I Broke Up with My Agent

BreakupAnd God, it hurts. Like any relationship, ours started with fireworks, hope, expectation. It was almost exactly two years ago, on January 13, 2013, that everything began with a phone call. She’d read my entire manuscript over the weekend, and she’d already contacted an editor who had expressed an immediate interest in it. “There are other scenes that are riveting and one that made me cry,” she wrote to me, which almost made me cry. This was my first relationship, and I was naïve — I thought that getting an agent was all that you needed for success. I thought that she would be the answer to all my prayers; I never doubted that our partnership would end in publication. What I didn’t realize was that she could only help me get my foot in the door, that the merits of my novel would have to carry us the rest of the way. When that editor turned us down, and each subsequent one did as well, my pain was only subdued by the fact that my agent was still at my side. Write a new book, she told me. I took comfort in the fact that she still believed in us, that she still wanted me, and I dove into number two.

Abandoned Communist barracks

The barracks where I wrote while Mao Zedong watched me from the wall.

If number one was written torturously, in 900-word brick-shitting increments, number two was an absolute joy. I’ve always compared novel-writing to pregnancy, and the analogy still holds true here. Number one was a tough pregnancy that ended in miscarriage. Number two sailed so smoothly, nary a day of morning sickness in sight, that I wholeheartedly believed birth was imminent. I wrote furiously. Soon, I was writing too fast for my agent to give me chapter-by-chapter comments and she told me to go ahead and finish it. I flew to China, but I was still writing. As we sat in luxurious conference rooms at the mayor’s hotel, I typed away furiously on my MacBook. On a stool in the middle of a former Communist barracks, I wrote while government officials chain-smoked expensive cigarettes. My father left me in a hotel room in Guangzhou, and I never left that day, reaching 4000 words while subsisting on crackers with strawberry filling. Finally, a few days before my self-imposed deadline, I finished. After a few weeks of edits, I sent the manuscript off to my agent and rejoiced.


So confident during Summer 2013 that I’m happily signing petitions against fracking.

As soon as she finished reading, she called. It was amazing, she said. She loved it. After asking me to make very minor edits, we started brainstorming titles. I chose Naked for its simplicity. It was fitting for my debut novel, I thought — never had I felt so exposed, so vulnerable in my life. Most importantly, the only other book that bore the same name was David Sedaris’ essay collection. I certainly would not mind being uttered in the same breath as David Sedaris. It was Summer 2013, when Blurred Lines was our country’s anthem. My agent carefully crafted our submission list, and suddenly my novel’s fate was out of our control. The first rejection came from Penguin. The editor said that I was talented and did a great job with the New Adult voice, but that the promiscuity of my protagonist was hard to relate to. I almost laughed. Too promiscuous? This is the same crowd that turned Fifty Shades of Grey into a bestseller. My own agent had told me that I didn’t need to write Fifty Shades, but at least twenty-five.

I remained optimistic. Then Random House and Hachette both passed, citing a lack of emotional connection with the protagonist. Rejections from Simon & Schuster, Avon, and Kensington followed. St. Martin’s Press gave the most encouraging yet infuriating feedback. After the editor explained that she liked Naked perfectly fine, but didn’t love it, she said that she had no doubt I would find the perfect editor for it. I don’t know if she wrote that simply to be nice, but it frustrated me to no end. Here was a book that editors agreed was clearly publishable, and yet not a single one of them wanted to do it.

With only a slight period of mourning, I started number three. From the beginning, I knew that number three would be entirely different from anything else I’d ever attempted. It was aiming for greatness, but I wasn’t sure I had what it took to take it there. The writing went as smoothly as number two had. With number three, I “won” NaNoWriMo for the first time — 50,000 words written in 30 days. My agent’s immediate response was very positive. I was ecstatic; I myself was in love with number three in a way that I had never been with the previous two. That was a mistake. Never, ever fall in love with your own writing. A few months of revisions later, I was faced with a cold, hard truth: editors are not the only people who can kill a book. My agent didn’t want to submit this one. She didn’t love it enough to attempt selling it. I will never know if she was right not to go out with this manuscript. Later, I would agree with her that it wasn’t ready, but I still feel that she could have tried. Perhaps an editor would have seen enough potential in it to work with me. This was the beginning of the end for my agent and me.

For number four, I went back to what I knew: New Adult. I tried to write the type of book I thought my agent and the editors were looking for, but I also made it mine. I didn’t love it the way I had loved number three, but maybe that was because I had been burned before. My agent was very excited about this one — she had loved the concept. Although I wasn’t 100% sure about this one, I was fairly confident that my agent would like it. I eagerly awaited her feedback. As the weeks passed and the silence deafened, though, I knew that something was wrong. I tried not to think about it, and I only nudged her for a response after a month. Her email was gut-wrenching. Not only did she feel that number four was not publishable, she didn’t think she had what it took to make it publishable. She gave me an out. If I wanted to end our partnership, she said, she would not be offended. When you say something like that, you can’t take it back.

I took the out.

After a week of feeling sad and lost, I knew what I had to do this morning. I thanked her for the past two years, and I told her it would be best if we parted ways. When a relationship isn’t working for either party, you have to end it. Being single is better than being in a subpar relationship. Our partnership was not going to end in publication, at least not the kind of publication I’m looking for. I don’t think we ever had the same goals for me as a writer, and that’s not okay. I’m looking for greatness, not mediocrity, and not publication for publication’s sake. I won’t settle for anything less. That’s why I broke up with my agent.

It hurts, but I know that this isn’t the end for me as a writer. I’m going to spend some time being alone, un-agented, and focus on my writing. When the time comes that I feel driven to do it again, I will pour my heart into number five. Then, I will renew my search for that someone special who may not be perfect, but will help me achieve all my dreams.


3 thoughts on “I Broke Up with My Agent

  1. Pingback: Our Stories | Rebecca Cao

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