Special Guest Post: Can You Be Friends With Your Agent?

by Janet Kobobel Grant

Founder and Literary Agent of Books & Such Agency

Some of my best friends are my clients. But not every client is a friend. Relationships between agents and clients are complex and hard to parse. I’ve learned a few principals in the fifteen years since I became an agent–sometimes the hard way.

Assumptions you should make:

  • The relationship is first and foremost a business relationship. When I sign to represent someone who already is a friend, I always establish that we are forming a business relationship. Unlike our friendship, that business relationship might end because it isn’t working for one or both of us on a professional level. If we don’t have the ability to see the difference between our profession and our mutual appreciation for each other, our friendship will end when the author-agent relationship ends. For that reason, I’m always hesitant to represent a friend. I value my friendships highly enough that I’m not eager to endanger them.

Several years ago I agreed to represent a dear friend. We embarked on the adventure with great anticipation. But, just as I was revving up my efforts to present her work to publishers, a major move and my husband’s health took up so much of my time and energy that I wasn’t able to devote myself to giving my new client the attention she deserved. After a few months, just as I was settling into the new realities of my life, my friend ended our professional relationship. I understood that I hadn’t served her well, but I had hoped she would extend grace to me. In this case, I was the unrealistic one. Our friendship was strained, and it took us a couple of years to get it back on course.

  • The author-agent relationship won’t necessarily turn into a friendship. While writers and their agents work closely and in synchronization with each other, friendship doesn’t have to be a part of the equation. My clients and I respect each other, that doesn’t mean we have to be friends.
  • If a friendship grows between you and your agent, it is a gift to both of you. As with all friendships, this one will take you by pleasant surprise. Not anticipating this side of the relationship as a foregone conclusion opens up both you and your agent to enjoy the delight of what is forming between you. As in any relationship, it can’t be forced by either of you.

Most of my client friendships developed slowly, as we worked together over the years. We learned about each other’s hobbies and families. But usually it is when life takes a turn that the friendship deepens. If one of us suffered an illness or one of us experienced a special joy—a birth or a wedding—we drew closer together.

One of my clients found herself in the hospital for a mysterious ailment and a worrisome prognosis. We talked on the phone every day, and soon she was phoning me whenever fear began to overtake her. By the time her hospital stay had ended, our friendship was cemented.

Assumptions you shouldn’t make:

  • Agents are looking for a friendship with every client. While I like all of my clients, not every one becomes a friend. We have made a business relationship; we didn’t sign an agreement to be friends. I feel uncomfortable when someone who wants to be a client bestows gifts on me every time we see each other and spontaneously sends me gifts. I feel as though the writer believes a bond is being formed, but I can’t allow myself to be obligated to represent someone. That relationship simply won’t work for either of us. I need to make the choice to represent someone because I can be an enthusiastic salesperson for his or her writing.
  • Agents will choose to represent you because you befriend them. I have many friends in the publishing industry, including authors who are represented by other agents. Friendship isn’t part of the equation for me when I decide to represent someone. As a matter of fact, sometimes I’ve become friends with clients, but the business side of our relationship didn’t work out. We’re still friends, and we’re both relieved our initial association resulted in kickstarting our friendship—and the friendship survived ending our business association.

The bottom line: Friendships and working relationships can intertwine, but they aren’t inherently connected.

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