. What I didn’t do was wait until I had a comprehensive report on where they felt this novel was going. I wanted to work with this agent because they had extensive editorial experience and I knew they would make my stories as strong as they could be before we went to publishers, but I really should have waited to see what changes they wanted made before I signed with them. This would have gone against the grain, as getting an agent is the main goal so as soon as they put the paper in front of you then SIGN IT, but it would have saved me a lot of pain. I would have, perhaps, attempted a rewrite, but it would have become clear, to both of us, that my writing was never going to get to the place they wanted it to. That would have been hard, but this business is so subjective and I could have gone on to find someone who would love my sad little stories. So I guess my advice here is to make sure that you and your agent are 100% on the same page with where you want your story to get to and what the heart of it is
- I was far too in awe of my agent to be honest – I think this is a common problem. We try so desperately hard to get an agent that once we have one, we have to keep them happy and make sure that we continue to be what they want. I didn’t tell my agent that I was shocked by the edit report, I didn’t speak out for my quiet stories, and I didn’t fight for the heart of my writing. So, if you can, be brave. Talk to your agent honestly and openly. Don’t try too hard to please them
These are both lessons that I will carry forwards to when I next have that exciting conversation with an agent. I’ll be way more honest, patient, and exacting. I’ll want to know specifics, and I won’t move forward until I have them.
Now for the painful part.
I rewrote my story, making it as dramatic and exciting as possible. I felt, in some ways, that it was better. I had greater clarity about the characters and I fell back in love with their awkwardness. But I also felt like the story was getting away from me. There were elements I didn’t like. I could see clearly where I could ramp up the drama even more, but I didn’t want to. That wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. But I felt like I had wandered from that as well.
Hoping for the best, I sent it off to my agent. We had agreed a date for feedback, and on that day they sent me an email that crushed me. They were honest and as kind as they could be, but told me that the story simply wasn’t getting to where they felt it needed to be and that they didn’t feel that they were the right person to represent me anymore.
I had to read the email twice before I understood. Then I started sobbing. I couldn’t get the words out, so my husband had to read the email to understand what had happened. He held me as I cried for a very long time.
I felt like an utter failure. I thought this was the end of my writing career. I was heartbroken – someone I thought was with me for life had monumentally let me down. I hated myself, hated my writing. I felt like the biggest reject ever. I thought I was a loser.
It was a horrible weekend. It was a tough week. It was a hard month.
Talking to my agent helped. I aired the things that had really hurt me, we chatted about what had gone wrong right from the start, I began to understand that this decision was prompted by forces outside of our control, and we chatted about next steps. I want to be clear and say that although this experience has completely knocked my confidence and saddened my very deeply, I do not blame my agent or feel badly towards them. They have always acted with kindness and generosity, but this is an incredibly tough business we are working in.
Quiet YA stories were a hard sell before the pandemic, they are an even harder sell now, and it had become apparent to my agent that I simply was not going to be able to write the story they saw mine becoming. I truly believe that I eventually would have come to the same conclusion – that we weren’t quite the right fit for one another. They might love my writing, but my stories couldn’t get to where they wanted to sell them in a difficult market.
I had a really tough few months, things are still pretty tough if I’m honest. I ditched everything I was working at the moment I split with my agent and leapt into editing something new, something I knew they wouldn’t have been interested in. I have to say, that felt very liberating. My confidence is still low and I think it will be for a while yet, but I’ve managed to start writing something new. Two new things, in fact.
I thought I would write this blog post when I was at the heady heights of having a new agent. I believe that will happen, someday, but I don’t think I’m going to be trapped in the valley until then.
I really believe that I was in freefall towards the bottom before I got that gutting email. I may have smashed into the rocks then, things may have seemed very dark, but they’re not anymore. Almost immediately, dragging one leg behind me and one arm hanging uselessly, I started to pull myself up the other side.
I don’t care if I’m labouring this metaphor. I’m climbing up the other side of the valley. I’ve made it a good way up. I can see flowers and light. The air is fresher and my hurts are healing.
I didn’t want to talk about splitting with my agent only once I had the perceived happy ending again. I wanted to write about it when it was still raw. I didn’t want to feel ashamed anymore. What has happened to me, and countless others, isn’t shameful. It’s okay to feel sad and broken. But I hope you’re able to pick yourself up. I hope you’re able to climb out of the valley.
This is still pretty hard to talk about, and thank you for indulging me in my ramblings. I hope they are helpful. I want to finish by saying another final thank you to my friends, wonderful husband, and all the other kind people who have stood with me in this tough time. You have carried me more than you know.
I always felt we should write for the love of it. I feel that more than ever now. Writing is my solace and my joy, let it be yours too.