Image: Matthew Loffhagen
So you’ve prepared your synopsis, written an amazing pitch, and received an offer of representation from an agent! (Or you’re just planning for the day when that’s true.) Congratulations – this is the stage many authors dream of, and you should feel incredibly proud.
Because it takes so much work to receive an offer, there’s another emotion you might be feeling: gratitude. It’s many writers’ first response to being shown interest by an agent, but it’s also one that can land them in trouble. In the world of literary representation, not every agent is equal. While it’s fine to be thrilled when you receive an offer, you should also be prepared to assess it as the business decision it is.
All of which is to say that it seldom makes sense to snatch an agent’s hand off before doing a little research on how they’ll fit you as an author. Agents have a huge place in authors’ lives, and often represent them for significant chunks of their career, if not for its entirety. Make no mistake, this is a business marriage – messy to pull out of and not to be entered into without due consideration.
But what consideration can you really give an offer, especially if you don’t know much about the world of publishing? Well, there are some key things to ask an agent when they offer representation, and I’m going to share them with you. I’ll begin with the question itself before expanding on why you need certain information and the kind of answer you should get before you’re satisfied – the questions are broken up into three stages, each representing a core aspect of what you need to know before accepting an agent’s offer.
Remember, throughout, that agents aren’t trying to trick you – these questions are about informing you on an important decision, not squeezing hidden information out of professionals who generally want the best for you and your work.
Stage 1: Getting to know your agent
As I said above, an agent is going to be an important figure in your career as an author. They’ll be your confidant, advisor and point of contact with publishers and other professional entities – someone who’s on your side and wants to get you the best deal. It’s therefore important to know a little about their abilities and what your relationship with them might be like.
Question 1: How did you become an agent?
This initial question may sound like small talk, and that may even be how you want to present it, but it actually reveals important information. You don’t become an agent immediately, instead starting out as an intern or editor. This time spent learning the business is essential to becoming a great agent and building the contacts that are so essential in the literary marketplace.
If an agent hasn’t spent sufficient time learning their business, this could be a red flag. Note here that I’m not saying authors should avoid new agents – they’ve put their time in, and will likely be supported by more senior colleagues (something we’ll return to later). A new agent who worked their way up through a company is far more dependable than someone who’s been an agent for a few years but moved almost instantly into the role.
With this question, you’re really asking how enmeshed someone has been in the agency and representation/publication as a business. There’s no totally right or totally wrong answer, but make sure you’re satisfied that the agent knows what they’re doing.
Question 2: What books have you sold recently, and who to?
This question is about gauging the agent’s experience in a more practical manner. It demonstrates to you their ability to sell and their range of experience. Pay attention to the type of book they mention – if they’ve sold nothing but sci-fi and you’ve written a memoir, they may not have the experience or contacts to handle your book.
Again, don’t dismiss new agents out of hand – there’s no shame in being the first book someone sells, and Question 1 should give you some idea about whether or not it’s unusual that they’ve yet to nail down any deals for their authors. Do, however, consider the type of agent that will work for you; it might be that you’re a new author and you want a new agent with whom to begin a long and fruitful journey. Alternatively, you may be trying to publish a memoir or non-fiction work – a one-time deal where you’d prefer an experienced agent.
Question 3: What’s the working structure of your agency?
An individual agent handles your book, but agencies don’t just send their employees out to sink or swim. Agents may help each other secure deals, and are able to share contacts and tips. The more teamwork your agent can indicate within their agency, the better, and if there isn’t much at all, you need to really trust your agent to work without backup.
This is the question that can make up for an agent’s lack of personal experience – often, new agents receive even more help from an agency, and may be working with senior agents or be given priority over resources (they may also be particularly keen).
Question 4: What attracted you to my book, and what changes need to be made before we submit it?
You need your agent to be genuinely passionate about your book. At a certain point, an agent needs real faith to sell a publisher on your work, and often they’ll need the energy of real commitment to keep them hunting for the best deal.
It’s rare that your work will simply be dumped on whoever’s free – that’s just not how agencies work – but you need to be happy that your agent understands and appreciates what your work is about. Note, also, whether the things they like about one book will be true of your future work. If they love the setting but you’re far more concerned with the themes, you may encounter disagreements on the best way to pitch your work, and a lack of enthusiasm for future projects.Your agent needs to be passionate about your work and know how to say so.Click To Tweet
Checking what changes an agent suggests before submitting your work to publishers is important, since you need to know how much work is in store before signing a contract. They may be interested in either bulking the book up or cutting it significantly – you both need to be thinking about the same end product to know whether you’ll work as a team.
Question 5: Are you an editorial agent?
Editorial agents are agents who offer editorial services – they’ll help you rewrite a book if changes are needed. Most agents won’t suggest changes and then leave you high and dry – many will recommend editors they trust – but some authors may want to keep the circle of people involved in the book as small as possible.
Don’t worry if this aspect of representation isn’t important to you – it’s a matter of personal comfort, but for some people the ability to meet and consult with a book’s final editor is a huge plus in deciding on their agent.
Question 6: May I contact some of your current clients for references?
Most agents will be all too happy to provide contact details for satisfied customers. Remember, though, that these are the clients they’ve chosen to speak with you. You’re unlikely to find out anything damning, so focus on the personal experience of working with an agent. How quickly did they respond to questions? Did you feel informed throughout the process? Is there anything you wish had gone differently?
Some agents may be cagey about providing client details, since some clients may not want to be bothered and some won’t like being so aware that their agent has other clients. Even if this is the case, they should be able to provide some kind of reference, even if it’s just testimonials from previous clients. If an agency can’t scrape together some kind of recommendation from a few clients, that’s a major red flag.
Stage 2: Discussing publishers
The agent’s main role is to act as an intermediary between you and publishers. By this point, you should have an idea of them as a professional, and therefore some faith in their standing and experience. The aim now is to get on the same page as regards the submission process.
Question 7: Which publishers do you think would be interested in my book?
Don’t expect an extensive answer to this question, but a competent agent should have some idea of how and where they’ll begin submitting your book. If you’ve done some research of your own, you can also use this question to see whether this agent has the influence to contact who you think would be the best publisher for your work.
If an agency has made you an offer, it’s likely because they see some kind of path to publication. This is a good sign, and it will help your own planning to get an outline of where they plan to begin.
Question 8: How involved will I be in submitting to publishers, and is there anything I can do to help attract publishers and secure a good deal?
An agent needs space to do their job, but you need to know how in-the-loop you’ll be with their efforts. Will you get a phone call once a month? A spreadsheet every two months? More importantly, are you going to be comfortable with what your agent is offering? This is the time to establish what kind of feedback you’re expecting, and perhaps even to make that part of any formal agreement.
Alongside this, it makes sense to show an agent that you’re willing to make their job as easy as possible. The second part of this question sends this message, but you should also be sincerely looking for ways to help – an agent might recommend setting up an author website, for instance, or generating some social media buzz.There are things you can do to attract publishers – listen to your agent’s advice.Click To Tweet
This question tells the agent that you’re serious about getting published, and that may make them feel more able to share low-level concerns. Maybe your book would do better if it was a little longer or a touch shorter; even if you disagree, this is valuable information, so go after it.
Stage 3: Looking to the future
Securing representation is a long-term decision, and that means you have to pose some long-term concerns before you even get started. Some of these questions may seem premature, but there’ll never be a better time to ask them.
Question 9: In the event of low interest, at what stage would you expect to stop submitting my book to publishers?
Considering the worst-case scenario isn’t a waste of your time when deciding on an agent. For some agencies, only the big deals are worth chasing, whereas others will explore every avenue on your behalf.
It may sound like you always want the former, but the literary market shifts like any other, and there may be times when allowing a work to ‘sleep’ is the best course of action. What’s actually important is that you understand and agree with your agent’s strategy – nothing creates enmity quicker than an agent choosing to drop your book before you think it’s appropriate.
As with the publishers question, remember that agents can’t tell the future. They don’t know exactly when it’ll make sense to stop trying, but they should be able to give you some idea of when they’d consider ceasing submission.
Question 10: What if you step down or switch agencies?
This is perhaps the trickiest question, as many agents will reply that they have no plan of moving or stepping down. As an author, however, that answer doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, especially when the question concerns so many unforeseen variables, including the position of the wider agency, the ever-changing market and even personal health.
In terms of an agent stepping down from their position, or going on extended leave, the ideal arrangement is for you to be passed on to a ‘co-agent’. This is a fellow agent who will take on your agent’s duties if they’re unable to perform them. Hiring an agent ties your professional goals to someone else’s reality, and that comes with risks. You need to know what to do if they become unavailable – ideally this would mean moving on to a co-agent, or having them refer you to another agent or agency, but it might just mean that you’re prepared for a time when they can no longer offer their services, and know what you want to do next.
Switching agencies is less tricky, as there’s likely to be a definitive answer. Some agencies insist that agents cannot take clients with them if they go to work somewhere else, whereas if that isn’t the case, an agent would most likely keep your business (why not, after all?). This is something to factor into your decision-making, and will be useful information to have if this theoretical situation ever comes to pass. It may be that you’re choosing an agent rather than an agency, and you want it included in your contract that you wish to follow them if they leave.
Question 11: What will your attitude be to representing future work on my behalf?
Some agents take on work on a book-by-book basis. It’s unlikely that an agent for one book won’t take a look at future work, but from there they may apply different approaches. Some agents will simply pass on a project, while others will offer notes on what it would take for them to go about submitting it to publishers. Some might even expect their pass to be the last word, and could have a problem with you contacting publishers without them.How will an agent approach future work? You need to know before you write it.Click To Tweet
Again, there are times when this is appropriate, and it’s a matter of personal taste what you consider a ‘good’ answer to this question. Whatever you decide, though, this is valuable information that can save time and hard feelings later on.
Those were all the questions you should ask an agent, but let’s finish up with one you shouldn’t ask, and why.
Question 12: How much will my book sell for?
It’s best to avoid this question for a couple of reasons. The first is that the agent really can’t provide any kind of accurate answer – they don’t know who will be interested or how interested they’ll be, so their only recourse is to outline the whole spectrum of potential offers, which tells you nothing.
The other reason not to ask is that it can seem pushy and unrealistic – the agent knows they can’t provide an accurate answer, and they may even expect you to have done enough research to know the same. Asking about pricing before anyone has been contacted may make it seem like you expect surefire or immediate results. A good agent will attempt to adjust your expectations, but they may also begin to have doubts about working with you on what’s often a long and arduous submission process.
The only time where it makes sense to waive this rule is when you only intend to write a book if there’s money in its publication. This will most often be the case with non-fiction books and memoirs, where something like your personal expertise or experience stands to intrigue a publisher. In cases like this, the agent may have enough of an idea to confirm whether or not you should proceed.
Agents are people too
Working with an agent is a partnership, not an application, and it’s fine to be direct with what you need to know. If you’re not going to be compatible, both parties need to be aware of it, so agents are unlikely to obfuscate important information or resent being questioned.There’s a reason so many authors choose to thank their agents.Click To Tweet
Be aware of the rapport you have with your agent – this person is going to have a major role in your life, so be sure you want them there. Finally, don’t be afraid to hold out for a better agent if the one you meet with doesn’t live up to your expectations. It can feel like an agent’s offer is your one and only shot, but what one agent sees in you, another is likely to see also. It’s worth holding out for a relationship that works for everyone, even if it does take nerves of steel to do it!
For more on finding an agent, check out What Literary Agents Do (And Don’t Do) For Authors and 6 Insanely Good Dialogue Tips From Your Future Literary Agent.
Have you had a good or bad experience with a literary agent? Tell us all about it in the comments.