Scott Phillips is an excellent writer (The Ice Harvest, Cottonwood) with a strange and entertaining blog called Pocketful of Ginch. Scott recently posted about his agent’s refusal to submit his most recently completed work to publishers, as she found it “offensive.” (Scott’s term.)

Yesterday I read an interview with James lee Burke, where he tells of his agent receiving 111 rejections of The Lost Get Back Boogie, the book that earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination when it finally saw print. (Previous agents had rolled up their own impressive totals.

Here’s my question: How much of a two-way street should the author-agent relationship be? If an agent agrees to represent your “work,” should the author not be able to infer this means “all of your work.” Authors sign exclusivity agreements with agents; we can’t shop individual books around to different agents. If agents can cherry pick which book they feel like representing, should they then be entitled to come back later in the process, read the contract, and collect their 15%? Or should this be grounds for severing the relationship?

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How about making the relationship between author and agent on a "per-work" basis? That is, instead of the agent representing an author, the agent only represents the work currently submitted. That way authors have to prove themselves every time.

Why would an author sign an exclusivity agreement? If the agent demands one, then he/she must think the author's work is valuable, which means other agents probably would too. Make the agents compete for it if the work is that good.

But yeah, I think if the agent has agreed to represent you, then he needs to, whatever the work is. Let the publishers make the final call.
It's relationship, so you know, they're all different. My agent liked my first two books and I like her so we got together but I wouldn't expect her to automatically get behind anything I write. If my next book is completely different from my first two and something she finds personally offensive I wouldn't expect her to represent it. Now, if the next book was similar to the first two and just a little further "out there," I wouldn't expect her to get offended.

But people are weird and unpredictable. And they change over time, so you can never tell.
John McFetridge,
Using your personally offensive scenario, what happens to the book? If you shop it yourself, does she get her cut if you find a publisher for it and she essentially just reads the contract? Do you get a release for just that book, similar to the arrangement John Dishon discussed above?

I don't know if there are many agents who will let authors work with another agent at the same time; they're likely to only get half as many books, which may make them less enthusiastic about representing that author at all, and a downward spiral results.
Personally I would give my agent her cut for closing the deal and securing the final contract. Other people might not. I have found that shopping the book isn't the hard part - closing the deal is. Of course, we're assuming that the agent hasn't found the book so offensive s/he would still close the deal.
That makes sense. I've yet to get farther than shopping the book, so I have no idea how bad the closing might be. Still, if I had an agent who considered something I wrote so offensive she didn't even want to see it in print, I think it would be time for another agent.
Oh, boy, do I need an answer to that one!
Since John D. suggests that this matter should have been settled in the original contract: yes, but the naive new author who signs with a major agent isn't going to question anything in that contract. I think, for me, it will come down to shopping the book myself -- after enquiring politely if a British co-agent might want to offer it in the U.K. In my case, the book wasn't "offensive". It just didn't fit the emphasis of the firm and was therefore not "saleable."
In sales, in helps to believe in your product. Selling art, I imagine that belief is mandatory.
This is true. Perhaps in a perfect world we would research the agents' stable of authors carefully before submitting to them. This, however, is frequently made difficult by the fact that we cannot read all those books and also market our own.
As for the mandatory belief: agents also keep an eye on the numbers.
Not to tar all agents with too broad a brush, but I'm coming to believe that authors need to make peace with the idea that, when an agent takes you on because he "believes" in your book, that means he believes it will sell. Its literary merit is of secondary concern. They are all about the business, too. This is fine; after all, it is a business. We just need to remember where their head is.
I do think the brush is a bit wide, Dana. Sometimes agents go out on a limb for a hard-to-sell project they fall in love with.

For example, when my first agent had struck out with every major imprint, which took more than a year of submissions, he asked if it were okay to hit up a couple of small but well-respected publishers. There was little financial incentive for him to do so, obviously, but he really loved and believed in the book and wanted to see it out there. (Alas, the two houses I'd authorized him to approach passed as well.)
Point taken, Eric. My experience was the opposite. Once the big New York houses passes, she was through with that book. Refused to send it anywhere else (but I was free to), and was willing to sit around for a year or more until I finished the WIP, as she didn't think the book I wrote in the interim was marketable. very frustrating.

I appreciate all these comments a great deal. As the exchange Eric and I just had shows, my exposure to such things is limited. I know enough not to let my experience color my judgment too much, but it's very helpful to get a range of perspectives so I can get an idea of how much I should let it affect my future decisions.


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