Why I Left my Literary Agent

It was the hardest professional decision I ever made. Harder than leaving a stable think-tank job to join a start-up as its CEO. Harder than walking away from that successful start-up four years later to answer the call of an art-committed life.

After three years of labor, with the finished memoir in hand, I chose to leave my literary agent. I am now one of the thousands of people bombarding agents daily with query letters, hoping to rise up out of the slush pile.

Why would I commit what appears to be an act of professional hari kari?

I can lay part of the blame for my potentially reckless decision on the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where the students and instructors persuaded me to apply myself to produce a book of true literary merit, albeit one in a genre with which my literary agent was unfamiliar.

I can lay part of the blame for my potentially reckless decision on the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where the students and instructors persuaded me to apply myself to produce a book of true literary merit, albeit one in a genre with which my literary agent was unfamiliar.

Perhaps I should step back for a moment. I signed with this agent–let’s call him “James” after James Bond, an agent of the secret kind–in the fall of 2010. I had no manuscript in hand, only a vague idea for a book. I had just completed a life-transforming cross-country U.S. road trip in which interviews I conducted with artists inspired me to return to an art-committed life. I imagined writing a craft book on the creative process, documenting the lessons I learned from these creatives. (I started this blog at the same time with a similar mission.)

I knew James from the professional circles I traveled in; he was a literary agent, but his primary job was that of an intellectual property attorney. Over lunch I told him my idea for a book, and just like that he was representing me. I had an agent before I had written a word of a book proposal.

Now let’s fast forward three years. A lot changed over that time, including the direction of the book. When I workshopped a chapter in my first MFA residency in the summer of 2011, the reaction to this former journalist’s writing was unanimous: “Where’s the narrator?” When I worked with my MFA instructors over the next two semesters, their plea was the same: “Show me more narrator!” By the summer of 2012 I was no longer writing a creativity craft book; I was writing a memoir.

That, I believe, was a positive shift for the book. It seemed to come to life once I broke through my resistance and learned to put myself on the page. But it was a complicating factor for my agent. He knew all the key publishers for a craft book; he was the first to admit an unfamiliarity with the memoir genre and the appropriate editors and publishers.

Still, I chose to stick with James, and just as importantly he chose to stick with me, a writer who was making him no money and giving him nothing to sell (I had decided, based on advice from an MFA instructor, to hold off on soliciting the book until it was finished, to give me the freedom to take it in whatever direction it wished to go).

In early 2013, as I was completing the first draft of the book as my MFA creative thesis before my summer graduation, James launched a new law firm. When I signed with him in 2010 he had been focused on growing the literary-agent side of his work. Now his focus was on growing his law practice, and that side was doing well.

I chose to ignore the advice I received at AWP in Boston to begin the search immediately for a new agent. Perhaps I was feeling stubborn because of the gloomy weather.

I chose to ignore the advice I received at AWP in Boston to begin the search immediately for a new agent. Perhaps I was feeling stubborn because of the gloomy weather.

While at AWP in Boston in March 2013 I heard a literary agent speak who outlined a hypothetical scenario similar to mine. She said the writer would be best served by leaving the agent and finding a new one. The key, she said, is to have an agent who knows your genre and can best place your manuscript in the right hands. That agent also is best positioned to support your growth as a writer of future works. But at the time I chose loyalty over action.

Now we come to the fall of 2013. I have completed what I consider to be a final draft. I hire a published memoir author to give the book a final edit. And I discuss next steps with James. It’s clear he’s very busy with a legal case that has to take precedence; that client is paying him and I’m not. It’s also clear he’s looking to me for guidance on where to submit the book. I spend the weekend in a Barnes and Noble, reading the acknowledgment pages of published memoirs seeking shoutouts to editors. I ignore the suspicious stares of the store’s staff.

James can get my manuscript on the desks of editors at top houses. I cannot do that on my own. But what if we land on the wrong desks at the wrong houses? What then?

I discussed my concerns with James, and he understood. And we parted, on the best of terms. We are still friends. I follow his family’s doings on Facebook. He has said he’s happy to be a reference for my agent search. I haven’t made use of that yet; it seems awkward to communicate in a blind query.

I wrote last week about how I am entering Year Six of a ten-year professional reinvention plan. I will confess I had anticipated seeing a book published earlier on in this plan. And I likely delayed that possibility significantly by stepping back into the literary agent slush pile rather than making use of James to get my manuscript in front of editors. Do I regret the decision? I certainly do whenever I receive a rejection form letter from an agent, those agents who bother to turn people down (I’ve learned many simply don’t respond if they’re not interested). But I will keep at it.

Yes, self-publishing is an option. But for now I’d like to see what is out there in the publishing landscape, even if it might take me awhile before I can fully conduct that exploration. Did I make the right decision? It’s hard to know. Check back with me in six months.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

50 Responses to “Why I Left my Literary Agent”

  1. That is a brave move, Patrick, and a bold one. I say that if your intuition was in agreement with the guidance you received, this is indeed the right move and you will find your match. A little like looking for a life partner . . . you have to put yourself out there and have confidence it will happen, even though you have no clue as to how it will come about.

    Always my best to you, Patrick. I’m cheering you from the sidelines. 🙂

    • Thanks, Amy! Interesting analogy to a life partner. A literary agent is very much like a life partner in that you want to grow together and support each other in their creative efforts.

  2. Persistence is key, I think. Like Amy says, put yourself out there with confidence. Maybe hit some conferences, where you can meet some agents face to face. It does have to click and feel right. Your thoughts about having an agent that specializes in your genre are spot on.

  3. nancyarnypisunyer@blogspot.com Reply January 14, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Patrick it sounds as though you made a wise and courageous choice. I’ve learned that some life partners work, and some don’t. When you find the right one, life gets SO much better. It’s not to say you and the former partner don’t have things to share (weddings of joint offspring for example), but the new partner – the RIGHT partner – just understands and supports you in ways you never knew possible in the former relationship. It took me 17 years to find the right partner second time around. Hopefully it won’t take you that long to find the right agent. But here’s another twist. I stopped looking, and eventually the new partner LITERALLY walked into my life. Buena suerte!

    • Hi Nancy! I will admit to being in my second marriage, a very happy one. It didn’t take me 17 years after the first one, but it did take a few, and like you, it happened when I had stopped looking as well. (Well, on the day in question, I wasn’t looking for a partner, I was looking for gifts for my kids at a yard sale, and she had organized the yard sale. She likes to say her future husband literally showed up at her door!) I think I probably have to do a little proactive looking for an agent, however!🙂 I appreciate the wish for good luck.

  4. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to do what is right for your project. I’m with Amy. Trusting your intuition is a good thing.🙂 Just for fun, I decided to set a goal for how many rejections I could receive. It was a bit more enjoyable to receive them that way and I knew the work was getting out there.🙂

    • Thank you, Robyn! Hmm, a goal on rejections? I think I could reach a pretty high number if I treat non-responses as a rejection (again, I get why an agent swamped with queries wouldn’t want to reply in the negative, particularly if it invites a long email chain with said author, but it’s frustrating not to hear anything).

  5. Nice to see the whole story assembled here! I’m glad you and Bond were smart and mature enough to both make the right choices, and still can together enjoy those shaken martinis. This reminds me of when my little sister Marianne (as a young person, a violin prodigy) needed to change from her first teacher. For a seven year old, this was a pretty important person: a wonderful mentor she loved like a grandfather. This is a scary moment, to approach this guy and say, “She needs a change.” I believe in both our worlds, people tend to hoard talent and it’s potential reflected status, jealously. His response was amazing: “I’m so glad you took the initiative. I’ve shown her all I can and she’s wearing me out. I didn’t know what to tell you.” It’s especially nice when it works out pleasantly for everyone involved. (There was a similar incident, later, that was a disaster. Feelings were hurt and doors closed.)

    • Hey Dan! Great to have you here at The Artist’s Road! You don’t need to remind me of what a prodigy Marianne was.

      Thank you for sharing that story. Interesting what you said about the instructor’s response. I was nervous to speak with “James” because it felt like a break-up (as commenters are reflecting in their comments). But he was relieved, because he felt things had evolved to where he couldn’t give me the assistance he felt I and the book deserved. So yes, it works out for both of us (well, it will work out for me after I get the book published!).

      Give my love to the family.

  6. Patrick, it’s not a hard call for me. You made the right decision, because it’s in line with what you’re here to do: live an art-committed life. Your decision feels authentic in that vein.

    I’ve learned (from similar decisions I’ve made along the way) that these turning points can deepen our process so much more than if we took the standard path. Your road trip, the subject of the book, is a symbol of how non-standard the exploration of creativity is.That’s what called your soul. (Not always easy to let our souls participate when it comes to “writing is a business” but I believe it can be done.)

    I absolutely LOVE the advice you got from your MFA instructors. Following that advice changed your direction. By taking the path that the book itself needs, you’re bound to find a true target. Sometimes all that other advice out there about how to get published can wind up being generic if it doesn’t serve *your* book (even though we’re told that authors are the ones who have to learn how to serve the system). I suspect we have more power than that; we just don’t always believe in our own power.

    Go, Patrick!😀

    • Hi Milli! (All, Milli was one of the first to discover this blog way back in 2010!) Thank you for comparing the path I’ve taken here with this manuscript to the path I chronicle in the memoir and on this blog; as it happens, “authenticity” emerged as a major (and slightly unexpected) theme in the memoir, and this is an example of my attempt to remain authentic to myself and my craft. Very useful.

  7. Sometimes the right decision is the one that hurts the most, Patrick – a bit like necessary surgery. I can only imagine how scary this was for you (and probably still is.) You’ve still got four years to go before you hit your ten-year deadline; a lot can happen in that time. You’ve already achieved so much and shown such graceful determination while doing it – I’m sure if you continue in that way you’ll find another agent very soon.

    Have faith in the next chapter of your adventure!🙂

    • It’s difficult to have faith when you feel like you’re at square one, but yes, that is what I must do!

      I appreciate your encouragement and the reminder I’ve still done a fair amount (you sound like my wife in that regard!). I’m going to keep plugging away at this.

  8. Hi Patrick!
    I am all about loyalty too and I’d rather have a root canal than break with someone, especially if the relationship goes deeper than the business it was based on. But you both agreed that the situation wasn’t serving either of you, so no doubt, you did the right thing and it will be better than resentment later.

    My book took a big change in direction from more of a history to a memoir as well. I had the same critique – where’s the narrator? It became about the journey to discover the history of the places I painted. I got the interest of a publisher right away, but the expense of this kind of book caused to it get rejected by the board. I’m still looking and the gentleman who put so much of his energy into helping me suggested I try self publishing as well. I will try a few more traditional publishers but in the end, it is the vision, what you believe in, that must carry you forward. I like what Milli said. Perfect.

    • Hi Michelle! Yes, as a visual artist your type of book means more expense; what a tragedy to have printing cost stymie publication of something that clearly deserves to be seen, if it generated interest so quickly. Well, we’ll just keep at this together!

      • We will!🙂
        Of what I have been lucky enough to read of your work and considering the topic of your book – I know it is going to be excellent and I can’t wait to read it. I have no doubts someone will grab a hold of it.

        That’s the first time I said it publicly too – rejected… LOL! This keeps up, I’ll need “The Artist’s Road to Therapy”…

  9. Wishing you the best. I agree with Wendy: have faith.

  10. Wow, you just keep going from strength to strength, Patrick, making one great decision after another, no matter how risky it may feel. How I admire you! I have no doubt that you’ll be signed on with an agent who is the perfect fit for you and your work sooner than you think. Can’t wait to buy and read your memoir🙂

    • Oh Carole Jane, thank you, but I can’t really say right now that this was the “right” decision; should it work out then I will! I will carry your faith with me and try to hold on to it in those moments of self-doubt (which are fairly frequent right now).

  11. Brave and tenacious. Good luck!

  12. Hi Patrick, Love your blog and all that you share here! I, too, think your decision sounds like it was the right decision for you. I can completely understand how it would have been a scary and difficult decision to make. I can’t help wondering if there aren’t two books there, though. I can appreciate a good memoir, but there might be another story there too – a more road-trip/creative process/feature-type story AND a memoir. Just a thought. I appreciate how open you are with sharing your process and plans and with putting it all out here for us! Honestly, it’s so refreshing and helpful.

    • Thank you, Terri! Yes to the multiple-book thought. As it happens, the structure of the book is a bit ambitious; the “memoir” part of the book unfolds through triggers from interviews, where we meet the artists and they share their creative processes. It’s a highly complicated framework, but I’m a bit left-brained on structure. There is one thing in common I have in the endorsement quotes for the book from my MFA instructors; they all say basically that they wouldn’t think the structure could possibly work except it does!

      Thank you in particular for appreciating my sharing. That remains a difficulty for me, even having now written a memoir. I made this decision back in late September and I’m only sharing it now, so there’s that. But it’s out there now and isn’t going away.

  13. It takes a lot of courage to make that decision, and it takes even more to share it with us. Good for you. I’m sure that you’ll find the perfect agent for your memoir. Stick with it, Patrick!

  14. I’m right there with you in the trenches, Patrick, hoping like crazy I make the right choices. It’s not for the faint of heart, and it’s very helpful to hear about the experiences of other writers; thank you for sharing yours. I’m rooting for you.

  15. I think you made the right decision in that you’re putting yourself in the position to have the book in the best hands possible. It may take time, but there’s no race. (Hard to remember, I know!) I’ll be really curious to see how it all turns out. Rooting for you!

  16. I have an update to this post. The other day The Rumpus did a summary and link on this post — http://therumpus.net/2014/01/on-leaving-your-literary-agent/ — which led an assistant at a leading literary agency to reach out to me. She said she liked the honesty and bravery of my blog posts, and is fascinated with road-trip books. So I sent her my query; we’ll see if she’s interested or if her bosses are. But it’s an intriguing development nonetheless. If this post leads me to representation, that would be a true surprise.

  17. I think you made a good decision, Patrick. It’s tempting to say whether a decision is right or not based on potential consequences and results, but I don’t think that’s necessary the best approach. Instead, I think the right decision is the best one that you make based on your goals, instinct, and the information you have at a particular moment. Although it may feel like you’re facing more risks and challenges now after leaving an agent, you also have the chance to start afresh and make new progress that you might not have been able to otherwise. Playing it safe and staying in our comfort zone actually can hinder growth (just as we need to face challenges when practicing deliberately). Wish you the best of luck in continual search for publication.

    • Thank you so much for this comment, Yilin. I am facing challenges and risks, but of course I faced challenges and risks had I stayed with “James.” As to risk-taking, I’ve taken a few in my life. Most have worked out, but even with the ones that didn’t, I learned from what didn’t work and that helped me later on. It’s the entrepreneurial spirit in me that looks to build success out of failure.

  18. Patrick~ You made a wise move. Send me a note re: your memoir pitch. Maybe I can direct you to the right agent. Depending on your memoir’s angle, mine might be right. She’s stellar. Cheers.

    • Jeffrey, you’re the best. I’ll send along my info to you in the morning. I also understand that the referral doesn’t mean it’s right for her or that she’s ready to take on a new client. Thanks!

  19. Thanks for the post, Patrick. I’m not sure if you made a wise move or not, but you took a daring, definitive step. I spent three years shopping three novels and piled up more than 300 rejections. A few positive replies and requests for partials kept me going. Eventually, I reached a level of burnout and took the past year off. It just got all-consuming. Now I’m back in touch with other, vital parts of my life: work (as an editor), family (spouse and three kids), going sledding and bird watching, practicing mindfulness, revising old novels, outlining new ones (without shopping them!), posting little things to Yahoo! Voices and the Spoof, and responding to blogs (like this one). You obviously have a lot of yourself invested in your memoir, and I think it will pay big artistic dividends when you find an agent who shares your enthusiasm. A lot of the rejections I get tell me the agent just isn’t enthusiastic enough to represent my work. But as long as you remain devoted, I think you’ll succeed. Best of luck with your latest literary contact!

    • Hi Bob, glad you put blog responses on your “will-do” list, and you chose mine! Thank you for your encouragement, it means a lot. And I can understand how you reached that level of burnout. To be honest, I’ve walked away before; that’s part of my story, my returnto an art-committed life. And all this business stuff can take away from my creative time. I’m really glad, however, that I took the weekend off from this and returned to a personal essay that I brought to a final and submitted to a literary journal. It felt good to be writing again.

  20. Patrick as an artist, I have built in a rejection clause in all of the things I create. This is not a negative system and it is one that should be changed if circumstances change. For now it is just reality that almost all of my work will be rejected by someone and I cannot ever expect to understand the reasoning. This is sometimes a reflection of my work and sometimes timing. But more likely it is just as simple as being the present weight of the market.
    We all take on our work with heart and give it our best. Some jobs are well paid such as professional football and basketball but it would be unusual to have writing and art generally in the best paid category. You are still a professional even if you have not had the runs on the board just now. Form slumps, writers block, real work will all eat away at your confidence and sometimes the age old ” Struggling Artist” syndrome may be put upon you but they are just water on off a ducks back. You need to continue your great work and small things such as an Agent ( who will do quite well even if you don’t) will not and should not effect your ultimate outcome. Great works will always remain great works and the judging of same is relative to the eye of the reader. Get your book out and do it on your own if you need, just get it out there. B

    • Wow, what a comment! This could be a stand-alone blog post, a rallying cry to creatives everywhere. As to your last point, it has crossed my mind to send it directly to a few literary and university publishers that would be suited for the work and don’t require literary agents; there are a fair number of them in the literary nonfiction space. That is another way of getting it out there.

      Oh, and this book is not likely to bring in LeBron James money, I already know that!🙂

  21. If I were in your shoes, since “James” is apparently a known quantity in the business and you are on good terms, I would pick a handful of top agents you’re after and ask that James make the initial contact as a hand-off. “I have a client, he’s great to work with, but his book evolved from interview to memoir, which is not an area I represent…” That won’t get you an agent, but it will get your manuscript looked at, I can almost guarantee it. If getting your manuscript looked at won’t get you an agent, other issues may need to be addressed.

    • Thanks, Michael. He did that with one agent, but that agent wasn’t taking anyone on. I’ve been ill-inclined to press “James” since I feel a bit like I abandoned him (even though it was a mutual decision) but it’s something I’m weighing.

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  23. I'm not always right Reply April 23, 2014 at 11:03 am

    I think you messed up big time. You had an agent who was willing to stand behind you and submit your book to publishers. You didn’t have to accept an offer you didn’t like. So now, not only do you not have any access to any publishers, you don’t even have an agent. Good luck. Though, I think you would have been better served to see what James could have done for you.

    • I sense a bit of hostility here in this anonymous comment, but I’ll overlook it because written communications isn’t always clear in terms of intent. Thank you for your input. Let me make one factual correction here; the vast majority of publishers–a ratio of about 100 to 1–do not require an agent. It’s only the handful of major NY publishers. I know dozens of authors who have had long careers in publishing without an agent.

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  1. The Artist’s Road Memoir will be Published this Fall | The Artist's Road - May 12, 2014

    […] 2014: I decide to leave my literary agent just after sending him the manuscript. It feels like career suicide as I begin querying […]

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