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 ďgoodĒ reasons an agent gives you for charging a fee, it simply isnít 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 ďfit.Ē I donít believe you need to meet an agent in person, although that can be useful. I wouldnít 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 wouldnít be able to stand working with. You donít 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 donít send a query with a list of questions. You are the woman waiting at a dance, so to speak, and you donít 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 shouldnít. 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 childrenís books, in womenís 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 around.
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 competition.
3. What is the agentís idea of a good career or a bad career for a writer? A few names wouldnít hurt, but even if the agent doesnít 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 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 ďdeclineĒ certain manuscripts and the author is free to submit on his/her own. Other agents donít want authors doing any submissions alone and would be angry if it happens.
6. What is the agentís 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. Donít ask for dirt, just for the glowing reviews.
7. What are the agentís favorite books published in the last year? This is partly to figure out what the agentís tastes are, but also it helps you discover what the agent is currently reading. I think an agent who is not reading anything but clientís 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 agentís point of view. I canít 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 donít 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. Iím 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 more flexible.
9. What does the agent do if a client is unhappy with a book cover? Or if the clientís 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 authorís 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 publishing world.
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 doesnít 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 authorís work to offer a contract based on a proposal or a few chapters, as long as the book is the right ďkindĒ 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 this carefully.
12. Is there anything an author can do to get on a best-sellerís 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 donít hate the idea (and some authors do, actually).
13. What do you do when an authorís career appears to be stalling? This happens to many authors and it doesnít necessarily mean that the authorís 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 ďbetter books.Ē
14. Does the agent have an assistant or co-agents in the same agency? What is the agentís 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 donít 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 wonít diss an agent they are struggling with, but they also wonít 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 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 am 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.