Most of the places that list questions to ask prospective agents are intent on helping writers avoid scammers and bad or ineffective/marginal agents. That's all valuable info (and if you have not read it, go do so at once), but I hope most of this blog's readership will know enough know to avoid those pitfalls.
What's less common, but occurring more frequently with the rise in number of agent is: questions to ask when you're deciding amongst a less-motley crew.
Perhaps you have offers from several reputable, experienced agents. What do you do then, other than rely on gut instinct? (and sign with FPLM, of course!)
Here are my suggestions of questions to ask.
One answer is not better than the other; it's information that might help you figure out what you want in an agent and agency, and thus how to select from among several good agents.
1. How long does the agency representation last?
Many very reputable agencies offer contracts for a specific period of time (six months, one year.) If the book doesn't sell, or you want a new agent, you're free to leave after the time period.
Our agency takes a different course: we grab you for what we're hoping is life--a long and prosperous relationship. That means we're generally not interested in one-offs. If this book doesn't sell, we work with you to figure out what the next book will be.
Both courses of action are perfectly legit. You should know which you prefer, and you should ASK before you sign on the dotted line.
2. Is the agent a sole practitioner or part of an agency?
Some of the very best agents in the biz fly solo. I'm pleased and honored to consider them colleagues and friends, and I refer prospective clients to them knowing they would be in excellent hands.
If you're considering a sole practitioner, ask what the plan is if the agent dies or becomes disabled. This is probably one of the most difficult questions to ask. It sounds morbid. It sounds AWFUL. Yet, I get queries from prospective clients who've lost their agents through death or disability, and boy oh boy, that's not much fun either.
Solo practitioners are perfectly legit. But, you should know which you prefer, and you should ASK before you sign on the dotted line.
Our agency is of course stuffed with a baseball team of agents. If I get eaten by a shark tomorrow, you'll still be a FinePrint client, and you'll discover just how fabu the rest of the team is.
3. Is your agent in this for the long haul?
Experience is great, but if you're considering an agent with lots of experience, it's entirely kosher to ask if they intend to retire soon. This is almost as bad as the death question, but again, it's better to KNOW than assume.
And if your prospective agent is new to the game, remember this is a tough business to make a living in, and burnout in five years isn't uncommon. ASK about their experience.
4. Does your agent really want to be a writer?
I'm going to get an enormous amount of flack for this, so I'll preface this by saying: I represent agents who are writers; agents who are writers work at our agency; I've got NO problem with agents who write.
However, scratch a writer with a day job and you'll find someone who would rather be writing full time. That's just the godiva's honest truth.
I'm not saying you shouldn't sign with an agent who also writes, but if it is something that bothers you, ASK FIRST.
5. What's the subsidiary rights set up?
Does the agency have a sub-rights director or agent? An in-house film agent? A marketing person? A publicity person? Increasingly these are jobs handled in-house. Does the agent you're considering have that? If not (such as a sole practitioner) with whom does s/he work? ASK.
6. Does your agent maintain an electronic presence?
For some prospective clients this is not a plus. I tell all prospects about my blogging and tweeting. I don't want any of them to be surprised. And if you think an agent who blogs and tweets isn't working hard enough for her clients, you'll want to ask before you assume an agent doesn't blog or tweet. ASK.
7. Is the agent hands on or hands off?
An agent should know this about him/herself. And his/her clients will know for sure. ASK.
(this was added in the comments column, and it's a good thing to know)