Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Hopefully you’ll have numerous opportunities to interview potential agents. Let’s look at three of those scenarios and consider some of the questions you might want to ask.
Scenario #1— You are an unpublished, unknown writer but you have a chance to ask questions of an agent panel at a writing conference. This is a great opportunity to compare and contrast and see different agents up against each other. Some of the questions you might want to ask the group are:
- We are looking at a whole panel of agents—what distinguishes you from the others?
- Name some of the houses you’ve done deals with in the last six months.
- Name a few of the clients you represent.
- Tell us a few of the recent books you’ve represented.
- Tell us why writers need an agent?
- How, and how much, do you interact with your clients?
- What kind of writers will have the hardest time finding an agent to represent them? Why?
- What contract clauses are giving you pause these days?
Scenario #2— An agent has offered to represent you. Now it’s your turn to interview the agent. You need to make sure this is the best fit. Some of the questions you might want to ask are:
- Do you offer a representation contract? (You may want to look at this contract first before making a decision.)
- What is the term of that contract? (Best case– an At Will Contract when either side can end the contract “at will.”)
- Do you represent authors on a book-by-book basis or is your representation a whole-career representation?
- How much commission does your agency charge?
- What do you offer that other agencies do not?
- What will our working relationship look like?
- How do you like to communicate? Email? Phone? Carrier pigeon?
- How often will we be in contact?
- Will I meet with you at writer’s conferences? Are you out and about in the industry? How often do you visit the publishing houses? Do you attend ICRS and/or BEA?
- Do you sell to both CBA and ABA? What percentage?
- What strategy would you employ if I end up with ho-hum numbers and it’s getting harder and harder to get a contract?
- Do you offer help to your clients who also may want to self-publish out-of-print books or to create ebooks and POD books?
Scenario #3— You are in that uncomfortable position of realizing that you and your agent are simply not a good fit. Your career is going gangbusters but you need a different level of representation. You know that if your agent has been with you from the beginning it’s not fair to leave without a compelling reason, but maybe your agent is retiring or doesn’t have the time your crazy career now demands. As you begin interviewing a number of agents, in addition to the questions above, here’s what you may want to ask:
- Can you create a possible game plan for my career? What would you do to take me the next level? (If you are a bestselling author you can expect agencies to pitch a plan to you.)
- How will you help me sort out some of my marketing issues?
- Can you help me develop a team approach?
- Where do you see me in five years?
- What should I be doing now that I am not doing?
So those are just a few questions you may want to ask a potential agent at different stages of your career. And, of course, I’ve only skimmed the surface.
Now it’s your turn: What are some of the questions you’d like to ask?
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Wendy, this scenario approach to questions helps clarify the questions better. I enjoyed the agent panels at ACFW, but in a short 15 minute pitch session, it’s hard to think on your feet. Now I’m wondering if your agency offer a representation contract, or is it on an author by author basis? I had been under the impression it was a verbal agreement, much like procuring a real estate agent–that nothing legal transpires until there’s a signed contract for a book sale.
We have an “at will” contract for representation. That means that if it’s not working out for one reason or another, either one of us can pull the plug and we are only obligated to work together on the work that’s already been done.
It is always important to spell out expectations– that’s what a contract does. I don’t understand an agent who would not offer a contract– that agent would never let an author enter a relationship with a publisher on a handshake. Why not apply the same yardstick to the agent/client relationship?
Great to know. Thank you. It’s a two-way street and making it clear from the start can keep the waters from getting muddy!
Interesting post, Wendy. Like Anne said, it’s helpful to see the questions in the various contexts. One thing I found very interesting at the agent panels at ACFW was how the various agents responded to the questions. I learned so much about their philosophies, their personalities and their insights into the market as I listened to their responses to questions.
This is a post I will be referring back to. Thanks for sharing it!
That’s the beauty of a panel– you get to compare and contrast. And the agent’s personalities come out so you can see which ones feel “comfortable to you.” Some of the agents are witty and fun, so if that’s your style you know you would do well with them. Others are relational. Still others are tough as nails.
These days we can also follow agent blogs and get a sense of who the agents are– this is a whole new dynamic.
The agent panels at Mount Hermon have been riveting and revealing. Not to be missed.
Believe it or not, I had a major publisher ask after a conference who my agent was, so Mary and I came to our agent-author relationship through a side door. (God has a sense of humor, and I told the acquisitions editor I’d let her know in a few days who represented me. Scramble!)
I actually interviewed three recommended agents, after a LOT of internet research to familiarize myself with general questions, and agency research to develop questions unique to each person. I handled the process as if I were interviewing a client.
I then did a Skype session with each. This was important because the screen enabled me to watch reactions to my questions, and gauge how I’d interact with each person’s personality. I took copious notes.
Mary was my third interview. Within moments, I knew we not only would work well together, but would have a great time doing so.
We also got into personal matters — family and such — because my writing ebbs and flows around the lives of the people I love. I would recommend adding a few gentle questions to the interview list, and then watch for opportunities during the Skype session to ask them. (Just be aware the federal government frowns on personal questions during an interview.)
What a terrific scramble to have, Norma! An acquisitions editor of a major house asked me if I was talking with agents. When I gave her names, it was quite informative to see her reaction to each one.
I can just imagine the reactions, Meghan. And I’m smiling at the thought.
Honestly, I was so clueless about every single aspect of publishing and agency representation that I honestly believe the good Lord led me to Books & Such. Don’t misunderstand me: I did a motherlode of research in record time, but once again, He paved my way and led me to a good place. (At my age, you’d think I wouldn’t be so high-maintenance!)
BTW, can you tell I “honestly” meant my comment about God’s leadership? Phew. I need to slow down this morning, or drink more Earl Grey. Oh, well…
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
A spontaneous “I’ll have my people call your people”?
Talk about thrilling and nerve wracking! Might I say, I think Mary is LOVELY. I am SO blessed that she dared to take me on.
And you had me at “drink more Earl Grey”!!!
Yea. A spontaneous “IHMPCYP” is about right. Then I hung up and ran screaming through the house. As the consummate professional, I WAS wearing shoes.
Brilliant, Norma. Especially the Skype interview. Writers need to do their due diligence as much as anyone in business. A good fit is so important. (And I can see why you chose Mary– she works tirelessly on behalf of her clients.)
Thanks for the this real life example Norma. The Skype session is a fantastic idea.
Any time, ladies. And may I mention I think it’s important to “stage” yourself, and your backdrop, carefully? My office is lined with bookshelves, so I’m in good shape there. But I always dress for a professional Skype as if I’m dressing for a business meeting — because it IS a business meeting. And I apply the same care to dressing for conferences. (Thank God the shoulder pads from the 80s are out, though. You’d need a wide screen to Skype in one of those jackets…)
Thank you for such specific suggestions, Wendy. If I write historicals, can we communicate by Pony Express? 🙂
Depending on the era, we might want to use Morse code and the telegraph. – — — / ..-. ..- -. -. -.– ?
Another clarifying and helpful post, Wendy. Thank you!
You are welcome? Can you tell I’ve often moderated the agent panels and come up with the tough questions myself for my fellow agents? 🙂
Excellent post, Wendy, especially clarifying the different scenarios when authors might need to interview an agent. Another potential question…”What is the most effective form of bribery–chocolate or caramels?” 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Hahaha! My very first agent pitch at ACFW was to an agent with that guy who wore his kilt to the gala.
I said “Can I give you my business card?”
She took it and stared at me and said “You DO know there’s a giant chocolate bar stuck to this?”
“And there’s more where that came from.”
It was a very good meeting, but bummer for her though, she didn’t have a chance. And when I told her of my blessings later on, she was quite happy for me. Although, she kept the giant Dairy Milk bar. Huh.
Hmmm. I ended up with a Cadbury bar at ACFW but didn’t get the client either. Should I be miffed?
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Hmmmm,I’m not sure.
I guess it all depends how that other agent feels in about 6 months? Maybe you’ll be weeping with relief. 😉
What a great post, Wendy. Thanks for sharing that.
When I began working with my first agent a few years ago, the agent took me on verbally with no contract signed until my book sold. I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but now I think I would prefer to sign a contract before we begin selling to avoid any potential surprises.
I would love to hear what B&S does for a self-publishing line. I heard Rachelle refer to it in a class at conference, but that’s all I know. A friend of mine with MacGregor Literary has published a book through their self-pubbed line so I know the name of that line of books.
I’m also curious about the “no contract” situation between writers and agents. A friend of mine recently went into an agreement like that. I didn’t realize anyone still worked that way. Is it common? Wouldn’t it leave both parties unprotected if things went badly? Are there any advantages to doing it this way?
Maybe we need a blog post about agent/author contracts, Wendy. 🙂
Perhaps the agent is still in that pre-representation period. Sometimes when we find a writer we really like but they are not quite there yet, we keep working with to hone their manuscript before offering representation. But as a writer I certainly wouldn’t allow anyone to actually pitch my manuscript to publishers unless I was contracted to that agency. I’d want to know what was expected of me and what I could expect from them.
I can’t see any advantages to either side from not having a contract. That’s a situation rife with the possibility of misunderstanding.
We do assist our clients with self publishing though we are not the publishers. We still feel there needs to be a separation between the agent and the publisher so that we can fight for the best deal for our clients. (If I were the agent AND the publisher it might be construed as a conflict of interest, right?)
We offer our clients four different options for which we negotiated very tough contracts that favor our clients. More than that is proprietary and I’d have to kill you if I told you more. 🙂
And we don’t want that, Wendy! 🙂 Thanks for the info.
Saving this post for when I finish my book and I’m getting ready to look for an agent, but as a total newbie, I’m not sure I’ll be in the position to be questioning them! Do these apply to first time writers?
That’s why I used the stepped scenario. As a newbie you would only have a chance to ask the questions at a conference or in agent meetings at a conference. But once an agent or agents offered to represent you, that’s when you move to the second scenario.
I was thinking that if an agent wanted to represent me, would I be in the position to ask those questions as a first time writer? Because from what I’ve read, it’s so hard to get an agent and I wouldn’t want to turn them off by questioning them. Now I realize that sounds ridiculous 🙂
I love this, Wendy! I’m hoping to have to create a list of questions for agent interviews sooner rather than later, but regardless of when I need one, this is a great starting place.
I’m assuming it’s also appropriate to use some of the questions from Scenario #1 for Scenario #2? Sometimes it’s difficult to find information on who an agent represents and what deals they’ve made, even if you’ve done your research going into the interview.
Absolutely. When the time comes to be deciding on an agent’s offer of representation, you need to ask every question you need answered in order to make the right decision.
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
It’s a good thing I’m not in possession of an over-active imagination, or I’d read this and think “You KNOW they’re talking about YOU, don’t you? Huh????”
The agent panels at ACFW certainly confirmed some of my questions about who to NOT query. I sort of have a rather, umm, distinctive personality. And while most of the agents on the panels looked like they’d be able to cope with me(therapy does wonders), a few seemed way too umm, uhh, well, like they ironed their socks and knew where their car keys were at all times. No, I’m not naming any names.
In all seriousness, before I went to ACFW, I laid my entire writing career at God’s feet.
All of it.
I don’t want success if I can’t have His blessing on my work. Because, I only want to serve my King. I don’t want to serve me, or what would be popular or easy.
One question I’d ask?
If for some unexpected reason you had to unwillingly leave your job, what happens to your clients? Do they stay with your agency or go back out into the woods?
Good thing I’ve learned not to take a sip of my coffee while reading Jennifer’s blog comments. That statement about agents who looked “…like they ironed their socks…” made me laugh out loud. Now I’m trying to picture the agents at ACFW and figure out which ones you were referring to.
Good question, Jennifer. I’m guessing most agencies have this covered and would have an answer for you.
When our fearless leader recently took a short bereavement leave, she divided up her clients and each of the rest of us got to be “foster agents” for a few weeks. (Reminds me of an oh-so-funny piece Garrison Keillor used to do about being a “Snow Child.” But I digress.)
Wendy, your questions are good and sensible. My impression, though, is that many young writers would be so excited to have any agent offer representation that they would agree immediately. Your list is a worthy reminder for everyone not to blurt “Yes!” too quickly.
Hopefully they would have done much of this due diligence before they even sent out their queries. Back in the days when I was a writer seeking an agent I already knew who I would never query. I’m guessing most writers already have a good idea who would be a terrible mismatch.
I’m intrigued by the comment you made about the pre-representation period. Isn’t working with a new author to hone their craft a big risk? Have agents at B & S done this with positive results?
The internet makes researching agents a breeze. But I’m also learning not to put all my hopes in working with one particular agent. The Lord is a professional at forming partnerships with impeccable timing.
Sometimes it’s part of due diligence on our part. For instance you find a writer you really like but their manuscript needs work and you give them feedback on what needs to be done. If that writer blows you off or is offended that you didn’t love the manuscript as-is, an agent knows to go no further.
And from the writer’s point of view, if an agent takes the time to give feedback and invest in the writing at this stage, you know he/she is interested and you can step up your research into the agency. Also if the agent takes eons to get back to you, you can decide if you have the patience to work with this slug. 😉
If an agent, who inevitably already has a full plate, offers to taste my MS and give me a recipe for improvement, I would be humbled and happy to add the needed seasoning. 😉
#26. What kind of dogs do you have and what are their names.
P.S. I don’t need to know if you have cats or what their names are. Sorry.
Interesting Donnie. Can you tell a lot by the animals an agent has?
I’m guessing I’d confound your system since I have a sweet ten-year-old female golden retriever and a three-year-old male pit bull. What does that tell you about me?
(I suspect cats are unconcerned.)
All the cats already have agents. It’s the dogs who are drooling at the agency windows.
These are great, thank you so much!
Thanks for this helpful article, Wendy. I’m so thankful there are blogs such as this one that provide such great advice.
Great article, Wendy! I have never really had to do an interview for any job I’ve had, so this is very eye-opening for me. I’m sure I’ll be a nervous wreck the first several times, so hopefully that will be overlooked. I’m much better once I can get into the job and apply my skills.
I would ask three additional questions:
Would you take on a client you haven’t met in person (but met online via your blog or other social media sites)?
Do you take on clients who also are copyeditors?
How would such a client’s copyediting career fit into your plan for representing them?
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I have been pounding my head against the wall built by the agencies to promote the recycling of old scripts through the studios, as an economy method to save movie goers the agony of sitting through the latest re-make while mouthing the words of every line, from memory. I have original material. “Dragonbreath” was written at the request of Dreamworks. When it was finished and I attempted to contact the studio, I was directed to Ambient Entertainment. Ambient Entertainment said they could not accept a screenplay without an Agent. I have wasted my time trying to find an agent. Now, with the aid of your breach in the wall, follow your guidelines to that end.