I had a chance to lead a class at the SDSU Writers Conference this past weekend on the five questions to ask an agent before signing with them. To be fair, I forgot what the title of the class was while I was outlining, and I ended up with this list of 20+. Regardless, the agent/client relationship is a close one, and (ideally) it will be the most consistent one in your publishing career. So you want to make sure that you’re entering the partnership with your eyes wide open, gathering as much information as you can to find out what the working relationship will be like. Even if you only have one offer of representation and know you’ll sign with that agent no matter what, ask some questions—get to know the ins and outs of how this whole shebang will work. Here are the questions I proposed, along with some annotations on my reasoning.
What about my book did you respond to?
–The most important quality in an agent? They connect to your work on a real level and will be your passionate advocate. They’ll probably tell you why they like your book before you ask, but just in case: find out what about it most resounded with them.
Do you have editorial feedback?
–Now, I don’t give notes until a client has signed on the dotted line. That’s to protect myself so that the author can’t revise according to my suggestions and then take it somewhere else. That said, what I can (and do) give new authors is a rough estimate of how much revision there should be and what kind of work I am expecting. It’s helpful to know whether you’re jumping on board with someone who wants minimal changes versus someone who will ask you for major rewrites.
What’s your editorial style?
–Likewise, is this an agent who will go through draft after draft with you? Is their editorial feedback frontloaded? Will they be telling you changes you have to make? Will they just make suggestions? I’m a strong believe in the idea that there’s no single right way to edit a manuscript, but it can be very helpful to simply know what you should be expecting.
How long have you been with your agency?
–First note: there’s nothing wrong with signing with a brand new agent. Young agents are often the hungriest in the business, and that can be a deeply wonderful thing for their clients. Some of the first clients I signed back in 2002 are still among my most productive, bestselling authors. That said, if someone IS new, you want to then find out how much support they have within their agency. How are their connections? Do they know what they’re doing? Let’s take the flip side: an experienced agent might simply have less time for you than a new agent. If they’ve been doing this forever, try to get a sense of whether you believe they have adequate time to dedicate to YOU. Which brings me to:
How many clients do you have?
–This is another one with no right or wrong answer. Use the information to get a general feeling about someone. If their numbers sound very low, maybe ask if they are still building a list. If they’re very high, dig in a little and ask what kind of support staff they have or how much time they feel they can dedicate to each individual. You’re not looking for a specific number here. It’s more about hearing how agents discuss and think about their lists and their authors (and their time).
What is your typical response time to email/phone calls?
–For real, there is nothing I hear more complaints about regarding agents than how bad they are at communicating. This drives me completely insane. Yes, things occasionally go missing. Yes, some times are busier than others. But routinely making your clients wait for responses from you for a long time (or worse, not even responding) is wildly unfair and insanely unprofessional. Okay…stepping off my soapbox. Point is: ask the question. And really listen to the answer. Not just what is said, but how it is said. Does it sound honest? Does it sound reasonable? Also: fact check. This is something I’ll come back to later on.
How do you like to communicate (email vs. phone)? And how often do you communicate during a submission?
–Again, there isn’t a right answer here. I’m an email guy mostly, but some clients prefer the phone. My take on submissions is that I’ll be in touch only as necessary, but you’re always encouraged to check in for updates. If someone who is more of a phone person wants scheduled, regular updates? That works too. This is just about knowing what to expect and being able to prepare yourself for it.
What happens if you don’t sell this book?
–Sad fact: not every project an agent signs sells. I suspect this is true of every single agent. If there’s someone out there who has sold every book they’ve ever signed, let me know who it is so I can start making my dart board of their face. But the point is: if this book you’re going to work with an agent on doesn’t sell…then what? Do you revise? Do you try something new? Do you part ways? There are lots of valid answers—you’re looking for one that feels comfortable for you.
How many editors do you go to before giving up?
–I’ve heard people say that their agents submitted material to four editors and gave up when it didn’t sell. That is mind-blowing to me. Like…why even do the work to get a book ready to sell if you’re not going to really try? Regardless! Find out how their submission process works—how wide they go, what steps might occur along the way, etc.
What percentage of projects that you sign do you sell?
–I’m loath to include this because seriously, none of us want to talk about the books we weren’t able to sell. That said? It’s an entirely fair question.
How long is your average client relationship?
–I think the best agents are the ones looking to build long-term working relationships with their clients. Get a feel for how many authors they’ve worked with for long stretches and how much career-building is an important part of their process. Hope the answer to that last part is: “Very.”
Who do you work with to sell foreign/film rights? What is the agency’s support staff? Do you handle contracts? Rights? If not, who does?
–Again, every agency works differently. At DGLM, we have Lauren as our Rights Director, so she handles foreign sales (among many other things), but each agent negotiates their own contracts. At other places, your agent might be handling your translations but will have an in-house contracts person. Neither is “wrong,” but this is a good opportunity to find out who all at the agency will be working on your behalf, how much of your contact is with your agent directly, and how things will look moving forward.
What does your agency agreement look like?
–To me, the most important things are this: an agency’s commission is 15% and no money is ever paid by you until your book has been sold. If those two things are true, you’re starting at base level. After that, the most important question I have is what happens if the relationship doesn’t work out: can you get out of the agreement after the first project if you and the agent aren’t a match. It happens. It sucks, but it happens—being as close a relationship as it is, sometimes there are bad fits even when both sides are great at their jobs. And that’s okay—just make sure that you aren’t promising every piece of work you ever write to an agency ad infinitum.
Can I speak to one or two of your clients about their experiences working with you?
–SO important! And this is where I come back to what I said in the communications question—fact check us! Talk to some of our clients and find out if we’re telling the truth. Maybe even ask to speak to a specific client. Or reach out to a client on Twitter. I mean…chances are anyone we put you in touch with will be the person with the best things to say. Don’t be afraid to use the interwebs as your resource to find out more about us. And ask these clients specifically for any criticism of their agent. Everyone probably has SOMEthing they wish their agent was better at. And that’s okay. But what they choose will likely be telling.
[Specific to any author who wants to work in more than one genre]: Are you open to authors who work in multiple genres? And are there genres/age groups/etc. that you don’t represent? If I write something in one of those, what then happens?
–So important! If you want to write middle grade in the future and this agent doesn’t do that…what happens?! Can you look for another agent? Is there someone else at the agency you could work with? Are you just plum out of luck? This is a good chance to discuss the future—your plans, their thoughts, and all that fun stuff.
And lastly, I have a very brief what NOT to ask:
How much can you sell my book for? How long will it take to sell my book?
–This is such a fickle business sometimes. Advances are all over the place. Editors’ response times are subject to time of year, how many projects are being submitted at any given time, what their relationship with the agent is. I think anyone who gives you a definitive answer to either of these questions is guessing. I have goals for how much I want for books and how long I want the sale to take (a million dollars and a single day, for the record), but whatever my expectations are, I don’t think it’s my place to share them. Because if the advance is any lower or the response time any slower, you’re automatically disappointed. An agent can give you some general thoughts (“It feels like a really big book”) and estimates on response time (“We’ll likely start hearing back in two weeks”) but I’d be deeply suspicious of anything more specific than that.
So there we have it. To anyone who has occasion to use this list: congrats on your offer of representation! Now dig in!