So You Want to Find an Agent?

A lot of writers are so excited when an agent shows interest in their work that they might ignore what seems like common sense: Ask this person questions about the nature of the relationship you’re about to embark upon. Signing with an agent is as big a deal, or bigger, than signing with a publishing house, because this person (if all goes well) could be representing you for years to come. You don’t want to sign with someone just because they say they like your work and they can sell your book. Find out more. Have a conversation. And work these questions out before you move forward:

5 Questions Every Writer Should Ask Their Would-be Agent

1) What’s your agency fee?
The standard is 15% of the author’s take, including advances and royalties; it might be as high as 20% if the agent is selling subrights (foreign, film, etc.) Find out if this is done by the agency, or whether they work with a third party. If you want to keep certain rights, such as merchandise or film/tv (many authors do), bring that up early on.

2) What’s your preferred method of communication?
Find out whether your would-be agent is more of a phone or an email person. If you’re a first-time author and you know you’re going to have a lot of questions, ask them how they feel about that. If it’s important for you to have an agent who returns your calls, you’ll be better off knowing if you’re dealing with someone who works exclusively over their BlackBerry.

3) What do you envision for my book?
Always assume that some work will be needed on your proposal/manuscript. Ask your would-be agent what they think your projects needs and where they think improvements might be made. This is not the time to fish for compliments, but you should be listening for whether or not you feel like they get your project. Does their feedback resonate with you? If not, it’s probably not a good fit.

4) What’s your strategy for shopping the book?
Find out how this agent shops. Will they only approach big houses, or will they consider small houses if you have a lead or an idea you want them to try? What kind of timeline do they have in mind in terms of when it might be ready to shop to publishers?

5) Do you anticipate any costs on my part in order to get the manuscript to a shoppable place?
Find out whether your would-be agent expects you to hire a freelance editor at your own cost. Find out if there are any out-of-pocket expenses they are thinking about before you sign—and make sure you can live with that before you move forward.

5 Questions Every Writer Should Ask Themselves about Their Would-be Agent

1) Is this would-be agent someone you can imagine working with through the good and the bad?
Remember, agents are mediators and advocates whose job requires not only fighting on your behalf, but also pushing back on you at times. Is this someone you can work with when the going gets tough?

2) How quickly does the agent respond to you?
This is an important one for people who are quick responders and expect that everyone else should be too. It may be enough just to ask for clarification so that you’re not living with some expectation that will never be met. But ask yourself, realistically, if you can work with someone who might be slower to respond than you might prefer.

3) What kinds of clients/projects do they represent?
Do your homework. Go to the agency website and find out what they represent and whether you like the books. Ask if they’ll let you talk to one or two of their current clients. This is not out of line or even remotely inappropriate. The worst thing they can say is no.

4) Are you interested in working with this agent on just your single project, or do you want the would-be agent to represent your for your entire career?
Make sure you sign on for something that makes sense for where you are in your career. If you want to take it book-by-book, that’s okay, and it’s okay to ask for that. It’s also okay to voice your expectations that you want to work with someone who wants to be with you for the long haul.

5) Do you understand the terms of the contract?
Make sure the payment provisions make sense to you and don’t hesitate to ask questions about things you don’t understand. You don’t want to find out post-signing that you’re not okay with some of the language. Take your time and go through the contract slowly and deliberately.

If you just finished reading and are thinking, yeah, but where do I start looking for an agent to ask these questions to? Here are a couple good resources to start your search:

The Guide to Literary Agents

Good Luck!


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