14 Agent Questions
There are as many different kinds of agents as there are writers. Some writers
swear by outlines. Others never use them. Some writers love to work to contract.
Other writers feel that it puts too much pressure on the creative part of the writing.
So it should be no surprise that good agents run the gamut. And I am talking about
good agents here. It is important to know that an agent is legitimate first and
foremost, but even after that, there are questions to ask an agent that should help
you as a writer figure out if you and this particular agent would be a good fit.
First, a sketch of a good agent. A good agent is one who does not take money for
reading fees. Ever. I do not make up these rules. These are the rules for
belonging to the AAR, the national organization of agents. You want an agent who
belongs, and no matter what "good" reasons an agent gives you for charging a fee,
it simply isn't allowed. A standard agent takes 15% for a commission, up to 20%
on foreign sales or movie contracts. Also, it is perfectly acceptable for an agent to
pass along to you the writer some occasional fees, like FedExing things. A good
agent passes along money promptly when it is received from a publisher. A good
agent responds reasonably quickly (within a few days) to an email, or has a darn
good reason and apologizes afterward. A good agent reads manuscripts within a
reasonable time frame (a month or so) and then conceives a plan for selling that
manuscript, possibly with some suggestions for revision beforehand. Those are the
basics. From there, there is a lot of variety.
Many writers are now getting agents before selling a first novel. I got my agent
after selling a first novel myself and then trying to find someone to help me
negotiate the contract, but I gather this is not considered the standard anymore. At
whatever stage an agent offers representation, you as the writer should spend
several hours over the phone talking to the agent to determine if you "fit." I don't
believe you need to meet an agent in person, although that can be useful. I
wouldn't do it when you are offered representation, but if you happen to be at a
conference with various agents, it is useful to talk to them and see who you think
you wouldn't be able to stand working with. You don't necessarily have to be best
friends, but you need to be able to communicate properly.
When you are querying for an agent, you as the writer are the supplicant. You are
selling yourself with a track record or with simply the marvel of the book you have
written. You give a few details about yourself professionally, but you don't send a
query with a list of questions. You are the woman waiting at a dance, so to speak,
and you don't want to give the wrong impression by sending a demanding letter to
begin with. Once you have an agent offering representation, then suddenly the
table turns and you have the control. This is when you begin the grilling, and
agents will take no offense at this, or they shouldn't. You have every right to
spend some time (a week or so) deciding which agent, if you have multiple offers,
to accept, or if you want to accept any of them at all.
Questions to ask:
1. What genres does the agent represent and not represent? There are agents who
specialize in children's books, in women's fiction, or in nonfiction, and who do not
have a lot of expertise or contacts outside of this area. If you are sure you want
stay in one genre, this may be acceptable for you. It may be a huge advantage. But
if you think you want to write in multiple genres, you might want to look for an
agent who will have a bigger agency, and therefore more contacts. Or you may
hate the idea that a manuscript of yours might be sent to someone else to shop
2. How much editing does the agent do? There is nothing wrong with an agent
who chooses not to edit, or with an agent who chooses to. You as the writer must
decide if you consider this a bonus. It is helpful if the agent has already asked you
to revise or has given you some revision suggestions so that you can see if you are
on the same page or not. If this is an agent who revises. It is my impression most
agents revise, though certainly not all. I think this is simply because editors are
expecting manuscripts closer to the finished level these days. There is a lot of
3. What is the agent's idea of a good career or a bad career for a writer? A few
names wouldn't hurt, but even if the agent doesn't want to give names, generalities
are useful. Does the agent think a book a year is the minimum for a successful
career? Does the agent think multiple publishers is a good idea? Should a pen
name be used? What does the agent think a writer should do for promotion?
4. What is the biggest mistake a writer can make? You want to know what would
piss your agent off. But more than that, this gives you an idea of who the agent is
and what his vision of the future is like. Do you share that vision? Do you think
that writing a series is a mistake? But the agent thinks that is the best thing
possible? Then you are probably not a match. Do you think that blasting readers
on Goodreads is fine but the agent disagrees?
5. What will the agent do if you send in a manuscript that you love and the agent
hates? Or feels s/he cannot get behind? Or simply thinks will dilute the quality of
your name as an author? This is something that I have heard almost every writer I
know talk about. You had better talk about it first before you sign a contract.
Most agents will be able to negotiate on this, if the author feels strong enough, they
will send it out even if there are reservations. But some agents simply "decline"
certain manuscripts and the author is free to submit on his/her own. Other agents
don't want authors doing any submissions alone and would be angry if it happens.
6. What is the agent's ideal client like? I know this sounds like a question that is
likely to elicit vague answers, but if an agent is annoyed by clients who want to
have weekly contact over the phone, or who become nervous at a certain stage of
writing and need to talk it over, you should know in advance. If the agent wants to
be friends, or thinks of this as primarily a business arrangement, maybe this is
something that will come out in the conversation. Ask about other clients. Don't
ask for dirt, just for the glowing reviews.
7. What are the agent's favorite books published in the last year? This is partly to
figure out what the agent's tastes are, but also it helps you discover what the agent
is currently reading. I think an agent who is not reading anything but client's
manuscripts may either be too overworked or may not be able to see how the genre
you are writing in is changing and progressing.
8. What changes does the agent think the publishing world will go through in the
next year? This is a great way to see the world from an agent's point of view. I
can't tell you how useful it is to hear my agent talk about the publishing world
from outside of my own computer desk space. I work on my novels and I read, but
I don't necessarily see what publishers are doing, in terms of electronic rights, for
example, or multimedia, or movies. I think a good agent will be thinking about
these things. I'm not saying an agent needs to be a prognosticator, because the
future can hit us all fast and unawares, but people who are thinking are apt to be
9. What does the agent do if a client is unhappy with a book cover? Or if the
client's editor is laid off or quits? These are situations where having an agent is
very useful. An agent can do things that a writer cannot do as well, from a
distance. Sometimes publishing houses listen less to an author's complaint about a
cover because the author is too close to the project. An agent can help figure out
how to explain the problems clearly, without rancor, and an agent knows what the
choices are if there is no resolution. Ask if the agent has dealt with this before, and
how it has turned out. Any agent should have dealt with this kind of problem
multiple times. Because, sadly, these situations happen ALL THE TIME in the
10. How does the agent sell international rights? Does s/he go to Bologna? To
Frankfurt? To the London Book Fair? Does s/he have a foreign subrights agent?
Some authors make more than half of their money from foreign rights. I think a
good agent should be doing this for you, and making sure that your publisher
doesn't hold worldwide rights. This is my bias, but find this out up front. Also,
film rights. Does the agent handle those? Has the agent sold film rights? To what
projects? Have they actually been produced?
11. How does the agent feel about author branding? This is when an author is
asked by the publisher to produce books similar to other books that have sold well
in the past. Many authors think this is a wonderful development, when a publisher
feels confident enough in the author's work to offer a contract based on a proposal
or a few chapters, as long as the book is the right "kind" of book. Other authors
desperately want an agent to help extricate them from this and only want to write
books that they want to write, no matter what genre they are in. An agent who
thinks all authors should work one way is probably wrong, but it may also be true
that some writers are better suited in voice to one genre than another. Think about
12. Is there anything an author can do to get on a best-seller's list? Or to win an
award? My agent has his clients write up a list of long term and short term goals
periodically, not so much so that he can make sure that they come true, but so that
he has an idea of what the author is aiming for. If you care more about awards than
about money, then the agent knows what will make you happy. And also can give
you advice about what project you should be working on next, or what direction
you should be moving in. If what would make you happiest in the world is seeing
a book made into a movie, I think it is appropriate to tell your agent that. I am not
saying that a good agent can make that happen. Hollywood is fickle. But at least
the agent knows that you don't hate the idea (and some authors do, actually).
13. What do you do when an author's career appears to be stalling? This happens
to many authors and it doesn't necessarily mean that the author's writing is not
working. It may be an industry problem, or simply bad luck, with editors leaving.
It may be that sales have gone down, and a new approach to writing must be taken.
Or promotion needs to be done. Or maybe it is time to use a pseudonym. An agent
should have some ideas for what to do, other than dropping the client or telling the
client they should be writing "better books."
14. Does the agent have an assistant or co-agents in the same agency? What is the
agent's vision of the future for him/herself? Is there a number of clients after
which the agent will consider no more clients? This is, again, a matter of personal
preference. Some authors don't want a big agency. They want more personal
attention and worry that an agent will become too successful and move on. Others
are eager for a more business-like approach to a book as a product.
Finally, I would also ask an agent for a list of other clients whom you could
contact, and then I would definitely email or phone those clients. Make sure first
that these are other professionals and ask what they like or dislike in the agent in
question. Most writers will be fairly candid about this. They won't diss an agent
they are struggling with, but they also won't recommend wholeheartedly. I would
think a client who says very little is a warning away from an agent. And even
clients who are happy with an agent should be able to have enough perspective to
see what weaknesses and strengths their agent has. Sometimes the weaknesses and
strengths are the same thing.
Starting out as a writer, you should probably spend most of your time thinking
about how to hone your craft, how to tell better stories. But there is a point at
which you must think about writing as a business, even if you do not plan on
depending on your writing income to live on. I have an accountant who does my
taxes and advises me on how to pay as few as possible, but I do my own
bookkeeping and I keep track of the hours I spend on individual projects, maybe
because I have OCD more than for any other reason. Nonetheless, this allows me
to feel like my writing is more of a business, because I can track projects and see
which are most profitable. I also keep track of hours I spend doing marketing and
other business-related things. I think a writer needs to realistically plan on
spending about half of the day (however long your writing day is) on business, and
half on writing. And that is an optimistic approach, from someone who spends
more time writing than many writers. This is your life. Manage it well.
Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison