getting an agent publishing is daunting. From outlining a new project, to writing “THE END”, to querying and beyond. It can all be terrifying and exhilarating but one of the things I was nervous about was checking my offering agent’s references. Our emails had been positive and promising, our chat on the phone was comfortable and enlightening. As soon as I hung up I thought, “Yeah, I want to sign with her.”
But it’s always, always smart to check an offering agent’s references. If the agent offering to represent you doesn’t offer a list of their clients for you to chat with, it’s fine (and good!) to ask for one. That does not make you difficult, or demanding, it just means that you’re looking out for your best interests.
Checking an agents’ references is good for a few reasons. On one end of the spectrum, they could be a schmagent—do they charge a reading fee? Did they start their agency alone, with no prior agenting or editorial experience? Those are huge red flags. On the other end of the spectrum, they could be a superstar agent, but have a completely different communication style than you want/need, or are not editorial and you know you want an editorial agent, or just have a vision for your book that doesn’t align with your own, et cetera, et cetera
To me, checking in with a my now-agent’s clients wasn’t about vetting her so much as it was trying to figure out if we would work well together, and if I would be happy with her over the course of my career. I did a lot of googling, checked in with my most-trusted resources (read: writer friends), and eventually compiled a list of questions that were important to me. As ever, your mileage may vary, but here is the list of questions I ultimately settled on asking my offering agent’s clients:
- What’s their response time like for emails?
- How long does it take for them to read and give feedback on a new MS?
- Have they been responsive re: any problems that might have come up or questions you have?
- What’s their editorial style?
- When they give you feedback, is it clear? Do you get edit letters or in-line comments, etc?
- If you start revising and find that things aren’t working, have they been willing to reassess?
- Have they been open to brainstorming new projects with you?
- If you’ve been on submission with them, how many rounds of revisions did you do before submitting?
- How was the submission process in terms of discussing publishers or editors beforehand? How communicative have they been while on sub?
- Is there anything they don’t do that you wish they did or expected them to?
Overall, I wanted to know if the client was happy with their agent, because every agent-client relationship is going to be different. And you need to keep your best interests in mind. Good luck!
The Call (n): Writing term. When an agent responds positively to your query and full manuscript and wants to talk to discuss the possibility of representation.
Even though a lot of my Pitch Wars class had received The Call ahead of me and put together a list of questions and even though I googled high and low to see what both agents and represented authors recommended you ask on The Call, I was nervous and sure my list was going to be completely terrible. It was exhaustive, though, and I was happy with it. I knew I might not need to ask every question, because my agent is gracious and smart and shared most of the info I wanted with me before I even had to ask. Superstar, honestly. But I still wished I could have had a handy list of questions, so here is one for you. This is only a suggestion, there are so many other wonderful resources. Go forth and google.
As for me, I printed these out over four pieces of paper, giving myself tons of blank space to take notes while chatting so I didn’t have to type while we talked.
Something to keep in mind: I signed with a newer agent, so I wanted to ask a lot of questions about her plan for her career, what her support system was like at her agency, and things like that. Your mileage may vary. I hope these questions are at all helpful. Congrats on your call!
THE CALL: [Agent], [Agency]
- What did you like / respond to about my book?
- What do you think needs work?
- What do you think my strengths / weaknesses are as a writer?
- What would our relationship / partnership look like?
- If you become my agent, do you have an idea of how we would manage my author brand / books to come?
- How many clients do you currently have? _____ Ideally? ______
- Are you looking to represent: ____ this book ____ whole career
- Do you have a written agency agreement I could see?
- What’s the commission structure like at your agency?
- How are sub rights handled?
- What’s your support system like in the agency?
- What’s your vision for your career?
- If down the line you switch agencies or leave agenting, what would you foresee happening to your clients?
- Do you have any other roles / jobs in the agency?
- What’s something you find challenging about being an agent and / or want to improve on?
- If I do sign with you, what would our next steps be?
- What’s your communication style / preference?
- Response times?
- When do you prefer to hear about my upcoming projects? Idea phase? Outline? Draft? Once it’s been through betas?
- What’s your editorial style like?
- What’s your relationship with Big 5 editors like?
- Submission strategy? (Big 5, small press, etc.)
- How many rounds of sub before we shelve it?
- What happens if this book doesn’t sell?
- What’s your communication like when a project is on submission?
- Do you have an idea of what the average length of a contract negotiation is like at your agency? From offer of pub to finalizing/signing the contract?
Like I said, I was thorough. And I didn’t ask everything on my list! We covered a lot of ground organically in the course of our conversation, which was nice. But it’s important to ask the questions you have in your head! And if you don’t think of everything during the call, that’s okay too! I emailed my agent after our call to ask a follow-up about IP work that had been floating around my head. You might want to ask if the agent is willing to represent your work in multiple genres or age groups.
If the agent doesn’t offer it up on their own, it’s also worth asking for the contact information of a few of their clients so you can ask what it’s like to work with them. Ideally, you’ll be able to talk/email with clients (current or former) who write in the same genre/category as you. A mix of writers who have sold their books and some who haven’t is a great way to gauge the full spectrum of your prospective agent’s dealings. I’ll share my list of questions I asked clients here sometime soon.
Everyone has specific needs from their agent, and it’s important to figure out if you’ll be a good match. You need to trust your agent, and sometimes the only way to do that is to ask some tough / uncomfortable questions! As long as you remain professional and respectful, you’re probably good.
To maintain my extremely professional demeanor, I leave you with this:
I don’t know how anyone else viewed the prospect of querying. I was nervous, but I didn’t dread it. Honestly, I was eager to start. I think part of it was that I had never done it before, so I wasn’t jaded. And part of it (a big part) was that I was riding the high of having been accepted into Pitch Wars the first time I applied (seriously, I’m still surprised and grateful for it). I didn’t get any requests during the Pitch Wars agent showcase, but I kept revising and eventually I was happy. I received positive responses from beta readers. There was nothing left to do but start querying. Even then, submitting my work to agents—submitting my work to judgment—was terrifying.
I’ve heard a lot complaints and discussion about the phrase “not right for me”, that nebulous phrase agents seem to use when a project is good, but not perfect. Or not perfect for them. Or they don’t know how to sell it. Or, or, or. It’s kind of become a catch-all phrase, but one that, when querying, you’ll probably hear a lot.
I heard it a lot. And I think what softened the blow of hearing that phrase about my own work, again and again, is that I’d thought it before.
When I started querying around this time last year, I worked in television development. Part of my job was to read scripts and judge whether or not they were right for our production company. Ninety percent of them were submitted through agents or managers, so they had been vetted before they reached me. And of the dozens I read I only loved two.
At my going away lunch my boss told me that she read the things I liked carefully because I was so… judicious with my praise. And it wasn’t that everything crossing my desk was bad, it was the opposite of that. I read scripts that were carefully crafted, by veterans in the industry, etc. But. But. But they weren’t right for our company’s vision. Or the humor was too mean. Or we couldn’t think of a suitable home. Maybe something about it wasn’t quite right but we didn’t know how to fix it. Sometimes it was too similar to something we were already developing. A lot of times it was a matter of personal taste. And, occasionally, a project that crossed my desk was just not good enough.
Once, my boss asked me to draft a rejection email for a submission. The dreaded “Thank you, but” email. Honestly? I opened the folder of query rejections and read through a bunch of the polite, but generic replies I’d gotten from agents because they weren’t mean, they were just honest. Thank you for thinking of me. You’re a strong writer. You have a good idea here. Sometimes, it doesn’t matter how good your submission is, it’s just not right.
Over the course of the eleven months I’ve been querying, I’ve amassed a lot of rejections. A few came with a nice note, or helpful feedback, but for the most part, it was the generic “I read every submission carefully, but…” And 99% of the time, a rejection is just another email. It’s another red box in my submission spreadsheet, and doesn’t bother me. Much. It’s just a fact of life.
Working in television development was my dream job. I miss it every day. And I will forever be grateful for the way it prepared me to deal with rejection of my own. You’ll hear over and over again that publishing is a subjective business and having worked on the other side of it (albeit in television), I understand that first hand. It helped to make the rejections sting less.