Questions to ask an agent, part I

So Amy in the previous post’s questions, asked what questions I asked my agent. That was more than ten years ago and while some of those would be the same, many would be different now because the publishing world has significantly changed. But let me give a shot at some of the questions I’d ask today.

First, I would make sure I knew everything possible about the agent in question. I’d already know who she represented, what books she’d sold in recent years (check trade magazines and websites), if she’s active in the industry (attending conferences, the London and Frankfurt Bookfairs, workshops, and so on), how many authors she’s carrying (is there going to be time for her to give you enough attention), how well she’d done with foreign rights, how she was dealing with the changes in publishing, particularly in electronic publishing. How long has she been an agent? If she’s new to the business, then what qualifies her to be an agent? Is she legitimate? I would read her blog, see if she’s on twitter or facebook and read everything I could about her professionally. I would see if her authors had anything to say about her and what.

After that, then I would feel somewhat prepared to ask questions. But remember that even as you ask questions, be sure to listen carefully to the answers and to jot down any questions that occur to you and follow up.

Now some people might dive into the business questions of cost of representation and so forth. Those are important, but my feeling is you won’t need those questions if you don’t match up. So I say start with the questions that will demonstrate if you fit together.

I would ask things about what about my work excites her? Where might she see it marketed (in terms of publishers)? I would ask her if she gives editorial feedback and if when she would decide it’s ready to send it out. The reason for this is some agents won’t send it out unless they like the work, when the author is ready. Now the author has to listen, but at some point, it is the author’s work and she has to say that this is her vision. What happens if the agent disagrees with that? You might not get a straight answer to this at this point. A good agent will be straight and tell you she will or will not send out your work if you want it. After all, she works for you. Potentially that is. This is pretty critical. If your visions don’t match and she won’t act on your behalf, then what’s the point?

The thing is, this is where fit is important. You have to rely on your agent’s expertise. That’s why it’s so important that she is excited about your work, and not only this particular piece, but your other ideas. If she can’t get excited about you, she be enthusiastic to editors. That’s why accepting the response that it didn’t work for her or it was good, but didn’t really excite her is an okay answer. You don’t want her if she doesn’t love your work. So make sure you talk in some detail about what you write and your process. Can you do proposals? Do you have to write the whole book before you sell? If you plot out a book, does it match up with the end product?

This is where you are thinking about the relationship you will have with your agent. Will you be able to be honest with her and will you be able to accept her honest opinions? Will you be able to hold true to your vision and yet be critical when armed with her feedback?

I can’t stress enough how important it is in this conversation to sort out how you would work together. That relationship is so key so you want to spend real time talking about how that would work. Ask about return times–how long she takes to respond to emails, can you reach her when you need her? How often do you plan to be in touch with her? How she deals with stupid questions and panic and etc. Think also of your expectations and articulate them to her.

I know I’m meandering here a little bit, but this is a complex relationship. You’ve got the business side and the creative side, and those two can clash and let’s face it, writers can be very neurotic. You really have to think about what you want and need from this relationship, not just from the business side, but for the creative side.

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