Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Questions to Ask Your Prospective Literary Agent

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware


I often hear from authors wondering what questions they should be asking when they receive The Call--the agent representation call, that is. How can you be sure if this particular agent is really right for you--if his plan for your manuscript matches your goals, if her style is a good fit for your needs?

Well, of course, the answer is...you can't, not completely. No matter how many questions you ask or how much research you've done, there's no way to know everything, or to predict the future. The best manuscripts sometimes fail to sell. The most promising relationships sometimes wind up on the skids. When you sign with an agent--even if he or she is your dream agent--you're launching yourself into the unknown.

You can, however, do your best to be  prepared and informed. Following are some resources to help.

- First, an important caution from agent Steve Laube: Really, You Don't Have to Ask. Steve identifies a number of questions that often appear on "questions to ask a prospective agent" lists, but which you really should not need to ask, because you will have done your preliminary research.
These questions are good ones when asked at the very first stages of considering an agent. But the answers can be found so easily on your own that to ask them after you’ve gone through the submissions process shows the agent you didn’t do any homework. She may wonder why you chose her.
- Literary Agent Offers: Don't Settle! This post from author Sarah Ockler is a few years old, but still very relevant. Rather than specific questions to ask, she identifies important areas that you need to craft questions to learn more about, such as communication style. Sarah's post also includes helpful tips on recognizing the warning signs of a bad agent.

- When Agents Offer Representation... This advice from AgentQuery includes not just a list of questions to ask a prospective agent, but suggestions for what to do in multiple offer-related situations, such as receiving an offer while still waiting to hear from other agents who are reading.

- 10 Questions to Ask When Offered Representation. Agent Mary Kole suggests questions she herself would ask if offered representation. She also provides this important advice:
If you get an agent who is unwilling to answer questions or seems to balk at these basic ones, that would be a red flag for me, personally. Communication problems and transparency are big issues in a writer-agent relationship, and if there are issues from the word “go,” the situation is unlikely to get better.
- From agent Janet Reid, The Next Set of Questions to Ask Prospective Agents, especially if you're trying decide among multiple offers. Janet provides not just the questions, but suggests some of the answers you may receive. As she points out,
One answer is not better than the other; it's information that might help you figure out what you want in an agent and agency, and thus how to select from among several good agents.
- What to Ask an Agent, from agent Rachelle Gardner: a big list of questions about important areas of the author-agent relationship, including management style, money, and editorial issues. Rachelle cautions that
...you probably won’t want to ask all of [the questions]. Choose what’s most important to you...Also, there aren’t necessarily “right” answers to all of these, because there are many legitimate ways for agents to do business. Your main goal is to be informed so you’re not surprised by something later.
- Agent Victoria Marini offers a number of helpful Questions to Ask a Prospective Agent. She also provides this reminder about crap agents, a.k.a. "schmagents"--not necessarily scammers, just people who have zero skills and knowledge to do the job:
"What is a Schmagent?" You ask? A Schmagent is someone who claims to be a literary agent, but has no real skills, work history, clients, sales, contracts, or resources. It's not like pretending I have a medical degree; I can't go around saying "I'm Victoria Marini,  M.D." because it's crazy illegal! But anyone can say "I'm John Doe, Literary Agent."
25 Questions to Ask Your Potential Agent: Agent Wendy Lawton suggests questions not just for The Call, but for other scenarios: agent panels at conferences, and changing agents at a later stage of your career.

- The Association of Authors' Agents (the US literary agents' membership organization) has created a helpful FAQ, including some of the more technical questions you might want to ask.

- The publishing world is in the midst of a massive paradigm shift. I know--not news. However, all this change affects the author-agent relationship. In A New Digital Dialogue for Agent Representation, agent Carly Watters suggests questions that reflect the realities of the new world of digital--including digital imprints and self-publishing.

- Last but certainly not least--what if you're a successful self-publisher who has received an offer of representation? In addition to the conventional questions, what concerns should you have? Orna Ross of the Alliance of Independent Authors identifies Five Questions Indie Authors Should Always Ask an Agent. She states,
As self-publishers, we have built our readership and already have a following. Our e-rights are very valuable to us and we're not keen to bundle them with other rights. We expect publishers to understand that our situation is different -- and to reflect this in their contractual terms and conditions.
You'll definitely want to pick and choose among the many questions suggested in the articles above, and select just those that are most important to you--you don't want to alienate your prospective agent by bombarding her with queries, or by asking questions to which you should already know the answer, such as "what have you sold" or "who are your clients". (And if that information is so hard to find that you do have to ask, be wary: the agent may be a schmagent.)

Ultimately, I think the most important thing--once you've asked the practical and technical questions, and satisfied yourself that the agent really is enthusiastic about your work--is to figure out whether you feel comfortable with the agent, both personally and professionally. Your agent doesn't need to be your best friend. But you shouldn't feel awkward or intimidated, and you shouldn't have any niggling doubts about how s/he sees you and your work or how s/he intends to market it (and you).

Pay attention to your gut feelings. I do know how hard that is, especially if you've been querying for a while and this is your only offer. But I hear much too often from writers who allowed their dreams to override their doubts, and later came to regret it.

8 comments:

Writer Chick said...

Awesome! Hit waaaay out of the park, which I realized when I began to bookmark every single article cited. Thanks very much!

Michael Capobianco said...

I'd pay close attention to the part of the Agent Query essay covering agent-author contracts. They seem to indicate that there are still agents who do not offer a written agreement, which should be a red flag in and of itself. Always get the offer of representation in writing, and discuss how it deals with various scenarios with the prospective agent, especially termination. Negotiate it like any other contract, and consult an IP lawyer if you are uncertain about the ramifications.

E.L. Wagner said...

Thanks for this post! Definitely one to bookmark.

Marketing the Muse said...

Victoria,
Almost overnight, I'm seeing these agents pop up in social media-FB in particular -names not familiar posting new clients & 'sales.'
I'm tracing the sales to the houses....small indie publishers. As much as many writers out here are aware-through WB & other sites-of the predators, there is a SLEW of new writers out here who don't know the history of our business. They just want an agent & their books placed in any house but Amazon's. Thanks for your informative post-appreciate your hard work on behalf of writers.
Marla Miller

Victoria Strauss said...

Marla--

I've noticed the same thing over the past few years--agents who specialize in placing books with small publishers that don't typically work with agents, or that acquire most of their books directly from authors. The whole point of having an agent is to get you in where you can't go yourself. Why give someone 15% of your earnings to do what you could do on your own? Not to mention, these semi-agents may not have the expertise to properly evaluate a contract, and are unlikely to have the contacts to make subsidiary rights sales.

Chris Redding said...

I just discovered your blog a few weeks ago and have ready every post all the way through.
Chris Redding

elenalinville said...

Thank you for taking the time to gather so much pertinent information on agent in one post. I definitely bookmarked it for further use!

Anita Diggs said...

Great article about what questions are important! Sometimes novelists do not ask enough questions and make mistakes. One mistake novelist make is to approach agents who don't handle the type of book that they're handling. This tells the agent that you are lazy and haven't researched well.