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The Downside of Working Without an Agent

A recent experience, weirdly unrelated to a recent rant on Twitter, reminded me of how many times authors undervalue themselves.

I see it especially with nonfiction authors. As experts in the field, they are often approached directly by publishers to write a book. In some cases, the publisher has worked with them previously and never thought to contact the agent first. And in some cases the publisher is probably looking to get a cheap deal. Agents don’t like cheap deals.

This happened recently with a client of mine. For six months we were discussing and working on a book proposal. Things had been quiet and I assumed she was thinking of how to approach the project in other ways. Instead, come to find out, she was negotiating a back table deal with a small publisher.

I’d like to say I’m thrilled for her, but before I can feel that I’m going to need to let go of the feelings I have about all the time wasted working with her on this book.

The fact is, I don’t get paid until a book sells. Six months of ideas, edits, and my thoughts were wasted because this author felt that bringing me into the deal would scare the publisher away. Keep in mind that in 20 years I’ve never seen an agent scare a reputable publisher away from a deal.

I suspect there are some authors feeling great glee that an author screwed another “blood-sucking agent”. And sure, I feel like I got screwed. On top of that though, I suspect the author likely screwed herself.

What Authors Stand to Lose

There are a lot of reasons authors will accept a deal without involving an agent. You probably know more than I. In this case, the author claimed she feared the publisher would walk if I was brought in. My question to you is, would you want to sign a deal if the publisher refused to negotiate with agents? That to me sounds like a red flag. In this case they would not have. I have a good relationship with this publisher.

I suspect the second most common reason for signing without using an agent is to save 15%. I get it. I’m always looking to save money myself. That being said, any agent worth half her salt will earn back her 15% in negotiations. It might not be straight off the advance, but it will be, at the very least, in better contract terms, including held rights and royalties.

Yeah. I’m tweaked about this. I’m annoyed the author ignored the author/agent agreement we have in place and I’m upset that I wasted so much time improving her work only to be cut out of the deal.

I’m also upset that this gives me a little less trust in other authors. Will it happen again? Probably. It’s happened before. Will I be tweaked? Yep. But I’ll move on, I’ll find another fabulous nonfiction author, and I’ll find those with whom I build long-lasting and trusting relationships with.

It’s a business and I look forward, always, to working with people who respect and value what I bring to the table.

Category: Blog


  1. Thank you for sharing this story, Jessica. If I were you I’d be more than tweaked, I’d be furious! Your client betrayed you and the contract. I hope she learns a lesson from it.

    1. Jessica, I’m so sorry that happened to you! That “author” (author, maybe, professional, no way!) stole from you, plain and simple. How does she sleep at night?!
      You and your agents do so much work to help new authors like me understand the business–this blog and your YouTube videos, as just two examples. I have already learned a ton!
      Your karma is golden; that greedy author’s, not so much . . ..
      I’ve been cheated in business a few times. Sad to see that it happens in the literary world, as well. 🙁

  2. It’s awful when someone causes you to lose trust and in today’s world it happens more than it should, which is never. But you’re making the right choice in letting it go rather than becoming bitter. Things have a habit of coming home to roost.

  3. I’ve been grateful for my agent through every step of the publishing process and I can’t imagine ever going it solo, let alone negotiating behind his back. Even the idea makes me queasy. An agent will negotiate a (much) better deal than an author would on her own. And contracts with all those mysterious clauses and foreign sales… how do you even navigate that without an agent? An agent is so many things…. negotiator, sure, but also advocate and cheerleader. And they do it with no pay upfront solely because they believe in you. Sometimes more than you believe in yourself. Thanks to all agents for everything you do!

  4. I can’t understand why an author who has an agent, in particular, a hard-working and reputable one, would even consider bypassing them to go directly to the publisher without even, at the very least, conferring with their agent first. Why have an agent if you’re not going to work with them?

  5. I have learned so much from this blog and am so grateful for the time you guys at Bookends put in to help authors even on top of the busy schedules in place with your existing clients. That really stinks that someone would be so disingenuous in their dealings with you, I’m so sorry. Thanks for all that you do!

  6. On the other hand there are writers whose work would never be picked up by any agent because it’s not commercial enough, and those writers, and I am one, form relationships with publishers who don’t require an agent, those publishers are often called small publishers, but some of them are large and well known. It’s just a different world, you could say.

    1. “For six months we were discussing and working on a book proposal.” I am sad for you, not gleeful, that this author arranged a deal without you, but I sympathize with her if it had been six months of ideas and edits with only you, which feels like an eternity to a writer who wants to be writing on the actual project. As for the money… The author was also not going to be paid until you sold that book/proposal. What was her side of this story…

      As for “things had been quiet and I assumed she was thinking of how to approach the project in other ways.” If a publisher was clearly interested in the project as it was, perhaps the author saw potential to be working with the actual editor who would be involved in publishing her work.

      True she could have had an honest conversation with you about her silence, but when agents take months to re-work a project before pitching, authors begin wonder who we’re reworking it for? The agent’s preference? What the agent thinks/knows the editor will want? Which editor? At which publisher? Aren’t their preferences different, too? Will one person’s edits or suggestions hurt or help? These are questions that boil over when time marches on and we’re still working at our non-writing day jobs.

  7. I would feel the same. This is inconsiderate. Thanks for sharing this situation. It helps authors see the other side of the coin and maybe it will help cut down on the same scenario happening again.

  8. Thank you for the post above. Here’s another side of the story. As a young writer in the mid-1980s, I wrote two small non-fiction books that drew a large amount of attention, selling 350,000 copies internationally. Unfamiliar with literary agents, I received 5% of the selling price for the first 200,000 books, and slightly under 10% on the balance. In retrospect, this wasn’t entirely fair, though my publisher took a chance on an unknown and printed (and soon reprinted) a whole lotta books.
    I later wrote a similar book with sales of 10,00 copies, a couple of other NF books (with modest sales in the US and Canada), and three co-authored books about healthy eating, after which I stopped writing books because I wasn’t making any money. I knew nothing about literary agents, but learned the importance of having one with those last three co-authored books.
    On learning about our co-authored project, the owner of a mid-sized publishing firm approached me and my co-author, offering us a $25,000 advance for the first of three books. We didn’t try to bargain; we didn’t approach a literary agent.
    As we read over the contract for the first book, the publisher said: “It’s a modest little book. It won’t go anywhere beyond this country. Why not cross out “foreign sales” and mark it 0 %?” So we did.
    Inking the deal, we thought how “lucky” we were! We were not lucky. We were naive.
    We went on tour, receiving a lot of press. WOW! All those AIRPORTS! The publisher even flew me in from Australia, where I was living at the time. DOUBLE WOW!
    It turned out my co-author and I had to share the advance. No worries! We’d soon be seeing more money! We did not. The publisher was slow to send our statements. When they finally arrived after we’d phoned and written, the statements indicated our books wasn’t making any money.
    The advance for the second book was a shared $5,000. I don’t remember the advance for the third book, but believe it was also a shared $5,000. It was a long time later that the publisher’s receptionist gave me a call.
    “I have a couple of extra copies of your book in Russian,” she said. “Would you like them?” I quietly went into shock. I phoned my co-author. We BOTH went into shock. We did an Internet search.
    There was plenty online about our books. Marketed across Europe, they’d been translated into eight languages. Further research showed our publisher owned a second publishing company under a different name in Florida. She’d sold our books to herself. The publisher has since gone out of business.
    There was nothing we could do. We were adults of sound mind. We’d signed a contract. We’d willingly agreed to 0 % on foreign sales. Years had passed. We were stuck.
    We learned our lesson well: A reputable literary agent would not have let this happen. My co-author and I are not and never were angry. We accepted our part in this fiasco. We hadn’t been coerced. What we’d responded to was merely a suggestion.
    We quickly moved on, shaking our heads at how any publisher could knowingly have done such a thing.
    I’ve never met Jessica Faust, whose BookEnds post prompted me to write these words. She and I have no business or other relationship, but her blog has taught me plenty.
    My co-author is now a successful novelist. I stopped writing for 20 years, but have now picked up my pen.
    Writing a book is hard, serious work. It’s not all rainbows and roses. You have to soldier though the bad stuff and focus on the good. Finding a reputable literary agency and agent will help you do that. A 15% commission is an investment in yourself.

    1. I’m so sorry this happened to you and thank you for sharing this cautionary tale. Good luck with your writing now.

      1. I appreciate that, Krystina. It was a valuable lesson. My work has value. So does yours. Why give it away when we may lack the legal and marketing skills to evaluate the fine print of a contract? Why give it away when we can’t be sure which publisher’s best for our work? Why give it away when we may not be able to realistically evaluate our work’s sales potential? I want to hire a skilled professional who shares my goals; I also want to be sure my goals are respected and realistic, with a reasonable time frame (on both sides) to meet writing, editing, and contractual deadlines. That means doing somef homework to determine which agent and which writer are a mutually good fit. Best wishes to everyone on this post!
        PS: If we tell actors to “break a leg!” I sure am glad no one tells writers to “break an arm!” : }

  9. ‘I suspect there are some authors feeling great glee that an author screwed another “blood-sucking agent”.’

    Yikes! No doubt such authors carry garlic, crucifixes, and a hammer and wooden stake in case they meet an agent…

  10. When author and agent look at their working relationship as *long term* and not one book, this should not happen. Shortsighted and unethical, IMO.
    While you mention being frustrated with the client, I wonder why the publisher/editor, with whom you have a long term business relationship and it’s a good one, doesn’t get the badge of disappointment. Authors may or may not understand all the ramifications, but a publisher does. Rather unprofessional in my book. (Pun intended.)

    1. Mirka: I’ve had plenty of frustrations with publishers who clearly, knowingly, went around the agent. I this case however, I believe the publisher was never told by the author that I was involved in any way.

        1. Oh wow. I’d have thought after all the time and effort this author presumably spent getting an agent, they’d want to actually *use* their agent. So this makes me wonder: I’ve heard about plenty of authors “breaking up” with their agent. Do agents ever initiate the break-up?

  11. I can’t see myself as an author who would ever do this to my agent. I mean, seriously, I’m spending so much time working toward finding that person I want to build a long-term relationship with and am horrified at the thought of messing that up. However, your post does bring up some questions I’ve wondered for a long time. Are there ever legitimate projects which an author will seek out on her own? (with her agent’s blessing, of course) How does an established auhor pursue multiple markets? An agent’s time is limited. While she’s championing the strongest manuscripts, is there room in the partnership for the writer to explore other possibilities at the same time? For example, I have big dreams for my career and dozens of someday-writing-project-goals across multiple genres and age groups. I am currently focusing on polishing my best manuscripts which all fall into one category, but I’ve got a weekend WIP for an older age group which I hope to query after those. I’m generating new work all the time, and occasionally those span fiction and non fiction, secular and inspirational. I’m way ahead of myself, but will I have to tackle some of those would-be submissions on my own? I’m curious how an agent helps an author branch out without spreading themselves too thin. LOL Maybe this a subject for a future post? Anyway, thanks for the warning and for Bookends consistent commitment to educating the community at large.

  12. Man… that was tacky. Authors should know better, and they should respect their agents. I’m so sorry that happened to you.

  13. I have to agree with Rebecca. I have found that small publishing companies are more interested in my work. I have submitted to hundreds of agents and, while many have been complimentary of my work, none have offered representation. All of the small publishing companies provide detaialed critiques. Most agents never respond to queries. However, if I had an agent, I would certainly not go behind his or her back to make a deal with a publisher. I agree with those who said the money that an agent makes is well worth it.

  14. My gosh. I know what a good agent does for their authors. That’s why I want an agent. It goes without saying they earn their commission – it’s why so many authors have and stick with their agents.

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