Writers hoping to be traditionally published have several goals, not the least of which is partnering with a literary agent. That happens when they query someone who both loves the book and believes they can sell it. Whether it sells or not, typically the writer will work with that agent for their follow ups.
That brings us to this post’s topic: What happens when your next books doesn’t ‘land’ (ie: resonate, hit) with your agent? That might happen for a number of reasons. Here’s one.
How It Happened to Me
My agent loves the first two books I sent her, even though they couldn’t be more different. We originally partnered on my MG Paranormal with strong family and friendship themes, and also have out on sub my Adult Literary SciFi, focused on humanity’s relationship with technology in the age of adaptive AI. One of the reasons I appreciate my agent is she represents many categories/genres, and from the descriptions above, you can tell I write across a bunch. I’m not afraid to take on an idea, even if it’s something I haven’t written before. That’s what led me to write the third book I sent her: a MG Historical Fantasy/Horror with heavy family abandonment and bullying themes. It’s based on a real person, whose personal and supernatural experiences are tragic and fascinating.
I pitched it to her, we agreed on it, and I got to writing. A year-ish later, I sent it her way. A month after that, we had an honest conversation about why she could not represent the book as it was.
So, how did we get there?
A few sentences back, I wrote ‘we agreed on it’. That’s true. I pitched it (one of several ideas) and was so spellbound by the MC’s life, pushed for it, even though my agent was a bit more taken by a few other ideas. She recognized my excitement, and we went ahead. Well and good, but as ALL writers know, it’s rare a final manuscript turns out exactly as you envisioned it.
And that’s where I messed up.
From page 1, the story reshaped itself. Far moodier (dismal, if I’m honest) and less adventurous and exciting than what my early synopsis showed, it ended up very different from the book I’d pitched. That’s not bad in and of itself, and I love the hella-guarded, broken MC and how he spends most of the book not sure what to do, but the problem is that I never communicated any of that to my agent. I just kept writing.
Let me pause for a second to make something clear: I’m not saying you write what your agent tells you to. It doesn’t work that way. I keep calling it a partnership, and that’s true. You’re trying to get published and they’re trying to sell books. The best way to do that is to agree on something that excites you both. If one of you diverts from that (you sending them something they don’t/can’t sell or them pushing you to write something you don’t love), you probably have a problem.
So I ended up sending her a story she didn’t expect, with themes and tone I hadn’t communicated, full of choices she believed wouldn’t land with the market. That doesn’t mean the book is dead, but as you can imagine, it’s a blow on both sides.
What to Do
Let’s say you find yourself in a similar situation. After identifying how you got there, what can you do about it?
Step 1: Breathe
Before you do anything else, take a breath. Then take another. Hundred. I say this because, if we’re willing to be honest, this feels like a nightmare scenario for a writer. We spend so much energy looking for an agent that when we click with one and partner up, there’s a very real fear most people don’t/won’t talk about: losing our agent (in fact, when I mentioned the idea of this post to mine, she brought up the fear, because agents know how crippling it can be).
Here’s the thing: any agent truly invested in you and your success won’t drop you over this. Their objection of representation for that book is a business decision, not a rejection of you. Get on a call, talk it through, and learn from it.
Step 2: Construct a Plan
The obvious choice at this point is heavy manuscript revisions. You’ve got a finished book, which should always be applauded, and you can fix something that’s broken. For that, you and your agent must agree on where the book is and where it needs to be. If you can’t and/or it looks like it might be a massive amount of work, you might go in a different direction.
For me, that took the form of writing a new book instead of revising.
I’m never not writing, so while the MG Historical was out to critique partners and beta readers, I’d started a MG Urban Fantasy. When I spoke to my agent about revising the Historical, we decided it would be best for me to concentrate on the UF because it was coming easy and fast (unlike the Historical, which had been… difficult) and because it’s lighter, more adventurous tone would better suit what editors would look for in 2021. Finished the UF in about four months and love how it turned out.
Step 3: Apply What You’ve Learned
If what we’re discussing happens to you, it’s not going to be easy, for you or your agent. Some people think agents are monsters who salivate at every opportunity to tear writers down, but that’s nonsense. They want to love everything you send them. Mine had been really worried I was going to take her feedback terribly. It’s tough all around. That’s why it’s so important to learn from these experiences.
I now send my agent updates on any big change from the pitch/synopsis I originally wrote. For my latest, that only happened when I wrote the ending, but it’s significant. If I’d done that with the Historical, we could have talked every change through. I also reach out if I run into something I’m not sure about, to brainstorm. Partnership. No more surprises.
People like to say writing is a lonely occupation. The act of writing, maybe, but what we’re talking about here isn’t just the writing; we’re talking about putting together a book you’re proud of and that your audience will enjoy. That starts with your vision but does not end there. Keeping your agent in the know, especially when things change, can only benefit you both and your working relationship. Doesn’t guarantee they will love every word you send them (no such guarantee exists, sorry to say), but that’s okay. Really, it’s okay.
Thanks for reading.