How to Break Up With Your Literary Agent

A pink broken paper heart on a black background representing how to break up with your literary agent

There is so much written about how to attract and sign with a literary agent, but when it comes to advice on how to break up with your literary agent, it’s slim pickings. As much faith as you’ve put in the fact that your agent is “the one” and your author-literary agent relationship will last forever, I’m here to tell you that, sadly, it might not. In fact, staying with one literary agent for your entire writing career is the exception rather than the rule – and you need to prepare yourself for this specific heartbreak.

Why “break up”? Literary agent relationships are akin to romantic relationships. There’s the wooing. The passion. The honeymoon period. Then come the annoying habits. The differences of opinion. Pretty soon you have to decide if you can make it through the rain, or if you are fundamentally incompatible.

It’s more common than you think

It’s not unusual for authors to have several different literary agents over the course of their writing career. Of course, there are the lucky few who stick with the same one for twenty years or more. Again, these are the exception rather than the rule.

Why might you want to end the relationship?

The writer-literary agent relationship is a business one, with a legal contract. You might be considering how to break up with your literary agent if you think that your agent is not fulfilling their contracted part of the agreement – that is, to put in their best foot forward to sell your book. Or maybe you are noticing shady practices, like hiding crucial information while your book is out on submission, or worse, maybe your agent is making sloppy mistakes. Or perhaps your communication styles are fundamentally incompatible. Sometimes, an agent might sign you with all the best intentions, but they already have a saturated client list that demands their full attention, leaving you feeling a little unloved. There are many reasons why this type of business relationship doesn’t work out. It doesn’t make it sting any less. Your agent is a fundamental part of the success of your author career, especially if you’re looking for a traditional book deal. They are your representative to publishers. They should be your biggest advocate. If they aren’t, then you must address this, or you’ll just stew in silent resentment.

Communicate your concerns

Talking of silence, this is the biggest killer of writer-agent relationships. The writer waits, afraid to “disturb” the busy literary agent. The agent, meanwhile, is merrily advocating for the writer, without any clue that the writer is afraid of emailing. Fear breeds silence, then resentment. Literary agents are not mind readers. If you are unhappy with how things are shaping up, tell them! The power balance is often (incorrectly) tipped in the agent’s favor, but you need an equitable partnership for your writing career. Want to know how your book is doing on submission? Ask! Interested in your agent’s strategy? It’s not a trade secret. Just like you might email your realtor to discuss the housing market, your agent isn’t going to get mad if you send a “checking in” email, especially if you are worried about how the relationship is shaping up. Send an email or, better yet, pick up the phone. Tell your agent your concerns so that they have a fair chance to fix things. The break up – if that’s the way you choose to go – should not come as a surprise for either party.

Check your contract

A literary agent contract will stipulate the time from written notice you have to close out the professional relationships. In most cases, it will be 30 days. However, if your agent has sold any of your work, they will be entitled to their 15% cut forever. That’s just the way it goes, so you might want to consider maintain a “friendship” of sorts to avoid any future pain. Some contracts have a clause whereby even if they haven’t sold your work, you aren’t allowed to shop it with another agent if they have worked on significant editorial revisions with you. This clause can cover as long as one year after submission, so watch out.

Request a call

If you’ve made up your mind that you want to part ways with your literary agent, it’s always best to do the deed over the phone. This is how to break up with your literary agent in the most courteous way. Request a call with your agent, and give clear and concise reasons for wanting to end the relationship. Say you will be following up in writing, then follow up. Thank them. Be polite, professional, and courteous. Never burn bridges, even if you are really angry or disappointed. Of course, there are some horror stories about agents “ghosting” writers. In these situations, where you have tried your utmost to reach out to your literary agent but just aren’t getting answers, or worse, a basic response, you can skip straight to the letter.

Put it in writing

This is how to break up with your literary agent: put it in writing. Sign and date your letter (an email is fine), and state you will be ending your relationship. Similar to a letter of resignation, you should frame your letter around what you’ve already discussed on the call. Request that your literary agent gives you any outstanding information, including a list of editors and imprints where they may have sent your book, and (if your book hasn’t yet been sold), ask them to immediately withdraw it from consideration from said editors. You don’t want to break up with your literary agent, only to have them sell your book during the 30-day period to which you are contractually obliged, and then have them earn their commission from you in perpetuity.

Don’t jump ship

This one’s a little strange – you wouldn’t quit your job without a new one lined up, right? Well, let’s bring it back to the romantic relationship analogy. Finding a new literary agent before you’ve ended things with your old one is akin to cheating. It isn’t unethical, per se, but it’s tacky. Don’t do it. And besides, your new literary agent won’t trust that you won’t do the same with them in the future. As tough as it is to start over, you’ve found a literary agent once before. You can do it again. And agents don’t care if you’ve had prior representation. In fact, they usually welcome it, as it shows you’re a good enough writer to get a literary agent.

Last words of advice on how to break up with your literary agent

  • Make every effort to “mediate” the situation
  • Keep your communication clear, honest, and professional
  • Do it over the phone first, then in writing
  • Always stay calm, be kind, and never point the finger
  • Don’t cheat
  • Never burn your bridges; publishing is a small industry
  • It’s perfectly OK to cry and eat ice cream

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