Monday, January 08, 2007

Jane Dystel requests that you "Don't Shoot the Messenger"

Agents have a tough row to hoe. It is our job, of course, to give good news. But just as often, unfortunately, we also have to give bad news. And often, quite often, when the news is bad, we, as the messengers are blamed for it.

Years ago I remember I had an author who ultimately had a huge bestseller. I, however, represented him at the beginning of his career and handled his first three books. Each book sold less well than the one before and in each case, because of this, we had to switch publishers. Finally, he fired me and went on to a new agent. Soon after, I was having lunch with one of his former editors who said to me, “Of course, he had to fire you; he had fired each of his previous publishers and when that didn’t work, he had to blame you for his bad sales – there was nowhere else to go.”

Authors should really think about what we are saying to them when we bring bad news; I for one am trying very hard to be constructive as I passionately believe that when we are turned down or when a book doesn’t sell, oftentimes there is an important lesson to be learned.

I am very persistent when it comes to submitting my clients’ work; there are many cases where I go to as many as 35 or 40 editors to find a buyer. But when I don’t, I usually come around to feeling there is a valid reason why the book hasn’t sold; and it is constructive to find that reason and either deal with it or put the proposal aside and go on to something new. (I always tell my clients that when they become bestselling authors, they can go back to that other project and sell it for lots of money.)

When a book doesn’t sell, it is totally inappropriate to blame the agent as so many authors do. We are on the author’s side – if only because when they do well, we do well. I care deeply about the writing careers of each and every one of my clients and when I am blamed for their projects not selling either to a publisher or in the marketplace or when I am blamed for the advance not being high enough, it is incredibly discouraging.

Authors select their agents carefully, I hope, getting recommendations from other authors, looking us up online, etc. Once they’ve landed an agent, they need to trust us more and understand that we really do have their best interests at heart as well as the professional experience to guide them through the process.

Many years ago, a young man came to me with a novel I liked a lot. We tried to sell it and failed; he then presented another and again we tried and again we failed. But he and we learned from each of these experiences and he is now finishing the last novel in his second three-book deal. Of course this willingness to absorb and learn from what seems to be bad news has helped him to grow in his career.

The purpose of this blog is to ask authors to think before they shoot. We agents are trying our best to help you grow in your careers. Please listen to us, know we care, and trust that we are doing our very best.


  1. Excellent advice. A few months ago a couple of agents also pointed out that when your manuscript is rejected, the agent feels the sting too. The book may not be their baby, but it's gotta be their niece or nephew.:)


  2. I love this post. It gives the one side of the equation perfectly and IMO shows that agents, not just silly writers, have feelings, insecurities, and humanity.

    From the otherside, I can only speak for myself, but I would never blame anyone. I would assess the situation, the intangibles, and learn from the bad news. But, I might learn that a different agent is a better fit. Or I might learn I would make a better trash collector than an author.....

    fat larry

  3. Gee, I never realized how tough an agent's job can be. Aside from getting a publisher to buy the book, it really is the reader who decides what sells. The sooner we realize that, the better. I know it's easier said than done, but you can't let agent bashing sink in. Focus on the successes rather than the failures.

  4. I find it hard to imagine blaming my agent for a book that doesn't sell, especially considering how hard she works without a guarantee of a return on her investment of time and expertise. As writers, we can always tell ourselves, "Don't quit your day job," but it seems important to remember that our writing IS our agent's day job.

  5. This is something I don't understand. I've been following the Dystel agency for a few years. When I'm not working on my best seller- I research agents and whats selling so I'll be ready when its time to submit. I would never understand someone firing the Dystel Agency. You have one of the best reputations in the business. Amazing! I can only think he had one hell of an ego to think he could do better.
    Some people would do better to count their blessings.

  6. Great advice. find it ironic that writers often blame the agent when things aren't going right. (in the case of us POD authors we only have ourselves to blame for the unfortunate outcome of our books)Writers need to realize that the agent is doing his/her best to get the book out there and in the proper home. The suppport and advice an experienced agent can give an author is invalable.
    Sometimes a book doesn't find a an agent home after a year. Two years. Sometimes it doesn't find a publisher after a year or two years (500 rejections and I'm still looking for an agent.) It takes a thick skin an perseverance and patience to work in the publishing industry, Agents do their best to get navigate a writer's career through rough terrain. My advice to any author who complains about their agents or the sales publisher's finished product: PUBLISH IT YOURSELF POD. Then you'll find out how hard it is to assemble a whole book. You'll come to appreiciate all that support an agent, editior and all those staff at the publishing house give you in your writing career.

  7. This is good to read.

    As far as firing an agent, one might do that, but they don't have to around telling everyone as pinning blame. After all, in any other business, if things didn't work out, you wouldn't necessarily gossip to everyone why, you'd simply move on and frame the departure in the most positive light that you could.

    Chalk that particular writer's actions as a lifetime of bad habits and effectively knowing how to burn bridges.

  8. This is a great post! It really shows how things can look from the other side. Thanks.


  9. I think we should just write the book the best we can and let the agent handle the details. They want to sell the book, its their paycheck too. Just take the advice given and move on. Let the agent do their job and just concentrate on writing the next book. I think dwelling on how long the sale takes just takes your energy away from your next book.

  10. Great advice.

    It's mind-boggling to me that an author would outright dismiss his or her agent's advice. Part of our jobs as writers is to learn as much as we can about the business, and sometimes that means accepting (and really, embracing) change.

    Also, authors who blame their agents for poor sales numbers once the book is released are out of their minds. Authors need to look in the mirror, shave, pluck their eyebrows, comb their hair and hit the road. Promote yourself. Network on the Internet. Offer free short stories on your website. Endorse contests. Get on the local NPR or University radio station. Speak at libraries, call your local B&N, Borders, Walden, B. Dalton, etc. and do signings.

    Blaming your agent for poor sales is silly and irresponsible. As you said, agents are on our side. We should be grateful for all they do.