I have a question regarding protocol and approaching a publisher directly. I currently have an agent who represents specific projects -- as opposed to representing ME -- and we were recently within a fraction of an inch of a book deal (my first). The publishing team decided to go in a different direction with the book, and assured us it was not an "author issue." Whatever.
I truly enjoy working with this agent, and feel she has my best interest in mind...most of the time. While I do understand this is a business first and that I'm lucky to have an agent at all, my only complaint is that she is not as proactive as I'd like. She runs a small agency, has mountains of work to do for her published clients, and I, therefore, tend to get less time and, in my mind, opportunities.
Can I help? Can I contact publishers on my own after making sure my proposal matches what they publish? If so, can I tell them to contact my agent if there is any interest? Does having an agent make me a stronger candidate or will I simply look foolish?
I don't wish to burn any bridges -- with my agent or a potential publisher -- and I hope to continue working together, but I do get tired of the waiting game and feel I can at least gain exposure and possibly establish a relationship with an editor.
As any agent will tell you, some of them have a more "hand-holding" approach - meaning they spend more time communicating with the author - and others do not, and spend the vast majority of their time working with the editor and publicist to make sure the book is successful after it sells to a publishing house. It's almost entirely dependent on the agent's personality, which is very hard to get a grasp of at first.
A good rule of thumb is to never go over the head of your agent (who is there to protect YOUR interests) without his/her permission. This is a good question to ask: "Should I call the editor about a concern I have?" Another good rule is that if you do have a strong working relationship with your editor and the agent isn't involved in that part of the manuscript, never mention money. As soon as money, deals, contracts come up, direct the editor to your agent.
I do talk to my editor and I do talk to my agent, and the first question I ask is, "Am I interrupting something? I know you're very busy." To my editor my questions are entirely editorial with a few notable exceptions. It just so happens that my editor is not a fan of agents (as many editors are not, viewing them as people who just drive up the price of the novel) and I only got an agent because I got an offer from her first (she accepts unsolicited submissions). So, I'm fairly sure she likes me better than she likes my agent. On occasion I've said to my agent, "Do you think I should go bug ___ about this?" (it being a contractual question) and she usually says to go ahead. This is a matter of the personalities of the three of us - writer, agent, and editor - and the balance between them. We all want the book to be successful, but we all have slightly different views of how that should come to be.
If you're wondering whether it's appropriate to "bug" your agent or editor about some issue that you have, it's perfectly fair to outright ask them if they mind the interruption. Be as brief as possible, and thank them for their time. Eventually you will get a feel for their personalities and when you can call them and when you should put it off until the next time you speak.
To answer your question, which is "Can I help?" the answer is generally that they will tell you if you can. I asked that question once and didn't really get a response, which meant "no." When the time DOES come for your input, show your dedication and respect, and you might be asked for more.
To answer your second, implied question, I can't tell you if your agent is doing a good job or not, but there are long waits in publishing. A "what's going on?" call is acceptable as a client after a few months, and you can ask where she submitted, but this is something that will take its own course. Worse comes to worse, she can't sell the manuscript anywhere, which either means she's not a good agent or she was wrong and the manuscript isn't strong enough to be sold. It's in her interest to sell every manuscript she accepts, and for as much money as possible, so she's not working against you. When she exhausts every possible option (if it comes to that), she'll tell you.
Last point: If you have an agent, do not approach publishers on your own. She will be insulted and it's the wrong thing to do.