Traditional Publishing

Getting to know you: 8 questions to ask an interested agent

By Jill Nagle
Founder and Principal: GetPublished, guerilla guidance for your writing adventure – Monday December 27, 2004

An excerpt from How to Find A Literary Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar

Getting accepted by an agent is so difficult that – when it finally does happen – it's easy to forget that you need to be as selective about the agent you choose to work with as they are about writers. Having the wrong agent can be as bad or worse than having no agent at all. Getting answers to some or all of the following questions will help you determine whether or not you and your prospective agent are a match:

1) What was your line of work prior to agenting?
Agents came into their field from somewhere. In particular watch out for the following common fields, from which the agent will have learnt some key skills.

Law – Especially publishing or contract law, but any kind of law will prepare your agent for the negotiations ahead, and probably for the hard-nosed-ness that can come in so handy in the publishing world.

Sales – Time spent in sales positions your agent to know how to sell anything. Sales skills are transferable. Chances are if this agent was good at selling houses, cars, clothing or anything else, they can also sell books. You'll need to know how they got their knowledge of publishing, what kinds of relationships they have in the field, and how they exploit those relationships for everyone's benefit.

Publishing – As a former editor in a publishing house, your agent knows what it takes to sell work in their field. They're well positioned now, provided they've either stayed in the genres they've worked in, or made a number of contacts outside them.

Foreign/Subsidiary rights manager – Managing foreign/subsidiary rights means your agent has a handle on this important piece of the picture; many agents do not. In addition, they have the general knowledge from working inside publishing.

Bookstore – If your agent worked in a bookstore, or better yet, had their own bookstore, they know how to think about the market from the crucial perspective of those perusing the shelves as well as those stocking them. From the business end of things, everything in publishing boils down to this: where on the shelves will this book go, and who will buy it?

2) How do you make contact with publishers?
Your best case scenario is to have an agent who is on a telephone-call/regular lunch basis with editors at major New York or London publishers who are looking for work like yours.

If your agent doesn't have a face-to-face relationship with at least some editors at major New York or London publishing houses, I'd be concerned. Face-to-face means at least once a year (but ideally quarterly), your agent gets out of their chair, gets in a plane, taxicab or subway car and hauls their derrière (and their portfolio) to Manhattan or London to lunch with the people who buy books.

This business runs on relationships. Find out what your prospective agent's relationships look like. Putting yourself in the acquisition editor's shoes, ask yourself, would you trust this person enough to seriously consider a book from them?

3) Can you give me examples of challenging situations in which you intervened on an author's behalf, both with positive and negative outcomes?
I once read an advice primer on choosing a plastic surgeon which encouraged the prospective patient to look at photographs not only depicting the surgeon's successes, but also those depicting their failures.

In addition to getting a picture of best and worst case scenarios (assuming your prospective agent answers you honestly), this question will also help you assess the agent's locus of control, a term from psychology referring to where that agent perceives their power to be. Do they think they are largely in charge of the outcomes in their world? Or do they see the outside world as largely in charge of creating outcomes? The more your agent creates outcomes (i.e. book sales) they desire, the better off you are in their hands. Listen carefully to how they talk about the book world and their place in it.

4) What have you sold in the last six months?
As an old mentor once told me, "an agent is only as good as his last sale". That your agent sold a spate of self-help books ten years ago may say nothing about what they can sell today. The editors that accepted them may no longer be around.

5) What kinds of properties like mine have you sold? May I see a complete list?
If it isn't available on their website, an agent may be willing to share with you their list of sales, or at least an excerpt. This should give you an idea of what they're good at selling, and more importantly, what they have a recent record of having sold.

6) Might I talk to some authors whom you've represented?
Asking for references in any field of work is sort of circular – if a professional gives you references, of course those references are likely to say positive things about the referee. Still, talking to an author who has worked with a particular agent may give you more of a feel for who you would be dealing with. Also, you never know – sometimes people do talk!

7) Are you a member of or planning to join the AAR/AAA? If planning, how close are you to joining?
For agents new to the business, membership in the Association of Author's Representatives (United States) or the Association of Authors' Agents (United Kingdom) is a merit badge, a sign of having arrived. For many veterans, it's a superfluous formality – a successful agent's decades-old reputation speaks for itself.

8) How, if at all, do you see yourself as a career advisor to authors you work with? Can you give me an example or two of how you've helped a particular writer build her career?
Many agents pride themselves on the care and feeding of their authors. Others emphasise their sales record, number of bestsellers or amount of advances (though few will discuss actual figures with you).

The agent's answer to this question should give you an idea of where your agent's strengths or at least interests are. You can also throw them a hypothetical, perhaps even one that represents a situation in which you are likely to find yourself.

For example, "what if I had friend who wanted to write a screenplay to go along with my novel?" or "would you recommend I begin thinking about a sequel for this book right away? How many?" or "would you advise me to stick with this genre, or is it an okay time to branch out into something a little more avant-garde?"

The advice an agent offers on your career will depend on her own values – some see themselves as muses and shamans for otherwise overlooked artists, while others are more driven by the bottom line and try to cut as many deals as possible in the shortest period of time with the least amount of attention to each author.

Notice what may be reflected in the advice your agent gives you and ask yourself if this is the person you want for the long haul, perhaps only for this project, or not at all.

Jill's Guerilla caveat
There's a saying that goes: "some friends come into your life for a reason; others for a season, and a few for a lifetime". This is also true of agents. The agent best-positioned to sell your spiritual manifesto may not know the first thing about screenplays. It's okay to sign on with an agent for a one-book deal – in fact I'd advise strongly against signing away anything else other than the right to sell your work of the moment.

Jill's Guerilla bottom line
If your work really shines, sure, it's possible even a half-assed agent could sell it. However, half-assed agents have reputations to match, and so publishers may give their submissions less attention. If your work is really terrific, find an equally terrific agent with a verifiable track record to make sure it gets the attention it deserves.

To learn more about how to up your odds of getting published by joining forces with exactly the right agent, get a copy of How to Find A Literary Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar

About the Author

Jill Nagle is a published author and principal of GetPublished, which provides ghostwriting, coaching, consulting, teleclasses and more to aspiring and ascending authors. She has been helping other writers get published for the last decade.