Which leads me to this: No matter how it goes down, you’re probably going to be upset. This is a significant relationship, and it’s ending. It’s only logical to be upset. Let yourself mourn, and don’t be afraid to tell your friends/family how you’re feeling, because a support system can be really helpful here, emotionally. And by helpful, I mean vital.
But you also will have to get brave and prepare to move on.
I don’t think there’s one standard way that agents leave the industry, because I’ve heard of all different sorts. Your agent might continue to work with you on the book you currently have on submission,* or they might pass you to someone else at the agency, or they might not have plans for you at all, or anything in between. The most important thing to do as soon as you learn that your agent is leaving is to find out what is to happen with your book. And even if your agent still plans to keep working with you on the book, make sure you get a list of all the editors it has been submitted to. Even if they told you who they’d be submitting it to before the process started, you should still ask again, in my opinion. There can be surprises.
If your agent doesn’t communicate with you about their departure or won’t give you information that you need about your book, get in contact with someone else at the agency (ideally, whoever is in charge of the agency). It’s okay to be annoying if you’re being ignored without answers. This is your career, so don’t let yourself get trampled over**. Ultimately, you just want to make sure that everything is properly severed so that if, later, you try to do something with that book, no ugliness arises.
If you don’t get signed by someone else at the agency, or a referral via your agent, or something like that, and have to go back into the scary querying waters, keep in mind that you’ll probably have better luck with a new manuscript (assuming that yours has been on submission. If it hasn’t, it’s probably your call). And as horrifying as the idea of querying a new book is, you did it successfully once, you can do it again. I truly believe that, even if it takes a while sometimes.
And since different types of agent breakups can have similarities, here’s a great post from back in 2010 by YA Highway blogger Lee Bross on a similar subject—what to do when your relationship with your agent isn’t working out.
*If the agent leaves before you’re ever put on submission, the process is a little simpler, but still contact the agent and/or agency to make sure you know if the agency has plans for someone else to take over representation of your book (which, by the way, you can say no to, if you don’t think another agent there would be a good fit) or if you’re free and clear.
**Most of the time—okay, I have no stats to back up “most of the time,” but I’m basing it on optimism and a relatively small pool of personal knowledge—when an agent leaves their job, they’re going to do it in a professional way and you’re not going to have to worry so much about being assertive, but it’s good to know what to do, worst case scenario.