The relationship between an author and an agent is complicated and generally speaking impossible. It involves two people working toward the same goal, and with roughly the same agenda, but with different skill sets (remember the word "expertise"? Whatever happened to that one?).
An agent needs to know when something's not ready to be marketed, and when to pull the plug on something that's being marketed. But the author makes the final determination. An author would probably hang in there until there were no publishing companies left on earth that had not turned down the work, and then start again from the top under the assumption that the personnel must have changed by now.
Nobody can always get everything he wants all the time, and you're lucky if there's a good day every once in a while. This is not a function of the personalities involved--I think Josh is a terrific agent and a great guy--but of the way the whole thing is set up to begin with.
Now: I know there are writers and aspiring writers (although anyone who writes is a writer) who are reading this and saying, "Shut up. You have a contract with an agent who wants to represent your work. You should be happy with that." And that's true, and I am.
But consider the way this relationship operates: The author writes--beyond whatever has already been contracted--anything he or she (but for our purposes, let's say he) wants to write. After spending weeks/months/years sweating blood on said project, polishing it to a positive sheen (or a Martin Sheen) and then shaking with anticipation and dread at the prospect, the author hits the "send" button and expels the fruit of his labors to the agent to read.
I don't presume for a moment to speak for a literary agent; I don't walk in one's shoes and I have only the most narrow of experiences to use as a referent. (Classy, huh?) But the option for the agent after receiving the new file from the author--which we can assume is one of at least a couple showing up from clients today--is clear: Represent the work, or not.
The chances that the agent will say, "This is the worst piece of crap I've ever seen, and I refuse to be associated with it" to an established client are, let's say, slim. Nobody makes anything on a book that they don't even try to sell. Unless the project is really a horrifying mess of tortured verbiage (like that phrase, for example), the worst an author can expect is some gentle prodding to fix the last 100 pages or so in an effort not to embarrass anyone (the agent) associated with it.
So the game is on. Authors have a general idea that someone representing us will respond to our writing, because otherwise they would have passed on the opportunity to work with us in the first place. Next comes a plan. Here, if the author is as completely clueless as, say, I am, the agent can mention any names he wants and suggest the work be offered to those editors. The author generally trusts the agent, and most of the time should, so this is not a terribly hazardous area.
But when something happens with the work, the question must be in the back of the author's mind: Did this sell because I'm a genius, or because my agent is? Did this fail to sell because I'm a hack, or because the business is so screwed up that editors won't buy a book that's good because they don't have a "slot" for it this month?
The problem is that all writers believe everything they deign to save to a hard drive is the next big bestseller and should be the object of a publisher auction within hours of typing "THE END." Agents, who are not insane creative maniacs and actually understand how business works, have to deal with the unhinged writer, keep the avenues of communication open, and maintain the impression (which should also correspond to the truth) that things really and truly are being done.
But writers, alas, are crazy, and patience is overall not one of our most possessed virtues. Hence, the impossibility of this relationship.
I talk to my agent, who might care to rebut everything I'm saying here when his turn comes tomorrow, fairly regularly. And every time I get off the phone with him, I feel better. I trust him implicitly. Truly. I wouldn't be posting about agents at all if I didn't.
What we authors need to do is to have realistic expectations. But then if we were realistic, would we be writing fiction? There's a question to keep you up at night!
I now yield the floor to my counterpart on the other side of the aisle.