Let me preface this piece by saying there are many wonderful, talented, ethical and got-it-goin'-on agents out there - more than I refer to on this blog.
Second preface would be no agent is better than a dead-beat one. Allow me to illustrate...
Agent limbo, for the purpose of this blog entry, refers to an agent who does one of the following:
1. Keep you in their hip pocket should they find the right editor for your work.
2. Hold you to a unreasonably long contract agreement where you are tied to the agent or agency for over 18 months, despite your voiced/written displeasure in their business practices.
3. Have sent your work only to a small handful of editors or not at all, despite having been with them for several prime months.
Let's look at the hip pocket agent. To be in an agent's hip pocket means they've taken a look at your work, appear to like it and lean toward representing you but haven't extended a contract, letter of agreement or handshake. They love to flirt! They keep you trailing along. They also are non responsive when you inquire directly about representation. Weeks go by with little communication from them until they send you a blip that'll no doubt give you some glimmer of hope. It looks like this..."I had lunch with Senior Editor McFabulous today and told them all about your book! They can't wait to see it!" But then suddenly, not soon after, their attention is diverted elsewhere and you're left with waning hope that this agent will ever come through and rep your work.
Writers, this agent is just not that into you. Move on and find true love with an agent who really sees the potential in you, your work and isn't afraid or too disorganized to offer you representation.
Hip pocket can also refer to a mutually agreeable professional agreement that should an agent find the right editor for your hard to market work, they'll give you a ring. Again, this is something that's mutually agreed upon from the start and is up to you and the agent to work out. Just make sure all expectations are made clear well before a deal with a publisher is made. And I stress...this usually happens when an agent may love your work but can't see where it will fit in in the market and you, the writer, are in no hurry to publish or have no desire to search for another suitable agent. This works out just fine, in your mind. Let me know if this is foggy and I'll go into it further.
Scenario 2. Any agent who holds you against your will to an unreasonably long contract (over 18 months, in my professional opinion), is questionable (however, if you are sure this agent is the one you want to work with, negotiate for a 12 month contract). But there's a lot to this. First, make sure you know what you're getting into with an agent contract. Question anything that seems suspect or unclear. Personally, I didn't offer contracts when I was an agent; I offered a letter of understanding which laid out my responsibilities and the client's responsibilities. I felt if the author was ever uncomfortable with my representation, he/she was free to leave, no hard feelings, which was very successful. But, a lot of agents do work with their own contracts and that's fine, just make sure it's no longer than 12 months and that you agree with everything else within the contract. If at the 12 months nothing has happened despite the agent's best efforts to sell your work and you'd both like to continue on together, you can. By agent's best efforts, I mean, there is a detailed track record of submissions and you've got the rejection letters to prove it.
Making sure your professional relationship is clear from the beginning is a great way to avoid most agent limbo situations. This is your work, your career, so protect it!
Then there's the agent from scenario 3 who will hold on to a writer for years with a limited track record of attempts to sell the work (or none at all), telling their client things like "Do you know how lucky you are to have an agent? Most agencies are closing shop!" Unfortunately, I've heard this line more than a few times. Uh, can you say abusive relationship? First of all, if you're in this situation, you need to see it for what it is...a "professional" relationship that is going nowhere with a totally unprofessional agent. No agent is better than a bad one. You're wasting time. Exit stage left. Pronto!
When you enter a positive, professional relationship with an agent you can expect clear, timely communication. You can expect their best efforts to respect you as a writer. You can expect them to submit your work, as long as it's to their standard, to the best editors possible and available and you can expect feedback as to when your work will go out, what house it's going to and receive all feedback from those editors (make sure you are clear on how they'll let you know all this important stuff before you agree to become their client). Anything extra they're willing to give is gravy, so appreciate the heck out of it!
Now writers, here's the deal. If you're with a great agent who is truly working hard for you and you know it, value them. Don't expect them to drop everything to deal with your issues, respect their time and expertise and keep your professional commitments. Always show a high level of professional integrity and you simply cannot go wrong.
I hope this was helpful for you all in your agent search and navigation. For more info on your writer's rights, check AAR.